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PRINT September 2008

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“Experiment Marathon Reykjavík”

INTRODUCING “EXPERIMENT MARATHON REYKJAVÍK,” a two-day event that took place this past May in the Hafnarhús, the Icelandic capital’s contemporary art museum, artist Olafur Eliasson described the occasion as “a parallel parliament that includes disagreement, a parallel Western democracy.” Presented to a near-capacity audience, this alternative legislature was about to become manifest in the form of thirty-six fifteen-minute-long presentations from artists, architects, scientists, and theoreticians. First, however, Eliasson’s collaborator in organizing the event, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, reframed this ostentatious description, emphasizing the project’s incursion into terra incognita. At a historical juncture when, Obrist ventured, “all kinds of radical gallery gestures have been tested,” symposia offered a comparatively unexplored format.

This is less and less the case, admittedly. As critic Catherine Wood recently pointed out (“Art of Authenticity,” Artforum, Summer 2008), visual-arts seminars—in tandem with their ever more frequent attachment to exhibitions and fairs—have become increasingly pervaded by an awareness of their own a priori codifications and, consequently, their theatrical nature. But compared with the consciously staged conference-as-performance that, as Wood noted, the “Our Literal Speed” conference this past spring in Karlsruhe, Germany, ended up becoming, “Experiment Marathon Reykjavík” greeted its audience with a complicated mix of self-consciousness, sincerity, and ingenuousness. We were here, apparently, to witness a potentially fractious pooling of knowledge; at the same time, the whole thing was also positioned as a groundbreaking form of art. Could these positions coexist?

The marathon concept has
 itself been tried several times 
before: Obrist hosted a twenty-
four-hour “Interview Marathon”
 with Rem Koolhaas in 2006,
 and he and Eliasson in October
 2007 organized the one previous “Experiment Marathon,” in
 London. (This Icelandic edition
 was, by turns, an exotic variant and a reprise of the London 
version, featuring some of the
 same practitioners and some of the same actions, with a smattering of novelties.) Whereas the “Interview Marathon” was devoted solely to interlocution, however, an “experiment”—as defined in practice by the events in Reykjavík and London—can apparently mean virtually anything the practitioner chooses to do during his or her Warholian quarter hour onstage, including having a straightforward conversation with an interviewer (as, for example, John Brockman, the American founder of Edge.org, chose to do). The investigative undertone was bolstered by an accompanying exhibition, however: Here, alongside a slightly sketchy assemblage of works by several of the artists giving presentations (among them Marina Abramović, Tony Conrad, Jonas Mekas, and Carolee Schneemann), was a diagrammatic representation of “Laboratorium,” the group show Obrist curated with Barbara Vanderlinden in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1999, which supplied a historical context for the emphasis on “experimentation.” The latter show, which mingled work and texts by artists and scientists, consciously compared the artist’s studio and the laboratory, suggesting the risk of failure in both.

This notion seemed germane to “Experiment Marathon Reykjavík”—not that one necessarily got much sense of that from the eight back-to-back “experiments” presented in the marathon’s first two and a half hours, which were more like illustrated lectures. Among them was a choreographed demonstration of hydroelectric process, using dancing humans as molecules and overseen by Icelandic Nobel laureate in physics Thorsteinn I. Sigfússon. Belgian artificial-intelligence professor Luc Steels then discussed how robots learn from each other, developing “perceptual repertoires” that model how the brain grows through sociability. And English astrophysicist Peter Coles briefed his listeners on, among other things, cosmic microwave background radiation and the Big Bang’s musical qualities. These presentations seemed something like a bluffer’s guide to science, replete with snippets of data that rewarded a mindset desirous of facts. If this was implicitly a blunt version of the paradigm that experiencing art makes one smarter, it could also be seen as a shift in the definition of what the art experience might be—learning by stealth, as one is unexpectedly confronted with bodies of information that would otherwise stay hidden within the pages on the science shelves of one’s local bookstore.

That the non-visual-arts invitees frequently approached their audience from an aesthetic perspective, favoring apprehensible modeling processes and arcane info on the properties of the visible, surely added to the accessibility of the topics discussed, and pointed to a neglected crossover between the scientific and humanist hemispheres. Still, as fascinating as some of these expositions were to neophyte audiences, there was a whiff of the lecture-as-readymade about them, and they traded on the exoticism of specialist knowledge, which can be dazzling to a layperson even when the information is not particularly high-level.

As the event progressed (with a day off for reflection in between the two daylong sessions), the emphasis shifted inexorably toward the visual arts and, frequently, toward the genuinely “experimental.” But even here, several artists touched directly or indirectly on matters scientific: Attila Csörgő, for instance, laboriously attempted to unfold an intricate, perforated paper model of a still life into a single large looping sheet (except that he ripped along the wrong dotted line and ended up with two parts); Tomás Saraceno showed a slide presentation detailing his Air-Port-City project that uses aerogels—solids that can be up to 99.8 percent air; and Carlos Cruz-Diez offered up images of his Op-ish stripe paintings, which, as the Venezuelan artist tirelessly pointed out, trick the eye into visualizing colors that are not actually there.

Elsewhere, as Eliasson had prognosticated, there was disagreement, and not only in such gossipy instances as the spat between Ruth Westheimer and Marina Abramović, who had been due to perform together until the former suddenly refused, delivering a talk alone (and leading Abramović to preface her own rescheduled performance with a videotaped harangue of the tiny pop sexologist known as Dr. Ruth, who by this time had left). More productively, Fia Backström’s densely associative slide lecture critiqued the very notion of “community”—with obvious resonances for the assembled audience. Freewheeling from a discussion of a corrupt religious community in Knutby, north of Stockholm, to a consideration of “purchasing cheap radicality” that was backed by images of panthers, Black Panthers, and the logo for Apple’s Panther operating system, the Swedish artist countermanded the increasing nonviability of older forms of community by limning a putative, theoretical space between the individual and the group.

And yet divergence, or even debate, did not seem to go much further than this, leading one to question what role the marathon was playing beyond a purely symbolic one—i.e., a way of refl ecting a small, privileged community of tastemakers back on itself. The audience appeared chary of making fools of themselves during the presentations by scientists, rarely venturing outside their safety zones and generally resisting asking questions. (Some of the most effective presentations on the second day targeted this very unease, such as those by Brian Eno, who led a cappella audience versions of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” and “Cotton Fields,” or Abramović, who got us to do breathing exercises before hugging our neighbors. While smacking of warm-up exercises on a team-building weekend away, these were perhaps precisely the kind of moves that could best break tensions in the room, instilling a sense of camaraderie through shared discomfort.)

Still, the marathon concept is capacious enough to allow for duds, as anyone who has attended its previous manifestations will know. And duds there were: Often, both here and in the earlier marathons, one received the impression of stars in their own particular firmaments being wheeled on to do a turn, their status—and that conferred on the event by their presence—being more important than what they delivered. Schneemann, for instance, in a collaborative piece with Erró, ushered a panicky white horse into the gallery with a nude woman astride it, and baldly instructed us to see this as “an image.” Mekas presented himself onstage as an untouchable elder statesman, raising a toast with his son and assistant “to elves and trolls” while a tender but finally inscrutable video of the artist shushing and banging a table unspooled above them. Such a work might be said to defend the irrational against scientific rationalism; mostly, though, it just seemed like a noisy, attentiongetting expostulation delivered by someone who was disinclined to participate in a discussion.

Or, put another way, here was vaudeville. In some ways, even while refusing to admit it, the entire marathon concept—with its art stars, and, here, quirky location and geeky scientists—is a piece of theater, one that strains to be taken seriously. “Experiment Marathon Reykjavík” finally suggested a quiet clash of intentions between its curators: Eliasson, a “Young Global Leader” who attends Davos, taken with the idea of para-parliaments and cross-disciplinary interchange, and stressing knowledge production; and Obrist, meanwhile, with an eye above all on art history (and a major gift for stunts). That is not to say that Obrist is entirely out of sync with the desire for an intellectual aristocracy interchanging ideas—he admitted in his onstage chat with Brockman that the latter’s notion of a “Third Culture,” or floating community of the smartest, was the model on which the marathon concept is built. But he is also a keen student of postwar exhibition practice, and one can easily imagine him conceiving the marathons otherwise, as part of a historical lineage devoted to expanding the parameters of what might be considered art, obviously including the art-and-life interfacing of Fluxus performance; Harald Szeemann’s landmark 1969 exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bern, “When Attitudes Become Form”; and the organized chaos and diversity of participants in Nam June Paik’s live global satellite linkups from Good Morning Mr. Orwell, 1984, onward.

If the “Experiment Marathon,” while grafting new wings onto such historical architectures, is also to be considered as a refinement of the “Interview Marathon” format, this is partly in its sensitization to the snares of ennui. In Reykjavík, one generally did not know what was coming next, just that if one did not like what was on offer, a different diversion would be along shortly. More than this, though, there is an issue of reception in play—namely, that the idea of apprehending any of the marathons as a totality was quite possibly never part of the plan. If there was a single takeaway image from these two days, it was not of any particular event on the stage but of Obrist sitting in the front row, fiddling with his BlackBerry almost ceaselessly and only occasionally snapped to attention by the events transpiring in front of him. Noting such behavior, one might conceptualize the show through his inattention: as a capacious bazaar of discrete informational packages in which one was invited to browse. Apparently putting navigation before legislation, the curator—a famous filterer—began to look like an embodiment of how one might consume such a networked event without being sunk by its surplus: fragmentarily, according to the workings of curiosity and taste, and with one eye firmly fixed on the curatorial continuum.

Martin Herbert is a writer based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK.