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, www.manchestergalleries.org

 

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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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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