September 6th, 2013
So for some reason this article caused a small furor in facebook recently between some artists, curators and museum people, all of whom I respect. But what I can’t understand is why everyone involved in the conversation seemed to be feeling sequentially offended, or at least accused by the author of not doing enough. If you read the article in a detached way—without thinking they are talking about your work—which is hard for many artists to do, all you get out of it is a history of social practice, its recent iterations and more recent admission into the Art “Pantheon,” and then some very obvious comparisons against actual social work. One example is Rick Lowe’s Project Row Houses which Davis weighs against the woeful state of affordable housing in Houston. Neither Davis nor Lowe have ever claimed that Project Row Houses are meant to solve the housing crisis in Houston, but I bet they can both agree that it addresses the problem in some sort of oblique way, even if they disagree on the effectiveness of the tactic. In the same way Guernica probably did not stop one single bomb from being dropped, but why would Picasso stop short of painting it over that? I think the problem is that as ideas trickle up the Art World hierarchy and the different players feel the need to justify them and verbalize them and wrap them up in successive layers and layers of academia and minutiae and as collectors hype up their value for the yearning masses to consume that the ideas take on a life of their own and start looking back at the art that generated them as if to see if they measure up or not. Kind of like the gourd and the sandal in Monty Python’s Life of Brian.
Anyway, that’s not exactly what I want to write about, but it sort of parallels it: the state of so-called “interactive art” today. First let’s get something out of the way: ALL good art is interactive on some level; just like all art is abstract. A person makes an object out of a hybrid of concepts and ideas and other people have a communion with it; an experience, personal and particular to them or communal, but probably along the lines dictated by the work’s author. Religious art has always done this. Even today you walk into a church in Greece and you’ll find thousand year old icons covered in offerings of coins, jewelry and cheap watches. In South Indian temples statues are covered in successive layers of ghee, flowers and powder. No guards at the door, no one to stop you from smearing them as long as you observe some practices. The minute art stopped doing that was when the bourgeois class started making art, devoided it of function and admired it purely for its aesthetic qualities. This approach, although reductive, was considered “higher” and more noble by them. Most recently artists have started saying “Nah, to hell with all that shit. You can touch my art.” and people have responded. This has manifested itself more obviously in electronic art. To the point that no museum goer can walk by a gadget without starting to act like a fool around it.
I remember a Richard Serra show at Gagosian in 2006 where masses of yuppies were running their strollers up and down rows of his sculptures no differently than if it were at the dog run in Union Square—granted, Serra was standing there with an entourage grinning the whole time, so I don’t know whether he was laughing at the spectacle, basking in his own glory, or enabling the whole thing, but I kind of doubt it’s the last one. I’d bet on him being more cynical than naive. In short, I guess installations and spatial art rather than being places that cause pause, have become theme parks for the bored rich. It reminds me of the scene in El Topo when the Monk and his midget companion are performing in ‘the town’ for money. In case you didn’t get Jodorowsky’s sarcasm, that’s us!
I have no qualms with any type of behavior in particular around art. Tainos used to bury and pee on their Cemíes to try to propitiate fertility in their crops, and I can totally get that. My philosophy is let it be what it may, but what gets tiresome is how quickly interactive “behavior” has become just another set of trite pre-programmed responses devoid of any thought when encountering art. Honestly, waving and clapping like a chimp† in front of a sculpture just because there is a light flashing on it or it happens to have a speaker, or the appearance of a sensor is no different than ogling and laughing in front of a nude. It’s a premature response, it does not arise from encountering the object on its own terms, and many times it’s just a masturbatory experience: an easy pleasure provoked by the viewer and not by the viewed. For example, why were people running back and forth in front of Tristan Perich’s piece at MoMA? It produces no additional sensation, you are in fact looking away from the piece as you do it, and there is no prompt whatsoever that it is meant to make you do that. At this point the viewer is foolishly trying to force his obvious conclusion on the work rather than being affected by it. It’s kind of like walking into Mahabalipuram in Tamil Nadu and asking “Hey! When are you gonna crucify that Krsna?”
I am not saying that we should now start policing people’s behavior around the art that they rightfully come to enjoy, but could you fucking slow down a bit and look at the damn thing for a minute or so without trying to draw some silly conclusion? Stop. Take it in. By all means explore it with whichever sense feels right, and then interact. This can be done even with a painting—or a phone booth for all that matters, if you are so inclined. But try to have a real experience, not another cheap one.
† I should disclose that in 1995 I made a piece while in undergraduate school that kind of required you to make noise and clap like a chimp in front of it. But it was for entirely different reasons. It was called “Ritualizer” and it was precisely about the mechanization of rituals to bring about the uncanny in our world. Basically people had to make noise to feed the light source of a reflection hologram; the more noise, the more hologram. But I was not so much looking to be interactive just for the hell of it. In that case the work required it.