Forming the Radioradiants, a Political Way to Make Participatory Art

In the following lines, I will describe Radio-Lumières, a project in public space in Lyon that reflects on participation, inverts the usual way participants are involved in an artistic project, and also twists the idea of democratic representation.

Commissioned by the macLYON, Museum of Contemporary Art, the project is linked to the retrospective Yoko Ono staged from March to July 2016. The request was a participatory work echoing the show because public participation has always been important to Yoko Ono: a carte blanche to work with a group of people in a peripheral area of Lyon. I suggested Radio-Lumières, a project-based art initiative that should turn around what is usually done in terms of participation. And I wanted it to also turn around what is usually done in terms of light in front of the buildings in Lyon. A well-known international festival of lights regularly hits the town in December. In it, artists decide what to project on facades without any consultation with the people who live there. Some participatory projects are proposed in peripheral areas, but the poverty of the participatory approach is alarming.

In Radio-Lumières, the inversion consists of residents seizing a project that investigates the lights fixed on the access balconies of an apartment building. The venue is a peripheral quarter of Lyon, Oullins, situated in the city’s south. The date is set up for June, opposite the December Fête des Lumières. In between the title’s two words is an invisible »pirate«: Radio-(Pirate)-Lumières. From their building, people send images, messages, or whatever will be decided by the group, instead of receiving images others decided to project onto the building. The paradigm directly connects to the pirate radio vessels in the 1960s, who broadcast from the ocean to England (Radio London, Radio Caroline, et cetera).

To avoid the term of »Participatory Art,« which I think is perverted, I call what is put in place in such a work »cooperation« (I like the root cooperatio): »acting together for a common purpose or benefit.« What finally came out of eight months’ cooperation with 15 people? This group rapidly became the so-called »radioradiants« (les radiolumineux) like a rock band; a collective identity to the public. We studied Yoko Ono’s work and we borrowed her Word Spread Pieces: instructions she never wrote down but verbally communicated to some people, and which she wanted to have transmitted orally from one to another. Misunderstandings and transformations are part of the work. Knowing this kind of oral instruction, we invented the PRL, a new transmission protocol based on misunderstandings and pirate radio. PRL stands for »Protocole Radio Lumineux,« which allows us to send messages from a building with the lamps installed on access balconies. Sent with lights, the messages are unbelievably received on radios. The radioradiants became experts in this new transmission protocol and are now able to invest in an area and organize a Radio-Lumières evening, which consists of the following process: radioradiants ask some local residents to write messages to be communicated by Radio-Lumières, then people in the area proceed to transform the messages, playing at a proposed game: they murmur the messages one to another from mouth to ear. So far, some amusing human chains have been created. The radioradiants collect and record the transformed messages, which they code in light. In the special evening they diffuse these light signals from the access balconies of a chosen building. The public not only attends a classical son et lumières show, but interacts with the diffusion of lights and sounds; an interactive console allows member of the public to playfully transform the lights and the sounds during the evening.

Radio-Lumières has fundamental political aspects. I can see four of them in addition of the one expressed above: The experimental aspect of such a project makes it is difficult to raise public or private funds. Some political reasons can be found behind the pretexts the different institutions alluded to. It is an intervention in the public space with no predetermination: neither the content, form, or even the location are defined at the beginning of the project. About 15 people work with me during eight months: local residents, an asylum seeker, a student from Guinée-Conakry, unemployed or retired persons, students, and two people from macLYON. I detail the process of creation during the meetings organized to find the people and I explain that I will share my methodology of research with them instead of asking them to help me to do an art project. Even if my experience in this kind of collective process was about planned indeterminacy (six projects realized between 2010 and 2015) financially speaking, the macLYON initiated and provided half the budget, the region contributed about the same amount and the landlord of the social-housing building on which we realized the project helped with a small budget. Most of the public institutions and private foundations (municipality, state, EDF Foundation, Philips, and others) have been solicited, but it seems art faces the same paradoxes as research. To be funded, a research process has to announce what will come out of it. Such projects must be under control, applications must be submitted, but they are rejected if not defined precisely and if they are conducted in the public space, with people who have not there rightful place there. As they were afraid of us, I decided Radio-Lumières would be much more »pirate.«

What is dreadful in this project for these powerful structures? I assume it is the type of participation. The position of the artist is unclear compared to other project-based art. The artist and the participants are not so easily recognizable. I don’t ask them to provide an idea, to interpret a score, to bring something, or to form a shape with their bodies, to be immortalized. I consider that a lot of participatory projects are gimmicks (artist duplicity indeed).

Bulding »La Cité«
Nocturne spotting
Nocturne spotting / Attending a session with Thierry Raspail
Part of the team in Yoko Ono’s show / Thierry Raspail
Ibrahim & Sylvie explaining some of Yoko Ono’s works
Ibrahim & Milena explaining some of Yoko Ono’s works
Talk on « effectuation » by Philippe Silberzahn & Situationist-like dérive
Estelle Berger inhabitant of the area & Preparation of a session
Shaïf explaining some of Yoko Ono’s works & Paper-board of a session
A writing workshop with « musée des anonymes » & jingle »Radio-Lumières«
Ismael singing the jingle in soussou (his langage) & Caracoles Session (choral singing)
Caracoles Session (choral singing) & a drawing of the concept »Radio-Lumières«
Situationist-like dérive in la Saulaie (the working area)
Part of the team in Yoko Ono’s show
Documents »Radio-Lumières« & Maryvonne flying in the Yoko Ono’s Show
Warm-up activity proposed by Shaïf in the middle of a writing workshop & Paper-board of a Session
Traces of a situationist-like dérive in Lyon
Milena, Shaïf and Nicolas working
The building begins to twinkle on the 24 june 2016 & Shaif, Nicolas thinking
»Radio-Lumières« T-Shirt & Politicians came to grab voices on the evening (here with Jessica, Cyril and Fabien)

Considering my own work, I feel the need to go back to the political definition of participation … which I find in the words of the philosopher Joëlle Zask when she writes on the nature of participation in the democratic process. She mentions it implies 1) being part of (in the sense of participating actively in an action); 2) taking part (in the sense of feeding oneself); 3) bringing in a part (in the sense of investing oneself). In my projects, it consists of feeding us with different nutrients, discussing and experiencing things together. I set up a preliminary program of talks and actions (i.e. an exhibition visit, film screenings, collective lectures-discussions, Situationist International-like dérive). The group discusses the complementary program; we reflect on what we are going to do in a kind of democratic process. During this period of eight months, I learn from them, they learn from me, we learn from guests (artists, philosophers, psychologist, and so forth). They propose a lot of ideas that are activated in the final event. They also propose a debate between a light designer and an environmental activist, screening Close Encounters of the Third Kind by Steven Spielberg, organizing a »vinyl party.«

Communications and publicity are also dealt with in the group, and include a drawing for the radioradiants T-shirts and the radio jingle (a phrase that took three sessions to write with the help of an artist specialized in collaborative writing). The place of the artist is not clear, the final project is not mine: I simply proposed a context in which we may work, a procedure. I animated the debates and made proposals, like the other radioradiants. It poses the problem of identification of this type of decision-making process, both in society and in an artistic work. With Radio-Lumières, I coined the term »cooperative art« to replace the old and perverted idea of participatory art.

Indeed, such a project tries to resist usual models in art making. Radio-Lumières is a school by artists as described by Claire Bishop in Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship. [1] I am not creating anything except a dynamic between small numbers of people. I deal with human relations and learning processes. This kind of approach has a precedent, the FIU (Free International University) by Joseph Beuys, Bishop states. She is concerned with recent examples of such schools by artists, she discusses processes and results, and states that these kinds of education-oriented projects are done in a closed circuit (an artist, a small group of people, and contributors to the program). By extension, how do these projects make visible the educational and empowerment process – or at least a certain output of this dynamic to another audience? She also remarks the balance is more »efficient« if there is a rendering than if there is none; and that the performative form – exhibition, performance – seems more adapted. In Radio-Lumières an event is staged on the facade of a building for an evening and different kind of publics are mixed: the radioradiants plus residents who wrote some messages, plus locals who did not write some messages, plus the macLYON audience and people on different mailing lists (mine, the 15 radioradiants, the three main nonprofit organizations aiding the project), et cetera. The public’s heterogeneity results in the social mix, evidence of the resistance to most contemporary art productions that address »interpretative communities« (i.e. people who have no doubt what they are going to see is art). [2]

We learned from Yoko Ono’s work, but we didn’t stick to her. This is the fourth aspect of the political potential of Radio-Lumières. Over the eight months the project lasted, two were dedicated to studying her work. The project enabled some of the radioradiants – initially having no knowledge of contemporary art or Yoko Ono’s oeuvre – to become guides in her retrospective. A certain kind of empowerment has been possible through the flexibility of the teams conducting the project at the macLYON. In a museum, having nonprofessional people addressing their personal relationship to Ono’s work to the public was a challenge. Radio-Lumières moved people to shift boundaries, to enter a major French art institution. The second challenge was to manage with the group a project in reference to the work of the Japanese-American artist without being too close to her. Finally, the »nutrients« injected into the different sessions did help. We were not only focused on her work but also on the history of the chosen building and area (a ancient school and a popular quarter), on pirate radio in the 1960s, on the Situationist movement, on issues of urban lightning, and on being a choir who would sing a collectively written message. Except this last task, everything was political in the agenda.

In conclusion, Radio-Lumières at first glance invests in questions of transmission (and acceptance of its vagaries). One can also see it poses the following question: are »Democracy,« »Representation,« »Participative Art« obsolete models? The project plays with such procedures and suggests by a critical playfulness that it is perhaps time to think about them twice. Jacques Rancière in »Le spectateur émancipé« analyzes the history and the failures concerning the wish to make the public participate (Brecht, Artaud, and the Situationists, among others). The last paragraphs of this essay can be read as the preliminary thoughts that made me conceive the principle of Radio-Lumières: perhaps a solution would entail the artist and the spectators taking a third object (a book for example) and reading it together: »A community of emancipated spectators is a community of translators and storytellers.« [3] Rancière is looking for a public that is not assigned to a fixed place. Yoko Ono is the »book« he foresees as a third object. She forms a triangulation with the audience and me. Her presence in the project avoids fixed roles and she makes the lines move. The radioradiants is a community of emancipated spectators.

In Radio-Lumières, like in my other projects, be they cooperative or not, artistic or curatorial, with an art institution or with a nonprofit organization, I work on creating the conditions for such collective situations to arise. Yes, I think it is a political posture.

Fabien Pinaroli for the radioradiants:

Shaïf Addullah, Ibrahim Agushi, Léa Aoun, Cyril Chanel, Maryvonne Delaporte, Sylvie Dumont, Laurianne Gobillard, Sandra Huck, Françoise Lonardoni, Jessica Palm, Nicolas Roullet, Milena Schmelzle, Ismaël Sylla, Daphné Targotay

  1. Jump Up Claire Bishop: Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship, New York 2012. Chapter 9, Pedagogic Projects: »How do you bring a classroom to life as if it were a work of art?« pp. 241–274.
  2. Jump Up Yves Citton: »Puissances des communautés interprétatives [Power of interpretative communities],« in: Quand lire c’est faire. L’autorité des communautés interprétatives [When reading is doing the power of interpretative communities]. Paris 2007, p. 20.
  3. Jump Up Jacques Rancière: «Le spectateur émancipé,» in: Le spectateur émancipé. Paris 2008, p. 33.