84: Lee Walton

I order a twister donut and a coffee. I am in a place I have never been before. I am awake. I sit alone in a booth designed for four people. I am a tourist in this donut shop. From inside, it is fascinating and complicated, a balance between life and theater. However, from a distant aerial view, it would be seen as an isolated building from the early 1980’s sitting on a square concrete plot.

“What would it mean if we took participation off the check-list for socially engaged work?”

This question implies that we are creating a check-list. Defining the edges of something requires us to distance ourselves so that we can make sense of the overall form. As artists, I think it is more useful to be confused and blinded by a thicket of unknown obstacles. Together, we must move forward and trust our aimless sense of direction. We will eventually find ourselves somewhere surprisingly different then a place already drawn on the map. We will clear a path with our foreheads and those behind will follow––with very little risk––picking up the pieces and organizing them into timely 12-minute power point presentations.

My daughter used to play on the piano for hours. She would use her fists, fingers, and palms on the keys. She would make sounds in patterns and clusters. She just “played”. She had no idea what she was doing. She made sounds so that she could hear them. She was simultaneously the conductor, performer and listener. She did not know the limitations, or edges, of what the piano could do. She was naturally curious and each action was simply another question.

A few weeks later, she took her first piano lesson. Within 45 minutes her curiosity was extinguished. This 400-pound instrument was reduced to a tool for playing a three-note tune called “Mary Had A Little Lamb.” My daughter barely ever touches the piano anymore. It is no longer useful to her. She has no more questions of her own. They have all been answered by the grownups.

“Are people a necessary component to social practice?”

Perhaps it is not artworks that we make, but structures for art to happen. Without people, these structures, or frameworks, are empty spaces. But empty space is necessary. Empty space is open and anticipatory. Just as silence gives sound form, non-participation gives participation form.
We create the structures. We fill them, pass through them, and make meaning from them. Then, we go find a place to get a good sandwich. When these structures are empty and full of non-participation, they are still active and real. They don’t stay up late worrying about us.

Solitary experience is a form of participation. When we walk down a quiet neighborhood street, we decide what to listen to and what to see. We are conductors. We practice these skills to become more aware––we don’t want to miss anything. We are also the audience.

Sometimes, through an act of generosity, we make art as an attempt to share our experiences with other people. We formalize and arrange things. Take it out of the real world and make it art. Make it artificial. Art being the root of the word “artificial”. Maybe these artificial encounters teach us to pay attention and appreciate our real experiences––or at least notice them from time to time

About the contributor: Lee Walton is an artist. He earned his Masters in Fine Art from the California College of Arts in 2000. He has been commissioned by museums, institutions, cities and organizations both nationally and internationally to create exhibitions, lectures, projects, experimental workshops, performances, and public events. He is currently an Associate Professor of Art at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, a father, husband and average golfer. He also has his own Facebook page facebook.com/leewaltonartist and website leewalton.com.