I recently worked as an 'interpreter', to use the term of art, in This Situation, a work by Tino Sehgal on exhibit at the Musée d'Art Contemporain in Montreal throughout most of March and April, 2013. My reasons for signing on to this project are several, including some having to do with the commitments that ensue from friendship, and some, I'll confess, with my seemingly constitutional inability to get my financial situation in order (peers in a similar stage of their careers are using words like 'refinance' and 'diversify'; I'm out in the moonlight scraping together a security deposit for a short-term sublet in Paris). More importantly, I went into it in the hope that I would come out the other end with a properly informed critical judgment about the work and about the state of contemporary art. When I was a lad I enthused about every new thing that came along. I would shell out for CDs with recordings of HVAC sounds in office buildings, and would go to the Pompidou and look at Joseph Beuys' rolled-up carpets or whatever and think some inarticulate thought along the lines of: Fuck you, stuffy old people. In more recent years I have come to feel that modernity was already bad enough, let alone whatever is supposed to have come after it, and I spend most of my time thinking about things one could just as easily have thought about when Oedipus Rex first realized what he'd done. I'm not nearly as contemporary as this thing I've just been involved in, I mean to say, and this necessarily constrains what sort of things I shall be able to say about it.
This Situation is not, as might appear to a visitor after a few minutes, or even after a few hours, a free-wheeling conversation. There are rules governing what happens when, who moves when, and who says what when. It is in this respect nothing like the experimental improvisational theater of Jerzy Grotowski's legendary 'Beehive', where the experimental thespians enter some Polish forest, or an abandoned church, and start doing stuff, "and whatever happens, that's The Beehive" (quoting André Gregory). This is not, in fact, conceived as theater at all, experimental or otherwise (though there is at least one quotation in the work that anticipates a future Situationist theater in which the theatrical and the everyday blend into one), and this is why it is essential to stress that those involved are interpreters, and not actors, and still less a merry band of roving avant-garde thespians. The key difference, which I'm trying to work out here in writing, is ontological: This Situation is an object, not a performance.
The rules established by Sehgal function as parameters within which there is a great deal of freedom and indeterminacy; like certain genres of music, the work has its character from the way in which improvisations arise within formal constraints. Very summarily: there are six interpreters, each of whom has memorized between 20 and 40 quotations from philosophers (broadly conceived), the earliest dating to 1588 and the most recent to 2005. The six arrange themselves in a series of six different tableaux vivants in a hall of the museum, a hall with entirely white walls and no sign indicating who or what is in it. When a new visitor comes in, the six look at him or her and say, in unison, "Welcome to this situation" (always in English). They then take a deep, loud breath, again in unison, and walk backwards, slowly, to the next in the series of tableaux. They hold the position for anywhere from five seconds to a minute, until one of them (no one knows in advance which one) decides to rehearse one of the memorized citations, beginning with the fixed phrase, "In 1674 [or whatever the year happens to be], somebody said..." (always in English). There is no mention of the author's name, and the interpreter is not expected even to know the name. After the citation is finished, there is another, short silence, the interpreters slowly come out of the tableaux, and they begin, from whatever angle they choose, to discuss the citation (in either French or English). This goes on for a few minutes, until finally someone asks the visitor: "Or, what do you think?" (always in French). The interpreters are compelled to move to a new tableau either when a new visitor arrives, or when one of the interpreters decides to initiate a move by beginning a new, loud inhalation, which all of the other interpreters must join before beginning to walk backwards together, toward the next position. When there is no visitor in the room, the interpreters talk about how hungry they are, or how badly they have to pee, or, if the previous conversation about Situationist theater or the aesthetics of existence has proven interesting enough, they continue to talk about that.
Many of the quotations come from the Situationists, others from Montaigne, Nietzsche, Veblen, Keynes, Foucault. In suppressing the name of the author, the idea is that the interpreters will focus on the content of the quotation. What generally happens is a sort of split between two possible approaches among the interpreters. One is to riff, to recount impressions of whatever the quotation might induce one to think (or even to feel). The other is to try, within the constraints imposed by the work, to be as scholarly as possible and to get at what the author might in fact have meant. I belong squarely in the latter camp; I don't really know how to approach, say, a claim from an author in 1862 purporting to explain the nature of ennui without attempting to root it in its time and place. But there are endless ways to approach any given quotation, and after one has heard a certain one numerous times, there is a natural wish to try to approach it from some new direction. Thus, to cite just one example, a quotation from Thorstein Veblen might be spontaneously declaimed by one of the six interpreters:
In 1899 somebody said: "Aucun article ne sera passable qui se prévaudra seulement d'être de bon service matériel. Pour être pleinement acceptable, il lui faudra exhiber l'élément honorifique. Un consommateur qui voudrait à toute force, tel Diogène, éliminer de sa consommation tous les éléments d'honorabilité ou de gaspillage, serait dans l'incapacité de fournir à ses besoins les plus insignifiants sur le marché moderne [No article will be viable that pretends only to being of good material service. In order to be fully acceptable, it must exhibit an honorific element. A consumer who would wish at all costs, such as Diogenes, to eliminate from his consumption all elements of honorability or of waste would be unable to provide for his needs, be they ever so insignificant, on the modern market]."
The first ten times or so that I heard this quotation, knowing that it was from Veblen but also knowing that it would be too bluntly scholarly to begin talking about fin-de-siècle American social theory right off the bat, I would instead try to work in some observations about this Diogenes mentioned in passing, whom I knew to be Diogenes the Cynic. I enjoyed bringing up the anecdote about him (where it first arises I don't know, but in that exhibition hall there was never any need to cite one's sources), which tells us that he was once discovered struggling to eat a live octopus, since, he explained, cooking is a mere social convention and a hassle. Before long, however, my mention of this case grew predictable and scripted, my fellow interpreters grew tired of it, I grew tired of it. I came to dislike this quotation exceedingly, and grimaced inwardly whenever it would come up (though none pained me nearly as much as Félix Guattari's pompous wank, from 1993, about global warming).
The most difficult quotation for me, in this connection, was the one that started, "In 1710 somebody said...," and continued with the famous dictum, "To be is to be perceived." Much of my scholarly career is devoted to studying the cluster of metaphysical issues surrounding the initial enunciation of that sentence by the idealist philosopher George Berkeley. The dictum has to do with the non-existence of matter, understood as a metaphysical substratum in which properties inhere, yet as a stand-alone quotation in Sehgal's work, it was almost invariably understood as of a pair with the quotations from Veblen about conspicuous consumption: To be (socially) is to be perceived (as having some sort of social distinction). I often found it painful to have to go along with the riffing on quotations I in fact knew to have a very concrete meaning, and one that it would be very interesting and worthwhile to draw out. And yet, my frustration waned as time went by. I became convinced of the worthwhileness of the exercise.
Early on, beyond the frustration with some of the formal parameters of the work, I was also consistently frustrated at Sehgal's choice of content. I wanted more quotations from antiquity; I wanted quotations with more humour to them; I wanted more stuff I care about, like animals and nature and God, and not all this stuff I don't care about, like salon culture and economics. But the work is not a conversation about 'philosophical ideas' in general, as I've heard said many times by people who have seen the work or even by those who have interpreted it. Rather, it is a conversation driven by quotations that all, as far as I can tell, have to do with the conditions of possibility of the work itself: the nature of conversation, the ontology of the work of art, the question whether life itself could be aesthetic or artistic, the problem of freedom and the constraints of our social roles, the economic substratum of social interaction.
These are what the work is about, yet one of the formal constraints under which the interpreters operate is that they must never address the work itself explicitly. If visitors ask whether the interpreters are reciting memorized lines, or whether they get paid for their work, or whether they personally consider Tino Sehgal a full-fledged artist or not, the interpreters are required to subvert that line of interaction, by moving to another tableau vivant, or by 'doing a caption' (where each interpreter enunciates one-sixth of the phrase 'Tino Sehgal, This Situation, 2007'), or by going silent. One visitor, who turned out to be a local artist of some repute, attempted to induce us to break out of character by dropping a five-dollar bill (five dollars!) in the middle of the exhibition hall, apparently to see if we would leap on it hungrily, and also, one infers, to make a statement about the tawdry relationship between conceptual art and Mammon. (No one paid it any mind, and he finished his visit by scooping it back up on the way out.) The rule of the game, anyhow, what I take to be the supreme directive that gives the work its character and tone, is that we are constantly orbiting around the questions that have to be addressed in order to talk about the work, yet we are never able to talk about the work. We are thus pushing up against the boundary between talking about the external world on the one hand and self-referentiality on the other, always in danger of crossing the boundary, but always also, insofar as we manage to respect the boundary, only representing a peculiar portion of life, to wit, those dimensions of it that start to become particularly interesting when things like This Situation become possible.
But the work is 'about itself' in another sense as well. It is well known that an important motivation for Sehgal's work is the exploration of immateriality, and of what I take ultimately to be a serious philosophical question: whether there can be such things as immaterial art objects at all (from which it would follow that there can be such things as immaterial objects, which is another, perhaps even more interesting question). More precisely, the question seems to be whether there can be immaterial art objects that are treated in every way like material ones. Thus the ontological issue is not illuminated by pointing to dance or symphonic performances, which Monroe Beardsley would explain in terms of the token/type distinction: these are art forms where inherently the object itself, to the extent that we may speak of such a thing, only exists through its instantiation in repeated and dispersed tokens. There is no single thing that is expected to be, e.g., Strauss's Vier letzte Lieder. The sort of art that is displayed in museums, by contrast, is expected to be such that in principle one can always say precisely where the art is, at which museum, in what condition, etc. Sehgal seems to have wanted to see whether there could be an art object that is dematerialized like a dance, yet held and displayed and treated according to all the same museological conventions as a sculpture or painting. I don't know what hangs on this, and I don't think that in the end, if such an innovation succeeds, anything new about the ontology of art will have been discovered; I don't think art has an ontology independent of the social and institutional framework that determines what can or can't be passed off as a work of art, and of course this framework is constantly being readjusted. But still, it is a compelling exercise to explore as Sehgal does, intelligently and respectfully, the current limits of readjustment.
The concern for immateriality extends to --or perhaps better, begins with-- the very business transacted with the museums that purchase the work. As is often noted, Sehgal refuses to allow the business of purchasing the works to be grounded in written contracts and records. There is, rumour has it, no paper trail. This makes the trustees of museums uncomfortable, and compels the directors of the museums to attempt to convince the trustees that it's only by adapting to such unconventional means of transaction that their museum (say, a museum in a second- or third-tier city with aspiration to being a serious global cultural player) can stay in the game.
It is clear, anyhow, that the exploration of the boundary that one witnesses in the museum hall, between immaterial art forms on the one hand and displayable art objects, has its parallel in the museum office, or wherever this business transpires, in the exploration of the boundary between the permanent and the ephemeral. Sehgal is putting in place all sorts of conditions to ensure the ephemerality of the thing he has brought into existence (and here I'm defaulting to 'thing' as opposed to 'object', 'work', etc., as the most ontologically non-commital term I can find), and then trying to get the world --both institutions and the pubic-- to treat it as something permanent. Some immaterial things are not at all ephemeral (the soul, perhaps angels), but in Sehgal's work the two are constantly contrasted with materiality and permanence, and at the same time are made to occupy the roles of the latter, their opposites, to the extent possible.
It is hard not to come to the conclusion that the real work that is called This Situation is the feat that is pulled off in the office, not the exhibition hall; that this pulling off is a sort of passing off; and that the main limit Sehgal is interested in exploring is not the one between the material and the immaterial, or even the one between the permanent and the ephemeral, but rather it is the limit of the flexibility of the museum as an institution. The idea seems to be to push and find out just how accommodating museums will be. From a certain point of view, this is disappointing: art, one might think, is supposed to be in museums, not about museums. But museums are institutions, and institutions function within economies, and so the museological experimentation can already claim to be a critical engagement with our social structure as a whole. Whether that in turn is what art ought to be doing, or not, is another question, but either way there is nothing trivial about doing it. In the actual performance of This Situation, anyhow, in the exhibition hall as opposed to the office, the work does not seem trivially or hermetically art-world-oriented. It balances on the ledge of self-referentiality, as I've said, but what one would get if it fell over that ledge would not be the sort of tedious insider chatter I can picture sleek collectors and lowly gossipy scenesters indulging in, but real philosophical questions about existence, illusion, freedom, and the ontology of art.
Once the museum purchases the work, it 'owns' it, at least as long as everyone is willing to go along saying as much, as long as everyone is willing to honour, and able to remember, the handshake. They own a thing that is not stored anywhere, and for which there is no record of purchase. I would not wish to have to place a bet on the fate of this proprietary relation in 100 years' time. It will change, that is certain, and I think Sehgal is counting on that as well. Arguably, the difference between the proper care of this 'object' that comes into a museum's possession is not fundamentally different from the proper care of a painting, whose fate in 100 years depends both on things like temperature, humidity, exposure to sunlight; as well as on the changing circumstances of museums in society (for all we know, in 100 years paintings might be most valuable as fuel for bonfires to keep warm in former museum spaces converted to squats). Similarly, the museum will have to care for This Situation; new interpreters will have to be brought in for new iterations; they will have to be well trained and fairly remunerated; continuity with previous iterations will have to be ensured. As has been well said, buying This Situation is something like coming into ownership of a plant, which must be groomed and watered, kept alive. But in addition, the social circumstances that make this claim to ownership make sense must be preserved. And that is something quite beyond the power of a museum, or even of the entirety of people who claim to have a stake in the future of art, to control.
The prohibition on documentation extends as well to filming, to audio-recording, and to the proliferation of official souvenirs. Here I must say it is wonderful to be involved in something that takes a principled stand against tchotchkes: no t-shirts, no mugs, no pens. Here, also, it may be that Sehgal is trying to push through to that other dimension of immateriality that is thought to obtain, e.g., in churches and other sites where filming is discouraged precisely because what is really going on in there cannot be captured by the documentation of any particular moment or sliver. The ban on permanent traces is perhaps not so much motivated by a respect for ephemerality, as by a concern for eternity. A thing that goes on forever (at least potentially) cannot be made to go on for two minutes.
There is also, I think, the concern to prevent any trace of the work from congealing into a paradigmatic instance of it, in the way that type fossils of paleontological species come to stand for the species itself, or studio recordings of pop songs come to be thought of as the works themselves rather than as instances of them. Such a development seems implausible however, and one imagines that scattered shoddy clips of This Situation on YouTube could at most have roughly the same relation to the work that, say, Grateful Dead bootlegs once had to the Deadhead phenomenon. The Dead famously delighted in the proliferation of these fan-made traces, and one gets the sense that in the end the prohibition on traces of Sehgal's work has more to do with a preoccupation with purity than with any necessary ontological stopgap. iPhones are tacky, and only yokels pull 'em out, in order to compensate for an inability to rigorously engage with the work. This goes for La Joconde no less than for This Situation, but the one big difference is that for Sehgal's work the yokel's appetite cannot be slaked afterwards by a trip to the gift shop.
But what, after all, is my critical judgment? Well, there were some moments of astounding perfection, where everything came together perfectly and made everyone in the hall think, together: My goodness, yes, there is something happening here. I do not think this something could be easily attained without the sum total of institutional circumstances of the work being just what they were. And I do not, moreover, think that this something could be attained without the particular talent of Tino Sehgal, which consisted in setting the formal parameters just right, and giving just the right sort of fuel in the form of the citations, which I now (unlike at the beginning) see were chosen with extreme care. The fact that so much depended on spontaneity within those formal parameters meant that inevitably the great majority of moments were not stunning; we had to work at getting to those moments, which came maybe once a day, or even less frequently. Because an individual interpreter could only ever be responsible for at most one-sixth of the meaning production, and because the visitors were so irreducibly unique and unpredictable, even if one were working hard at achieving a perfect moment, it could always slip away just as it was coming into reach. In this respect, it has rightly been said that the work functions much like humour, even though it is not intrinsically funny at all: it requires the rare and perfect confluence of individual inspiration with the sum total of extraneous circumstances. When these start to flow together in a perfect way, even for just a moment, it starts to feel like riding a wave; it starts to feel like the supreme manifestation of freedom. Until someone says something that falls flat, and the wave comes crashing down.
I am skeptical of the idea, expressed so urgently by Denis Diderot, that il faut se hâter de rendre la philosophie populaire. But I don't think that philosophy for the masses is really what this work is about, and I don't think that when the question comes, Ou, que pensez vous?, it is a matter of turning the freedom to philosophize over to the proverbial man or woman in the museum. But I can say that the conversations that happened there were generally at least as interesting, and often as faithful to the intentions of the authors, as what I've seen in so many university classrooms. Universities, moreover, appear to be dying out, or at least transforming beyond recognition into the sort of places where, in the very near future, it is likely that one will not be able to investigate philosophical ideas in them at all. As the 'owners' and guardians of this sort of activity, I'm just as happy to invest my hope in museums as in universities.
But again, it's not about philosophy in general. It's about limning, without tackling straight on, the conditions of possibility of a work such as this-- the economic and aesthetic conditions, in particular. It seems to me that even if you would lament these conditions, even if you would rather see contemporary-art museums filled with material objects showing the marks of technical precision in painting or sculpture, you can still agree that given that this is what the conditions in fact are, it is a worthwhile thing to come up with conceptual work that investigates these conditions, and indeed that in pushing at them can easily appear as wary as the most indignant classicist of the contemporary situation in art.
I find, in the end, that I do not really have a critical judgment to share about the artwork as such or about the current state of contemporary art: about This Situation or about this situation. My judgment, such as it is, is rooted more in my concern for philosophy and dialogue. Here I can only say that I am pleased to find someone coming up with new variations on these ancient activities, and enabling me and others to experience, on at least a few occasions, something close to perfect instances of them.