During the last couple of decades, we have witnessed radical socio-political paradigm shifts. Embedded in the current unstable socioeconomic landscape cultural institutions and industries increasingly operate within neoliberal ideologies where "open, competitive, and unregulated markets represent the optimal mechanism for economic development" (Brenner & Theodore, 2002, p. 2). At present, formal educational, cultural and art institutions, whether public or private, comply with economic policies or prove un-sustainable. The post Second World War welfarist approach has been gradually replaced by neoliberal ideologies which criticise state intervention, while actual neoliberal policies and practices involve "coercive, disciplinary forms of state intervention in order to impose market rule upon all aspects of social life" (Brenner & Theodore, 2002, p. 5).
In a public space that, as Zygmunt Bauman observed, "is increasingly empty of public issues" (2000, p. 40), the "social turn" in contemporary art and performance during the late 1990s explored structures of togetherness, public/ private distinctions and shared concerns about both local and global societal issues. Carol Becker notes: "a number of artists have used these interventions of public/ private to take on a new role and a new line of interrogation appropriate to this historical moment [...] because they discern that what is missing now is public discourse about the relationship of individuals to society" (2012, p. 67).
During the last twenty years, this "social turn" marked the emergence of a mode of working in the arts that engaged with relationality, participation and community. Such works appear to respond to the social conditions of late capitalism by producing structures of togetherness, immersive performances and urban interventions. The social turn opened up questions regarding the critical situatedness of the work and the interrelation between content and form in relation to the socio-political specificities of the location. However, currently practices within the "social turn" are also recapitulated by urban regeneration programmes, neoliberal agendas, and art institutions that seek to demonstrate/ perform action in the social realm and public participation. In a recent article, Bojana Kunst situates the current art institution as that which exists in between participation and precarisation. According to Kunst, participation appears as a trend in contemporary institutionalised production of art that seeks to challenge hierarchies "reawakening the emancipatory potential of the arts (especially in the times of the political crisis of participation in general) [...] to prove that the audience has been reached, awoken and somehow shaken" (2015, p. 6). However, Kunst also put forward the term "precarisation" as essential in institutionalised production – "precarisation as an act of neoliberal governance" – and asks: "can we relate between the inclination of the art institution to become social places and the strange coincidence between precarity and participation" (2015, p. 7).
In recent years we witnessed a series of political events across diverse locations ranging from protests and demonstrations to occupations and uprisings while in the arts, cultural workers are producing diverse forms of practice that could be characterised as political theatre and art in the wider sense. Works that in some cases take the form of critique and critical reflection, in others direct involvement in social movements building autonomous and alternative ecologies of living. As Jacques Rancière notes this "return to politics" asserts "art's capacity to resist forms of economic, political and ideological domination" (2010, p. 134). As more and more cultural workers today become directly engaged with the political conditions of neoliberalism, we might now be witnessing a "political turn" rather than a "social turn". This "political turn" is also apparent in the increased number of biennales, festivals, theatre programmes, conferences that seek to address political and social realities, calling for works about revolt, crisis, conflict, occupy etc. Participating in neoliberal power relations, cultural works are inevitably situated in between institutional policies, market rules and governmental agendas. This political turn is then faced by a paradox: how to critique or even attempt to change the conditions, which you appear to serve. Differing approaches to this paradox have been theorised: on the one hand dis-engagment/ exodus from neoliberal structures and on the other proposals that suggest it is possible to work within and against. Chantal Mouffe (2007) argues that artistic practice can play a crucial role against domination but this requires a thorough understanding of democratic politics. Such politics however operate both inside and outside of the artistic work and through the situatedness of performance practice within a wider economic/ social context that is itself political and involved in politics.
Might then the artistic experimentations of the so-called social and/or political turn be viewed as useful exercises of political and civic intervention? Or might we argue that such practices have been incorporated into the system as an extended new set of values, attitudes and structures reaffirming what Boltanski and Chiapello (2007) have argued often happens to artistic practice and critique? How might such attempts redefine the role and the potential of performance practice in the political field?
In places of economic and social crisis such as Greece, operations of "participation", social and political turns are implicated and emerge from a radically contested social framework. During the years of crisis while this social framework collapsed under harsh austerity measures, citizens and cultural workers found themselves resorting to self-instituting, bottom-up structures whether they were organising community assemblies, medical clinics, solidarity food centres, legal aid hubs, parks, or cultural venues. Alexandros Kioupkiolis argues that the demand for another mode of democracy had been expressed through these collective actions however "have yet to succeed in creating effective expanded democratic counter powers" (2013). During these years, uses and politics of public space were contested by such emergent bottom-up structures and also by new neoliberal policies. At the same time, new private cultural institutions emerged at a time when the State appeared unable to continue its minimal welfare policy for the arts. Under policies of austerity, public goods appear in competition with one and another, while malfunctions of the public sector lead to narratives that suggest – under neoliberal governmentality – that private interest can lead to, and produce, wealthier competitive structures of public goods.
Bauman, Z. 2000, Liquid Modernity, Blackwell, Oxford.
Becker, C. 2012, "Micro-Utopias: Public practice in public space", in N. Thomshon (ed.), Living as Form: Socially engaged art 1991-2011, MIT Press, Cambridge, MA, pp. 64-71.
Boltanski, L. and Chiapello E. 2007, The New Spirit of Capitalism, Verso, New York.
Brenner, N. and Theodore, N. 2002, Spaces of Neoliberalism: Urban restructuring in North America and Western Europe, Wiley-Blackwell, Oxford.
Kioupkiolis, A. 2013, "Για μια άλλη δημοκρατία των κοινών", RED notebook, viewed 15 March 2015.
Kunst, B. 2015, "The Institution between Precarization and Participation", Performance Research, vol. 20, no. 4, pp. 141-146.
Rancière J. 2010, Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, Continuum, London.