Do It: 20 Years of Famous Artists’ Irreverent Instructions for Art Anyone Can Make
“Art is something that you encounter and you know it’s in a different kind of space from the rest of your life, but is directly connected to it.”
By Maria Popova
One afternoon in 1993, legendary art critic, curator, and interviewer extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist — mind of great wisdom on matters as diverse as the relationship between patterns and chance and the trouble with “curation” itself — sat down in Paris’s Café Select with fellow co-conspirers Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, and the do it project was born: A series of instructional procedures by some of the greatest figures in contemporary art, designed for anyone to follow as a sort of DIY toolkit for creating boundary-expanding art. Over the twenty years that followed, manifestations of the project popped up in exhibitions around the world, from the most underground galleries to the most prestigious museums.
Twenty years later, Obrist is releasing Do It: The Compendium (public library) — a wide-ranging medley of artist instructions spanning performance art, sculpture, urban intervention, philosophical reflection, and even recipes from, contributors like Lawrence Weiner, Louise Bourgeois, Ai Weiwei, Douglas Coupland, David Lynch, and Sol LeWitt. The project, above all, explores art as unbridling of author and authority, art as internationalism, art as a homage and a middle finger to Art. It lives somewhere between Yoko Ono’s instructions for art and life, John Cage’s interpretable notations, and Philip Glass’s notion of authorship as transformation.
Obrist, who considers do it “not a sprint [but] a marathon” and the book a “progress report” on a perpetually open-ended project, writes:
Do it rejects the notion of the original in favor of an open-ended conception of the creation of the work. … No two versions of do it instructions are ever identical when carried out. … The exhibition takes place in the inter-spaces between interpretation and negotiation. … It is important to bear in mind that do it is less concerned with copies, images, or reproductions of artworks, than with human interpretations.
Here is a selection of the contemplative, silly, subversive, profound, playful, and infinitely diverse contributions, stretching our conception of what art is, who should enact it, and how — the essence of Obrist’s gift.
Celebrated architect, educator, and architecture critic Cedric Price adds to The Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook in a 2005 piece titled Gilding the lily part II:
RECIPE FOR BUCKY FULLER
Skin but do not stone a peach. Brush lightly with a weak mixture of clear golden syrup (corn syrup) or melted brown sugar and brandy. Heat more brandy in a soupspoon. Ignite, and pour over the peach. Eat immediately.
A particular favorite of Bucky’s.
Sculptor Nairy Baghramian (2012):
Following Gertrude Stein, every now and then sit with your back on nature.
Many are intently irreverent in the face of the art establishment. Performance artist and invisible media maestro Robert Barry (2012):
Do something unique that only you and no one else in the world can do.
Don’t call it art.
Paris-based self-described “readymade artist” Claire Fontaine (2012):
Whatever you do, do something else.
Conceptual art pioneer Lawrence Weiner, regarded as one of the greatest modern artists of our time, in a 1968 piece Cat. #21 and presented in characteristic all-caps:
A 36 X 36″ REMOVAL TO THE LATHING OR SUPPORT WALL OF PLASTER OR WALL-BOARD FROM A WALL, 1968
MATERIAL: LANGUAGE + THE MATERIALS REFERRED TO
PLEASE DO NOTE THE WORK IS PRESENTED NOT AS A COMMAND OR INSTRUCTION. IT IS PRESENTED AS FACT (PAST PERFECT) WITHIN THE CONTEXT OF AN INSTRUCTION EXHIBITION.
Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt (2001):
A black not straight line is drawn at approximately the center of the wall horizontally from side to side. Alternate red, yellow, and blue lines are drawn above and below the black line to the top and bottom of the wall.
Some fall at the intersection of the profound and the sentimental. Federico Herrero, in a 2002 piece titled Secret Friend:
Choose a person you like, or that you would like to love, or at least, a person you have good feelings for.
Leave small gifts for him/her in personal places for five days.
During those five days, secretly record in secret conversations with that person. The recording can be for a short time or as long as possible.
Listen to the taping every night before bed.
French-American artist, sculptor and confessional art founder Louise Bourgeois (2002):
When you are walking, stop and smile at a stranger.
Artist and publishing provocateur Paul Chan (2005):
When you meet someone new tell them the following:
“Our modern age is characterized by a sadness which calls for a new kind of prophet.
Not the prophets of old who reminded people that they were going to die, but someone who will remind them that they are not dead yet.”
Do not be embarrassed.
Do not be afraid.
(This is a riff on the following passage from the 1912 novel Manalive by G. K. Chesterton: “There should be priests to remind men that they will one day die. I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet. The intellectuals among whom I moved were not even alive enough to fear death. They hadn’t enough blood in them to be cowards. Until a pistol barrel was poked under their very noses they never even knew they had been born. For ages looking up an eternal perspective it might be true that life is a learning to die. But for these little white rats it was just as true that death was their only chance of learning to live.”)
Danish-Icelandic sculptor and large-scale installation mastermind Olafur Eliasson (2002), in a piece titled Physiological Memory:
1) Choose a person, older than yourself, you see frequently — not too often by approx once a week or once a month. Maybe one of your grandparents if they are still alive.
2) Every time you meet the chosen person you press your 2 pointing-fingers firmly against your eyes for 10 to 20 seconds until various colors and patterns arise.
3) Try to note or memorize the patterns and colors in connection with the context and repeat the practice every time you meet the chosen person for a as long as possible, minimum 6 months.
4) After minimum 6 months of this practice you can recall the person, virtually by pressing your eyes for a while. In the midst of the colors and pattern a sense of presence of the chosen person arrives even after the chosen person has died.
Some expose the role of art as a tool of sociopolitical reflection. Italian-American postmodern choreographer and musician Simone Forti (2012):
Think about climate change.
Sit for some moments in dumb grief, dumb knowing, dumb amazement.
Others are decidedly, if subversively, dogmatic, like Ten Commandments for Gilbert and George by graphic art duo Gilbert & George (1995):
I. Thou shalt fight conformism
II. Thou shalt be the messenger of freedoms
III. Thou shalt make use of sex
IV. Thou shalt reinvent life
V. Thou shalt create artificial art
VI. Thou shalt have a sense of purpose
VII. Thou shalt not know exactly what thou doest, but thou shalt do it
VIII. Thou shalt give thy love
IX. Thou shalt grab the soul
X. Thou shalt give something back
Others are unabashedly playful. Conceptual artist Stephen J. Kaltenbach (1969):
Start a rumor.
American artist Ben Kinmond, in a 1997 piece titled The possibilities of trust as a sculpture and the question of value for each participant:
Invite a stranger into your home for breakfast.
Swedish installation and video artist Klara Liden (2012):
LOST — street sign exchange program
Take down a street name sign.
Go to a different city.
Put up the sign in place of another sign.
Austrian artist and “one-minute sculptor” Erwin Wurm (1995):
Put on a pullover — but don’t stick arms or head through the normal openings — squat down and pull the end of the pullover down over your knees and feet.
In this position, endure for 20 seconds.
One of the most irreverent and wonderful contributions, at once charmingly dated for its tech references and timelessly delightful in its spirit, comes from Canadian novelist, design writer, and media commentator Douglas Coupland (2004):
1) Go to an instant print shop run by a multinational company such as Kinko’s.
2) Log onto the internet.
3) Open a blog page account on a blogging site such as bloggers.com. It’s free.
4) Give your blog home page a name composed of two relatively unusual nouns such as ducklingspaghetti. There is a reason for this which will come shortly.
5) On another on-screen window go to Amazon.com.
6) Select a book that you’ve read many times in your life.
7) Chances are that Amazon has many pages from that book excerpted. Select one page.
8) Go back to your blog page.
9) Transcribe into it the page you selected from Amazon.
10) Post that blog page on the internet.
11) Now go to Google.de or Google.fr or Google.nl or any Google for a language you don’t speak.
12) On this foreign Google site, search for your blog entry using the name of your blog page. The unusual nouns selected for your page will make it easy for Google to find it.
13) Once your blog page appears, click Google’s translation button. Your page will be translated within a second or two.
14) Print out this page on 8.5 x 11 paper or A4 or whatever is the standardized letter paper dimension for the country you’re in.
15) Return to your blog account.
16) In a new blog entry, paste into it the freshly translated page.
17) Using Google from another country, repeat the above procedure, translating your page from, say, Dutch to French.
18) Print out this ext translation but do it on a differently colored page of letter paper.
19) Continue this process repeatedly, always from one language into another, printing onto a differently colored sheet of paper, until you have used up all colors of paper available at your specific Kinko’s.
20) The final sheet of paper should be in your mother tongue.
21) For final presentation, paste the sheets like a checkerboard onto a wall, in sequence. The proportions of the pasting should be a vertical rectangle as close to 8.5 x 11 or A4 as possible.
In this short video interview, artist and curator Richard Wentworth, one of the original contributors to do it, adds to history’s notable definitions of art and echoes Adrienne Rich with a meditation on the project and its significance:
The point about art is it’s all in its interpretation. Art is something that you encounter and you know it’s in a different kind of space from the rest of your life, but is directly connected to it. … It’s a great privilege to be near art because when you’re near art, you can be another kind of person, and it allows you to think differently about things that you have never done.
Do It: The Compendium, a refined addition to these activity books for grown-ups, is marvelous and endlessly delightful in its entirety.
Published June 3, 2013