Geneva Anderson digs into art

The Art of Participation: 1950 to Now

SFMOMA: November 8, 2008February 8, 2009


Raji Pandya and Alfred Wallace wearing Lygia Clark's goggles from 1968 ("Dialogo: Oculos")

I have given SFMOMA’s interactive show “The Art of Participation” which runs through February 8, a few chances to wow me and it hasn’t.    I’ve seen a lot of this art before and its presentation here does not seem very innovative.  I have been amazed at how kids respond though–their enthusiasm with being able to explore art in a zone that is normally off-limits to touch is contagious. The purpose of the show is to glance back at 60 years of contemporary art genres and to examine participatory art, looking at situations where viewers have become collaborators in the art-making process.  In many cases this is a complex relationship and at some point along the way, some of art objects have become secondary to our interaction with them. We see also see that while the current generation of artists may use new technologies, the antecedents for their strategies are here.  The show is presented thematically and includes over 70 works by artists such as John Cage, Hans Hacke, Valie Export, Yoko Ono, Lygia Clark, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Tom Marioni, and Lynn Hershman Leeson.   SFMOMA’s Rudolph Frieling is the curator.

Participatory art is art that requires the collaboration or participation of the viewer to be complete. Its principles rest in a seminal and radical essay, “The Art-work of the Future,” written in 1849-50, by German composer Richard Wagner, just after the failure of the 1848 revolution.  Wagner’s translates that movement’s failed political aims to aesthetics.  He advocates for gesamtkunstwerk or total artwork which requires that artists put aside their elitist orientations and reach out to the people with works that create a collective experience.  At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Italian futurists and Zurich Dadaists embraced aspects of this, followed by the Surrealists, the Russian avant garde, John Cage in 1952, the Fluxus movement, and artists’ collectives and the happenings and performances of the 1960’s.

Emma Scott, Alfred Wallace and Raji Pandya with Raphael Lozano-Hemmer’s “Microphones” (2008).

Emma Scott, Alfred Wallace and Raji Pandya with Raphael Lozano-Hemmer’s “Microphones” (2008).

Since the show’s start date is 1950, John Cage’s score 4’33” (1952) is the pivotal anchor piece.  This musical composition of silence lasting four minutes and 33 seconds inspired countless artists to incorporate chance into their artworks.  Cage called it the absence of intentional sound, making music a process of discovery rather than forced communication.  The piece is played daily in the SFMOMA gallery.  What emerges in the silence is a symphony of random ambient noise coming from the environment and the audience which actually become the instruments.

In 1969, Hans Haacke’s “News” conceptually opened up a Düsseldorf kunsthalle to communication from the outside world and raised issues of public access to information by bringing in a live news-spewing telex.  The work is recreated at SFMOMA with a dot matrix printer.  A growing live sculpture emerges from an RSS (Really Simple Syndication) news feed that spills onto the museum floor, giving form to a constant stream of processed and discarded information.  In its current context, it seems an archaic relic, unable to access and process the barrage of information enabled by newer forms of communication.  As a journalist who encountered these old wire-service teletypes in the former East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down, I this piece provocative on many levels.

Matthias Gommel’s “Delayed” is an experiment with dialogue that greets visitors as they get off the elevator and enter the 4th floor galleries.  There are two sets of headphones and microphones suspended from the ceiling and it requires two people to participate.  The communication is delayed so that a normal conversation becomes impossible due to continuous interruptions by previous sequences.  You can watch people doing this but actually donning the phones and trying it is where the fun begins.

Rafael Lorenzo-Hemmer’s “Microphones” (2008) relies on vocal input and then recreates it, playing back previous recordings of audience utterances. When I went with my friend Alfia, and her children, we had a blast crooning to each other and quickly encouraged another group to join us, completing the circle of microphones, blending our voices with each others and with those archived.  In fact, throughout the galleries, I noticed people communicating more actively with each other and with strangers.

courtesy the artist; © 2008 Francis Alÿs

Francis Alÿs (in collaboration with Rafael Ortega), Re-enactments (video still), 2001; two-channel color video installation with sound, 5:20 min., dimensions variable; courtesy the artist and David Zwirner Gallery, New York; photo: courtesy the artist; © 2008 Francis Alÿs

Lygia Clark’s “Dialogo: Oculos” (Dialogue: Goggles) from 1968 is a pair of modified diving goggles which bind two people very closely together as they look at each other through mirrors that fragment and distort their vision.  Clark’s “Rede de Elastico” (Elastic Net) 1973 is a huge net of elastic formed from elastic bands that the viewers are asked to weave in to the existing web. It harkens back to days of macramé.  While attractive as a proposition, most people I watched did not engage with this piece ,which is part of the hit or miss nature of the show.

The way in which the exhibition addreses the web as an evolving participatory system is unengaging compared to the rest of the exhibition.   I found it harder to immerse myself in computer displays and concentrate than with the  other media.  As I passed by several computer monitors displaying websites that hailed the early days of net acitivism and participation-based strategies, instead of clicking around, I made a  mental note–been there, done that–and moved on.   In the good-old-days, the emphasis was on being  part of a network  where one could find tactical allies and ideological engagement.   Now,  we are so comfortable with the maintream  ebay, YouTube,Facebook ,and Skype that we are almost numb to the Internet’s’s activist roots.  A stronger linkage to critical Internet culture and media activism linked to the develpoment of Web 2.0 would have helped me focus more.  

The exhibition also includes video documentation of past performances both in and outside of a museum setting that required audience participation.  I was riveted by Yoko One’s “Cut Piece” performance from 1965 at Carnegie Hall which shows alongside a 2003 re-creation at Théâtre le Ranelagh, Paris.  In both renditions, Ono sits as audience members come forward with scissors and cut off pieces of her clothes and underwear until she is completely nude.  Some entered the exchange by cutting while others entered as voyeurs.  The tension is palpable in the 1965 work as Ono’s vulnerability and discomfort surge in response to various cuts.  Ono’s contribution to the Fluxus movement with her performance and concerts that relied on the public’s input to determine the content is well-known.

courtesy Sherrie Rabinowitz; © 2008 Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz

Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, Hole-in-Space (photographic documentation), 1980; live two-way telecommunication event between New York and Los Angeles; courtesy the artists; photo: courtesy Sherrie Rabinowitz; © 2008 Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz

Francis Alÿs’ “Re-enactments” (2001) seemed to mesmerize people.  The work, shot by Raphael Ortega, shows two separate videos by the Belgian artist Alÿs and addresses the context and broad politics of participation.  In both enactments, Alÿs purchases a 9mm loaded Beretta pistol in a Mexico City shop and then carries it at his side through the streets.  The first footage trails Alÿs; while the second performance focuses on the people on the street who become hip to potential danger and alert the police who ultimately arrest Alÿs. 

Jeff Aldrich, courtesy Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco, bitforms gallery, New York; © 2008 Lynn Hershman Leeson

Lynn Hershman Leeson, Life² (screenshot), 2006–present; online project, dimensions variable; collection of the artist; image capture: Jeff Aldrich, courtesy Gallery Paule Anglim, San Francisco, bitforms gallery, New York; © 2008 Lynn Hershman Leeson

In both cases Alÿs provoked the direct intervention of the police but for the second re-enactment, he enlisted them as willing partners in the enactment of his arrest.  Various levels of participation between artist and passersby are required to complete the work.

A number of works address location and the notion of site-specific.  A large-scale media installation by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz from 1980 shows their “Hole In Space” live telecommunication event which linked pedestrians at Lincoln Center in New York with those at the Broadway department store at Century City, Los Angeles.  Quite novel in its day, the project offered a window on another world but the artists offered no explanations about the large televised images which were visible for two hours per day in both locations.  The duo is now exploiting satellite technology for the same purposes.

When I visited the show just before Christmas, I watched a seven year old boy named Sasha engrossed in Lynn Hershman Leeson’s virtual reality exploration,  “Life2.”  The original version of the work “The Dante Hotel,” (1973-74) proposed that visitors experience a fictional world in real time and space by actually visiting a residential hotel in San Francisco’s North Beach district, checking out a key and entering the room that was staged with remnants of its occupants. When Leeson created this thirty-five years ago, it was groundbreaking as a site-specific public art installation.  For this computerized reanimated version, Leeson teamed up with the Stanford Humanities Lab and Metamedia Lab to reconfigure her work as an online immersive experience.  The result is enthralling–an avatar chase through endless virtual corridors of The Dante Hotel. 

The show also includes Tom Marioni’s “The Art of Drinking beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art,” (1970-2008) a free beer salon, which recasts social gathering as art.  The salon was part of an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 1979 and is in the museum’s permanent collection.  Beer is served on a drop-in basis every Thursday evening from 5 to 7 p.m.   Geneva Anderson

January 25, 2009 Posted by | Art, SFMOMA | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment