Chaos and context : speculations about the prominence of participatory art since the mid 1990s

Master Thesis


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University of Cape Town

In his essay The Poetics of the Open Work, Umberto Eco suggests that 'open work' of the 1960s, which stressed audience involvement, contingency and an anti-institutional stance, is an expression of a Quantum paradigm. Here, the irrationality and lack of order of Quantum Theory is seen as paralleled in artistic expression. Since the mid 1990s, participatory art has gained prominence, both in terms of current art production and retrospectives of Dadaist and 1960s 'open work'. Using Eco's essay as a model, this could be seen as a result of the progression of a Quantum Theory worldview to a view that is understood in terms of Chaos Theory. The patterns that mathematical models such as natural numbers, Calculus, Statistical Mathematics and Quantum Theory propose have parallels in social and artistic expression. In an extension of this, Chaos Theory is the latest mathematical model that social and artistic trends express. This is suggested by the mirroring of Chaos patterns in current social phenomena such as the Internet and experience economy. The similarity in approach between social phenomena and participatory art suggests that they answer the same social/audience demands. My primary contention is that the environment in which audiences and artists currently operate is such that demands and expectations raised by Chaos Theory are answered by participatory art, just as they are answered by wider social trends. The primary Chaos patterns that can be observed are interconnection, phase change and feedback. This is not a matter of a linear influence of cause and effect. It is not that Chaos inspires certain characteristics which are then expressed in various social phenomena. Rather, encountering Chaos characteristics in daily life raises expectations that these characteristics will be encountered elsewhere. We are thus not speaking of a causative relation between Chaos theory and social phenomena. Rather, there is a complex pattern of escalation which encourages interaction, feedback and phase change in a dynamic, chiasmic system which itself can best be analysed as another Chaos phenomenon.

Includes abstract.

Includes bibliographical references (leaves 53-58).