the secular temple
by Courtney Bender
Interviewer: Is this just a fun fair prank, or is there something more serious going on here?”
Tino Sehgal: Seriously, I don’t know. I think you’d have to make like a survey or something like that. One of the reasons there are many people here today, sorry to disappoint you, is that it is President’s Weekend. But people have been coming. I think that people like to be addressed. I think that visual art, or the museum in general, has been a social segregator, as people like Pierre Bourdieu have pointed out. And it’s difficult to understand—these codes of painting or something. And so somebody just addressing you and saying what do you think, giving you that kind of recognition, saying, always implying that you are important, what you think is important—I think that is relieving to people in such a secular temple like this one.
The Tino Sehgal installation at the Guggenheim closed on 10 March 2010, and many of the interpreters were at a bar on Third Avenue. Drinking had been going on in earnest since the beginning but as usual I had not joined in. My ready made excuse was my son Solomon. He needed to go home. Despite his participation in the installation he was only 11, and couldn’t yet be expected to take the crosstown bus home in the dark alone, much less to join the adult interpreters at a bar. So instead I was sitting on my couch searching the Internet for commentary on the piece. Over the last few months, I’d found multiple written descriptions of Sehgal’s “This Progress.” All described its simple conceit and structure; most also admitted that describing the installation failed to capture what had made it compelling—or repelling. “Something” was happening, at least some of the time, when people talked with each other in intimate groups on the ramps of the Guggenheim Museum. But what was it, exactly? Why was it so difficult to describe? During the six weeks that I had been walking and talking with strangers on the ramps of the Guggenheim I had given quite a lot of thought to the problems of conveying what was happening in the piece. Clearly I was not the only one who was caught up by the problem of giving words to what happened. To give words to the words that had been spoken. How do you do that? But it still perplexed me. Why did I—and and so many others—seem to lack a language to describe what happened without sounding pretentious or pathetic, or lapsing into mystical tones.
Several weeks into the installation I had stopped taking notes after each one of the interactions I had with strangers. Reading them over each night, I’d decided that keeping track of words or topics was not that interesting. By then I’d accepted that although the piece was about words, it really wasn’t about what we said. But on the last day I decided it was time to make notes again, just in case I changed my mind. After all, there was no other documentation that I’d be able to access in the future. So, with opportunity slipping away, I jotted notes after talking with strangers about eminent domain, death and regeneration, positive thinking, Japanese Buddhist temples, archaeology, British anarchy, representational democracy. These were longer conversations than those earlier in the show, mostly because Tino and Asad slowed us down as we walked up the ramps. Their subtle, silent hand semaphores directed the interpreters to stop, slow down, but keep talking—to wait in other words until an older interpreter could position herself at the far side of the small opening between a wall and the edge of the ramp.
Many of the interpreters had noted with irony that the busier the museum, the more interest in the show, the slower the piece, the fewer who could participate.
With an hour left before the installation closed for good, I passed through the keyhole doorway into the Guggenheim’s reading room. Tino was Skyping on a laptop. The laptop was perched on the top of his son’s stroller. It was the only clean surface in what had become the dark, smelly womb of the piece for all the adult interpreters. Amid the empty coffee cups and stale sandwiches and jars of dried fruit and nuts emerged a site of conversations about careers and kids and travel and literature and yoga that continued over days. The inverse of the ramps, the negative space of “This Progress.” It had to be talk, but talk of a different kind. For some, this talk was nourishing. Some wondered if the real progress of Sehgal’s concept was taking place in this dirty smelly room. We were the real art. Our conversation was the real conceit.
On the laptop, I could see a well-dressed woman standing in an office. Behind her, a man in a well-cut suit sat at another desk, typing—the cut of his suit and the office furniture suggested that they were beaming in from some European cosmopole. She was doing something that looked like a jumping jack. Then Tino made a similar motion. I sat down next to Dave, who asked Maureen—an interpreter who had been in several of Tino’s projects—what piece they were doing. “Is it ‘This is So Contemporary?’” Maureen didn’t hear Dave—or at least she didn’t look up from her iPhone. She didn’t even pay attention to Tino’s gyrations. Dave shrugged in the silence. I offered, with a tone of authority, “Oh no, ‘This is So Contemporary’ is not jumping jacks—it’s swinging arms.” “Oh yeah?” Dave said, impressed. I shook my head and admitted that I didn’t really know at all. Maybe it was something new. There being no video or authoritative documented written description of any of Tino’s pieces, we had no idea what they were doing. Maybe they were only calisthenics. Dave and I laughed, tired and punchy. Anna walked in and announced to no one in particular that the performers of “Kiss” (Tino’s kinetic sculpture on view in the atrium) were high for this last shift. Ecstasy. Dave and I laughed some more, and went out to watch. Tino kept jumping.
A few hours later, not drinking, sitting on the couch by myself, I wondered if I could find a video of “This is So Contemporary” on the web. I brazenly typed Tino’s name into the Youtube search box. It would be a futile act, I knew, and I was right. Tino’s agent had assiduously kept every video and image of every one of his works from the web. Part of the agreement of buying his work or having it “on loan” was that it would not be documented with video, camera, blueprint, written word, or even written contract: when a museum bought a Tino Sehgal, the agreements were oral. The money, of course, was real. This was a source of unending fascination. Everyone seemed to have something to say about it. And then, early in the run of “This Progress” the New York Times ran an ebullient review of the show and included a photograph of Tino’s “Kiss.” That day, Tino stayed off the ramps. He commandeered the tiny reading desk in the reading room and called and texted and typed all the powers to strike the photograph from the record. That day, the mood in the womb was hushed, worried. We realized we didn’t know Tino that well.
On the evening of March 10, while everyone was out drinking and celebrating, and I was looking for “This is So Contemporary” I discovered that someone had posted a video of “This Progress.” I clicked with excitement knowing I could only watch it a few times before it disappeared. I watched it over and over. Little edges of sadness that had nagged at the edge of my consciousness on many days at the Guggenheim started to take firmer shape as I watched. Ah, how intimately familiar the pace of the hand-held camera, taking in the calm ballet of not-quite colliding bodies moving up the ramps, first past the opening to the permanent collection on the second floor, past the reading room, past the cut opening in the wall, past the planter on the fourth floor, up and up to the seventh floor, where the sun streamed in brilliantly through Frank Lloyd Wright’s magisterial clear glass ceiling. The glass ceiling that made the interior of the Guggenheim so unusually, unexpectedly bright and glowing—and which would be covered up the night after Tino’s show closed. But ah—how intimately familiar the inflections of the transient conversations caught on tape, especially the repetition of that lifting of tone, the one that that marks less a question than a query, a hope for a response that takes you somewhere.
In the weeks before the exhibit opened, while the interpreters were still practicing our moves, Tino gathered us in the reading room and told us what we were doing. Museums were places that addressed people, but that demanded no speaking back. Much like our over-mediated society, he said, the speech and thought of citizens, much like art observers, was not expected or required. Tino was worried about these mute public spaces, and wanted museums to be more participatory. I listened, with skepticism, even though just an hour before I had also taken note of the dull tired trudge of the people walking up the ramps, carrying their winter coats, barely pausing to look at the Kandinskys. It was a very expensive stroll up a ramp, I thought to myself, if one did not even bother to pause and look at the things. Even after this, I remained skeptical of Tino’s vision. Yes, there were codes of painting. But there were also codes of conversation. Weren’t we merely replacing one set of codes with another? After all, the interpreters were never asked to practice what we said. We had been chosen because we knew how to do our job already.
Our task in the piece was to interrupt an ongoing conversation by interjecting a new starting point, talking with that stranger for a few minutes as we walked, and then surreptitiously slip away from this second conversation before it had properly ended. We disappeared through a doorway and ran down two sets of stairs, to begin the loop again. Everything in the rotunda of the Guggenheim is designed: the patches in the floor and the signage are both intentional and unique. Painters come every morning to cover the last day’s smudges. By contrast the stairs that we disappeared into were undistinguished and indistinguishable. They could be anywhere, an afterthought. It was in that space, between the floors and between conversations, where I would scribble notes, and where I would on occasion feel a nagging sadness competing with my skepticism. Neither feeling could last long, however: out in the rotunda I was easily distracted by the light pouring in through the skylight and all the chatter.
After the first busy weekend, on a Wednesday afternoon I was walking down those nondescript stairs and met Asad, Tino’s friend who had originally convinced me to sign up, over a conversation about trains and focus groups and Adorno and strangers. Asad mentioned that a mutual friend had been to visit the piece earlier in the day. Had he liked it? I asked. Asad said that he had, adding that it was “probably for the best” that our friend had decided not to be an interpreter after all. I knew immediately what Asad meant by this, and felt the sting of my skepticism resonate strongly. “That’s not fair, he’s a very nice man,” I responded quickly. Thinking of my friend, his penchant for verbal pugilism, his overt impatience with chatter that merely rehearses the well-grooved paths that pass as thinking, that sting felt sharper. Why was I so patient with the people I met? So patient with their awful, boring comments? What would happen if I were to say to a museum visitor, “you really know nothing about that, you know…” Who were these people, all those people in the museum, in the subway, in the focus group, in the train, with whom we can talk without feeling discomfort? Or without feeling much of anything at all?
In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo.
Not everything is without feeling. Wealthy women pushing strollers or carrying Prada bags know exactly how to push the buttons of an unidentified college professor of similar age. As do graying European travelers who refused to believe that interpreters were more than actors, and could opine on law, Freud, Seneca.
And then, late on a Saturday I ask a couple from Brooklyn if they have ever been to Ocean Grove, New Jersey, the Methodist town where leisure was meant to be holy, even godly: no alcohol, just church and waves. I ask them, have you ever thought about how in our society leisure is supposed to be uplifting in some way? We’re to derive some edification from it? They look at me curiously, and with some pity. What I have said seems like a joke to them. The man offers, no, it has never occurred to him. That’s not anything they’ve ever encountered, she adds. I say to the woman, well I think about it; my children’s school says they are not supposed to watch more than an hour of television or videogames a day, that there are other things to do. The man laughs. Really? They say that? The mother has a daughter, and she says to him that she has, indeed, heard the teachers say that. “They say no more than two hours a day.” She then turns to me, “But she does play more hours a day than that, especially in the winter. It’s cold and dark—and I don’t want her to go out and play when it is just boys in the streets. In Brooklyn, the boys play outside, the girls stay in.” Her husband is still shaking his head, thinking about this school rule. He is Dominican, he offers. “I didn’t grow up with these things, where I grew up, we didn’t have TV. So I just let her do what she wants—I don’t know the rules.” I offer that I grew up in the countryside, and we just ran around and did whatever we wanted all the time. Out and running around, no adult supervision. The husband is suddenly interested again. “Ah, that’s how I grew up. No one telling me what to do all the time, pestering. I think about my daughter, she’s always inside, always her mother and me and her brothers around.” I ask, “Do you think a lot about the differences in your growing up?” We are coming near the pass through. As I slip away I hear him answering with a note of worry, “I think how different she is growing up, from me. I think about it all the time.”
The video on YouTube is looping again. Now, I’m a bit teary, wishing I could go back to see the empty rotunda with the open glass ceiling one more time, or maybe find that Dominican couple. On the video, the layered voices of organ and soprano have kept me from reading the credits, but now I do—the video is by Lars Vilks. The name is familiar, but I can’t place it. I Google. Vilks, Swedish, is an artist who drew cartoons representing the Prophet Muhammad as a dog. These cartoons had led to a murderous plot against Vilks by a group that included a suburban Philadelphian woman nicknamed Jihad Jane, who was indicted in federal court on 9 March 2010. Jihad Jane’s brother, interviewed in the newspapers, said that he was as surprised as anybody that she was wrapped up in such business. For all he knew, she was “just like anyone else.” As probably was Vilks at the Guggenheim: just one more tall, gray artist/Swede/European, talking about this or that.
It was a strange feeling, looking at the video a last time, finding my pleasure tied up now with the disgust I felt toward Vilks. He had a thing for giving images to things that insisted on no images. Why? What was the irritant about the lack of image—secular or religious—that made him pursue it madly, destructively? If I had met Vilks on the ramps I could not have asked him that question directly. That was one of the rules. Instead, I was to ask a sideways question, like one of these: Do you know that the Amish think that a photograph takes a part of your soul? Do you think conversations have images? How do we remember things that we don’t have images for? Why does English have so few words to describe the way things taste? Does viewing a movie of your trip to Disneyland change the trip itself, or only the memory of it?
After hundreds of meaningless conversations prompted by questions like these, the desire for a question that gets closer to the bone—that does not operate on the level of our politeness, which runs so deep that we can consider every option, that displays our knowledge, that provides positions that we can inhabit–only intensifies. Maybe one of those sideways questions could hit the mark. But how would we know if it had, with so much else unresolved? The secular temple will not offer up its mysteries so readily, the skylight is closed. The procedures of “This Progress” create the sense of this desire but they cannot slake it. There must be more than this. There should be more options than these. But before we can ask the question we are on our way to another conversation. We are so contemporary.
Tino Sehgal says:
I think that now, in the twenty-first century, I feel like the question ‘what is progress’ is up for grabs again, because it’s not sustainable, this current model, it’s not going to be able to run forever. And now … in the west, we’ve satisfied so many material needs—on the costs of others, but we’ve satisfied them—and now more immaterial needs come. And we’re not going to satisfy those immaterial wants from material artifacts. And that’s where people like me are proposing a return to a more interpersonal, to a focus on interpersonal rather than a focus on transforming the earth.
So listen closely to how easily we move from subject to subject, how untraceable we expect these movements to be, how prepared we are for a lack of continuity between them, and how resigned we are to the claim that we do not need a trace, a line, a touch. How resigned we are—or strangely and wrongly hopeful—that we might be better off without whatever it is that transforms the earth, that leaves a trace, or can be held within our hand.