Even better than duchamp

—  This interview with Italian curator and art historian Valerio Del Baglivo was part the visitors’ information for those coming to see Long Distance Call, HMK’s 2009 show about instruction pieces.  —

Even Better Than Duchamp

Jantine Wijnja interviews Valerio Del Baglivo. About flying, language and artistic control.

jantine wijnja: I’d like to start off with you telling a bit about the research you are doing.

valeriodelbaglivo: A year ago, I started studying Conversation Pieces. I did my final thesis at the University on this topic. The thesis was  about the performativity of language. I was trying to prove the existance of a line of reaserch that started in the ’70: A research that wasn’t  included in the  Dematerialization of the art object’s*  discourse but was, instead, more about the Materialization of  Life. This definition was invented by an artist I was working with in San Francisco, called Ben Kinmont. One of the artists I studied, Lee Lozano, did this piece called Dialogue Piece. The interesting thing was how she organized that piece: She was prescribing herself a set of instructions. What she did was  writing down some instructions for conversations and then basically followed them, in the process realizing the piece.Her work was my starting point, and I discovered her work thanks to Ben Kinmont. The instructions she wrote down were about how to organize the conversations, the duration of the piece, and so on.

JW: But they were all written to herself.

VdB: Yes, absolutely. That begun in 1969.  And from that point on she started to write down her pieces as instructions. She filled out several notebooks. Single pages of her notebooks are now sold for thousand of dollars per page.

JW: Did she ever make any statements regarding how  she felt about others potentially following her instructions?

VdB: No, the instructions were just for her. I think It was a way to find an another order, or device, to objectivize a method. Anyway, studying these works about conversations introduced me to another topic: Since that example I started to discover that instructions pieces are usually pointed to an hypothetical spectator. They are usually thought to be read from an audience.

JW:So in that way they are maybe more about conversation then a lot of other artworks?

VdB: Some sort of collaboration is implicit in their nature. In fact the use of language is always informal, like during a conversation,  and moreover they tend to refer to you.  You as a speaker subject.

JW: let’s try to do a definition of instruction pieces.

VdB: There several kinds. And their power is given by their tripartite nature:

They are a graphic object (thay are sold as paintings, or distributed throught new spaper, etc).They are also a message, so they are pure language. And moreover they could also be a performance. This tripartite nature is their instrinsic factor.

There is an instruction piece by Yoko Ono. It is showed at The venice Biennal right now. It is from the late sixties. it’s called FLY, and it consists of a poster with a writing on it that says FLY.
Well, the fact is that you can’t fly.
She is probably saying to fly with your imagination,or something like that.  It’s exactely like when you are making a conversation, in a way.

JW: So in instruction pieces, the graphic expression and the planting of a thought are always there but the performativity of the work is a lingering potential?

VdB: Yes, I guess so. Also the reception of the message can be delayed; it may be comprehended later. Or it could be a tacit comprehension, rather then and active or performative one.

JW: One in the head.

VdB: Yes, one in the head. It’s like having an important conversation with an important person. But not everything of what you interlocutor says to you is clear. Maybe it will pop up in your mind months later. The works are underscoring a possibility, and that possibility doesn’t have to be acted out in order for it to work properly.

[JW: It’s like planting a mental seed?

VdB: Yes, I like this definition.

JW: You mentioned there are several kinds of instruction pieces. Do they all fall within this definition or range?
VdB: Some instruction pieces are not realizable. For instance Bruce Naumann made some instruction pieces describing actions that cannot be achieved. Like the Amplified Tree Piece, from 1970.  It says “Drill a hole about a milne into the earth and drop a michphone… make audilable any sounds that may come from the cavity”. It’s not achievable.

So some pieces are achievable, and some others are just a seed in your mind. And then there also those that need to be achieved in order for them to be completed, that’s the third part. Let’s consider a more contemporary example to explain it: the work of German artist Tino Seghal is a very interesting example of this. He will give instructions to his actors, and they have to follow them in order to realize the piece.

In my experience, some instruction pieces are more related to language, while some others are more related to performance.  But these two aspects are part of the same thing. Plus, in way language itself is also a kind of acting or performing.
The interesting thing of the Tino Seghal work is, from my point of view, the fact that he can’t have a real control over his pieces: That they could easily become somenthing very different then he had in mind.

JW: He is creating a setting that then goes beyond himself.

VdB: I need to recall here that the first instruction piece is from Duchamp, in 1919. It is called Ready Made Malreaux, and it was a wedding present for his sister. It was basically a book of geometry. He simply asked to her to hang it out of the balcony, exposing it to the winter weather conditions. The wind then chose the pages. Later, the sister made a painting of the book, but that wasn’t part of the Instruction.

So to come back to Tino Seghal: He is still playing with chance and randomness. He is saying that not everthing is under his personal control, I guess. And  that is something that goes for both Tino Seghals contemporary work and Duchamps early piece. The difference between them though, is that with Duchamp, the  Ready Made is still an object while in the work of Seghal, language is used just to perform. I think that the shift is from an object to a performed situation.

JW: But the resulting performance is very physical and real, too…

VdB: yes absolutely, it’s even better

JW: Superpersonal.

VdB: Exactely, superpersonal. So in a way we have come back to the starting point: The language used in instruction pieces refers to you. It calls you. It’s like “FLY”:  You, Fly.  It’s personal, because it is related to you as an interlocutor.

JW: Has it always been personal? Or was there somewhere in the history of instruction pieces that they veered away from that?

VdB: Yes, there is a case: George Brecht, a Fluxus Artist.  He started following John Cage classes. And at the end he developed this weird form of impersonal Instructions: Instead of using imperative verbal forms, like FLY, he started to use impersonal words like in the piece called Three Lamps Event where it’s written ”Three Lamps Event: On- Off; Lamp; Off-On”

That was an action to be performed with a lamp.

But the words indicate the action, they don’t refer to you as a person at all. It’s the only case I met till now, maybe there are other artists.

VdB: Basically, every instruction piece is like a one on one conversation. I think that instruction pieces could help to be aware of oneself. Either through performancing the actions, or just through reading them.I think that the messages highlight events that already exist in a way. The instructions work like a way to underscore a small event, an everyday event. In this sense, thay appear related to a sort of intimacy I think.

Valerio del Baglivo (1979) is an independant curator and art historian based in Venice, Italy.  He is currently writing his thesis Words to be read, words to be performed, The interesting case of Instructions Pieces.

Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, Lucy Lippard.