Artists and Audiences

While the relationship between the artist and the viewer is a favorite conversation topic of the art world, it is often discussed in a one directional kind of way, as if the artist’s role is to bestow a sublime message onto the viewer. Sitting with Marina, the performance piece Marina Abramovic debuted in her much-discussed 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, exemplifies this attitude. In the work, she would perch unflinchingly for 12 hours at a time in the museum’s atrium while visitors sat opposite her. Sitters assert being overwhelmed with the aura Abramovic exuded, at times reduced to tears. While Abramovic complicates the artist/audience dynamic, allowing museumgoers to become her partners-in-crime rather than just passive viewers, she remained stoic, seemingly unaffected by her companions.

But the tension between the artist and the audience isn’t a one-way street; in fact, artists can learn a lot from working directly with their audiences.

For Glenn Ligon, working directly with a Midwestern audience led him to a new and fascinating project. In 1999, the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, Minnesota invited Ligon to lead a family workshop during a residency at the museum. The artist, whose work often explores his identity and the larger politics around being black and gay, brought copies of coloring books for African American children from the 1960s and 1970s. A black girl in a graduation gown, singer-songwriter Isaac Hayes, bell-bottom clad figures with the word “soul” printed under them: these images had originally been made with the intention of fostering pride in African American culture.

When Ligon presented the coloring books to the group of young children, the message of empowerment morphed into one of absurdity. Stemming from a range of ethnic backgrounds, the middle class kids at the Walker Art Center were oblivious to the cultural references they scribbled upon. Hayes was given peach skin and a blond beard, Malcolm X was gussied up in pink lipstick and blue eye shadow, reminiscent of a drag queen. Intrigued by how the images in these coloring books meant something different to kids in Minneapolis at the turn of the millennium, Ligon used the resulting drawings as the foundation for his silkscreen-on-canvas Coloring series.

Installation shot of Coloring series in Glenn Ligon: AMERICA at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Source: New York Times.

What Ligon’s project demonstrates is that an artist can have new, profound experiences by working directly with the audience. With this is mind, I talked to artists Las Hermanas Iglesias and Kara Hearn about how they include the public in their artmaking practices, both in developing projects and how they evaluate the projects afterwards.

In 2010, the Queens Museum of Art (QMA) invited Janelle and Lisa Iglesias, sisters and artists who collaborate under the moniker Las Hermanas Iglesias, to participate in the Queens International 4, a biennial exhibition of international artists living and working in Queens. The result was Everybody Loves to Dance, a wink and a nod to Andy Warhol’s series in which the famed Pop artist illustrated the steps to various ballroom dances on a floor drawing. In their iteration, Las Hermanas mapped out the moves to a dance of their own creation, combining the merengue of their father’s Dominican heritage with the Norwegian pols of their mother’s.  Visitors were invited to step on the floor piece and give the hybrid dance a try. The installation has now been presented at four different venues, each eliciting varying levels and types of audience engagement.

Everybody Loves to Dance at MACLA, San Jose, CA, 2010. Photo courtesy of Las Hermanas Iglesias.

Everybody Loves to Dance was a perfect match for the QMA, a museum that puts its community at the forefront. Queens has been called the most ethnically diverse area in the world, and a 2001 study indicated that it is the most diverse county in the United States. Growing up in the Hollis neighborhood of Queens, Las Hermanas—themselves born to a Dominican father and a Norwegian mother—have said that everyone on their block was either of mixed ethnicity or hailed from immigrant families. Additionally, the QMA has personal resonance for Las Hermanas: they would frequent the museum as kids, often visiting during school field trips. “Knowing that the QMA is a popular destination for schools,” they explained, “we designed Everybody Likes to Dance to be a project accessible to children as well as adults, one that paralleled the multi-culturalism of the borough and that evolved from an exploration of identity.”

Lisa Iglesias on a school trip to the Queens Museum of Art with her kindergarten class at PS178. Photo courtesy of her teacher Mrs. Emilie Epstein.

While the project reflects Queens’ communities, Las Hermanas didn’t want to romanticize the idea of diversity. At times, the amalgamation of the two dances created dissonance: in the merengue, the partners move together from side to side, whereas the pols has a syncopated part in which one partner bends his or her knees while the other is upright and vice versa. In a similar vein, the sisters—working with five DJs and musicians—released a limited-edition CD of mash-ups of merengue and pols songs. The soundtrack has moments when the clash of the two songs is discordant and impossible to dance to, while other moments the fusion results in a surprising harmony.

While Las Hermanas knowingly created Everybody Loves to Dance for a specific audience, they were surprised by the scope of the public’s reactions. Some people approached the floor piece with much hesitation; at moments, it attracted a large crowd instantaneously. “We’ve seen people try to follow the directions multiple times until they master the choreography,” they explained. Others—especially kids—deviated from the prescribed moves altogether, formulating original moves.

Their interactive installations have become a vehicle for Las Hermanas to engage with their audiences. For several years, the sisters have been creating piñatas that they invite audience members to whack, party-style, until candy spews onto the floors for any and all onlookers to collect. Las Hermanas created piñatas of their own likenesses during a residency in Tasmania in 2011 for a culminating exhibition called Sibling Rivalry.  For this project, the sisters took turns bashing open each other’s piñatas and documented the performance via video. During the exhibition this video was projected onto a wall adjacent to the remains of the piñata carcasses. Viewers were then invited to take the red candies spilling out of the broken papier-mâché bodies.

Piñata Series (Self Portraits), 2011, papier-mâché with red candies, video projection. Photo courtesy of Las Hermanas Iglesias.

During the exhibition opening, a visitor began to punch and kick the broken remains of “Janelle” until he realized that the real Lisa was watching him. As they explained to me, it was not “his particular action per se” that they found surprising, but rather “the pleasure that the man was exhibiting by pantomiming a very physical assault on a female figure in front of a large audience.” This unexpected and rather unsettling example of engagement with their work taught Las Hermanas that audience reactions reflect complicated cultural underpinnings. The artists were surprised by the experienceon various levels: “We were taken aback by the liberty he took with destroying the sculpture, rigorously punching the face and guts of a portrait of one of the artists and that he felt comfortable performing this physical assault in a very inclusive and ‘safe’ community space, “ they explained. “Whereas the video of us bashing each other’s piñatas had a tongue-in-cheek reference to ‘beating up your sister’, his secondary ‘performance’ revealed how political and layered our identities are within a performative/symbolic space. His assault was loaded because of the power dynamics between his body and the object-body. His attempt to entertain his friends with this kind of behavior reflected white male privilege and a desensitization of violence against women.”

While Las Hermanas invites the public to interact with their projects, contemporary artist Kara Hearn takes it a step further: the public is actively involved in creating the final product. Hearn cites her time at Recess, a nonprofit art organization that asks artists to convert their Soho and Red Hook storefronts into workspaces that are open to the public, as pivotal in developing this approach to artmaking. While in session in 2010, Hearn, an interdisciplinary video artist, created a film called Tremendous including walk-in visitors to the Soho storefront as her cast. She placed a sandwich board in front of 41 Grand Street that said help was needed inside so as to entice passersby. Once inside, Hearn served as a greeter, often having them complete an intake form that indicated how they’d like to participate, explaining, “I wanted to give them the power to determine their level of involvement.”

Immediately, Hearn was taken aback by the public’s readiness to open up in front of her camera. “They were ready to participate in really vulnerable and intimate ways,” she recalled. These moments are evident in the final video, an hour and a half long film available on Hearn’s website. Tremendous reveals a mesmerizing sequence of interactions taking place in the seven minimal sets Hearn built in Recess’ gallery space. In one scene, a young couple lie in bed facing each other, their eyes locked in a trance. In another, a mother and her two twenty-something daughters recall an anecdote of a disastrous sailing trip, each teasingly questioning the others’ versions of the story. Hearn claims that the camera was what allowed her to uncover and capture these moments of intimacy: “It provided a buffer between us but also a witness, maybe, holding them accountable in a way that encouraged risk-taking and authenticity. It was public and private all at once.”

Film still from Tremendous.

Hearn considered the participants as collaborators—to an extent. While the project couldn’t have been so powerful without the willingness of the participants to let down their guard, it wasn’t entirely public-driven. While shooting, she explains,  “I allowed myself to direct and guide things to maintain the theme, tone, and aesthetic of the piece.” And it was in the editing room that she really had to contribute her own voice, weaving in clips from fifteen hours of footage into a loose narrative.

Still, working with the public on Tremendous has allowed Kara Hearn to reenvision her role as an artist. Rather than viewing herself as the singular creator of a work of art, Hearn plays the role of an instigator: “It made me think of my artist self as more of a facilitator or organizer than ever before, working to serve the audience at least initially by providing them with a unique opportunity, a stage, a safe tiny audience, and a video camera to document and witness the process.” While she remains in control of her vision, she also allows the public to mold it. Hopefully, she influences her audience as well: “I love the idea of giving ordinary people the opportunity to have a certain type of experience that they might fantasize about but that they don’t normally have access to.”

Hearn has continued to work in this vein, noting “everything I have done since Tremendous is centered on these sorts of chance encounters with the public and the contributions of participants within a framework that is often very personal.” In the spring of 2012, she produced Unnamed Broadway Musical: The Musical!, an admittedly futile attempt to remake Annie without having the rights to any original material. For this version of the well-loved story about a spunky orphan girl longing for parents, eight adults were cast based on their eagerness to participate rather than acting skills or typecasting. They auditioned and rehearsed for a period of five weeks at the EFA Project Space in Manhattan, with open-to-the-public rehearsals culminating in a one-night-only performance. As with Tremendous, Hearn played the role of the organizer rather than the star.

What Ligon, Las Hermanas, and Hearn share in common is a readiness to listen to the voices of the public. Audiences come to create artworks with a variety of perspectives, a proclivity toward an honest and exhilarating unpredictability upon which the works from these artists rely.  The creative process becomes cyclical: create a participatory project, receive audience responses, and in turn use those to inform the next project.

But while these artists are interested in what the public has to say, it is far from an equal relationship. The artist is always providing a framework within which the public is meant to interact, and with that comes a certain level of control, or dare I say it, power. In Ligon’s case, his audience might have been the ones to scribble onto the images from black power coloring books. But by presenting these images within his body of work, Ligon imposes onto these drawings his own interpretation—including a gentle smirk at this group’s lack of cultural awareness. And by taking on the role of a director, Hearn ultimately guides the vision of her project, with participants functioning as muses rather than as decision-makers.

In either instance, I doubt these artists initially set out to abolish the artist-audience dynamic. Still, it’s an interesting question to pose: Can the relationship between the artist and the audience ever truly be a collaborative one? For now, I’d have to side with “no,” and maybe that’s not a bad thing. Whether fashioning themselves as facilitators, organizers or directors, artists creating participatory experiences always have a vision guiding their project. Perhaps it’s hard to imagine an artist ever fully relinquishing this type of control.

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