Commodifying Experience: 14 Rooms at Art Basel

A very edited version appears in Art in America
The often circumspect mixing of interests of museums and the market is nowhere more overtly put on display than in the new project 14 Rooms, featuring 14 “performance art” pieces by 14 different artists and 2 additional works as epilogue.  Co-presented by the Swiss museum Fondation Beyeler, Art Basel itself, and Theater Basel, co-curated by Klaus Biesenbach, Director of PS1, Moma and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Curator at Serpentine Gallery, reflects this mix through its implementation strategy and concept. 
In this fourth itineration of the ever-evolving “rooms” project started in 2011 as 11 Rooms during the Manchester International Festival, continued as 12 Rooms at International Art Festival RuhrTriennial in 2012 and only during the Kaldor Public Art Projects in Sydney in 2013 taking a more concrete form, the two curators declare it now a real exhibition of human sculptures rather than performance art.  In the previous festivals, which were considered temporary platforms, the performances also had a more temporal quality with no permanent structure nor concrete implementation instructions. But as the two curators explained in their self-described “ping-pong presentation” to a small press corps at Tuesday’s preview, with the addition of Herzog & de Meuron’s box-like construction, the project has taken a more permanent, expositional, and museal turn, and the two hope that it will become a “museum of performance art” in the future.
The design of the box was donated by Herzog & de Meuron at Obrist’s suggestion, complete with mirrors on the doors and some walls to reflect visitors’ bodies.  It seems to have been conceived to encourage the dissemination of selfies on the internet, the new marketing strategy for the twitter generation.
In the same press presentation, Biesenbach and Obrist outlined some “rules of the game” for the exhibition: the works must be human scale and be considered as human sculptures, must include very specific and clear instructions for their implementation, almost like a script, and not be performed at any time by the actual artist.
These rules certainly seem to work well for some of the projects, such as Marina Abramović’s Luminosity, which is one of ten that have been included in every previous “Rooms” manifestation.  It features a naked femaleperched on a bicycle seat suspended high up on the wall with her arms extended and a bright light shining upon her.  The piece is indeed an impressive human sculpture, but questions of exploitation and self-exploitation on the part of the performers (that  ended up being more difficult to cast than expected, with some performers quitting before the event from the physical and mental strain) immediately arise.   Why subject oneself to such exposure and pain, why place another being in such a vulnerable position?  Might the answer lie in the perceived glory of working with a world-renowned artist on the global stage?  Abramović has perfected the art of commodifying her performances, making them so precise and indeed sculptural that they become objects that can be sold then implemented in different settings following her instructions.
But what of performances that existentially rely on the element of chance, of the unexpected that arises when the situation is not completely scripted, as is the case in all of Tino Sehgal’s “constructed situations” as he calls them?  For example in his This is Competition, 2004, for 14 Rooms, which features two people each saying one word in the hopes of continuing the other person’s sentence, with the aim of describing and re-enacting snippets of the artist’s previous works. This happenstance evolution of the spoke-word cannot really be scripted and yet Obrist and Biesenbach, through their implementation of these rules, try exactly that – to control as much as possible the process of the work so that it can be sold and resold as an object.
As the ArtNewspaper reports, “collectors remain cool” and only a few institutions have started collecting this type of work, which in Seghal’s case relies on intensive verbal negotiation, no documentation or leftovers of the event, and almost no control over the outcome of the work.  And this mandates the presence of the artist, which breaks one of the “rules of the game”.
Another work that relies on chance is Roman Ondák’s Swap, 2011.  He creates an amusing situation with a performer sitting behind a desk holding an object of his or her choice that he must swap with one of the visitors, and he continues to attempt the trade by creating something of a sales pitch until he achieves this goal, at which time the process starts again with the new object he receives.   There is an inherent risk and improvisation to this performance, one that cannot be scripted or outlined so carefully.  It needs its space to develop, to form, based on changing circumstances.
In Yoko Ono’s scenario, one enters a box in complete darkness and must touch the others already there. Uncertainty permeates the experience, and continues the concept of chance and the unscripted.  This performance has one instruction – Touch – and we are then left in darkness with our deepest fears to try to create primal bonds if we dare.  But the outcome is and should be unknown.  So how can this instruction – Touch – be bought and then resold?  This is where precise instructions come in handy.
Considering that performance art at its essence was always intended as something ephemeral, despite some attempts to collect the documentation and left-over objects, it quickly becomes clear that the guidelines set out by the two curators are actually useful tools in strengthening the commodification of experience so that it can be more easily be bought and sold as an object, or human sculpture as is this case.  And this is indeed the interest of the museum, whose aim is to collect and conserve performance art, and the market that needs to offer a product.
Therefore this transformation of performance art into human sculpture should give pause to the performance art community, some of whom might  still believe that experience is transient and should not be scripted or commodified.

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