Is it just art or is it progress?

Can you keep a secret? But please don’t tell anyone, because if you do, knowing how the art world is, no one will go see the Tino Sehgal show at the Guggenheim. No, its not that the museum’s walls are completely bare and that the admission price continues to be the same. No, its not that there is an uninhibited couple endlessly kissing amidst the Rotunda. No, its not that the show is not worth visiting —on the contrary. Ok, here it is: the work is not really a performance art piece, and not so much of an artwork either: it is an education program.

I imagine that no one will agree with me, but that’s OK— I have my reasons. Sehgal took a situation that takes place daily at the museum —people having directed or undirected conversations— and extracted the art from the equation. (In the spirit of disclosure, I used to work at the Guggenheim’s education department there for seven years, organizing the museum tours and talks, which may have colored my experience, but I think that is besides the point).

For those of you who still have yet to visit, here is a report: As I went up the first ramp a 9 year-old girl greeted me. “Welcome, this is a piece by Tino Sehgal. Can I ask you a question? What is progress?” As we walked up the ramps, I spoke about wanting to become a better person when you grow up. While I was trying to explain that, a teenager appeared and took over, while the 9 year-old disappeared. “Can you elaborate?” As I labored to understand myself what I had meant after a few minutes a tall guy in his 30s arrived speaking to me about sprinting, which tied somehow with progress. He was replaced a bit later by an older man in his 60s who told me: “you know, my two best friends are alcoholic, and I wonder what that’s about.” This conversation became the most existential of all, so much so that neither of us had realized that we had reached the top of the ramp and my interlocutor was so absorbed by it that he temporarily forgot that he was part of an art piece. “Oh my god”, he said. “Usually I am not here by this point”. Then he added: “Thank you. This is a piece by Tino Sehgal” and left. Finally alone, I felt a bit of melancholy at that point, I am not exactly sure why.

The piece in essence uses the most basic technique of a gallery tour, which is to extract the information of the viewer, only that in this case the object from which one starts the conversation is not an artwork on view but the viewers themselves. It also is based on the principle that in discussing art what we truly learn is not an abstract concept that is bestowed upon us, but the personal meaning that we construct on our own either by conversation with others or with ourselves. I also find it interesting that Sehgal calls his actors “interpreters”. But to say something is educational is the kiss of death in art, that is why it is better not to tell anyone.

But then again, I know I am being facetious about this work being education: in truth, while I have been up and down those ramps in museum tours, I had never had a conversation like that. Something strange and different had happened. So, aside of whether Sehgal may or may not be championing the causes of museum education, my question for all of you is: how do you feel about artworks that are only about social interaction? Do they represent progress?

Author: Pablo Helguera

Pablo Helguera is a New York-based artist and contributing editor for Artworld Salon. Originally from Mexico City, his multi-disciplinary work often deals with topics such as history, social thought, perception, fiction, and academicism. His works, which are usually performative in nature, have included making phonograph recordings, composing orchestral pieces, inventing fictional artists and museums, founding educational and research institutions, and writing scripted symposia with actors. He has performed individually at the Museum of Modern Art, NY (Parallel Lives, 2003), and has exhibited or performed at other venues such as the Royal College of Art, London; the Havana Biennial, Performa 05, and many others. He received a Creative Capital Grant for “The School of Panamerican Unrest”, a nomadic think-tank that physically traveled by car from Anchorage, Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, covering 25,000 miles, and becoming the most physically extensive public art project on record. This project will be showcased in a solo traveling exhibition organized by El Museo del Barrio in New York, which will also travel to London, Mexico City and in other locations. From 1998 to 2005 he served as Senior Manager of Education of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, where he developed and oversaw the museum’s public programs. He has organized more than 500 public programs in the course of his museum career, including the international symposium The Museum as Medium (2002) and the Fifth Installment of the International Symposium of Contemporary Art Theory in Mexico City (SITAC, 2005). He currently is Director of Adult and Academic Programs of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and a Guggenheim Fellow. He is the author of four books: Endingness (2005), an essay on the art of memory; The Pablo Helguera Manual of Contemporary Art Style (2005; Spanish edition; 2007, English edition), a social etiquette manual for the art world; The Witches of Tepoztlán (and other Unpublished Operas), (2007), The Boy Inside the Letter (2008) and Artoons (2009).

3 thoughts on “Is it just art or is it progress?”

  1. Essentially the same “work” was “presented” at the ICA in London about 5 years ago. Expecting to be underwhelmed I found I actually enjoyed the experience. Though, like Pablo, I felt it was more an entertainment and/or education piece than a work of Art. Does it represent progress? No. More a segue.

    Does it have a place in modern museums? Yes if it helps people think differently about the walls around them and what is usually on those walls. But it isn’t a work that will grow on me. Nor is it something I would want to experience more than once. For me, therefore, it is a pleasant, thought provoking, one liner. Nothing more.

  2. We had a nice thread at ArtworldSalon in August 2008 on this subject (, where many relevant points were raised. I haven’t seen the exhibition yet, but it does call to mind a conversation I once had with the artist Vitaly Komar.

    Komar was talking about the fallacy of one-person shows. Those exhibitions are predicated on the notion that the curatorial arrangement of works, usually in chronological order, “tells the story” of the artist. But as Komar pointed out, the artist’s history does not reside in the pictures. It lies between the pictures. The empty space between the pictures is replete with more meaning and possibility than the official narrative of the exhibit.

    Sehgal’s show expands this idea to the entirety of the museum. It is analogous to the old chestnut that the most important exchanges at conferences happen not in the auditorium but in the hallways.

    As a matter of fact, I recently attended a conference at the Guggenheim–organized by the education department, no less–which attempted to capture the hallway conversations only. There were no formal presentations; just hallway talk. So maybe the Guggenheim’s education department was on to something about open spaces even before Sehgal stripped the rotunda of art and put the spotlight on human interaction.

    Finally, a question: Can our conversation here, beyond the museum’s walls, be interpreted as a part of Sehgal’s exhibit? If not, why not?

  3. Stephen Rosenberg, a veteran art dealer and educator, has been serving as one of the “interpreters” in Sehgal’s This Progress piece. He sent these impressions of his time conversing with visitors near the top of the Guggenheim’s ramp:

    Peter Schjeldahl pointed out in his recent New Yorker review of this Tino Sehgal work that his experience going through the piece left him with the sense of being caught up in a whirlwind of short stories that reverberated long after leaving the Guggenheim.

    As one of the older generation of “interpreters” in this work, my insider’s opinion is that This Progress is a remarkable feat of management and organization and an excellent piece of stagecraft. Apart from the standard introduction the interpreters make, “Hello, my name is Ellen – the title of the piece is “This Progress”, there is no script. After the introduction the interpreter is free to say whatever comes to mind. There is no template – there is the conversation.

    Now in my fifth week as an interpreter it is clear that Europeans (including Brits, Scots and Welsh), South Americans, Australians and Asians are generally willing to engage in the piece with an open earnestness. While many Americans displayed the same qualities of interest, engagement and good humor, a number of our fellow citizens were concerned with what the piece was “really about,” whether they were being recorded and why my colleagues and I were participating in This Progress.

    The essence of the work are the stories, personal thoughts and opinions shared during the encounters. My fellow “interpreters” are in agreement that, as we continue to participate in the piece, a stream of thoughts and memories about our own lives and experiences has begun flowing in each of us, and it hasn’t stopped.

    Not surprisingly, people often cite computers, technology, cyberspace et. al. as examples of progress. Being something of a bibliophile, when the occasion arose, I asked young adults, teenagers and younger children what they thought about the kindle. After four weeks, this unscientific sample indicates that many older teenagers and people in their early twenties think that kindle is cool and like having portable books without the hassle. Most young teenagers and kids under twelve prefer books because of their illustrated covers, the feel of the pages, and they generally agreed with the ten year-old girl who thought that if everyone bought a kindle then “there wouldn’t be anymore books or newspapers.”

    For some younger people the kindle threatens the loss of the personal touch, of the experience of seeing books on a shelf and the sense of intimacy they associate with books. Making the point, one young woman remarked: “I like to give books as presents. What am I going to do in the future? Tell someone that I’ll burn them a disc?”

    Other points frequently discussed about how technology affects our lives include: How younger people will use their imaginations, given the daily onslaught of visual material they take in? Whether anyone who was deeply concerned over the past thirty years about our personal and collective privacy being massively invaded by governments, corporations, credit bureaus, police departments, etc., envisioned millions of Americans willingly giving up their privacy, now and forever, via postings on Facebook, twitter and the like? As a young man who works for Microsoft said two days ago, “People have no idea of how bad it is – information discrimination is here.”

    An Israeli woman, mother of two teenage boys, was genuinely concerned and mystified that her sons, who will begin their compulsory military service soon, don’t understand that anyone in the Israeli Army can see their Facebook entries, and this could have a deleterious affect on their military experience. When asked how his children, having grown up with technology as a staple of life, made use of their imaginations, a father expressed great concern regarding how his fourteen year-old would develop empathy for other people.

    Many younger people agreed that they will have several ”careers” during their working life, and that they should focus on gaining experience as quickly as possible. As one bright and energetic young woman, just twenty-six and in her third job since college, remarked, “The traditional career path is broken. No one believes that a job will be long-term, or that corporations will show any loyalty to their employees. So make yourself as knowledgeable as possible”.

    The state of the current worldwide economy; whether American-style capitalism had hit the wall; government and private corruption as quintessentially human; whether human beings exist in a fourth dimension; why Americans regard health care as socialism, but don’t use that label for the bank bailouts; why many art schools don’t require drawing classes; how the Australian tradition of young people taking a “walk about” informs their attitudes later in life; whether people are actually capable of learning from the past — these are among the many topics being discussed daily under Mr. Wright’s dome.

    The art and magic of Sehgal’s work are the encounters in real time and the recollection of them in the future by all involved.

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