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Seghal’s work being performed at Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum, image courtesy aformofwarning.com
It was her disarming eye contact that brought me to tears. Or maybe it was her beautiful voice, rolling up and off the walls around me. She was wearing the uniform of a gallery attendant and she had her back to me now. When she turned, she looked me directly in the eyes and held steady. Her smile was sincere and she looked as though she was empathizing with how tired and disoriented I felt. Her voice was clear and measured when she stopped singing to state the title of the work. It sounded as if we were in the middle of a conversation, but we were total strangers and I hadn’t spoken a word. I was overcome with an inexplicable constellation of emotions. She was the first person to look me directly in the eyes for many days. And in some ways, it made sense. Of course someone might want to sing in such a beautiful space — muted natural light was filtering down from skylights above, pristine white walls set-off pastel masterpieces hanging throughout the room. But the words she sang unraveled any sense of normalcy, “This is propaganda…This is propaganda.”
I had come here specifically to experience the “situations” of artist Tino Seghal, whose work is being staged at the Stedelijk Museum for 365 days (through December 2015), but the encounter had moved me much more than I had expected.
Another visitor walked into the gallery. She turned to face the wall again and started singing the same phrase before turning back to address the new visitor directly with the title of the work. I stumbled into the next gallery.
Critics have called Seghal’s works “constructed situations.” Some have declared him an architect of interaction. Though highly designed, these exchanges also have the potential “to derail” at any moment depending on how the individuals engaged decide to navigate their “situation.”
I realized, with delight, that there were “triggers” to several of the works I experienced. They “began” either when a visitor simply arrived in a space or looked someone else directly in the eye. It had taken me a couple of attempts to discover where the “work” was in an adjacent space. Upon entering that gallery for the third time, I made eye contact with a “guard.” He immediately broke into an easy smile and started swinging his arms like propellers. Then, he stated the name of the work and came to a rest. The playfulness made me laugh.
These “triggers” left a lasting impression. Not only did they bring me into the present with an active awareness of the situation, they also made me realize how potent the act of initiating communication can be. They also left me wondering what might be squandered in habits of distraction. In these works, fleeting exchanges between strangers become highly charged, co-created and radically open. I couldn’t help but wonder how these practices might translate outside the gallery in public space.
When I left the museum and went back out on the street, I realized I was now actively looking for other eyes to meet. Who else might be part of this mysterious game? Who else might want to set a series of interactions into motion together? Who else, might just want to acknowledge, together, that we were both here — now?
No one else met my eyes. Instead, people went about their business, enjoying the sunny day.
This made me realize what a gift the work of the singing guard had been. Her intentional gaze was more than just a kind acknowledgment when I was feeling particularly jet-lagged. It wasn’t really about me at all, and yet it was. I had experienced her intentional address as art and I had participated in it. Leading up to the encounter was the reason I was in Amsterdam at all: I had just participated in a highly mediated event (“The Geologic Imagination” Sonic Acts 2015). It had been a wonderful experience. And though anyone in the world with internet access could have experienced the work/performance I had shared in real-time, after experiencing Seghal, I wondered how those tuning in remotely had experienced what I shared.
The days prior had certainly heightened the power of the very simple, analog, human to human experience that took place when I was paired briefly with another human in Seghal’s work. There had been an accountability for “consuming” and creating art — and our time — with one another. It demanded an aware presence of our fleeting relationality.
The Guggenheim Museum in New York described Seghal’s work in 2010:
“The fact that Sehgal’s works are produced in this way elicits a different kind of viewer: a visitor is no longer only a passive spectator, but one who bears a responsibility to shape and at times to even contribute to the actual realization of the piece. The work may ask visitors what they think, but, more importantly, it underscores an individual’s own agency in the museum environment. Regardless of whether they call for direct action or address the viewer in a more subtle sense, Sehgal’s works always evoke questions of responsibility within an interpersonal relationship.”
As we all navigate the uncertainties of the Anthropocene, how we conduct ourselves in the world, towards the unknown and especially towards one another, will be of great consequence. As we’ve written recently, we sense the need to practice how we might meet these uncertainties. Seghal’s work is a fantastic test case that offers inspiration. By drawing attention to how we conduct ourselves in the world and with one another, what might we make from here? And, how rare to experience art that doesn’t rely upon (or overtly critique) the massive networks of media, resources and systems that distract us from sensing the severity of what is now afoot?
“There’s something deeply optimistic in his work,” says Hans Ulrich Obrist of Sehgal, “It believes in change, in the production of reality, and that engagement produces consequences.”
How might we write/design/create new prompts for acknowledging the strangeness of our very strange moment? How might we co-exist together, within unscripted possibilities, and with a sense of sincerity?
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