on the museum of non participation

Artists Brad Butler & Noor Afshan Mirza talk about their long-term project, Museum of Non Participation, which dealt with the multifaceted notion of participation, reflecting on social and institutional problematics. The project was implemented in various countries across the world, from the United Kingdom to Pakistan and Australia.

Olga Shpilko: For me the title of your project is ultimately attractive and catchy due to the ambiguity inherent in the urge to participate. On the one hand, participatory practices defeat hierarchies and contribute to horizontal relationships, including the relationship between artist and viewer. Non-participation is a way of distancing from communal values in favour of individual ones. It might be described by a Russian proverb, “Don’t ask me – my hut is on the edge of the village” (my attempt to translate). But, on the other hand, in my view, participatory practices (art practices, in particular) now have an obvious downside: participation seems to have been pushed too hard in the current system of culture, when anyone who does not wish to participate is accused of being an art consumer and not an art producer. So how do you view non-participation? I guess the notion is controversial for you too.

Brad Butler: I like your Russian proverb! And yes, for us, as you say, non-participation has been very generative. It carries with it dynamic tensions. So, we can say that non-participation can be used to describe resistant strategies, but also non-participation can be used to describe conditions that we are struggling against. This made the project very dynamic for us, especially in looking at the different ways that power operates.

Brad Butler & Noor Afshan Mirza. Act 00136. 2009. Courtesy Brad Butler & Noor Afshan Mirza

Noor Afshan Mirza: For example, during a residency at ZKM we worked with 40-70-year-old museum attendants who had been working a long time in the museum. The conditions of their outsourced contracts did not allow them to speak to visitors about the art which they invigilated and which they had grown to know more about maybe than anyone. They had no collective rights to visibility or a voice. Our aim was to work with these guards and invigilators and give them a platform in the exhibition. Projects like that also diagnose non-participation in practice, it is important not to think of it just as a theory.

OS: Could you please expand on your methodology (if the word is relevant) and how the Museum evolved in the course of the project?

BB: We wanted to work over time and go deeper into ideas that would connect over multiple projects. We would try to listen and be open to working with people on the ground in situations that often wouldn’t obviously get called art. We would let the ideas lead and always ask ourselves what the work needs. Of course people often need space and time, so we often held space open for others. We also explored different ways of creating exhibitions, from films to objects, to situations, to circumstances and provocations. Often we were working outside museums, for example through creating language exchanges, newspapers, theatre groups. I mean when I look back at it now, part of me wonders how did we achieve all that? How did my physical body manage to hold all of those people and strategies together and run a space in London at the same time (a film platform called no.w.here). I’m really proud of our way of working. I use the past tense although Noor and I never publicly closed the Museum of Non Participation concept. But we did take a step back to look at it. That happened after we got an invitation to create an embassy of non-participation at the Sydney Biennale in 2016. The invitation came from a curator called Stephanie Rosenthal who wanted to work with a concept of different embassies of thought. When she approached us, she explained that she had originally intended to have an embassy of “resistance”. But on reflection she decided that that’s wasn’t quite right, or enough. So, she offered us a whole space to make an embassy of non-participation. And that trip not only brought together a lot of ways of thinking for us in one exhibition. It was also momentous as it brought a decade working with our concept into alignment with a recent history of colonialism that we found incredibly painful. And so, by the end of the Biennale we were very successfully received, but we also wondered whether non-participation as a concept was agent enough? In a world with huge male, fascist figures in command. So, it wasn’t a closure. It was a real question about where the pressure points are, and where our agency is needed. And is a Museum of Non Participation that can be incorporated into a biennale the right way for us to work anymore? So that’s where you still find us now, organising our thoughts in relationship to where we should place our bodies. So the Museum of Non Participation is a big body of work. It’s not all on our website. It’s multiple strategies and it crossed countries and borders.

NAM: Actually, a lot of the Museum of Non Participation was also about oral culture. The practice of oral culture is also very gendered. So a lot of things weren’t documented for that very reason, you know. So as much as it is visible…

OS: Do you mean the English language classes, which were organised at the Museum, and its visitors?

NAM: No, I’m talking about something else. I’m talking about things like my feminist project, The Gossip. I’m talking about the relationship between our community of organising and activism. There was a whole lot of things, that we were actively involved in, that just didn’t get recorded as contemporary art and didn’t get registered as activism. It’s just part of oral culture of embodied knowing that becomes knowledge, sharing, distribution, you know. So, as much as this was visible, a whole kind of body of practice was actively not recorded. Because its value was being present in the moment in that room. What you took away with you mattered, and how that body then, in a positive way, contaminated another body of thinking, so in a sense it was a very analogue way of open source as a part of deep practice of oral culture.

OS: Yes, sure. I meant that the oral culture needs to be spread out and distributed in order to exist: its mode of existence indeed reminds of the process of contamination. What I wanted to ask is who were these people who made this possible? So, this is a question about your audience, but I also wonder how you perceive and how you assess the level of their participation and non-participation.

BB: I mean I can relate to your question in lots of ways, because I look back on those eight years and there were so many different ways we worked. So, sometimes we would start from the position of thinking about our relationship to how people might find the work who would never be looking for it. For example, in the Museum project, very early on, we were thinking about the relationship of boundary walls and spaces that both protected and excluded people from artwork. My memory is that – Noor, please correct me – we used to think about hijacking different forms of distribution for our ideas. So, that led us to interventions in public spaces, markets, streets or zones where you would not expect to encounter “contemporary art”. And that when it happened, you weren’t even sure if it was a performance or not.

NAM: Just to add some detail. We looked at spaces or we would be drawn to spaces that had a kind of diversity around social classes or economic backgrounds. That’s why we did things with bread or worked in public spaces or market spaces. So you would get into a dialogue with people from different backgrounds. Or audiences not defined by a social economic group. It was really about having a plurality.

BB: Then there were other forms of distribution. One of the largest projects we did in terms of distribution was when we managed to get an entire newspaper to take on a Museum of Non Participation supplement and send out 20,000 copies around the country. And it was just full of our thoughts and processes of all of our collaborators that we had built up over a couple of years. Actually, do you also remember when we went back to negotiate with them for a second project? It was one of the hardest negotiations I ever remember happening. It was very interesting. Part of our process was to try to set the right terms and conditions for a work to happen. And often we would be having that dialogue with people who weren’t in art spaces. So, for example, I remember we went and tried to make a project work with a Pakistani international broadsheet, The Daily Jang. “Jang” means battle, so our proposal was called “The Daily Battle”. And it was a battle. We had already done a supplement with them, and they were really happy to work with us, so we went back in and we said this time we would like to take up some space inside your newspaper which is not announced as an art space. Please just give us a column and don’t tell anyone that it’s “art”. We would then invite writers to participate in the column space who are not normally the writers who have access to your newspaper. And that will be “the art work”… And getting that to happen, a column in a newspaper that didn’t announce that it was an art space, but which had editorial freedom, man, it was so hard.

NAM: Because the battle, the battle was about value wasn’t it?

BB: Yes.

Brad Butler & Noor Afshan Mirza. The Daily Battle. 2010. Courtesy Brad Butler & Noor Afshan Mirza

NAM: It became about value, you know, business, the media group business… What is the value for me and the business to do this? And then we were obviously advocating for cultural value, for value I mean of new voices in this space. I remember one of the writers we invited was a journalist. And the journalist said, “I’ve never been given such an open space from which to write”. Because we just literally gave each person the title: “The Daily Battle”, as an invitation or provocation for a response. It could be poetry, prose, an article on any subject, no censorship. So, we had to negotiate a space of value in order to give this kind of freedom to the writers. And that was really… It was very contested, wasn’t it Brad? It was very, very, very hard to negotiate that. Looking back on this, it was hard because there were two completely different stakeholders’ values (the media group, and us the artists) sharing a common platform. The previous collaboration was so much easier, as they gave us the whole newspaper as a separate editorial supplement.

OS: Am I right that linguistics in all its aspects is important to your work? If I am not mistaken, you even called the Museum of Non Participation a language? You flipped the word “Museum” horizontally in the graphic identity of your project, Museum of Non Participation: the New Deal in the Walker Art Center, where, as Sang Mun noticed, reversed type also connoted the act of resistance and the Urdu alphabet’s right-to-left writing system. [ 1 ] 1. Sang Mun. The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal by Mirza and Butler // Walker Reader, May 29, 2013. URL: https://walkerart.org/magazine/the-museum-of-non-participation-the-new-deal-by-mirza-and-butler. You have also complied a guide entitled “Non Participation: Acts of Definition and Redefinition”, referring to the vocabulary that we use or misuse.

Brad Butler & Noor Afshan Mirza. Museum of Non Participation: the New Deal. Installation view of the exhibition at Walker Art Center. 2013. Courtesy Walker Art Center

NAM: The acts of definition and redefinition of text were an invitation. At the time we were thinking about what it means to name and define not only an artistic practice, but a political or philosophical position. We thought about the concept of non-participation as a collective process of inquiry and a malleable and expansive term, as a way of speaking to urgent social conditions and pervasive everyday realities. And rather than asserting that as a position of negation or denial, we wanted it to be a position from which to speak. So, we invited multiple voices to address non-participation within the context of their personal and professional lives. And to think on the convergences of art and political praxis. The published texts were written by international and local collaborators: Nabil Ahmed, Rachel Anderson, Chris Conry, Jeanne Dorado, Keli Garrett, Larne Abse Gogarty, Olga Gonzalez, Rahila Gupta, and Fatos Ustek. And through them we saw non-participation being understood variously in relationship to large-scale global migration and climate change, post-conflict situations, endemics of violence, daily habits, agency and identification as a citizen, social welfare, and resistance and revolution.

OS: Was the supplement to The Daily Jang a one-off action? Or did it turn into a series of publications? What was the ultimate outcome for you?

BB: The MoNP supplement was a one-off edition. Taking up column space within the newspaper itself, well, my memory is that it was a very challenging set of negotiations, but in the end we managed to get six commissions published in the newspaper. Each article was called “The Daily Battle”, with a brief editorial text referring the commissioned artworks back to the site of the actual exhibition space where the daily newspapers were being delivered, displayed and distributed. Visitors to the gallery could take away the daily newspapers. We did consider the project of intervening into The Daily Jang as successful even though it was our biggest struggle. We kept going because we were driven by questions, like, for example, what it means if you go to a piece of work which you know is participatory and isn’t an obligation to participate? We made a whole kind of theatre, language around that. So, for about five years we worked with the Migrants Resource Centre in London with the techniques of the Theatre of the Oppressed. We created plays and went into social centres and other spaces where people could encounter and work through experiences they were having, that they wanted to change and transform. But then Noor and I took that into the museum space and we started to create performances that lived between Brechtian learning theatre and Boal’s strategies. We put these two things together as a provocation to an audience where you move through a Brecht play which then goes into real experiences. The non-actors we were working with became a theatre group that spilt out into provocations to the audience about justice. It wasn’t advertised as participatory theatre but the provocation of moving out of the play and into real life and the imagination created a whirlwind of ideas which took off in different ways. And so we would also use that as a way to activate our exhibition spaces. And, I don’t know, we would sometimes think about what are the thresholds and barriers that we were facing and how could we use those to our advantage.

NAM: Just to give another example, one that goes back to the roots of the project. We once set up the Museum of Non Participation project space behind a barber’s shop in Bethnal Green Road. It was behind the barber’s shop because our first community of language exchange students were barbers, Pakistani barbers. Then over time we turned the space into the museum exhibition space. And so, many people came from different places, then they had their hair cut. Or they came for a haircut and then noticed there was something going on in the back space. Some people just heard that you can get chai and would come and relax there. Some were using it as a kind of relief from the street activity, every day, and just liked a quiet spot. Some were just turning up and using it for study time or just chill out. There was a little garden area as well. Some came because they actually got our newspaper. Some people came with families from Birmingham because the newspaper was interesting to them. So, many different people started to take up space in the museum behind the barber shop. And what happened was a very classic old-fashioned vibe of being a community centre that was open for everybody. Obviously, there was a threshold of sorts, a traditional male barber shop is not usually a place crossed into by women, but the work was also making evident these different thresholds. The different rights of access and different set of privileges. The barbers also became the trustees, the keepers of the museum. And their body language, their power, their relationship to it also shifted over time. And that’s the part of the oral culture that people started to hear about. That there was this kind of space where some events were going on, but more often not. It wasn’t programmed, it was a free space. That could be activated by people that just walked in off the street.

OS: Yes, I understand. From what you say, I see that you treat a threshold that exists between a museum and real life in a very interesting way. On the one hand, you blur it, which is part of a long-lasting impetus to merge art and life into a whole. But, on the other hand, you settle it. Any museum, yours as well, creates an artificial environment, completely different from the natural one. But this makes it possible to disrupt the orders that rule our society, which many of us want to escape. And this transforms a museum into a place of exile. Because a museum is actually a sort of place of exile for objects, a place of exclusion. And it can equally be a place of exile for people by their own will.

NAM: Yes. It can be a place of refuge as well.

OS: Yes, refuge is maybe a better word than exile, which has a negative sense.

NAM: I think exile is a good word as well. I always had an issue with hierarchy and I always had an issue with formal education. The way that formal education is taught, with a master and a tutor, and you are the student. There is always a power dynamic. And so I’ve always felt closer to the history of community art projects. But art education and community art in relationship to museums, in relationship to display culture, has often been devalued. So, you have the exhibitions happening and the art projects or community projects were always marginalised. And what I’ve found is that some of the more exiting and experimental, radical projects were happening in the side entrance or at the backdoors of the museums, which is where real life, real people, and real community and dialog was happening. So this Museum of Non Participation was trying to undo this inherent hierarchy in relation to display culture, object-oriented culture and community. For education that could actually be intersectional. For embodied knowing, community knowledge and exchange. They were all being interrogated, but they were all given the same value. Experience and knowledge was not given a hierarchical value. Everything was a horizontal structure and therefore treated as equal.

OS: Your answer makes me want to introduce one of the topics of our grant programme, the second edition of which is dedicated to liminal states of museums. The border between the museum and real life, which we were talking about earlier, and the institutional nature of a museum as a treasure custodian are inextricably linked to the figure of a guard. The Museum of Non Participation newspaper features a text signed by Pancho Villa where museums are characterised as “at best a bloody pirate’s treasure trove”. In a different place in the same newspaper you discuss what comprises a boundary, referring to Mel Bochner’s performance in 1967 when he taped up two pieces of paper on the wall of his studio, measured the distance between them and then removed the paper. It would be interesting to learn how these ideas about borders and boundaries affect your art. Maybe you could expand on your film The Exception and the Rule, which is part of the Museum of Non Participation and which dealt with the notion of borders.

NAM: Yes, The Exception and the Rule was filmed over a 2-year period, in India (Mumbai) and Pakistan (Karachi). It is another layered work of ours, where we approach the subject of the border from multiple points of view. The post-Independence split in 1947 of the British Indian continent into new borders of India, East Pakistan and West Pakistan (later, in 1971, Bangladesh) was called “Partition” and it resulted in a mass movement and migration of Indian Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims as well as protests and violence. As British citizens, carrying the passport of the former colonial masters, our privileged bodies could cross the border between these countries. Most Pakistanis don’t get that access and a lot of Indians also don’t get to cross the land border into Pakistan. We wanted to explore this border as both a real and psychological partition, a trauma of colonialism. So this film keeps shifting its position, especially towards the subject of the internalised colonial gaze of object | subject | border and the camera apparatus. The western-centric gaze of the optical colonial unconscious. So we use a layering of fiction, experimentation and documentary to create a plurality of identity, culture and ethnicity.

Brad Butler & Noor Afshan Mirza. The Museum of Non Participation. 2008. Courtesy Waterside Contemporary, London

OS: I’d like to pose maybe a very simple question, which came to me when you were speaking about museum attendants. What struck you most in the operation of your museum and other art institutions, which were involved in your project? Because, despite the Museum of Non Participation being a work in progress, you still might have had some expectations. What happened when they had not been met at all or had been met by some completely different realities? Maybe that resulted in a change of your methodology or made you alter some of your views?

NAM: Great question.

BB: I think one of the things I noticed with us is that when we did something, we never really repeated it. We have quite a long research practice. We would research very heavily before we would do something. So, a lot of thinking would always go into something. But we rarely… If we found something, we rarely repeated it, even knowing it could be really successful. And I think it’s partly what you are saying. The success and the failure of something would always give us the next project, it was generative like that. So, when I look at the whole body of work, maybe a bit towards the end I can see a few things repeating, like we hadn’t quite finished them and we wanted to go deeper. But we always felt like we wanted to then come to it from a different direction and rework it.

NAM: Can I also add to that. Because, parallel to this whole museum project, we were also running a not-for-profit space called no.w.here.

BB: Yes.

NAM: …that was bounded by so much bureaucracy and state-funded loop holes and political policy… that some of our methodology in the museum was actually a reaction to. So, it was less that the works were being methodologically changed in relation to each other; it was a generative learning across two very different types of projects. Also we would look to resolve a question or a process based on its context. You can’t transfer a practice or a method that you’ve done in a project, say, in Cairo directly to a project that you’ll be doing in South-West Germany. So, those sorts of things couldn’t just be applied as tools. It’s like the tool has to be remade and sharpened for each context. And sometimes tools have to be left behind, because they weren’t appropriate for the next. But I really felt that a lot of it was shaped as a kind of… utopian project… but also as a cathartic process for the micro-managed bureaucratic and colonial violence that is embedded in cultural production. I mean, the stuff we had to do for no.w.here, a lot of it was so absurd, so Kafkaesque… I mean the system wants you to value the matrix and analytics, but doesn’t value the embodied experience and process.

OS: Sure.

NAM: …so from the methodology of no.w.here, the Museum of Non Participation was kind of used as a counter-argument, you could say a counter narrative…

BB: That’s so interesting, now reflecting, and even in Olga’s first question about whether our Museum was a fictional space or not. It was a fictional space, and it was about conditions of power. But, it’s so true – we were experiencing two things at the same time. The pressure of holding a physical space, with all the pressure of gentrification and luxury real estate development in London. That it has to make financial sense as well as being creatively at the edge of what we could achieve. And this fictional space where you… you’re really trying to undo all the ways of operating which have been trained into your body. So, we sort of had both.

OS: Nora Sternfeld coined the term “para-museum” to think of documenta as an institution “simultaneously as an inside and an outside, with a parasitic relation to the museum.” In her view, “we might conceive of it as a subversive gesture that steals (the power of definition and the infrastructure) from the museum.” [ 2 ] 2. Nora Sternfeld. Para-Museum of 100 Days: documenta between Event and Institution // On Curating, №33, June 2017. P. 168. Do you think you can relate your project to this concept?

NAM: What immediately comes to mind is an oblique way to respond to your question – the para-museum we experienced as artists in residence back in 2009, when we were invited as no.w.here to take up residence in the Centre for Possible Studies (the Serpentine Gallery’s off-site project on the Edgware Road). Under the stewardship and curatorial guardianship of Janna Graham and Amal Khalaf their Centre really was a true fit of this parasitic relation to the host institution. We were invited to set up a Free Cinema School and run an 8-week-long community engagement project that interrogated the context of Free(dom), Cinema and the pedagogical approach to School, with local youth residents, neighbours, shopkeepers, and community elders. This project evolved into us being in residence for a total duration of 5 years and together with Amal Khalaf, Frances Rifkin, and Janna Graham setting up what became Implicated Theatre – an incredible experience of Boal’s methods of Theatre of the Oppressed. Brad mentioned this earlier in our conversation and it really deserves a whole big chapter in another discussion. This is the oblique answer to your question, because, yes, it was Brad and I who also shaped that project and simultaneously we ran the Museum of Non Participation, and Implicated Theatre is very much part of the MoNP experience. It’s a curious thought to reflect on, whether no.w.here was the host institution to the para-site of the Museum of Non Participation.

  1. Sang Mun. The Museum of Non Participation: The New Deal by Mirza and Butler // Walker Reader, May 29, 2013. URL: https://walkerart.org/magazine/the-museum-of-non-participation-the-new-deal-by-mirza-and-butler.
  2. Nora Sternfeld. Para-Museum of 100 Days: documenta between Event and Institution // On Curating, №33, June 2017. P. 168.