During the course of our work for Manifesta 8 (as Alexandria Contemporary Arts Forum), Bassam El Baroni and I were invited by Markus Miessen to contribute a postscript to his latest book The Nightmare of Participation, which is the final installment of his trilogy of books on participation. (We commissioned nOffice, an architecture studio comprised of Markus and partners, Magnus Nilsson and Ralf Pflugfelder, to design both an architectural intervention and a display system for two projects in two separate exhibition spaces.) The book has just been released by Sternberg Press, and I’m happy to present our postscript below:
A nightmare is an iconic representation created by your mind. The idea of the icon is that it visualizes a situation that you cannot, in your conscious mind, imagine to be worse or more powerful. In sleep, the subconscious shows you something that your waking mind cannot elaborate on; it cannot construct a more difficult, horrific icon. The familiar and the plausible is often taken to such an extreme as to be terrifying, or problems that have no solution are presented. You become trapped in an endless cycle.
To wake up from a nightmare is to reach the threshold of realizing that you are in fact dreaming. You cannot escape the nightmare from within the logic of the dream itself; you must exit the dream world. Crossing the threshold of realization, you begin to understand that you are a character performing a role within a staged play—the dream—that you are watching. You observe this character, who is you, doing that which only a moment ago was natural and inevitable according to the logic of the nightmare. Escaping this logic, your conscious mind moves out of the dreamscape and into consciousness as the artificiality of the scene is revealed… the lights, the cameras, the props, the other actors, the monster who is not real, but rather, merely a huge animatronic puppet.
In the nightmare of participation, political subjects become caught in the logic of an iconic participation, a representative participation that has been exaggerated to the point of hollowness. The power of this participation is the power of the mesmerizing icon: It sustains the nightmare that we cannot wake up from, and it compels us to go on playing our assigned roles. Why has participation become a nightmare? The history is longer than we can tell here. Start looking a few decades back, to the 1980s, when the Western political model of participation as a legitimizing force emerged—a significant step in the evolution of late capitalism’s political theater. It is participation as instrumentalized political practice. Participation becomes a scripted scenario of liberal democracy, into which you insert the necessary actors, props, lighting, cameras, and mechanized monsters. Wake up!
A Worst-case Scripted Scenario of Participation! Imagine: the United Nations decides to build a new headquarters for the twenty-first century and beyond, a structure that truly can reflect the diversity of cultures and nations that comprise the global community. They invite architects, designers, and theorists from literally every corner of the world in order to participate in a design charrette to envision this pinnacle of world architecture. We might circumscribe the nightmare of participation in this scenario with the following: What is expected from the non-Western participants, such as the architect from Mozambique, or the interior designer from Oman? What are they supposed to contribute? Their heritage? Where does the premise for their participation come from?
Does the fact of their being from these places mean that they will actually think in terms related to where they are from? Is their otherness embodied so neatly, so simply? Or is difference not so evident as it used to be, and what if it were? What if they were so different that there was no common ground at all?
If these eager participants do represent a non- Western, non-modernist sphere, will they actually be acknowledged or seriously considered? Will anyone give a damn about their contributions if their alterity doesn’t meet the standards of acceptable difference?
Surely, many voices are represented—it is the UN afterall!—but what happens next? Representation is iconic and the icon can only deliver substance to a subconscious. What happens next? Nothing happens because no one wants anything to happen. We must want something to happen, and then state it in clear terms. We don’t want a representation; we want the thing itself. To wake up from the nightmare, a mechanism needs to be devised that does not function iconically, but practically. There is plenty of antagonism preloaded into the scenario above by reason of the nature of constructed difference. Difference was and is constructed by humans, but to get over difference we must construct a mechanism that exists in the world of consciousness, one that can reckon with the complexity of life. We need to leave antagonism behind for the sake of antagonism and move toward constructing solutions. Antagonism is a criticality applied from outside of the system, a criticality that is pessimistic and does not reciprocate. It only listens in order to consume and circulate that feedback within its own critical machine. Wake up!
The nightmare of participation can only end when we wake up to a strange world where we have accepted an order that is not predicated on the same measurement of things. Perhaps this is exactly why we don’t want to wake up from this nightmare. Perhaps to wake up to this strange world where we are truly disoriented is the nightmare we dread the most, and that is why we prefer to live in this recurring nightmare of participation, which we at least know and are familiar with.
In the present volume, the author—as well as his collaborators—has earnestly elaborated on the nightmare of participation in order to propose a series of countermeasures to a “politically motivated model of pseudo-participation.” The tactics suggested are drawn from diverse disciplines and knowledge bases, and they appear in several guises: the uninvited outsider, the crossbench practitioner, the management consultant / systems designer, to recall a few. And while our language here may veer more into the domain of the imaginative for metaphorical effect than Miessen’s, we understand the objective of this project to be a mechanism that moves us closer to the threshold of realization, the line at which we see the nightmare of participation for what it is and find agency to escape the grasp of its iconic power. The call to arms is clear: wake up!