Scores for Installations: Conversation with Robert Fleck

Posted on March 17, 2013

The debut exhibition of do it at Kunsthalle Ritter Klagenfurt, 1994. © rittergallery, Klagenfurt, Austria

Scores for Installations: Conversation with Robert Fleck (1996)

ROBERT FLECK: It was about 2 years ago that the project do it was started. How did the idea arise to mount an exhibition of only written descriptions of artists’ works to be carried out by arbitrary co-workers in the given museum?

HANS ULRICH OBRIST: The starting point was a coffeehouse discussion among Bertrand Lavier, Christian Boltanski, and me. Lavier as well as Boltanski talked that evening about operational instruction[s]. Lavier has been interested in the idea of the “translation” for years. There are his works from the ’70s, in which he had a text presenting operational instruction[s] for a project translated from one language to another. Each time the translation was realized, there arose a totally different object. As the language mutates in the translation, so the artworks also mutate. Christian Boltanski is frequently concerned with the idea of the “score” in the sense of music: an installation is like an opera or a musical piece, of which there is a premiere and then however many performances and actualizations. As scores, installations are carried out by others with the corresponding freedoms of interpretation. From that arose the do it-idea: an exhibition from “do-it-yourself” descriptions, from operational instructions by the artists. The interest in such a viral form can be found in all conceivable artistic and scientific contexts.

FLECK: An exhibition from faxed “do-it-yourself” instructions of the artists, however, needs an institution to become more broadly relevant.

OBRIST: In fall 1994 the AfAA (Association francaise d’Action Artistique), a department of the French Foreign Ministry, mailed the twelve operational instructions of the original version of do it as a diplomatic dispatch to each country with which France entertained diplomatic relations. Twelve artists were involved in this original version: Christian Boltanski, Bertrand Lavier, Maria Eichhorn, Hans-Peter Feldman, Paul-Armand Gette, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Fabrice Hybert, Ilya Kabakov, Mike Kelley, Alison Knowles, Jean-Jacques Rullier, and Rirkrit Tiravanija.

FLECK: Does the sending-out of construction directions for artworks to dozens of museums in the most diverse parts of the world, as took place in this case, not present great problems, e.g., in the control of what happens with the works on location?

OBRIST: For this reason we defined from the very beginning a few essential rules for do it, as wished by the artists. Thus the “do-it-yourself” descriptions were defined as “facsimiles” of artistic works. There is also no signature of the artist. In addition the museum is required at the end of the exhibition to destroy the operational instructions carried out. The work-facsimile may not serve as a continuous exhibition piece or fetish, but is given after the exhibition back to the context from which it came: the photos by Boltanski are given to the pupils, the candies by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, moreover, have disappeared or were eaten, etc. The entirety is therefore dissolved and takes on no trade value. The third rule is that the artist receives documentation of all facsimiles and executions of his “do-it-yourself” description in its various realizations. Mike Kelley perchance decided to make a CD from the sound recordings, which resulted from his operational instruction to record extraterrestrial noises. Other artists will make other works from this. Thus a gigantic documentation of realized do it facsimiles in the most varied cultural contexts is now growing. A further rule at the beginning was that whoever realized do it had in each case to realize all operational instructions, all artistic works. We have now changed that. I find it interesting that now a museum can select, e.g., 12 from the 24 artists of the American version of do it. As a result, other exhibitions and group constellations will arise each time. The difference among the individual realizations is becoming ever greater. There are not only other interpretations of the operational instructions but also other combinations. The virus mutates.

FLECK: How many realizations of this original version of do it have there been so far in museums?

OBRIST: The first realization of do it took place in the Ritter Kunsthalle in Klagenfurt, Austria. Then came Scotland (CCA, Glasgow), Nantes (Fonds Régional d’Art Contemporain des Pays de Loire), Paris (Song Lines), and recently Iceland at the Munizipalmuseum of Reykjavik. In summer 1996 museums in Finland, Australia, Switzerland, Thailand, and Sweden are on the program. It is slowly accelerating, like a sort of chain reaction.

FLECK: Personally I found it interesting that at Nantes do it presented in a museum a current, highly informed, and international group exhibition on current art, but neither the artists nor you as exhibition leader traveled to it. The institution realizes the works themselves as facsimiles of the artists’ “do-it-yourself” descriptions, and thus the exhibited works are not originals. That is a courageous stride for the institution. It throws into question its normal functioning and enters a new relationship to the client, to the visitor. In Nantes and also in Reykjavik the discussions unleashed by do it were enormous.

OBRIST: do it provokes reflection on artistic practice and the notion of the original. An exclusionary notion of the original still reigns, despite conceptual art in the ’60s, Marcel Duchamp[‘s] and Joseph Beuys’s expanded art concept. With Duchamp’s, by the way, there were two notions of the readymade: the static and the fluid. The art industry accepted above all the static. The readymade was taken into the museum and Duchamp’s readymades are today antiques, fetishes with enormous transport and insurance costs. Indeed, Duchamp had a second readymade notion, which I respect much more. It deals with the operational instructions that appear in Duchamp’s diverse notes. For example, one takes the dictionary and crosses out all that deserves to be crossed out. Today we can do that here. We buy a dictionary and cross out all words which please or displease us, i.e., everything that deserves to be crossed out from the dictionary. This “do-it-yourself” work can be permanently realized through time. The work of art thus remains always fresh, like the salads by Giovanni Anselmo.

FLECK: Through sending the original version of do it to innumerable museums in the whole world two years ago, the project took on a double status. For one, there were realizations in the form of exhibitions. For another, however, the operational instructions lie in the museums’ archives, and the exhibition as such is an archival possession.

OBRIST: It is a potential and can again be exhibited years later. The idea from the start was that through the operational instruction and the independent realization on location, with which the usual transport problems disappear, the exhibition is no longer tied to the location.

FLECK: How is the current American version of do it different from the original version of 1994?

OBRIST: do it is integrated and expanded in the American version. In additional to the twelve mentioned, there are operational instructions from Michelangelo Pistoletto, who was very taken with this form in the ’70s, or from Allan Kaprow, who since the ’60s has written operational instructions for Happenings, as, e.g., how to transport dust from one room to the next, an almost invisible thing. Douglas Gordon, by contrast, is a younger artist who took up the ’60s vocabulary in the ’90s in the sense of repetition, but also of difference.

FLECK: Is the do it idea—despite the possibility of a cheap worldwide diffusion—not also a typically European or American art form merely by virtue of the technology it employs and the artists’ degree of reflection in the tradition of conceptual art?

OBRIST: It is therefore important that it remains fluid. For the ICI version, I had the feeling do it must become more open. Also the conditions often invert themselves. Kcho, a Cuban artist who has now moved to New York, had long worked in Cuba on his operational instruction, because he simply could not realize these things there, and could not leave the country. Thus he sent an operational instruction as [a] “do-it-yourself” primer to South Korea and won the Seoul Biennale Prize with it. Besides him the following are also represented in the new version of do it: Pepón Osorio, a Puerto Rican artist, who has written operational instructions for a house altar; Jason Rhoades from Los Angeles, for whom the kit idea, the “to kit” and the “do-it-yourself” culture with tools, etc., play a big role; Angela Bulloch, Jimmie Durham, and Andreas Slominski, as well as some artists who have contributed decisively to the anthology of operational instructions since the ’60s: Yoko Ono, Dan Graham, and Lawrence Weiner. Weiner’s formula, “1. The artists may construct the piece. 2. The piece may be fabricated. 3. The piece need not be built. Each being equal and consistent with the intent of the artist, the decision as to condition rests with the receiver upon the occasion of receivership,” is a milestone in the history of the operational instruction. The idea of “virtualization,” defined by Weiner around 1968, plays a big role for younger artists of the ’90s.

FLECK: The American version of do it corresponds to the original version in so far as artists of the most diverse ages, who are usually considered to belong to the most different epochs, still come together.

OBRIST: From the very beginning it was important that do it extends beyond generations and that it shows no trend, but rather verifies that the operational instruction builds an intact redline throughout the 20th century. That began with Duchamp’s “readymade malheureux” from 1919. He told his sister by telegraph from Argentina what she should do on the balcony: “do it,” and she realized this “readymade malheureux” on her own. A little later Moholy-Nagy appeared with the first work in art history to be realized over the telephone. John Cage followed with the “Open Score,” which gave the executor unsuspected freedoms. The operational instruction also played a big role for Guy Debord and the Paris Situationists, who again and again alienated “How to do it” comics. Also, their “détournement” notion goes back to the operational instruction. Then there was, of course, the entire “do it” idea in Fluxus in the ’60s. Yoko Ono’s Grapefruit book of 1964 consists entirely of operational instructions. Alison Knowles with her Event Scores was among the “do it” pioneers: “make a salad”—each who carried out the salad realized a version, an interpretation, a facsimile of the artwork. Ilya Kabakov, like Boltanski, was concerned with the score idea. For each exhibition the artist worked out a thick book with all details of the installation, and sometime these scores can again be performed. It has to do with an idea of performing again, a “re-play.” That is also a link into the ’90s, when artists like Maria Eichhorn, Fabrice Hybert, Erwin Wurm, or Rirkrit Tiravanija again take on the idea of the operational instruction, as was found with Fluxus. It is interesting how Tiravanija, for example, again took up the idea of cooking from Alison Knowles, although with an entirely different audience.

FLECK: Are scientists also represented in the American do it version?

OBRIST: The English scientist Rupert Sheldrake has for a long time proclaimed a sort of “do-it-yourself science,” as was by the way common in the 19th century. Scientists had contact with hundreds of hobby researchers and their science was a result of communication with passionate amateurs. Today science, like art, is completely removed from that, leading to a heroic isolation. In this respect it is an important concern of do it to overcome this isolation. Thus the artist Rosemarie Trockel invited the author Shere Hite, who since the Hite Report in the ’60s has worked with a sort of “do-it-yourself” science in the area of sexual behavior. The do it idea appears, as I said, in all contexts, in poetry, science, literature, and music.

FLECK: There is another project, Home do it and do it (TV). Can you tell us more?

OBRIST: That grew out of the first experiences with do it. When I flew back to London from Glasgow and the plane circled for 40 minutes over the suburbs of London, I thought that an album, for example, could potentially be playing in each of these suburban homes. Someone turned on the radio and someone else bought the album. It does not have to do with a universal demand that everyone in the world should have art. However, it has to do with the potential of a thing that is not bound to too narrow borders, that is with a hypothetical distribution. Thus arose the idea of Home do it as an album, which one can put on at home. It concerns a book for which artists conceived “do-it-yourself” operational instructions for home use. Up to now there are approximately 120 contributions from all over the world, from philosophers, scientists, poets, and musicians as well. In Japan there are these instruction books for things, which can be made at home. In American poetry of the ’50s there were operational instructions, “how-to-do things” or “how-to-do thoughts.” They exist also in political and other kinds of activism, where it constantly has to do with operational instructions, because these do not limit doing simply to a location but rather unleash a greater potential for action. The TV version arose with the museum-in-progress in Vienna and consists of small television clips, which the artists conceive themselves: operational instructions of approximately three minutes for “do-it-yourself” artworks for domestic use. The clips are broadcast in various television stations as an exhibition that takes place on TV. Thus the operational instructions come directly to the people and are no longer bound to an exhibition type.

FLECK:  Occasionally do it is seen as a polemic against the classic art exhibition. Is it to be understood in this way?

OBRIST: Authors know that publishers fear they would sell fewer books if they gave their texts to the Internet. In reality it is exactly the opposite. When texts are [o]n the Internet there is a run on the books. The book as fleeting object becomes known again though the Internet. In a certain sense the effect of do it could be similar. If one sees many facsimiles, one becomes truly conscious of the difference with respect to a work, which an artist conceives and constructs on location. Of course, the interesting thing about an exhibition is when it suspends rules and taboos. Thus do it is also seen as a breach of taboos, whereby the interest in operational instructions, which was implicit in the art of the last decades, becomes explicit. It is, however, not the case that do it wants to replace museums and galleries, the original, or whatever. do it is not a field maneuver against the original. I always say, “Not only this but also that,” rather than “neither nor” and “or.” It has to do with opening complementary paths, new possibilities and contexts, which would otherwise remain inaccessible.

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