Sehgal and Maxwell's Cannonballs

Thursday, February 04, 2010

The Guggenheim is emptied of all its precious objects in favor of the ephemeral. Performance Space 122 has no live bodies in its theater. What is this world coming to??!

The city has been aflutter with Tino Sehgal’s new Gugg work, from breathless spreads in the New York Times Magazine to dark mutterings about his insistence on distancing his art from all things performance (See this Observer article, as well as some thoughts by Performance Clubbers).

I won’t get to see Sehgal’s non-performance performance piece till next week, but I’m skeptical at best about the way he’s choosing to contextualize what he’s doing. And it’s pretty amazing how performance is getting written out of the whole conceptual art history he trucks in. I thought Holland Cotter laid out the pros and cons pretty adroitly in his review.

Meanwhile, Richard Maxwell’s “Ads” has been extended yet again. As P.S. 122’s artistic director, Vallejo Gantner, puts it, the work is in rather pointed, if inadvertent, conversation with Sehgal:

“Tino does live movement performance re-structured into a collectible, gallerised context and only in that context. Rich is making a video, two dimensional video piece of people talking about themselves - it ‘should’ be in a gallery but is only in a theatrical one - and is presented as a live experience. They are cannonballs passing each other en route to sinking each art form's sacred ships - of dance not being time based in any meaningful way, and of being a collectible object, and of theatre not being live in any meaningful way and only video being available in a live performance.”

I’ll be seeing “Ads” on Saturday at 8pm. Come join me! P.S. 122 has given us a nifty little discount code: Use PC15 to get $15 single tickets to Thursday, Friday, Saturday shows at 8. And use NYCP10 for $10 single tickets to the 10 p.m. Saturday show.*

*Obligatory fine print: codes must be used in advance online at or by phone at (212) 352-3101; cannot be applied to previously existing sales; limited availability.


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Comments [20]


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Mar. 07 2013 03:23 AM
Carrie Ahern

I am finally getting to commenting on the Guggenheim Tino show. I felt "This is Progress" was remarkably successful in animating the museum in a new way--and in its openness. I had the feeling you could come to the work and have a myriad of experiences--rich and multi-layered or annoyed and bored or amused and curious---and everything in between. I loved watching the shift in how everyone responds to live bodies and the live bodies punching in and punching out. I liked moving up the ramp, the social interaction. However, when a couple of friends mentioned they felt it was thin and obvious, I also could not disagree. But,--even then I felt it succeeded in how it amplified the state you were in --your expectations and the personal histories you bring as a viewer to any work of art. And I loved "The Kiss." I felt the more time I spent with it, the more I received, and the less I cared about time.
However, the first 5 minutes of the exhibition I also felt deeply offended by how the work was presented. It was obvious that "The Kiss" was piggy backing on the years of training and experience, commitment and expertise of the dancers in that work. Yet there was no crediting of that. No placard, no program, no announcement. The dancers in that work are what make it come alive, yet Tino in his ephemeral art marketing savvy has neglected to credit the most essential and important element of what enables it to be anything substantial. By the same token, the performers in "This is Progress" also need to be credited. Because if you as a viewer were, by chance, going to have a rich discussion (say with a senior on the final ramp) it would be because that person was extraordinary and had the training (say because of an academic background and teaching) or the skill to really delve in such a limited span of time. The entire show rides on the back of those "live bodies" and it is disrespectful and offensive to ignore their contribution. It made me realize that it is important to make performer/collaborator information not just available but immeadiately accessible to those viewing the work. Sorry PS122-- I can't agree with you about "going green" with not printing a program. I would guess maybe 90% of audience members would read a program when available, what what percentage of audience who will look online after a show at a program?

And I have to agree with Brian Rogers who talks about what Tino is doing as "sleight of hand" . He plays into the values of the marketplace and treats his performers (sorry art objects) like commodities. On the flip side, I know many of the performers had a wonderfully rich experience performing in both works---but they subsidized their rich experience by having other income or means to live by. Sounds familiar...

Apr. 21 2010 10:34 PM
Claudia La Rocco

Well, if you're talking about creating an environment for clear exchange between artist and audience, as you put it, I'm not so sure the Abramovic work fits that bill. The exchange was anything but clear, no? After all, it ended when conflict arose between two audience members, who disagreed on just how far this "exchange" might go.

But maybe this is hair-splitting.

I'm tempted to be terribly flattered by your comments on me as an art-goer. But don't think it escapes my attention that, in one way, I'm in the same category as that man who ran out red-faced!

Mar. 23 2010 10:08 AM

Perhaps instead of writing in circles, we need to have an art-off! Something where we have to make work that proves or disproves these points.

And to use the word point one (two) more times--- Yes. I think the point is that even in his openness, Cage has a pointed agenda. He successfully "directs" the audience's experience and that's why we're still having conversations about his work.

What you're saying about Tino's environment being too micro-managed, narrow, domesticated and simple-minded for exchange seems to put you in a rarefied category of rigorous thinker and bold, experienced art-goer / lover for whom pretty open and relatively interesting is not enough. The man who left the exhibit screaming that it wasn't art the day I was there was on a whole other side of the spectrum. I think he would say it was too open (if he even experienced it at all).

I think (I think) that piece of Abramovic's is still directing the audience. She's set up a very particular situation in which audience members are confronted with a choice. And she's chosen the objects, right? How is this different from Seghal having chosen some of the subjects for discussion in his piece?

Mar. 22 2010 05:20 PM
Claudia La Rocco

Ha! Freudian slip - wonder what that one means. Hmmmm. I like it, though.

Well, you could as easily argue that Cage has a very pointed agenda in his openness, couldn't you? But I see what you're saying. And I think I agree with it by and large (can I give myself wiggle room for exceptions?)

So, along those lines, for me "This Progress" wasn't a particularly successful environment for exchange; it felt a bit too micro-managed, too narrow and domesticated and simple-minded in its ideas about itself, about art, about museums.

Of course, you could easily place all of those modifiers on me in the way I progressed, or didn't, through this progress. But I'm going to (shockingly!) side with myself on this one.

To your question about good art that doesn't include such directing - what about work that stymies this relationship, frustrates, subverts or violates it in some way? Would something like Abramovic's famous work in which she allowed people to use various objects on her however they might count as such a piece?

Mar. 22 2010 04:23 PM

I'm not sure if it directs to attempt the audience either :-) Tempt perhaps.

Having a point of view vs. directing the audience. Hmmmm. This gets confusing. I think they are highly related. Art seems to be the interface between artist and audience. So a skillful artist is good at setting up an environment where his/her point of view is what clearly interacts with the audience.
Directing the audience is maybe one way of saying, "successfully creates an environment for clear exchange between artist and audience member." Now, artists' points of view vary widely and can be about a specific subject matter or about the nature of art itself. And an artist's point of view may be to not have a point of view but this is a point in and of itself.

In 4:33, maybe John Cage's point of view is a very open, "you make the music for yourself by the way you listen." But he has still very skillfully directed us towards the possibility of making this discovery for ourselves. He has put it in a music hall, performed by real musicians etc...

Can you think of any good art that doesn't include that kind of directing?

I'm not sure how this relates to Tino since whether something is clearly directed or not, you can still hate it! But it is all interesting.

Mar. 22 2010 04:05 PM
Claudia La Rocco

Yep, David Foster Wallace pretty much owns the footnote/endnote game at this point. I'm not so adept at using them; the Rail piece was definitely a (comparatively meager) nod toward his abilities. I hope his version of heaven is full of footnotes. (I seem to recall that the Sports Guy, who has been an occasional running reference for us, used them in his latest book as a direct homage to DFW.)

Maybe we should do an Abramovic outing for April - let me think about that ...

I'm not sure if I agree that all good art directs to attempt its audience. I certainly agree that good art can make such an attempt, and it can be a pretty blatant one. But. Is having a point of view the same as directing? I think I need you to clarify a bit what you mean by that. Then we can debate!

Mar. 22 2010 02:52 PM


Sorry it took so long to respond. I love this writing and particularly the footnotes(1). The way you share your experience and the myriad of voices in publications (and in your head?) feels very generous (esp. for a grouch). I still have trouble seeing this particular piece the way you do. I feel like all good art attempts to direct the audience to some extent. Some is more subtle and open than others. This was scripted but still quite open. If there were no script or direction it wouldn't have been art (or performance) but just people having conversations at the Guggenheim.

So I still love Tino's piece. BUT your gripes have definitely affected the way I see and question all of the current dialogue about performance art in museums. (Is there a p-club event to Marina???) It's all definitely complex and I feel inspired and touched that you are standing up for performance and the history of smart genre-changing performing artists. Thank you!

(1) This might be because David Foster Wallace is reaching hero status in my household right now.

Mar. 22 2010 01:53 PM
Claudia La Rocco

Hey y'all, here's a fuller response from me:

Mar. 12 2010 10:46 AM
Claudia La Rocco

Well, I finally saw "This Progress."

I really, really didn't like it. So controlled and sure of itself. Blech.

Feb. 21 2010 04:15 PM

hey. What you're saying makes sense. The OR is what irritates me regardless of the world it comes from. And your conversation with that curator is definitely disheartening. Did you get to find out more about why they thought contemporary performance lacked rigor?

And on a somewhat related note-- I've been thinking about my own tendency to reject pure dance, to be drawn to work that incorporates visual art and theater and literature because I think of it as more smart. I'm really questioning this tendency in myself (and other artists I respect.) I'm feeling like I am (we are?) betraying my own art form, not trusting that dance in and of itself can be rigorous and interesting and truly creative on its own terms. I will always like hybrid forms but I'd like to find a place again for Dance. There are some people who are really working in this vein and whose work I love, but in general I still find myself rejecting most "dance" and thinking a bit like that visual arts curator...

Feb. 11 2010 02:13 PM
Claudia La Rocco

A., to your question about being "Sad that we’re engaging in the same debate about whether it’s art or performance?" -isn't it rather that the terms of art OR performance are ridiculous? Why can't there be an AND in there?

The worlds are certainly different entities, though they overlap all the time. But the work - the neat categories fail us here. And the attempt to claim an artist is pretty dispiriting. I think what so many people in the performance world seem to be responding to is the idea that the truly smart, progressive, envelope-pushing, yadda yadda yadda work happens in the visual art world. That is the sense I often get in interviews and conversations. I remember one prominent curator saying to me that NYC's "Contemporary performance scene lacks rigor" - all of it! As if there were just one! This from someone who wasn't out seeing all that much. These sweeping summations are so strange - amusing, really, till you stop to consider that these same people are making an increasing amount of performance-related decisions.

Feb. 10 2010 03:21 PM

--sorry for the length (could have been even more!)

I just got back from the Guggenheim. As I was buying my ticket a man stormed out shouting, “Don’t waste your money. There’s nothing there. It’s not art; it’s performance! You might as well look at a toilet!” (And I don’t think he was referring to Duchamp.)

So, I’m not quite sure how I feel about this related to the discussion we’re having…. Sad that we’re engaging in the same debate about whether it’s art or performance? Excited that someone was so enlivened by something in a museum? Curious about the perception that performance might as well be a toilet?

What I am sure about is that the piece was fabulous. I had an exhilarating, connected, stimulating, thoughtful, human, experience in the Guggenheim! Afterwards I walked, particularly awake and alive, down 5th avenue. It seems no small thing to walk awake and alive in the midst of, and past, the repositories of history that are the museums on 5th Ave.

And I’m enjoying relating this to Ads. (I’m not sure that by design they are in dialogue, but its fun to compare.) Both place an emphasis on interesting, fundamental human questions. In Ads, I am let off the hook. I watch other people answer questions and I am free to sit back or to laugh at them (something we discussed the other night) or to be bored by them. I feel a bit dizzy because it’s hard to concentrate on a video/person image for that long. In the Seghal piece, I am active. Not only am I walking, but I am engaged in a discussion and they won’t let me off the hook! They ask me to clarify and refine my answers. I feel a bit dizzy because I’m walking (and talking) in circles!

In Ads, I begin to look for signs of authenticity and embodiment within virtual people. I watch the ways they move and I respond most to the “people” who feel integrated and full of emotion and “present,” more improvisatory. I tune out when a video person feels recorded or scripted—when they begin to give me a lecture or “art.” In Seghal’s piece, I am challenged to find authenticity and embodiment and presence within myself. One of the performers (what are they supposed to be called?) and I discuss what is primal. I say it would possibly be more primal and more intimate to grunt rather than have the intellectual discussion we are having. She invites me to go through again and grunt the whole time. I don’t take her up because I’m scared. I am on the edge of possibility and creativity and I opt for something more known.

So I leave Ads and Seghal remembering how important (and scary) authentic human connection is. I can find this connection within virtual worlds or in person. But I usually prefer in person. Whether it is called performance or art or friendship…

Feb. 09 2010 04:18 PM
Claudia La Rocco

Great to see everyone on Saturday. A small group of us had a drink after and talked a bit about "Ads," Sehgal and the whole black box/white cube thing - it's amazing to me how much discussion the Sehgal show has generated, and continues to generate. Not the art itself but questions of context, art world vs. performing arts, big institutions, yadda yadda yadda ...

I think I agree with Annie-B's comment below about understanding vs. feeling - well, I agree with half of it, since I won't see the TS show till tomorrow. I didn't feel pushed in any particular way by "Ads." It made me think somewhat longingly of Claude Wampler's exhilarating ''Performance (Career Ender)'' from 2006, how deliciously she played and pushed with ideas of the live body, testing its necessity to performance.

Here's a bit of a description from John Rockwell's review at the time:

"What the audience saw was a setup for a rock trio: a cartoon-illustrated amplifier, real keyboards and a drum kit. The musicians, led by a singer who played electric bass and who led the ''rehearsal'' and gradually stripped down to silver briefs, spent 55 minutes tinkering with their music. They sounded full-bodied and pretty good, somewhat reminiscent of the Doors, though the singer had a higher voice than Jim Morrison. But they weren't ''real''; they were projected: the singer clearly, against his backdrop, the others more ectoplasmic against the omnipresent smoke.

Finally a black-clad woman (Ms. Wampler, it turned out) brusquely flattened the singer's set and on came the same musicians, live, to blast through their song at considerably higher volume. Followed by a long blackout during which nobody in the audience knew quite what to do. End of show. With no dance evident at all.

Yet maybe there was. Upon questioning, Ms. Wampler identified the musicians as the John Carpenter Band (not the film director). Joey Albanese was the drummer and Debbie Chou the keyboard player. Ms. Wampler added that she had kept her program devoid of information to prevent the audience from using it as a ''crutch.''

With that in mind, one had to suspect that a goodly portion of the audience was part of the performance too, from those who stalked out angrily, to those who stood up and boogied to the live music, to the man who insisted on bringing a weird, patched-together backpack into the theater.

The boogying was dance, I suppose, and to the extent the audience was drawn in, their boogying was too. Maybe some of Mr. Carpenter's contortions on video were choreographed. But what Ms. Wampler was really doing, as she has done before, was challenging the conventional relationships among creators, performers and observers. Her piece was always engaging, technically superb, sonically appealing."

Feb. 09 2010 12:04 PM
annie-b from brooklyn

Seghal show worked beautifully for me. Some thoughts on i followt:

We all need to find the right room for our work.
Seghal uses his theater ( a museum) to encase his ideas successfully. It is site specific work. The work in part is about the history of what happens in museums and how we feel in museums; without the white box his work would sag.

He has animated the guggenheim.

The piece is also about exchanging ideas over time.The durational aspect of the piece feels draped in content not form-- he's addressing the concept of time of life and how our own life progresses with the history of ideas.

The shape of the spiral of the building is beautifully used to orchestrate this notion kinetically. the audience IS the art.

i cannot agree with VG that Maxwell's ADS and Seghal are cousins of one another beyond a theatrical notion which i understand-- but don't FEEL. ADS is not an evolved enough piece to engage in this conversation about re-contextualizing.

written hastily...

Feb. 06 2010 11:30 AM
Claudia La Rocco

Neal, I keep meaning to reply to your comment with something similarly smart and insightful, but really all I want to say is "Hear hear!" And to ask if you have any thoughts on what form such activism should take, or is taking?

While reading I kept thinking of that ridiculous magazine profile, in which TS was continually likened to a sculptor:

"What fascinates me about Sehgal is that working only with human clay, he can call forth thoughtful and visceral responses from people who remain unmoved by more conventional paintings and sculptures."


"If you regard Sehgal as a 21st-century sculptor who abjures digging stone out of a ravaged earth, then the interviews that he conducted of grade-school children and teenage college students throughout the city were the ecologically informed equivalent of the scouting missions that Michelangelo made to the marble quarries of Carrara."

Oh my god. Should one laugh or cry at such sentences?

But you (and Aynsley) are right - blaming the artist is wrongheaded and silly. Or at least cynical. I'll be at the Guggenheim early next week, and hope only (as I hope for tonight at PS) to be amazed.

Feb. 06 2010 11:08 AM
Neal Medlyn

Hi ya'll!

I've been thinking about this a lot and am very excited to see the Seghal show as I've heard it's a marvelous one. I'm not bothered by what he's doing at all, I'm more concerned about the curatorial, historical problem that all this occasions.

I think some times we get mad at individual artists and their navigation of the finances or realities of making work when (call me biased) I'm afraid it's often those realities that are the 'problem'.

There are certainly problems within downtown too, where we sometimes overemphasize 'community' in order to keep the big bad outside world from judging what we're up to and where we think we shouldn't charge for things or expect anything because, after all, it's downtown. And the tendency to be ignorant of or regard as gauche all things Broadway, traditional, institutional. But that's for another time.

There seems be an increasing problem with these major art institutions, now that they've decided to present 'performance art' as part of their mission, drawing all kinds of wack-a-doo lines around what counts or doesn't.

I understand that...OK, so I don't understand at all, really, but I see that art institutions are still iron-clad dedicated to some silly historical progression/family tree of art and make decisions about what matters and what doesn't based on how easily they can construct wall text that shows what Artist X has to do with James Turrell or Andy Warhol or Velazquez.

Why that's more important to them than looking around at what has called itself performance art in the last 100 years and presenting THAT, I don't understand, but I didn't go to art school so there.

It does concern me though, a lot.

I think there's some sort of strange movement afoot, evidenced by the Guggenheim, the Modern, Performa (in many ways one of the worst offenders), etc. to define (or I feel, create out of thin air) some version of 'performance art' that fits into their family tree and therefore has little to nothing to do with performance as a form drawing from dance, theater, visual art, installation, happenings, etc.

I mean, just witness this whole 'let's change the name to live art in performance' business which drives me nuts. The very name signals the intent that there's an institutional drive to re-write the past 100 years of performance as simply 'walking paintings' which grosses me out.

OK, officially started rambling.

Point is, I don't blame the artists. I think making exceptional work is the point. Call it whatever you have to call it get paid as long as you knows its great and important.

Then, on an activist level, find some way to convince certain heads of institutions to put down their Clement Greenberg and just take a look around.


Feb. 05 2010 10:19 AM
Claudia La Rocco

Great that you'll be there! And thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I do and I don't agree with you. Context does matter, deeply, but these contexts are deeply enmeshed and what he's doing is hardly without precedent (in either world). It seems to me that they aren't really two issues, because the work is in some ways all about context, no? The decision is, as you say, calculated - and therefore a huge part of the conversation.

And that conversation can happen alongside an appreciation for his art, whether it's interesting or no. It needs to happen - we're in a time when the institutional art world has "discovered" performance and is making a lot of decisions about how and where and why it should be seen, documented, contextualized, historicized, supported, etc., etc., etc. And a lot of those decisions strike me as ill informed and, frankly, dangerous.

Feb. 04 2010 11:07 PM

ps. I just read the posts on Sehgal and a bit of the related articles.... I for one am quite excited about what Sehgal is doing. I haven't seen it yet but when I first read about it a few days ago I was immediately interested. It seems like a natural exploration within conceptual art. And context does matter! He is not "simply situating his work at museums." He is making a very calculated decision to show in that context and that decision is very much part of the art. I (along with a lot of other people) sometimes show everyday movement within the context of a theater so that people will see it, or question it, as dance and then, perhaps, see their world differently. And I get money (not much! but money all the same) for doing that. He is, likewise, putting movement in the context of a museum so that people will see it, or question it, as art and then, perhaps, see their worlds differently. He is getting more money for this than I do within a theater because he's chosen a context that (for better or worse) operates with more money. He will also probably have more "audience members" because of his chosen context. We struggle to find sustainability and respect for theater and might like to have the kind of money and visibility that the visual art world operates under but that is separate from whether this man is making interesting art. And to combine the two issues seems to perpetuate a mentality where we can't be excited for other people who are finding ways to make it within a difficult field. It seems to put ourselves into even more of an isolated performance box.

It seems like Sehgal's work is going to open some people's eyes to seeing movement, and art, and the world in a different way and isn't that what we most hope art will do? And those of us who have chosen to make art within the context of theater and performance do so because we actually love the intimacy and the particular experience on that side of the grass... We need to work for greater support and visibility but that shouldn't keep us from appreciating other approaches.

Feb. 04 2010 06:52 PM

Whoohoo! I already had a ticket for saturday. That'll be great to see you there. I'm looking forward to seeing and TALKING! about both of these.

Feb. 04 2010 04:55 PM

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About Performance Club

Open to everyone, the Performance Club is a freewheeling conversation about New York performance of all kinds, from experimental theater to gallery installations to contemporary dance. We go, we talk (online and at bars and cafes, with artists and amongst ourselves), we disagree and, sometimes, we change each other’s minds.


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