The everyday life of utopias: Places of participation and change in contemporary art 1980-–2011

Research output: ThesisDoctoral ThesisMonograph


Many processes of participatory art are utopian by definition: expressions of hope. This hope can be manifested, for instance, as care and help, as free food and services, or as unexpected gifts – just like in the participatory artworks of this study.
This study examines the ways participatory art leads its participants into the transformation of everyday life and shared togetherness – in porous utopias. Often participatory artworks lack a clear form and character, which is why they have been considered challenging to critique and conceptualize. Therefore, this study asks how the transformative, utopian and relational quality of participatory art can be understood and conceptualized.
I discuss this question through six contemporary artworks, which each have a very different relation to participation: Sophie Calle’s Suite vénitienne (1980), John Baldessari’s Your Name in Lights (2011), Minna Heikinaho’s Ilmainen aamiainen (Free Breakfast, 1994), the Free Shop (2011) of the Superflex artist group, Copenhagen Free University (CFU, 2001–2007) and Francis Alÿs’ When Faith Moves Mountains (2002). In the study, I also return regularly to the artistic strategies of the early 20th century European avant-garde and the experimental atmosphere of 1960s art.
The processes of participatory art are dependent on their site-specific contexts. Therefore, I situate my research in the urban scene of the artworks: in the street, café, shop, school, cathedral and home. I examine the ‘Street’ as a public space of everyday life through two different artworks and urban structures: the labyrinth-like streets of medieval Venice in Suite vénitienne present a contrast to the modern and commercial streets of Your Name in Lights. Ilmainen aamiainen presents a ‘Café', where public sociability and hospitality become central. As a ‘Shop’, the Free Shop brings into focus the relational forms of humans and non-humans mediated by money. In the ‘School’, I discuss the institutional critique made by the CFU, which actualizes the notions of representation, schooling and knowledge. The ‘Cathedral’ features a temporal center that emerged during the artistic process of When Faith Moves Mountains. It opened a space for communality and communal imagination.
Finally, I bring all the research themes to ‘Home’. The notions of free sharing, that is, radical hospitality, and the unfocused gift becomes crucial. This unfocusedness prompts a new understanding of the community as being-togetherness, not as a representation or description of a group. In such a case, participatory art can bring forth dissident imagination and dissident ways of being – everyday utopias.
Translated title of the contributionThe everyday life of utopias: Places of participation and change in contemporary art 1980-–2011
Original languageFinnish
Place of PublicationHelsinki
Print ISBNs978-951-51-4006-7
Electronic ISBNs978-951-51-4007-4
Publication statusPublished - 26 Jan 2018
MoE publication typeG4 Doctoral dissertation (monograph)

Field of art

  • Contemporary art


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