Double Play

Nikki Columbus on “Audience Experiments” at MoMA

New York

Left: Mobile Academy director Hannah Hurtzig and artist David Levine. (Photo: Nikki Columbus) Right: Artist Andrea Fraser. (Photo: Paula Court)

IN APRIL, the Kitchen presented The Juvenal Players by Pablo Helguera, which theatricalized a panel discussion between a curator, a collector, a critic, an artist, and an arts administrator. Helguera, an artist and the Museum of Modern Art’s director of adult and academic programs, has written extensively on performance, pedagogy, and art-world etiquette (see The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style), even once complaining: “In my role as programmer, I have frequently been frustrated by the low or nonexistent public-speaking skills of those who lecture and participate in academic discussions.” He clearly relished the chance to create a full cast of panelists speaking eloquently and behaving badly.

It was therefore with some anticipation that I attended a recent forum organized by Helguera, “Audience Experiments: Contemporary Art in the Age of Spectacle,” held at MoMA on May 18. The program was structured in three “acts”: a presentation by artist Andrea Fraser; a roundtable featuring theater and performance practitioners, curator RoseLee Goldberg, and UC Berkeley professor Shannon Jackson; and a performance by artist David Levine. Would the participants turn on one another and reveal their deepest, darkest secrets? Or this time, given the program’s title, would the audience take the lead?

The opening salvo was fired by Fraser, who, after expressing surprise that she had been invited, launched into a critique of participatory and interactive artwork, arguing that it is often a “profoundly narcissistic form of generosity” that bolsters privatization by suggesting that nonprofits are better able to provide for some social functions. Fraser concluded, and the audience clapped—at which point she thanked herself and began to introduce the “next” speaker, whose role she also enacted. In fact, her bracing remarks had been the preface to Official Welcome, a 2001 work that collages introductions and keynotes by various art-world types . . . as well as an intermittent “striptease” (at which point Fraser announces she’s “an object in an artwork”).

Although advertised as a roundtable, Act Two turned out to be more a series of largely unrelated presentations. Hannah Hurtzig, the Berlin-based director of the Mobile Academy, discussed her Blackmarket for Useful Knowledge and Non-Knowledge, a large-scale installation featuring as many as one hundred “experts” who can be booked for simultaneous half-hour one-on-one conversations by audience members—who are, in turn, watched and listened to by the spectators surrounding them. The interactions in this “agora,” as Hurtzig called it, tend to differ from place to place. “In Warsaw,” she gave by example, “where people are more knowledgeable about parallel economies, as soon as they found out that they can bribe the hostesses, the whole thing transformed into an auction.” A US iteration has yet to be commissioned (Creative Time and Lincoln Center Festival, take note), although the director’s ultimate dream might be hard to finance: “We would like to do it in a stadium. We call it—you won’t like this—the Leni Riefenstahl version.”

Left: Performa founder RoseLee Goldberg. Right: A view of the panel. (Photos: Paula Court)

New Yorkers Charlie Todd, the founder of Improv Everywhere, and Bill Wasik, the inventor of the flash mob, represented more popular and public approaches. The pranklike nature of Todd’s “scenes of chaos and joy in public places” (such as the self-explanatory No Pants! Subway Ride) and their Candid Camera–style video documentation might set them apart from performance art, but some of the actions themselves did not seem far removed from, say, Christian Jankowski’s Rooftop Routine—a Performa 07 commission (presented earlier in the night by Goldberg) in which strangers hula-hooped atop buildings. Wasik came to his project from a different angle, as he described how an interest in viral e-mails and social networks led him to create the first flash mobs in 2003 as “contentless” events in which “the scene constitutes the work.” Although the phenomenon and even the term itself quickly grew beyond the initial concept, Wasik considered the flash mob to be “implicitly political,” introducing the excitement of collective action in a country that faces ever-shrinking public space. These early flash mobs were never documented or YouTubed, as they were intended to disperse and disappear as quickly and mysteriously as they had formed.

Jackson, the final panelist, addressed the differences and overlaps between the “interstitial” practices of the various artists and speakers. She argued that context affects expectations: The same act changes according to whether it’s placed in a theater or in a museum. She also proposed that our reception of this work depends on our own background, be it theater, visual arts, dance, or so on. “One person might think about how Andrea’s performance addressed the institutional site that we’re in today,” Jackson suggested, “while somebody else might say, ‘What do you think about her acting?’ ” She rephrased: Do you watch Andrea Fraser and think about the work of Hans Haacke, or do you think of Anna Deavere Smith?

All told, it was an engaging evening but a long one, and thus when Helguera asked the audience for questions, few were forthcoming. Hurtzig seized the moment to commence an animated protest of the symposium’s format: “It’s not interesting having people on a panel talking to you. It’s done. There are other possibilities.” She proposed that people be allowed to exit the space and return freely, and to interrupt as they see fit. “There are so many ways to think about what sharing knowledge means, so that you really produce it in the moment when we meet,” she continued. “Because this is not a live event.” The outburst received enthusiastic applause and, more significantly, revived the audience. When Helguera attempted to end the Q&A and move on to the third section of the evening, Levine’s performance, the artist wouldn’t have it. “Although I make work about performance, I don’t generally perform,” Levine explained. “Now that the room seems to be coalescing, it would be totally tragic to stop it.”

But Levine’s fundamental question to those seated in the auditorium—“You all came to a panel on audience experiments. So let me ask you: Why experiment with audiences?”—went unanswered. The audience, it seemed, were quite content to stay as they were. Indeed, the most passionate statement of the night came from a MoMA intern: “I realize that there is an intractable irony in this,” the woman began, “but I actually worry about the privileging of what the audience thinks. I came here to be an audience member, not to participate.” Afterward, as the crowd milled about, everyone agreed that the “failed panel discussion”—as Queens Museum director Tom Finkelpearl termed it—had been a success. Hurtzig’s outburst and Levine’s takeover as moderator had saved the evening, even if they didn’t quite manage to turn “two rooms into one,” as Levine had hoped.