Preconditions for Online Participation

Author: Annie Abrahams


In this article Annie Abrahams gives a short personal, yet critical overview of her always collaborative and often participatory artistic practice. Based on her experiences she tries to formulate some general preconditions for it to be successful. She finds that an awareness of hardware and software influences, clear and open protocols, familiarisation with the technology, an active role and a hospitable environment for the participants are obligatory to allow them to enjoy an aesthetics of attention and trust, where their choices and behavior count.


networked performance, preconditions, enabling constraints, participation, collaboration

< NOTE TO EDITORS: please note that the pictures are embedded as links to web-based files >>

Preconditions for Online Participation.

Because in 2008 I noticed a lot of expectations and an almost utopian air around the possibilities of online collaboration, I started researching its modalities in a project called Huis Clos / No Exit. (1). From earlier experiences, as for instance my participation in the collective Lieudit (2), it had been known to me that there were truly interesting possibilities of collaboration available online, however I was also aware that collaboration using machines was not easier, maybe it was even more difficult than without. Online communication was and is different from ordinary face to face communication — which also holds true for participation. Thus I developed an interest for investigating the limits, possibilities and dynamics of collaboration in networked situations.

In Huis Clos / No Exit I used webcams and a special interface that allowed me to unite the images and sounds of the webcams of up to 6 participating performers into a mosaic. That way the physically separated performers could share borders and interaction surfaces in a virtual space and thus become co-responsible for the mosaic image projected in front of the public during performances. From their isolated positions, they shared a space of expression and responsibility; a playground; a laboratory. Huis Clos / No Exit – On Collaboration, Workshop Le manège.mons, October 2010. Photo Alexandre Lard. Huis Clos / No Exit – On Collaboration 3, Workshop CNRR/TPM and INGEMEDIA/University -Sud Toulon-Var, January 2011. Huis Clos / No Exit – Training for a Better World, screen capture Performance CRAC Sète, 1/12/2011.

Gradually I became more and more aware of how this kind of interface, besides allowing observation of collaborative behaviour and self-organisation, also revealed private, intimate behaviour. The online performers are so occupied with their inter-actions, that they do not have time to take care of their image as they mostly do on the Internet. In 2011 in an article called Trapped to Reveal – On webcam mediated communication and collaboration (3), I wrote about this phenomenon, analysing the special aspects of machine-mediated communication and collaboration. In about the same period, in an interview with Maria Chatzichristodoulou called “Annie Abrahams, Allergic to utopias” which was published in Digimag, I tried to express what I thought my online webcam performances were about:

I try to find ways to penetrate the other performer – just for a second I want them to expose themselves to me (and to our observers) in an action, or a response, that is out of their control. I want them to unveil something they usually hide or only disclose in situations of complete trust. I want to know how they function, not by them telling me, but by me almost forcing them to reveal an instance of their ‘hidden code’ in public. I want us to go beyond self-representation and the control that this requires. Am I really forcing them to do this?… No I am not. What happens is that the situation in itself –that is, the telematic performance interface, the protocols, the flaws in the streaming connections– rewrites the conditions of communication in a way that makes this revelation possible, if not inevitable.” Duet – Satz 1, with Antye Greie, screen capture, 13/09/2011, project supported by Espace Multimédia Gantner.

Today, online participation, collaboration and communication are still important issues. So, based on my artistic practice I shall now attempt to formulate what I think are important preconditions for successfully participating in the telematic performance realm. (5)

When participants connect, they have to find themselves in a hospitable environment. They need to feel welcome. In chatrooms during events for instance, I always ask someone familiar to the project to mediate, to answer questions, to animate, when I cannot do that myself.

Participation needs to be rewarding. When an interesting exchange is going on, this can be natural. Sometimes it is already enough to be seen present in a particular public event or to be part of a specific community. Concrete influence or agency by the members of the audience is also very motivating for a lot of people.
In Beyond (spectacle) (6), for instance, nothing happened without audience participation. Because the performers did not do anything unless instructed so via an online form, to which every audience member with a cell phone had access. The latter were the masters of the performance. Beyond (spectacle) – Episode I, with Igor Stromajer, screen capture, Show Off Art Fair Paris, 19/10/2012.

Besides writing a collective conversational text in the chat window, the audience of the ReadingClub (7) influences the reading and writing ( so called “reariting”) of the performers during a session. The history of the chat discussion is archived along with the archive of the reariting itself and has the same status as a trace of the event. screen capture Apparatus_is {Other-s} … ReadingClub session for Scripting the Other, The Wrong biennale, with: Renee Carmichael, Emmanuel Guez, Nick Montfort and Zombectro, 01/11/2017.

Last year I got intrigued by a concept called Agency Art. (8) I (re)discovered it in Arjen Mulder’s The Beauty of Agency Art (9). Mulder uses the concept to designate art, in which interactivity is the essential component and where choice and behavioral gestures are the essence of the aesthetics of the artwork.
Here is a list of relevant key words I assembled when researching what the concept would include in practice:

collectively made, refusing hierarchy, a knitting together of artists and performers in the moment of the event, erasure of the artistic ego, changing rules, choices, connecting, accepting the unexpected, responsive, shared, collaboratively authored, open to all, working with temporal behavioural phenomena, healing, improvised, including environmental conditions, attentional strategies, instructions, protocols, apparatus, meeting, embracing the ordinary, rehearsing alternatives, re-hijacking therapy, exercising our relations to others, our social (in)capacities, exploring rituals, being together, participatory, concerns individuals and politics

These words are taken from artistic works in domains as diverse as theater, dance, music, poetry, fine art and digital art (10). Thus Agency Art allows us to make cuts through traditional art domains and disciplines, also it is opening areas of practice that were previously closed to one another. In my understanding this allows an aesthetics of trust and attention that can attract a lot of people too.

Participants have to be familiar with the technology involved in the participation process. For my online performances, whether done with webcam technology or in the ReadingClub, I always organise individual technological test sessions, where the participants get to know the (im-)possibilities and flaws of the tool they will use. Of course, that is not necessary when the interface is as common as a chatroom or a popular online conferencing tool.

The events have to be structured with a script/protocol/scenario/ that is clear and open at the same time. It can be elaborate or very short, but it needs to be thought of as an instalment of conditions that can stimulate the emergence of creativity. I like to think of my protocols in the sense of what Erin Manning and Brian Massumi of Senselab call “enabling constraints” – sets of designed constraints that are meant to create specific conditions for creative interaction where something is set to happen, but there is no preconceived notion of exactly what the outcome will be or should be. (11).
In for Instance Angry Women I and II (12) there was no more than a theme/subject, the interface, a starting time and a single rule: the performance would end when all were silent for 60 seconds. testing the interface for Angry Women, screen capture, 2011

or testing the interface for Angry Women, screen capture, 2011

or Angry Women Take 5, screen capture performance à Les Bouillants, Vern-sur-Seiche, 21/04/2012.

It is also important that the participants are aware of the material aspect, of the role the machines and different software play in an online communication apparatus. Some connections are slower than others. Every interface makes certain things possible and precludes others.
In my latest performance called Entanglement Training (13), produced in the framework of Randall Packer’s Art of the Networked Practice symposium, we were (more than in other performances before) integrating these material aspects and thoughts about them. We investigated how to be together in a connected world, where machines and humans have to communicate accepting partial overviews, glitches, time-lags, disrupting audience participation and ensuing disorientations. Online-Ensemble – Entanglement Training, Directed and performed by Annie Abrahams (FR) with Antye Greie (FI), Helen Varley Jamieson (DE), Soyung Lee (KR), H??ng Ngô (US), Daniel Pinheiro (PT), Igor Stromajer (DE), 29/03/2018, Nanyang Technological University, School of Art, Design and Media.

I would like to end with expressing my concerns about how crucial it is to ensure a critical, yet complex and media-specific understanding and use of internet technologies, to achieve an optimal quality of participation in online collaboration settings.


1 Annie Abrahams, Huis Clos / No Exit, 2009 – 2012, (accessed May 23, 2018).

2 was an artist collective that existed between 1997 and 1999. Members : Pierre Cuvelier, Nicolas Frespech, Antoine Moreau, Eric Maillet, Annie Abrahams, Jacques Perconte, J-P Halgand, Yann Le Guennec, Sylvie Bourguet, Karen Dermineur and Clément Thomas. Archives from 2005 (accessed May 23, 2018).

3 Annie Abrahams, Trapped to Reveal – On webcam mediated communication and collaboration : An exposition concerning my collaborative webcam performance projects, focussing on / trying to determine the special aspects of machine mediated communication and collaboration. Journal for Artistic Research #2, 2012. (accessed May 23, 2018)
Also published in Hz-journal #18, May 2013 (accessed May 23, 2018).

4 Maria Chatzichristodoulou, Annie Abrahams, Allergic to utopias, Digimag 58, October 2010, (accessed May 23, 2018).

5 I continued my experiments till today in workshops, installations and projects as Double Blind (love) with Curt Cloninger, Duet – Satz 1,2,3, et 4 with Antye Greie, Angry Women with around 30 collaborators, Beyond (spectacle) with Igor Stromajer, Distant Feeling(S) with Daniel Pinheiro and Lisa Para, besides, with Martina Ruhsam, and Online En-semble – Entanglement Training with Antye Greie, Helen Varley Jamieson, Soyung Lee, Huong Ngô, Daniel Pinheiro and Igor Stromajer. From 2013, together with Emmanuel Guez, I also organise collaborative online writing and reading performances in the ReadingClub.

6 Annie Abrahams, Beyond (spectacle), 2012 – 2014 – ongoing (accessed May 23, 2018).

7 Annie Abrahams, Emmanuel Guez, ReadingClub, 2013 – ongoing (accessed May 23, 2018).

8 Annie Abrahams, Agency Art, blogpost January 2017 (accessed May 23, 2018).

9 Arjen Mulder, THE BEAUTY OF AGENCY ART, Vital Beauty, V2_Publishing (2012), ( with permission of the author, accessed May 23, 2018).

10 Annie Abrahams, Agency Art II, blogpost February 2017 (accessed May 23, 2018).

11 Joel McKim, Of Microperception and Micropolitics, An Interview with Brian Massumi, INFLeXions No. 3, October 2009 (accessed May 23, 2018).

12 Annie Abrahams, Angry Women, 2011 – ongoing (accessed May 23, 2018).

13 Annie Abrahams, Online En-semble – Entanglement Training, March 2017, (accessed May 23, 2018).

Annie Abrahams is a Dutch artist living in France. She has a doctoraal (M2) in biology from the University of Utrecht and a MA2 from the Academy of Fine Arts of Arnhem. In her work she questions the possibilities and limits of communication, specifically investigating its modes under networked conditions. Using video and performance as well as the internet, she develops what she calls “an aesthetics of attention and trust”, in which human behavior is the main material. She is known worldwide for her netart and is an internationally regarded pioneer of networked performance art and collective writing.