For the be something website.
Hospitality, something about food or eating, dinner party, luck, lucky, culture, cluster, unmitigated, fugitive, joint, collect, collected, real, be, do, doing, doing something, place names (actual place names), rock star, experience, blueprint, recipe, play, now, time. These were some of the words floating around in our minds while trying to name what is now “Be Something.” When Kathe Izzo and I first started talking about the project I was in a car on the way to JFK, going somewhere I don’t remember now. And where was she? On the other end of her cellphone somewhere too. Maybe that says something about our placelessness these days, or our multi-placed-ness. We met up a few weeks later at the Cafe Orlin in the East Village to talk about possibilities. A gathering of work that was experiential—a place to explore and define what that might mean—a way of bringing together and presenting work which refused to be re-presented.
For me the idea started in 2002, during an exhilarating summer I spent in Germany. Most days I appeared live as part of my own artwork in an a museum space. I visited Documenta in whirlwind, and lived in and around Manifesta 4 where my own work was situated, though I had not been invited to be there. I spent that summer thinking about the situation of art, how it is exhibited and experienced, what is important about it. Nights I hung out at the “off spaces” where alternative art projects happen in Frankfurt, and at illegal clubs and outdoor parties in the industrial osthafen.
I left full of an energetic, cranky, utopianism. Little scrawls in my notebook said things like “the end of depiction!” and “art as activity, not objects!” I felt shaken free.
I love museums and museum spaces, galleries and exhibitions, but what actually goes on in them seems so ritualized, and (once you look at it with an anthropological eye) peculiar. No matter what you’re looking at the idea is that you stroll and pause, stroll and pause, contemplating some artwork thoughtfully during the pause. It is as if we are rubbing our chins and nodding sagely at each piece like some fantasy of Freud listening to an hysteric. And there is something Victorian about the whole idea of the exhibition, a whiff of the wunderkammer and the World’s Fair. Amaze! Amuse! Enlighten!
The pieces I loved in that summer, in big shows and small, in art and nonart contexts, were different in a very simple way. They offered you something else to do besides that little ritual pause of contemplation. Anything else. These pieces looked like libraries, or workshops, or playgrounds, lounges, clubs, small businesses, conversations. Even if all you did was wander by, there was at least the possibility of breaking your ceremonial stride.
Christopher Alexander offers this observation: “Compare, for instance, two ways of including water in a building. Suppose, on the one hand, that there is a concrete reflecting pool outside your room—with no purpose except to reflect the sky. And suppose, on the other hand, that there is a stream outside your room, with a small rowing boat on it, where you can go, to row, lie on the water, struggle struggle against the stream, tip over. . . . Which of these makes the most difference to the building? The rowing boat, of course, because it alters the entire experience of the building.”
Art which is like the reflecting pool offers itself for contemplation. Art which is like the rowboat offers itself for more varied and encompassing kinds of experience.
Since that summer I have felt, on and off, that we are at the end of the time of objects. I was saying as much to an art critic friend recently, and his eyes went a little round before he gently pointed out the exuberant hypergrowth of object-based art going on right now, only a few blocks away from where we were walking at the time. It was a moment when the words “late stage capitalism” actually came into the conversation naturally. But I don’t think the revolution is coming any time soon. Maybe it’s more truthful to say that we are still in a long beginning of the experiment of non-object art. I think of those tiny mammals watching as the dinosaurs crashed by. Who would have thought?
Whatever the fate of these little mammals, I have begun to wonder what art that focused on experience, experiential art, might look like if pursued centrally and seriously.
A key inspiration for this idea of an experiential art is clearly John Dewey’s 1934 book, Art as Experience. In a sense, the idea is a simple misreading of the title, because Dewey is at pains to point out that he does not intend to conflate the two. “Art is a quality that permeates experience; it is not, save by a figure of speech, the experience itself.” But he also gives hints otherwise: “In common conception, the work of art is often identified with the building, book, painting, or statue in its existence apart from human experience. Since the actual work of art is what the product does with and in experience, the result is not favorable to understanding.”
We can define experiential art as work where the center of “artness” has moved towards the experience of the viewer (who is, at this point, no longer just a viewer). It has a long history, and some contemporary practitioners, but exists today as a hazy kind of idea. It is more of an ideal than a discipline. It is difficult to talk about, as experience itself is.
Be Something is an attempt to give space and voice to the practice of experiential art. Like most of the explorations that preceeded it, it is a kind of experiment. Indeed, experience and experiment are bound up together, as art critic Paul Ardenne points out: “The notion of “experience” (from the latin experientia) stems from the term experiri, meaning “to try out.” Experience, in its primary sense, refers to the process of actually going through something, a trial whose purpose includes broadening and enriching “the knowledge resulting from it.” … Inasmuch as it is etymologically related to “experiment”, it also encompasses, as is well known in scientific circles, the fact of actually provoking a phenomenon with the intention of studying it.”
We have chosen, for our first project, a show of instructions. Instructions are a form of experiential art which can be transmitted through language and example. They offer the possibility, at least, of breaking through the sensory and communicative limitations of the page (web page or paper) by inviting anyone who comes across the instructions to try them out, to embody them, to provoke a phenonmenon or two.
Sal Randolph, New York, 2005