Do It at the Manchester Art Gallery: A perpetual exhibition, constantly regenerating itself

The latest reincarnation of Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s ongoing exhibition encapsulates both the allure and danger of participatory art.

The gallery audience seems happy to dance to Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s tune. The air is thick with the smell of Thai chilli paste and fragmented conversation; scattered coloured notes are periodically swept from the floor; lemons are squeezed on an inverted bicycle seat. Do It is a series of artists’ instructions, firmly rooted in the appeal of the conceptual avant-garde, steadily accumulating over two decades, and freshly interpreted in each new reenaction.

In 1993, curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist sat down with artists Christian Bolstanski and Bertrand Lavier in a Paris cafe. Bolstanki and Lavier had previously been exploring the role of written instruction in the translation and interpretation of artwork. Now, drawing from this personal obsession with instruction, as well as Duchampian ideas of the lifespan of exhibitions, the trio’s conversation led them to the idea for a compilation of "interventions". "The exhibitions we remember are the ones that invent new rules of the game," Obrist recently observed. Do It looked to capture the ethic of a DIY handbook filled with artists’ instructions for staging artworks, and the possibilities that this offered of a perpetual exhibition, constantly regenerating itself. Between its multiple reincarnations, Do It remains in a kind of stasis.

Do It has had over 60 different lives, infusing both the underground and mainstream, embracing over 250 artists from Marina Abramovic to Damien Hirst, and issuing demands that border on the surreal and psychotic. The radical movement grew up in the age of the internet and the rise to prominence of the curator, both of which have been critical influences on its evolution. Its latest resurrection as part of the Manchester International Festival has taken up residence in the Manchester Art Gallery’s annexe, where visitors engage with instructions in an Active Room, while Archive and Film Rooms document the exhibition’s history. But Do It’s spirit of instruction, risk and chance also permeates through the gallery’s corridors of neoclassical and contemporary architecture, with engineered conversations and rapid performances spreading virus-like down to the permanent collections of predominantly Victorian art.

Beneath Do It’s unabashed enthusiasm for written instruction are darker spaces where living artists confront the instructions of artists past. So Louise Bourgeois’ instruction ‘Smile at the Stranger’ is submerged in shadow via Tracey Emin, who instead proffers: "I smile at a stranger, the stranger I know, but they didn’t smile back…" Do It derives its artistic force from this idea of a living score and the art of interpretation.

But Obrist’s collective of stellar names might easily induce sickening overload. Yoko Ono instructs us to "make a wish. Write it down on a piece of paper. Fold it and tie it around a branch of a wish tree." Elsewhere, Olafur Eliasson’s Your mindful meteorite positions a piece of space rock in front of half silvered glass. I last encountered the Scandinavian artist dealing with similarly cosmic themes back in his 2003 The weather project which bathed the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in dampened sunlight. Here he notes that this is the first time the observer will have touched something from beyond the earth. "Take your asteroid perspective," Eliasson advises. "Be outside and inside yourself at the same time, present in the multiverse. Become an asteroid. Do it."

Obrist, who in 2009 topped ArtReview’s Power 100 list, deftly plays his part as the art world’s guru. But the exercise in self-delusion begins as Obrist seeks to relate Do It’s open curatorial model to a particular sense of activism. "The instructions from the last couple of years have a kind of parallel energy to Occupy Wall Street," he told ARTnews.

Perhaps Do It’s subversive potential is at its most tangible in a set of instructions from the dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei on how to tackle a CCTV surveillance camera, utilising a spray paint can, pole and corkscrew. Elsewhere, Suzanne Lacy’s Cleaning Conditions seeks to bring museum staff together in "cleaning actions" and "cross-sector meetings" as a consciousness-raiser over low-paid working conditions.

This might all seem rather well-intentioned, but for the fact that Do It encapsulates a far wider problem. Participatory art’s political retreat under neoliberalism has been a phenomenon well documented by radical critics such as Claire Bishop. Far away from its origins as an empowering counter to the gold rush fever infecting the art market, it now acts as an image, not reality, of social cohesion.

As Bruce Altshuler notes, Do It’s very title evokes two seemingly conflicted messages: both the familiar Nike advertising slogan, "Just Do It", as well as the spirit of protest as embodied by activist Jerry Rubin’s 1970 publication DO IT! Do It plays a rhetorical game that, while partly offering concessions to audience empowerment, is far more rooted in insidious obfuscation. On recognition of this, the spectacle becomes increasingly obnoxious. In this interrogation of artwork, exhibition and curator, ideas are sometimes darkly comic, and all too often divorced from meaning.

Until September 22,


The exhibitions we remember are the ones that invent new rules of the game", says Hans-Ulrich Obrist.

En Liang Khong is an arts writer and cellist.

Follow on twitter @en_khong

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Sunjeev Sahota’s The Year of the Runaways: a subtle study of “economic migration”

Sahota’s Man Booker-shortlisted novel goes to places we would all rather not think about.

This summer’s crisis has reinforced the ­distinction that is often made between refugees, who deserve sanctuary because they are fleeing from conflict, and “economic migrants”, those coming to Europe in pursuit of “the good life”, who must be repelled at any cost. The entire bureaucratic and punitive capacity of our immigration system is pitted against these ne’er-do-wells and their impudent aspirations.

Sunjeev Sahota’s fine second novel, The Year of the Runaways, now shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, takes a closer look at “economic migration”. Why do people – many of them educated, from loving families in peaceful communities – leave their old lives behind and come to Britain? Are they fleeing desperate circumstances or are they on the make? When they arrive here, do they find what they were looking for? Should we welcome them, or try to persuade them to stay at home? The book illuminates all of these questions while, much to its credit, offering no simple answers.

Sahota interweaves the stories of three people whose reasons for emigrating are as individual as they are. Both Avtar and Randeep are from Indian Sikh families that might be characterised as lower-middle-class. Avtar’s father has his own small business – a shawl shop – and Randeep’s father works for the government. Both boys are educated and Avtar, in particular, is smart and motivated. But with employment hard to come by and no social security net to fall back on, it doesn’t take much to make leaving the country seem like the only option. Avtar loses his job, his father’s business is failing and he has high hopes of earning enough to marry Lakhpreet, his girlfriend-on-the-sly. Randeep’s family’s finances fall apart after his father has a psychological breakdown; their only hope of maintaining a respectable lifestyle is for their eldest son to take his chances abroad.

For Tochi, the situation is very different. He is what used to be called an “untouchable” and, although people now use euphemisms (“scheduled”, or chamaar), the taboo remains as strong as ever. He comes to Britain not so much for financial reasons – although he is the poorest of the lot – but to escape the prejudice that killed his father, mother and pregnant sister.

Tying these disparate stories together is the book’s most intriguing character, Narinder, a British Sikh woman who comes to believe that it is her spiritual calling to rescue a desperate Indian by “visa marriage”. Narinder’s progress, from the very limited horizons for an obedient young woman to a greater sense of herself as an active participant in her destiny, reminded me of Nazneen, the protagonist in Monica Ali’s Brick Lane. But Narinder is a more thoughtful character and here the Hollywood-style journey of personal liberation is tempered by a recognition of the powerful bonds of tradition and family.

Once in Britain, Avtar, Randeep and Tochi enter a world of gangmasters, slum accommodation and zero job security, with an ever-present fear of “raids” by immigration officers. They work in fried chicken shops, down sewers, on building sites and cleaning nightclubs. Health care is off-limits for fear of immigration checks. Food is basic and the only charity comes from the gurdwara, or Sikh temple, which provides help in emergencies.

Avtar and Randeep struggle to send money back home while living in poverty and squalor that their families could barely imagine (at one point, Randeep notes with understandable bitterness that his mother has used his hard-earned contributions to buy herself a string of pearls). In the meantime, their desperation leads them to increasingly morally repellent behaviour, from selfishness to stealing and worse. Even if they do eventually find a measure of economic stability in Britain, they have done so at the cost of their better selves.

It has been pointed out that the novels on the Man Booker shortlist this year are even more depressing than usual and The Year of the Runaways certainly won’t have raised the laugh count. At times I had to put it down for a while, overwhelmed by tragedy after tragedy. It was the quality of Sahota’s prose and perceptions that brought me back. He is a wonderfully subtle writer who makes what he leaves unsaid as important as the words on the page. A wise and compassionate observer of humanity, he has gone to some dark places – places we would all rather not think about – to bring us this book. Whether we are prepared to extend a measure of his wisdom and compassion to real immigrants, in the real world, is another question.

“The Year of the Runaways” by Sunjeev Sahota is published by Picador (480pp, £14.99)

Alice O'Keeffe is an award-winning journalist and former arts editor of the New Statesman. She now works as a freelance writer and looks after two young children. You can find her on Twitter as @AliceOKeeffe.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis