In the early winter of 2010, after an only slightly city-debilitating blizzard, my friend Mike and I decided the snow might shut people in, allowing us a vacant Guggenheim, perfect for exploring Tino Sehgal’s much-hyped “This Progress” in relative peace. Seizing a gift of time and space rarely granted by New York, we met in front of the museum in the afternoon and found it satisfyingly empty. A notorious provocateur, I made Mike agree to one concession — our first ascent would be completely earnest, we would respond with our initial impulses, being true to ourselves and the work, quelling any childlike desires to subvert with shock-value. Almost three years later, what I remember more than the artist-constructed conversations, what I recall as if it happened yesterday, was a complete accident: at the height of our experience we were arguing with Gabriel Byrne over the rules of the artwork.
While descending the spiral — after an invigorating series of questions and answers covering love, death, and Nazis, and preparing for a second inflammatory attempt that would probably include more Nazis — we paused to peer into the rotunda at the couple dry humping in slow motion on the museum floor. To our right I saw a similarly fascinated man snapping photos with his blackberry. Exceedingly conditioned from the start to Sehgal’s desire that there be “No Pictures!,” and unable to resist the urge to police people behaving badly, I poked Mike, who chided: “No Pictures!” The stranger gaped at Mike, I gaped at the stranger, and as the boys began jousting with their penises, I realized he wasn’t a stranger, he was Gabriel Byrne. After a fun spar, and as his do-you-know-who-you’re-talking-to grimace transformed into a you-either-don’t-know-who-you’re-talking-to-or-you-just-don’t-give-a-damn grin, Byrne waved goodbye and sauntered down ahead of us.
About twenty minutes later, during a second jokey and lifeless ascent, we saw him again, well, he saw us. From out of nowhere came a jovial bark — “No Pictures!” And there he was, our good friend Gabriel Byrne, now fitted with a female companion in need of amusement, giving us a wink and a nod, as if in the context of this artwork we were the celebrities to be recognized. The fact I remember this exchange more vividly than anything Sehgal intended (though I certainly enjoyed the contrast of talking to the very old moments after the very young), may mean I’m a star-fuck more concerned with fame and fortune than truth and beauty, but I think it’s more interesting than that. I think the encounter was unusual for everyone because it demonstrated how such a firmly rooted hierarchical space can be democratized rather simply — by changing how people relate to one another.
Unable to know what Byrne felt, I can only go with my own experience. In the transformed space of the museum I was relieved of the roles society requires I traffic in — I felt free of the need to project a personality, free of the competitive drive to compare myself to the inevitably more successful, more beautiful, more worldly woman just ahead. Knowing I couldn’t take my liberation when I left, sensing I’d only get out of the situation what I gave to it, I maximized my enjoyment and the pleasure of those around me. Together we laughed, we danced, we provoked strangers. We followed for ourselves the moments we valued.
Before reading Lauren Collins’s New Yorker profile, I may have begrudgingly admitted there’s genius in what Sehgal does, but like any artist who’s struck gold and isn’t quite sure how, he undermines the power of his discoveries talking about his process. Sounding naive and excessively eccentric he says, “I have this belief that if you have an idea, and you have to write it down to remember it, then it can’t be a great idea.” Tino, my man, this is a foolish belief. Writing is a conversation you have with yourself, the initial spark can lead anywhere, a simple idea can fuel more complex ones. Like the conversations in your work you’re only hurting yourself when you hold back, so not writing things down is actually the bad idea. But, hallelujah, confessions like these give the rest of us hope — that just because we don’t know what we’re doing, or why people respond to our work, doesn’t mean we stop trying. Because even if Sehgal mistakenly thinks he has redefined the goal of art to be about the “transformation of actions rather than things” — psst!, this is what all art has ever been about, think folklore, music for dancing, propaganda, architecture — he’s reminding us that the most basic way to transform a person is with another person, with their attention and care.
By constructing situations where performers in street clothes exchange stories with patrons, Sehgal creates a space that momentarily relieves us of the power dynamics that dominate our capital driven lives. In the constructed micro-democracy of Sehgal’s Guggenheim we’re all the maker, the muse, and the audience — no one person’s attention is worth more than any other’s, no one’s work is held in higher esteem just because it happens in the public eye, no one is celebrated or maybe it’s that we’re all celebrated. In “This Progress” a person is just a person with or without a self-defined purpose for that moment, and if they are measured by any standard it is their ability to be fully present, receiving and engaging someone else. Now, I may be the one to sound naive here, but that goal — to be fully present for others — is a value around which anyone can add meaning to their life.
Contemplating “This Progress” today, I understand it’s not the protected space of Sehgal’s spectacle that is the illusion, on the contrary, it’s our everyday delusion that money buys significance that is the lie. Nevermind that it’s just not true — how do we challenge the misconception? Art is one means of transformation, as Sehgal notes, when it is aimed at a practice not a profit.
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh talks about the deep meaning that arises when we commit to artistic activity: “By producing works of art, you contribute to the work of the collective awakening of our people…. Nothing can be compared with that kind of joy, knowing that your life on Earth is beautiful and is helpful.” When a bunch of oversized neon toy tulips, “credited” (because he seldom touches the materials) to Con Artist Jeff Koons, sells for a record sum of $33.68 million at Christie’s (even though “five unique [read: other] versions” of the same sculpture exist) what activities are we valuing as artistic? When the story involves “guaranteed reserve prices,” “consignors,” and “third party default owners,” it sounds like bolstering assets and hedging bets, not art. I have no problem with Jeff Koons wasting his life, I have a problem when his corporate model of production and consumption (that takes more than it gives) confuses what is beautiful and helpful to the real world. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter aren’t much better because they distort the narrative of “support” — they reward artists prior to earned achievement, leave them indebted with their time (precious time they could use practicing), and feed a percent of profits to the The Very Hungry Amazon Monster. We don’t need websites to invest in one another. And we don’t need to follow the money trail back very far to identify the commodities that make these sites work — our attention and care.
The lesson for me, to bring this back to jousting with Gabriel Byrne at Tino Sehgal, is that fame and fortune only have power when they matter to us. And we can choose to care about more interesting things — affection, insight, nourishment, craft. We can celebrate work that is beautiful and helpful to a common good. If our attention is what websites desperately want to capture and commodify, it must be pretty powerful. Can we take a cue from Tino and reclaim our eyes, ears, minds, and hearts from our phones, pods, pads, and screens (and from the corporations that profit from our pilfered personal data), and start giving our most valuable asset — our empowering, transformative, engaged attention — to other human beings.
—Katie, January 2, 2013
What I’ve been reading + watching that made me write this:
Handmaking America, by Bill Ivey (Counterpoint, 2012); watch his thrilling PBS interviews: here and here. (Pull quote: “Personal creative practice, as a pathway to a quality of life, is an avenue through which the arts can re-establish a sense of value and importance to society.”)
Amour, a film by Michael Haneke
“The Question Artist,” by Lauren Collins, The New Yorker (August 6, 2012), with “Report on the Construction of Situations,” by Guy Debord (1957).
“The Laugh of the Medusa,” by Hélène Cixous (1975).
“Art & Money: Making Ends Meet While Flourishing as an Artist,” by Ela Thier (2012).
Illicit photo from this gal’s flickr.