Anarchy, Games, and Performance

Oliver Herring

Artist Oliver Herring shares the parameters outlining his participatory performance piece TASK, as well as why and how the piece is art.

ART21: Can you talk about getting people to stretch their limits inside of a performance?

HERRING: In the end, people only do what they want to do. You just have to make them understand that that’s what they want to do. I think we all want to do stuff that we are too shy to really do, but deep down we have it in us. These experiences here in the studio—because they’re so unstructured, they allow for these things to happen. I really like the sense of adventure in the air when things are not scripted, when anything can happen. When a performer comes in here and gets that feeling that anything can happen—then it really becomes interesting and addictive, actually.

ART21: What are the differences between performances in small, intimate spaces and improvising in more public venues?

HERRING: A public performance like TASK is almost a game, a reality game. I set up basic rules, such as “Don’t leave the parameters of the stage.” I provide a bunch of props. In the case of TASK, I write a bunch of simple tasks in order to get the performance going. Each one goes in an envelope and is put in a task pool, and the performance starts with each participant taking an envelope, opening it, and trying to fulfill that task. Once they’re done, they each write a new task, put it back in the task pool, grab a new task, and go on with business. After the first five or ten minutes, the performance is entirely self-perpetuating. You don’t know what’s going to happen. The rules that I start with are not binding. Anybody could just walk out or break the rules. But that never really happens. I’m always surprised that there’s no real anarchy, only staged anarchy.

ART21: Give some examples of the rules.

HERRING: Well, actually, that’s the only rule. I set out, asking people for some props. I try to make people comfortable before the performance by providing some books or pieces of literature that are meaningful to them. We try to cover this material in an envelope—to protect it but also to neutralize it—and that becomes a library of resources for these people to use if they want to. There’s also two pieces of sound or music on a disk. We then make copies of these disks; so once again, they’re neutral. We have usually two or three sound systems on the stage, and the participants can use these to create a certain soundscape if they want. I provide a bunch of props, depending on what institution I’m working with. I try to make the props to some degree site-specific. We did this in Palm Beach: we just loaded a lot of sand as a prop into plants and onto the stage.

I usually divide these performances into three acts. Since there are two intermissions, there are three chunks of time for people to perform. The performance lasts between five and eight hours—usually more, closer to eight hours—so it’s a serious chunk of time to commit yourself to, and the performers usually need a break. I ask them to bring three sets of clothes to once again personalize the experience and also to communicate how they want to be presented to the audience. People usually bring a lot of meaningful stuff onto the stage. They think a lot about how they want to look. It’s like they bring a part of their lives or their living rooms onto the stage. But then it’s neutralized, and anybody has access to it.

Oliver Herring. Pure Sublimation, 2000-2001. Total running time: 27 seconds, looped. Edition of 10 with 2 AP’s. Courtesy of Meulensteen, New York.

ART21: Are you disappointed that anarchy never takes over?

HERRING: Not disappointed—curious.

ART21: Is anarchy possible in a work of art?

HERRING: Yeah, absolutely. Anarchy can definitely happen in a piece of art. I haven’t seen it happen in my work, but it’s possible. I’m setting the rules for there to be anarchy, not in the larger sense, but within the confines of the game. You can break the confines of the game, you can stop it, break it up entirely. It’s just a creative possibility—to take something to the extreme—which I think is creatively very interesting.

That’s what we try to do, as artists. We try to push something to the point of breakage but stop just before it. Sometimes we fail—we break the thing—we’ve gone too far. It’s important to learn where that breakage point is, in order to set the parameters of what’s possible. Once you know your parameters, you know what to play with.

ART21: Do you direct people at all?

HERRING: I don’t say, “This is what I want you to do. I would prefer you to go this way or that way.” No, I’m very curious, and I find people very interesting. I’m curious how people react under certain circumstances. And people are always guarded, to some degree. They might let it out to a certain point, but in the end, there is the self-censorship that takes place. And it’s probably a very healthy mechanism. I’m just very curious why it doesn’t go a little further sometimes.

ART21: Explain why TASK is art.

HERRING: That’s a good question. I think, when you can communicate to anybody that it is possible to make something meaningful out of something that’s simply around you—whether it be tape that I knit or a stop-motion video—I think it becomes clear that if you find meaning in that, you might also find meaning in similar situations in your life. You might just simply look at life slightly differently. You might not look at a mundane situation as that—you might see it as holding the potential to turn it into something more beautiful or meaningful or something with which you can communicate to another person.

I think that’s what these performances, in a way, do. It’s usually hard to convince people to commit themselves to this. But once the performances start, it’s hard to keep the audience from wanting to participate and for the performers to stop. Since I’ve never actually done this myself, I have to imagine that it feels very liberating, to be able to just do whatever you want to do and interpret other people’s ideas of what one should do, in your own way. The audience never quite knows what you’re up to, only retrospectively, after you’ve completed a task and display the written task in some fashion. But it’s always retrospective. So, there never is scrutiny.

I’ve had a lot of high-school students participate in these performances. Those are usually the performers who I get most easily to commit and who really enjoy it. I think they also usually instinctively understand. It really becomes about bending rules or defining rules on your terms. That determines whether it’s art or not, whether it’s a special situation or a mundane situation. It’s about choice.