Claire Tancons is a curator and art historian whose many collaborations include the currently traveling exhibition “EN MAS’: Carnival, Junkanoo and Performance Art of the Caribbean” (with Krista Thompson).
Here is a whip-wielding devil/jester, a buttocks-and-bosom-padded cross-dressing character, a double-bodied hunchback figure. Under these masks are young male children and older fathers, a young man with an elderly one. Occasionally, though more commonly in the so-called fantasy bands, are women of all ages. Here again are thousand-strong self-proclaimed pretty bands, mostly female, in various states of undress, from beaded bikini to multicolored garment. There are children, some not long out of infancy, walking naked; others run, frightened and enthralled, following the masks. Adults step out on their terraces or balconies, poke a head through doors previously closed and windows just opened, albeit behind bars. There again is a watching crowd, some seated on folding chairs set up early in the day, others standing as if passing by but staying put for hours and sometimes joining in.
Here and there is the same liminal space where something called participation can be said to happen, when the open space of the street and the absence of a stage foster ad hoc interactions that occur on the spur of the moment rather than in response to an open call to volunteers. Streets and sidewalks, terraces and balconies are the thresholds of these masked processions, small-town and big-city carnivals, neighborhood and stadium parades, calling for mass participation. From Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic, to Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago (as described above), or anywhere else in the Caribbean and the Americas, Carnival—born of the experience of slavery and colonization, anticolonial struggles and postindependence nation building—offers a genealogy of performance practices in which community representation and mass participation intersect.
Because in life no one is alone, there is always someone
Oh, there’s no need to cry, because life is a carnival.
The Cuban singer Celia Cruz’s 1999 salsa hit “La vida es un carnival” appropriately uses Carnival as a metaphor for community life. Or as the Russian semiotician Mikhail Bakhtin put it, Carnival is “a feast for all the world.”1 My definition of participation matches the meaning closest to its etymology and furthest from its current primary usage. I understand participation as “the state of being part of a larger whole” rather than as “the act of participating.” Participation, to me, is not a pursuit but a state (albeit an active one), not a modern fad but ancient wisdom.
Contemporary artists with an interest in artistic interventions and/or political action as mass participation and/or representation have turned to the space of Carnival and the form of what I have termed processional performance. So did the American musician and composer Arto Lindsay, who worked with a flurry of collaborators: from American artist Matthew Barney and the Afro-Brazilian bloco (street band) Cortejo Afro (on De Lama Lâmina, a mass public performance in the carnival of Salvador, in Bahia, Brazil, in 2004) to the Thai artist Rirkrit Tiravanija (on the Trespass parade in Los Angeles in 2011). Were these carnivals on call and parades on demand, and if so, how does their modus operandi affect the experience of their participants’ participation? Aside from any surviving unmarketed community traditions, is Carnival affected by the global contemporary art infrastructure no less than by the national consumerist systems of which it has become a part?
How do these projects by Lindsay and company compare with the British artist Jeremy Deller’s Procession with local associations in Manchester in 2009? How do they all compare with the Beninese artist Dominique Zinkpè’s Awobobo procession in 2008, based on traditions dating back to precolonial Dahomey? What about Francis Alÿs’s staging of The Modern Procession in New York in 2002 to mark the Museum of Modern Art’s temporary relocation to Long Island City and Simon Fujiwara’s New Pompidou in Paris in 2014 for the opening of the Centre Pompidou’s annual art festival? Have these museum-driven processions become nothing more than exhibitions in motion? When does procession (from the Latin procedere, to move forward) become parade (from the Latin parare, to prepare, to show)? When does participation end in spectacle? Is participation to procession what spectacle is to parade? And what contemplation is to exhibition?
As a curator I understand that if the processional is an artistic medium, it can also be a curatorial one. I also understand that exhibitionary models of mass participation might yield seemingly contradictory results: on the one hand, they engage the increasingly large audiences of the newly institutionalized biennial model, and, on the other, they relay the globalization of mass action toward the constituency of participatory democracy. Such was the aim of SPRING, a ninety-minute mass public processional performance with two hundred participants that I curated for the 7th Gwangju Biennale in 2008. It included works by the Haitian artist Mario Benjamin (Le Banquet), the Trinidadian artist Marlon Griffith (Runaway + Reaction), the Brazilian artist Jarbas Lopes (Demolition Now), the American artist Karyn Olivier (Grey Hope), and the French collective MAP Office (The Final Battle), inspired by the May 18, 1980, democratic uprising in Gwangju.
To return to my initial definitions and central questions, is participation but a contemporary fallacy invented to make up for the loss of the commons? Has the act of participating in a reconstructed reality replaced the state of being part of the larger world?
Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, trans. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984), 223. ↩