A few weeks back I had the chance to talk with Curator of Media Arts Rudolf Frieling about The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now, rolling in this Saturday. The exhibition looks at ways artists have been engaging audiences as collaborators in the art-making process over the last sixty years; of its many distinctive features, “AoP” (as we’ve been short-handing it back of house) will change form and content as people contribute to it. I wanted to ask Rudolf some specifics about the exhibition, and also get his take on what happens when you try to set a big, mutable, participatory exhibition down in an institutional setting a tiny bit more used to the object-on-wall approach than double headsets & DIY cardboard furniture. It was fun, & we talked a lot: I’ll post this in two parts, today & tomorrow.
Rudolf, let’s start by my asking a very basic question: what is an “art of participation”?
That is my question as well, and really the question we are exploring with this exhibition. We know what it means to participate in politics or school, and sometimes know what it means to participate in a work of art if we get clear instructions. However there are some projects where it is unclear what exactly is asked of you, or you can only find out by actually doing something. The work requires your input and your act of contribution.
But the term can also mean an open situation. The idea of “the open work of art” goes back to a 1962 book by Umberto Eco, in which he reflects on developments within contemporary art and music where the results of the artwork were not predefined, but rather could change over time, or change by interpretation. He said, in the whole history of art, the act of looking is a kind of interpretation; it’s always different and each one of us sees art in a different way. In this exhibition, we’re interested in ways people can contribute to a work not only by looking—but also by interacting, participating in a group dynamic, or contributing to an artwork. We go, in other words, beyond the viewer.
What does it mean in this context to contribute or participate? Is it a physical action or something else?
Let me give you two examples that are quite physical. The artist Lygia Clark is a pioneer of what we would call today relational aesthetics. I believe she invented the term “relational objects” –objects that relate to people, to each other, or to a group of people. One example is a net made of rubber bands. There are no specific instructions for use, but together with other people you can test the possibilities of the net. You can stretch or play with it, in a joined, cooperative initiative. By doing this with others, you are dependent on the dynamics of the group; this could lead to something very deeply felt and intense, or it might not even work; for example, if you can not communicate with anybody.
Another example is Erwin Wurm’s One Minute Sculptures. Wurm offers a series of tools and objects which you use by following instructions—and these tools are exhibited as if they were sculptures. However, the artwork is not the set of objects on the white platform, but the moment a visitor performs the sculpture according to the instruction. You have basic material and the instructions are clear, but it is not so easy to do. Balancing a series of objects against a wall with your body is physically challenging. And performing the sculpture will look different with every single visitor, so there’s always a new sculpture being performed. What I like specifically about this work is that the sculpture is only temporarily enacted. We think of sculpture as something very solid, an object, and then we think of performance—of theater—as acted on a stage. Here these two concepts are mixed.
Lygia Clark’s work seems obviously relational, it requires multiple people, but these One Minute Sculptures require only one?
It’s too limiting to think that participation is about only two people interacting, or one person performing. Participation also means that you watch others and others watch you, but as you do so you become aware of the potential that you might also do it, or not do it.
Ok. So why should we participate?
It’s a very fair question: why should I participate in the first place? There are a number of works where this is open–instructions as concepts for example–but there are also works where there is nothing to see unless you become part of it. There is a work, called Delayed, by a German artist, Matthias Gommel. You just see two headphones with microphones attached to them, suspended from the ceiling and facing each other; this is a situation for two people to talk to each other. Obviously, just watching it, you can’t hear, and what you do not hear is that the mode of communication is delayed to an extent that the participants continuously interrupt each other and start talking at the same time. This is a very simple situation, but when you actually do it it’s a different experience. Likewise, you can watch someone perform a sculpture and that is fine, but doing it yourself will give you a different understanding of the piece.
Even when you’re faced with instructions that perhaps you cannot perform, you can try and realize the limits you are facing. It’s something I find very interesting about the art of participation: it can provide a very deep sensation, almost a sensual experience, but can also provide a sense of failure.
I always think of participatory art practice as somehow messy or uncontained; spilled out all over the place and you don’t know what’s going to happen. How can a museum be messy, or uncontained? It seems beyond institutional comfort zones.
Well, the fact that a museum of modern art has a mission to document and show a range of contemporary art practices means that we need to address all aspects of contemporary art-we need to address the participatory nature of the work—the openness of these works or even what you call messiness—and we need to think about how to do it in a sustained way. Some of the works challenge the way a museum operates, an example would be 1st Public White Cube, by Blank & Jeron, with Gerrit Gohlke, where you will be able to bid on Ebay for the right to make an intervention into an artwork. For us working at SFMOMA, it’s certainly posing a lot of questions in terms of the value of the work, if you can actually pay to get your work into the museum! But this is one of the important reasons a museum of modern art should do such a show—testing itself—while also fulfilling its job of recognizing and acknowledging the history of contemporary art. Another question is, how much does this kind of practice suffer from being transported or displaced into an institution? How many works are out there that can function successfully in a museum over a length of time, and what does that mean for our procedures?
And of course there’s a question about works that perhaps can’t be absorbed into or presented in an institutional context at all.
Well certainly we were looking for works that would work out over a length of time; however we are also including work that is performative by nature. We have a New York artist duo called MTAA who are proposing a performance that is voted on by the public in every single detail. The voting public decides collectively on the title of the performance, on the location, on the props, on the length of time, on the content, on every single item of the performance … and at the end of the show MTAA will then do an actual performance interpreting a script that has been written, in a way, by the public.
How do people participate in the MTAA project? Do they vote in the gallery?
They can vote in the gallery; they can also vote online. We will have a special display in the D-Space on the second floor where you will be able to see the state of affairs. E.g., people have already voted on the title, we know the performance will happen in the gallery, or in the atrium, or in the elevator, and then on the basis of that you can decide how to cast your vote for the next detail. Voting perhaps is not a very creative way of participating, but the way that the choices are set up is quite interesting, and the way the artists will then have to interpret the result requires a lot of creativity on their part. For instance, what if they’re asked to perform for 24 hours, but the museum is only open for 8 hours?
What will the museum do?
I don’t know at this point. This is also posing questions for us working in the institution. We’re now required to adapt or participate in a different way as well, and this is being done with the help of artists.
More from Rudolf tomorrow, on build-it-yourself cardboard furniture, and what happens to standard operating procedures in a museum when it takes on a playful, participatory, mutating exhibition like this one. Do come back! Part two is here.