For the past 2 months I have been regularly performing an unsolicited sculptural work at SFMOMA titled “Would you like to see an invisible sculpture?” Let me set the scene:
On the 5th floor of SFMOMA there is a hallway just off the elevators which houses several Lichtenstein prints. The prints are beautiful and colorful and hung in thick glass frames. Across the narrow hallway is a padded bench. I stand facing down the hallway with a headset cradled in my hands asking people passing by, “Would you like to see an invisible sculpture?” That question works better than all the other versions I have tried. It piques the imagination just enough to get people to wait in line and patiently stand while I arrange a heavy and slightly fussy bit of hardware on their heads. But it also sets the scene: audience members are not trying out a fancy new bit of technology but having a viewing experience.
Side note: The inescapable though infrequent response of “If it’s invisible how can I see it?” is met with “Why I must bestow upon you superpowers of course!”
Seeing becomes performing
Once their interest is piqued I indicate the person currently wearing the headset and then stand watching intently until they return to me. I remove the headset for them then help the waiting visitor fit it properly. Once it’s on I say “You can walk around, but also inside of the sculpture.” Sometimes I also need to add “To go inside you have to walk straight through the surface.” Many people are physically averse to passing through the exterior skin without encouragement. I took that as a good sign. They were interacting the sculpture with the same schema they would use with any other piece in the museum. I did answer questions about the hardware and the process of making the project when they come up but tried to keep it simple. I want to keep people focused on the performance of whoever can currently see the invisible sculpture.
As the crowd grows, which if I go on a Thursday, the day SFMOMA stays open late, it inevitably will, the space where the sculpture is placed clears of people and the crowd gathers behind me to watch the watcher. And that is why “Would you like to see an invisible sculpture?” is performance sculpture. The movements and gaze of the person wearing the HoloLens becomes part of the piece. The crowd begins to understand that there is something in the space with them even though they can’t see it. Its really effective. I was amazed at the excited buzz that grew behind me at one point as people pointed to it, approximated it size and shape, commented on the current watchers hand gestures, and tried to figure out who was in line to try next. I love you San Francisco, you people really know how to organize a line.
The hallway has cleared of people and become a stage. Onlookers have all gathered behind me to watch.
I am a skilled performer both on stage and in video but this more bare performance relationship with an audience feels very different. I have to touch every person who participates to get the HoloLens seated. I have to speak to every person individually. The timbre of my presence and attention and tone of voice all changed the energy of the people gathered. It has been really fun to watch little changes I make deepen the experience. I am looking forward to developing more performance structures for the Hololens.
But let me talk about the failures for a minute because there were many. I attempted this same performance sculpture 10 times in total and had only 3 resounding successes: all on Thursdays in the late afternoon or evening. Do everything the same way but be in the museum on a Tuesday morning and suddenly every single person I engaged said no thanks or made a face or ignored me completely. Set up in a gallery instead of a hallway and you get mass congestion and upset people just trying to look at paintings. Sit on a bench instead of stand and no one will talk about the art but instead focus exclusively on the technology. Just happen to pick a place with less forgiving guards and get shooed before any energy can build around the performance. Performance art is hard people! The distance between it going fantastically well and a total flop is tiny.
If you are in San Francisco and are interested in participating in a future performance of “Would you like to see an invisible sculpture?” contact me on twitter @blinkpopshift and I will let you know when and where in the museum I’ll be.