PRINT October 2013


the Manchester International Festival

View of Manchester International Festival, Mayfield Depot, Manchester, UK, 2013.

SINCE ITS INCEPTION IN 2007, the Manchester Inter­national Festival has leaned heavily on curator Hans Ulrich Obrist for advice on the portion of its programming devoted to visual art, which the biennial always features alongside big-name acts from pop and theater (this year’s lineup included Kenneth Branagh, in Macbeth; Massive Attack; and the xx). Obrist, for his part, seems to have continually used the festival to rethink the relationship between performance and visual art. In 2007, he and Philippe Parreno staged the first iteration of “Il Tempo del Postino,” an attempt to reinvent the typical format of a group exhibition by transforming it into a time-based theatrical show; the results were hit-and-miss, as visual artists tend to be great at spatial organization, but not so expert at handling duration. In 2011, Obrist and Klaus Biesenbach staged “11 Rooms,” a more successful integration of group exhibition and performance: In each gallery there was a continuous, instruction-based performance by one of eleven artists, including Joan Jonas, Roman Ondák, and Simon Fujiwara.

This year, Obrist seems to have untied the knot between performance and the visual arts by splitting them into separate venues. A dance and performance program curated by Obrist, together with Alex Poots, Tino Sehgal and the latter’s producer, Asad Raza, occupied a massive, grubby former warehouse called the Mayfield Depot; while “Do It 2013,” the latest iteration of Obrist’s own instruction-based exhibition, was housed in Manchester Art Gallery. Currently on its twentieth-anniversary tour courtesy of Independent Curators International, “Do It 2013” was presumably chosen to fulfill the role of starry complement to the rest of the festival’s program, since it includes a roll call of major names from the last half century.

Over at the Mayfield Depot, a shambolic, improvisatory, squat aesthetic prevailed: dust, graffiti, no running water. This atmosphere seemed to point to a desire to recapture the original urgent spirit of performance art, which has arguably been lost in the widespread move to incorporate this work within museums. A rolling program of contemporary dance and performance, loosely focused on social relations, centered on video footage of Dan Graham’s Past Future Split Attention, 1972—reenacted here for the first time and presented as a legitimizing precursor to the contemporary works on display. These included Sehgal’s own blacked-out boot camp for performance wannabes, This Variation, 2012, and a number of pieces by youngsters who were added last-minute by Raza—all of them former Sehgal performers now trying to make it on their own (Frank Willens, Isabel Lewis). Yet Graham seemed an uneasy choice of interlocutor; in his work, two young men are asked to speak in turns, one predicting what will happen to the other, one reporting what has just happened. Graham’s instructions undermine all sense of presence and immediacy with a mind-bending temporal dislocation that even the performers find hard to navigate. By contrast, Sehgal’s work (as well as that of his protégés) seems insistent upon a hyperactive present: in the case of This Variation, plunging viewers into darkness while surrounding them with stomping, chanting, and gyrating youth.

A more distracted temporality pervaded Mårten Spångberg’s sprawling and glittery four-hour Epic, 2012, in which eight dancers, in a range of extravagantly hipsterized clothing combinations, moved slowly around a vividly arranged scatter installation—a cross between Sylvie Fleury, Isa Genzken, and an American Apparel ad. Despite the chaotic energy of their surroundings, the performers were languid to the point of stasis, as if baiting the audience to text, drink, and even chat throughout the duration of the piece. Anticipating our dissipated attention, Spångberg deployed regular bursts of blaring pop, from Rihanna to Lenny Kravitz, to regain our fluctuating focus. Although Epic is purportedly a tirade against spectacle and neoliberalism, it ultimately came across as an opaque excursus on the new world order of global consumerism (American flags, Chinese vases, Thai boxing shorts, branded T-shirts, etc.)—less critical in mood than ironically infatuated with kitsch, cool, and youth.

One gratifying inclusion in the Depot’s program was the work of female choreographers who are well known on the European circuit but rarely perform in Anglo-American contexts: Paris-based Dane Mette Ingvartsen and Berlin-based Hungarian Eszter Salamon. Ingvartsen presented Evaporated Landscapes, 2009 (an early iteration of her long-term Artificial Nature project), a half-hour son et lumière of fog machines, foam, dry ice, and bubbles. Although she describes the work as an attempt to create choreography that requires no human performers, it was ultimately hard to distinguish between the act of eliminating the performer and that of reducing dance to meticulously scored special effects.

Salamon’s Dance for Nothing, 2010, by contrast, was more coolly rigorous. She set herself the challenge of dancing and speaking simultaneously, reciting Cage’s 1949 Lecture on Nothing while performing her own choreography, turning a mediation of Cage’s voice from the past into the sound track of a solo dance in the present. Salamon’s work was indebted to Cagean chance procedures, then, but it also rebooted them for a new choreographic context—centered on a forty-something female body generating its own fluid vocabulary of movement—that, refreshingly, owed nothing to the Cunningham tradition. With its multiple temporalities (Cage in 1949, ventriloquized by Salamon in 2013), this was the one performance at the Depot that had any degree of dialogue with Dan Graham, as well as with the instruction-based works in “Do It 2013.”

Over at Manchester Art Gallery, the exhibition featured pieces by 150 international artists, installed over several floors and occasionally inserted into the permanent collection. It’s worth recalling here that in its Fluxus iteration (and in Dada precursors), instruction-based art was a radical approach to composition that reduced authorial presence while demoting the importance of physical realization. Yet intentionality remained intact, and the classics of the genre tend to be those that have a tightly delimited score within which variations take place, ensuring that the work’s core meaning remains consistent. A central question for “Do It 2013,” therefore, is whether this format can be translated from an ephemeral, performative mode to a conventional exhibition where the paradigm is more akin to that of sculpture. Can a set of published instructions and an online archive adequately make the leap to gallery space?

In Manchester, the instructions were carried out largely by curators, but also by a handful of artists, including Richard Wentworth. Obrist tried to avoid the paradoxes of participatory art by removing the participant (the works are presented as faits accomplis), but left in its place the paradox of instruction-based art, which is that it often best exists in the mind alone. Many works seemed to have been phoned in, with the result that once-interesting gestures were emptied out and oversimplified. When I realized that the sharp, sickly smell in the gallery was a Thai curry being cooked up by aproned volunteers, my heart sank. This may well be the fate of Rirkrit Tiravanija’s work in years to come: administered sociability. Christian Boltanski’s contribution wasn’t much better, even if he was one of the original initiators of “Do It” in 1993: His proposal—that an official school photograph of every child in a given class at the school nearest to Manchester Art Gallery be taken and displayed in a grid on the wall—was Boltanski by proxy, sapped of the melancholic aura that characterizes his own photo installations. Authorship isn’t just a question of concept; it’s also a matter of sensibility in execution.

The few memorable works were those by artists who have built their careers around this genre and so are masters of balancing the tricky ratio of instruction to participation. It was a pleasure to step into Franz Erhard Walther’s maroon belt for two people, Time Sculpture, 2012, feeling the fabric tense as you both leaned back and let your weight enter into balance. And Yoko Ono’s biennial staple Wish Piece, 1996, always manages to lure you in: Viewers are invited to write down a wish on a pale-pink luggage tag and attach it to one of the branches of a slim tree. Comments ranged from the cynically truthful (“I wish this show was better”) to the painfully emotional (“I wish my daughter would talk to me”).

One room of Manchester Art Gallery was dedicated to homages—instructions by artists who had died since “Do It” was initiated, carried out by artists identified by the curators as having a sympathetic relationship to their work. Unusual pairings made this room immediately more interesting, although the results were patchy, especially in the attempt to include local Brits: There wasn’t much Sarah Lucas in her Franz West passstück, while Michael Craig-Martin’s hot-pink riff on a Sol LeWitt wall drawing was a pleasingly cheeky one-liner. Sometimes the most faithful interpretations of the simplest instructions were strikingly poignant, such as Mladen Stilinović’s addition of question marks to posters in Zagreb, Croatia (closely following instructions by Július Koller). Suzanne Lacy, by contrast, produced an equally engaging work by diverting wildly from her former teacher Allan Kaprow, politicizing his “cleaning instructions” with an iPad listing current cleaning jobs available in Manchester.

Homages aside, the main achievement of “Do It 2013” was to allow the full range of instruction-based art to come into focus. At one end of this spectrum, there are the laborious efforts of artists unused to working in this medium, who suffocate a passable idea (and the viewer’s attention) in a mountain of pompous text. At the other end, there are the instructions so short and pithy that their realization adds little to our experience. In both instances, a dry and bureaucratic language tends to prevail. Very few artists seemed to mess creatively with the recipe; one notable exception was Ryan Trecartin, whose instructions (to make a portrait of his collaborator Lizzie Fitch) read like a transcript of a daytime-television fashion shoot (“With Lizzie’s Over All Skin let’s give her a TON of customized tan lines and Tan Gradients”). The resulting image, by photographer Charlie Engman, was a ghostly knockoff of Trecartin’s W magazine photographs, the artistic equivalent of a fake Fendi bag—immediately identifiable, but with something inscrutably amiss.

Incarnated as a flesh-and-blood exhibition, “Do It” is caught in a double bind: If the point is that anyone can “do it” (but probably won’t), why go to the lengths of making a show and, moreover, having the instructions carried out by well-known artists? And if the show’s democratic rhetoric is just a facade—the elitist alternative to Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July’s “Learning to Love You More” (a comparable instruction-based online exhibition, but one where participants’ documentation was uploaded onto the website)—then why aren’t the results less pedestrian? Ultimately, this year’s decision to separate the performance program and visual art exhibition drew attention to the gulf that divides the live performance of scored work in a fully rigged black-box context from the exhibition of instruction-based art in a white cube. The rough-and-ready industrial sublime of Mayfield Depot forgave the erratic quality of the performances there; a clean white space, by contrast, seemed to exacerbate the limitations of instruction-based art, especially when presented en masse. Indeed, even the weakest works at the Mayfield Depot had an energy and an aesthetic worth experiencing, because they manifested a sensibility in their execution that—for better or worse—reinforced the overall meaning of the work, rather than outsourcing this central concern to the chance interpretations of middlemen.

Claire Bishop is a professor in the Ph.D. program in art history at CUNY Graduate Center, New York.