Participatory Art: A Strange Combination of Artist-Induced Elements

Performance art is theatrical.  There is an imagined barrier that maintains distance between the art and the viewers.  Participatory art, as opposed to strict performance art, involves the audience.  There is no distinct separation or disconnect between the art and those experiencing it.  This artistic genre has often been considered unnecessarily ironic, relying on the random decisions of self-absorbed artists.

“Part of participatory art depends on how you present it.  If you say ‘performance art’ to people, not many will think they’ll like it.  They automatically think someone is getting naked or will be screaming and throwing chocolate on themselves and, while that is totally valid, it is important for people to feel like it’s open to them and they don’t need to have a very specific preference to be able to enjoy it,” says local artist Julia Barbosa Landois.

Julia Barbosa Landois, Congratulations, 2009

“I need some kind of interaction with the audience to feel like it’s really participatory.  Whether that be talking or eye contact—just some kind of physical proximity,” Landois points out.  “There’s also some kind of unpredictability because you don’t know what the audience is going to be bringing, what they are going to say or how they are going to react.  I think that is something really exciting about making participatory work.”

Landois creates a variety of art ranging from strictly performative to highly participatory interactions.  She recently exhibited a piece entitled Congratulations where she served viewers cake filled with such items as plastic babies, safety pins, rings, lace, pacifiers, rosaries, praying hands, metal coins, ribbon, and a large plastic horse-drawn carriage in reference to the gender-specific rituals of baby and bridal showers.

Entering portal into living room, Book of the Dead, 2005

Hills Snyder, another San Antonio artist, utilizes performance and participatory art methods “whenever it is appropriate for a given situation.”  His 2005 Book of the Dead project allowed visitors to journey through a series of constructed rooms that offered a mirror into their own inner landscapes.  Each received a number representing his or her page in the “Book of the Dead” and was greeted by Snyder as the “intoxicating angel” upon entering the final living room.

Intoxicating angel greeting guests, Book of the Dead, 2005

“All art is participatory,” Snyder says.  “People have to come up and move around even stationary work, observing it.  Observation is a very interesting concept.  You can think of it as being passive or creative.”

The lack of understanding and interest concerning this genre of work directly relates to lack of exposure and public involvement.  Landois suggests visiting local galleries with low foot traffic because they are more likely to support performance/participatory artists than more commercial galleries that need physical art to sell.

Hills Snyder: Infusing a Passion for Prose into Contemporary Art

Song 44 Verse on table, Misery Repair Shoppe, 2005

Hills Snyder has established himself as a key figure in the San Antonio contemporary art scene.  Born and raised in Lubbock, Texas, Snyder’s work ranges from performance pieces to participatory events and installations.  Known as a cutting edge artist, both locally and internationally, Snyder says he is heavily influenced by musical and lyrical elements rather than traditional artistic genres.

“As a consumer of other people’s creativity, I tend to be drawn more to writing, music and film,” the 59-year-old Snyder says.

Snyder infuses his passion for music and songwriting into his art, blurring the lines between art, music and prose.  His 2005 participatory art event Book of the Dead incorporated the sixth verse from Song 44, a murder ballad he wrote in 1997.  Verses from it have appeared in several of his artistic works, including Misery Repair Shoppe and All Good Children.  His upcoming exhibition, set to open in September at Blue Star Contemporary Art Center, will include the first verse of the ballad.

“I just don’t put dividing lines between things,” Snyder says.  “I seem to continually play with words and it’s not like it’s something that I intend.  It’s like I hear it like it’s on a radio.  I always hear the backside of words.  It’s just something I hear all the time.”

When asked how he feels about his artistic endeavors sparking controversy, Snyder shook his head and expressed his disinterest in the matter.  He creates what he chooses and enjoys what he creates, regardless of the outsider’s perspective.  Although Snyder describes himself as laconic, his creative works suggest otherwise.

An Artist’s Education: Academic or Informal?

Aspiring artists often find themselves at a crossroads:  Should they pursue formal schooling in their craft or will the pressures of academia hinder the artistic process?  Three San Antonio artists share their views on arts and academics as they relate to artists striving for a place in the creative world.

Chris Sauter

“Most artists actually have formal training.  If you were to take a poll of the most successful artists, they have MFAs,” says local contemporary artist Christopher Sauter.  “There is a certain language used in the art world and that language one learns in graduate school.  Also, you learn about what happened in art before so when you come out, you’re not reinventing the wheel.”

Artist Hills Snyder had a different experience, receiving his Master of Fine Arts (MFA) nearly 20 years after dropping out of his BFA college plan.

“By the time I got back around to the MFA, I was so far into what I was doing that I couldn’t be ruined by the academic process,” says Snyder.  When asked if a formal arts education has a positive or negative influence on artists, he said, “It is completely up to the individual and has the potential for either.”

It can be difficult for some schools to integrate both the conceptual elements of art as well as the actual practices of art making, according to performance and participatory artist Julia Barbosa Landois.  However, one gains various skills in college that prove invaluable in the real world.

Julia Barbosa Landois

“Our critiques were public at the end of every semester and that could be really painful, but I think it helps you build a thicker skin and you get more confident talking about your work,” says Landois.  “You’re more set in your determination to believe in what you want to do, whether everyone will like it or not.”

Chris Sauter: Up Close and Personal

Blue Star: Cutting Edge Contemporary Art

You don’t need a Ph.D. to enjoy contemporary art.  Viewing it is a process that needs to be experienced in order to be appreciated, according to Blue Star Contemporary Art Center’s Zinnia Dunis Salcedo.

“There is not really a right or wrong answer when viewing our art.  Everyone walks away with a different experience.  Just participate,” she says.

As the center’s program director of nearly four years, Salcedo is an established member of Blue Star’s small, but passionate staff.  Her position requires planning events two to four years in advance while also coordinating the gallery’s public relations and marketing efforts.

Blue Star’s eclectic Southtown Arts District location has successfully enticed guests for more than 20 years, evolving out of a renovated 1920s warehouse along the San Antonio River.  Blue Star features the work of more than 20 cutting edge local and international contemporary artists annually by drawing visitors into its four distinct gallery spaces.

“Blue Star was created to fill a niche for contemporary artists in San Antonio because there wasn’t really anything like it here,” says San Antonio artist Chris Sauter.  “It’s a pillar in the community and because Blue Star is so big and has such a draw, there are a lot of artist-run spaces in the complex now and those artist-run spaces can be successful because of the draw of Blue Star.”

Sauter’s art is influenced by the juxtaposition of the natural and man-made.  His installations involve the transformation of common objects or architectural elements into other recognizable forms.

The Blue Star Contemporary Art Center is just one of several adapted warehouse buildings in the Blue Star Arts Complex which fosters arts-oriented developments such as loft/studio apartments, galleries, retail shops, and performance spaces in the area.  This allows independent artists to function in conjunction with the Blue Star organization rather than becoming overshadowed by it.

“More and more, the art world is becoming decentralized,” Salcedo points out.  “Technology is allowing the art ‘hubs’—New York, Paris, London—to spread more rapidly.”  Contemporary art is benefiting from this trend.  Artists may become successful with widespread acclaim without relocating from their home communities.

Anyone may submit an exhibition proposal to Blue Star for consideration, whether to break into the San Antonio art scene or as an experienced professional seeking further exposure.

However, you don’t need to be an artist or even art connoisseur to get involved.  Blue Star is free to the public and even offers educational and community outreach programs through its ARTsmart initiative.

Kandace Collins, Critical Mass, 2008 (Blue Star Contemporary Art Center)

Matthew Boonstra, Manufacturing Sympathies, 2009 (Blue Star Contemporary Art Center)

July: First Friday ArtWalk

July 2 will mark San Antonio’s next First Friday ArtWalk, a monthly event dedicated to local artists and craft persons.  The ArtWalk is located in the Southtown Arts District, an area known for its eclectic blend of historic houses, galleries, shops and restaurants.  Visitors should expect street vendors, artists and musicians to line the streets beginning around 6 p.m.

Sala Diaz: Cosmocto Sneak Peek

Sala Diaz, a contemporary art gallery set up in the former San Antonio residence of artist Alejandro Diaz, will be exhibiting the work of identical twin artists David and Daniel Frank (known by the alias Cosmocto).  Sinchi Medicina is inspired by spiritual elements from Buddhism, sacred geometry and even street art.  Located at 517 Stieren, the exhibition opens July 2 at 9 p.m. as a part of the First Friday ArtWalk in the Southtown Arts District.

Front room of Sala Diaz, Sinchi Medicina, photo from Hills Snyder

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