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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Has this physicist found the key to reality?

Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. So what to make of Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli?

Albert Einstein knew the truth. “As far as the laws of mathematics refer to reality, they are not certain; and as far as they are certain, they do not refer to reality.” However good we are at maths – or theoretical physics – our efforts to apply it to the real world are always going to mislead. So perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that reality is not what it seems – even when, like the Italian physicist Carlo Rovelli, you’ve done the maths.

It is a lesson we could certainly learn from the history of science. Whenever we have ventured into new experimental territory, we’ve discovered that our previous “knowledge” was woefully incomplete. With the invention of the telescope, for instance, we found new structures in space; Jupiter’s moons and sunspots were just the beginning. The microscope took us the other way and showed us the fine structure of the biological world – creatures that looked uninteresting to the naked eye turned out to be intricate and delicate, with scales and hooks and other minute features. We also once thought that the atom lacked structure; today’s technology, such as the particle colliders at the Cern research centre in Geneva and Fermilab in the United States, have allowed us to prove just how wrong that idea was. At every technological turn, we have redefined the nature of reality.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have the technology to take the next step. The present challenge to physicists seeking to discover how things really are is to investigate our environment on a scale known as the “Planck length”. Rovelli tries to convey just how small this is. Imagine, he says, a walnut magnified until it is the size of the universe. If we were to magnify the Planck length by that much, we still couldn’t see it. “Even after having been enormously magnified thus, it would still be a million times smaller than the actual walnut shell was before magnification,” he tells us.

We simply cannot probe the universe at these scales using current methods, because it would require a particle accelerator the size of a small galaxy. So – for now, at least – our search for the nature of reality is in the hands of the mathematicians and theorists. And, as Einstein would tell us, that is far from ideal.

That is also doubly true when theoretical physicists are working with two highly successful, but entirely incompatible, theories of how the universe works. The first is general relativity, developed by Einstein over 100 years ago. This describes the universe on cosmic scales, and utterly undermines our intuition. Rovelli describes Einstein’s work as providing “a phantasmagorical succession of predictions that resemble the delirious ravings of a madman but which have all turned out to be true”.

In relativity, time is a mischievous sprite: there is no such thing as a universe-wide “now”, and movement through space makes once-reliable measures such as length and time intervals stretch and squeeze like putty in Einstein’s hands. Space and time are no longer the plain stage on which our lives play out: they are curved, with a geometry that depends on the mass and energy in any particular region. Worse, this curvature determines our movements. Falling because of gravity is in fact falling because of curves in space and time. Gravity is not so much a force as a geometric state of the universe.

The other troublesome theory is quantum mechanics, which describes the subatomic world. It, too, is a century old, and it has proved just as disorienting as relativity. As Rovelli puts it, quantum mechanics “reveals to us that, the more we look at the detail of the world, the less constant it is. The world is not made up of tiny pebbles, it is a world of vibrations, a continuous fluctuation, a microscopic swarming of fleeting micro-events.”

But here is the most disturbing point. Both of these theories are right, in the sense that their predictions have been borne out in countless experiments. And both must be wrong, too. We know that because they contradict one another, and because each fails to take the other into account when trying to explain how the universe works. “The two pillars of 20th-century physics – general relativity and quantum mechanics – could not be more different from each other,” Rovelli writes. “A university student attending lectures on general relativity in the morning, and others on quantum mechanics in the afternoon, might be forgiven for concluding that his professors are fools, or that they haven’t talked to each other for at least a century.”

Physicists are aware of the embarrassment here. Hence the effort to unite relativity and quantum mechanics in a theory of “quantum gravity” that describes reality at the Planck scale. It is a daunting task that was the undoing of both Einstein and his quantum counterpart Erwin Schrödinger. The two men spent the last years of their working lives trying to solve this problem, but failed to make any headway. Today’s physicists have some new ideas and mathematical intuitions, but they may also be heading towards a dead end. Not that we’ll find out for sure any time soon. If the history of science offers us a second lesson, it is that scientific progress is unbearably slow.

In the first third of his book, Rovelli presents a fascinating dissection of the history of our search for reality. The mathematical cosmology of Ptolemy, in which the Earth stood at the centre of the universe and the other heavenly bodies revolved around it, ruled for a thousand years. It was unfairly deposed: the calculations based on Copernicus’s sun-centred model “did not work much better than those of Ptolemy; in fact, in the end, they turned out to work less well”, the author observes.

It was the telescope that pushed us forward. Johannes Kepler’s painstaking obser­vations opened the door to the novel laws that accurately and succinctly described the planets’ orbits around the sun. “We are now in 1600,” Rovelli tells his readers, “and for the first time, humanity finds out how to do something better than what was done in Alexandria more than a thousand years earlier.”

Not that his version of history is perfect. “Experimental science begins with Galileo,” Rovelli declares – but there are any number of Renaissance and pre-Renaissance figures who would baulk at that claim. In the 12th century the Islamic scholar al-Khazini published a book full of experiments that he had used to test the theories of mechanics. The man who helped Galileo achieve his first academic position, Guidobaldo del Monte, also carried out many experiments, and possibly taught Galileo the craft.

It’s a small misjudgement. More ­irritating is Rovelli’s dismissal of any path towards quantum gravity but his own, a theory known as “loop quantum gravity”. He spends the last third of the book on explaining this idea, which he considers the “most promising” of all the assaults on the true ­nature of reality. He does not mention that he is in a minority here.

Most physicists pursuing quantum gravity give a different approach – string theory – greater chance of success, or at least of bearing useful fruit. String theory suggests that all the forces and particles in nature are the result of strings of energy vibrating in different ways. It is an unproven (and perhaps unprovable) hypothesis, but its mathematical innovations are nonetheless seeding interesting developments in many different areas of physics.

However, Rovelli is not impressed. He summarily dismisses the whole idea, characterising its objectives as “premature, given
current knowledge”. It’s a somewhat unbecoming attitude, especially when we have just spent so many pages celebrating millennia of ambitious attempts to make sense of the universe. He also strikes a jarring note when he seems to revel in the Large Hadron Collider at Cern having found no evidence for “supersymmetry”, an important scaffold for string theory.

As readers of his bestselling Seven Brief Lessons on Physics will know, Rovelli writes with elegance, clarity and charm. This new book, too, is a joy to read, as well as being an intellectual feast. For all its laudable ambition, however, you and I are unlikely ever to learn the truth about quantum gravity. Future generations of scientists and writers will have the privilege of writing the history of this particular subject. With theory ranging so far ahead of experimental support, neither strings nor loops, nor any of our other attempts to define quantum gravity, are likely to be correct. Reality is far more elusive than it seems.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Reality Is Not What It Seems: the Journey to Quantum Gravity by Carlo Rovelli. Translated by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre is published by Allen Lane (255pp, £16.99)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood