91: Sal Randolph

Am I open to change?


The Free Manifesta office. Photo: Sal Randolph.


“The very life we’re living…is so excellent once one gets one’s mind and one’s desires out of the way and lets it act of its own accord.” – John Cage [1]

Open is easy. Am I open? Do I like open? Sure, yes, of course. Everyone likes open. It sounds like a blue sky, like the ocean. It sounds like an invitation. Open is easy. Change, though: we all know change is hard. The 13th century Zen master Eihei Dogen said, “flowers fall even though we love them; weeds grow even though we dislike them.”[2] Everything around us is always changing, not always in ways that make us happy.

I wonder, though, if “open” is so easy after all. Open means we let things in. US Open. Open mic. An open door. At the moment my apartment building’s front door is broken, unlocked; anyone can come in if they try, and now someone is plundering the packages left by the mailboxes. Uh oh. Sometimes you wish you could close and lock a door.

As an artist and un-artist, I’m keenly interested in finding ways for my own work to surprise me. To me it is the sign that the work is alive, that it exceeds my intentions. I push my work towards openness, to regulate less of what comes in.

I ran a couple of open biennials once, “biennials” that anyone was free be a part of (The Free Biennial and Free Manifesta). These were actively uncurated, and one thing I initially hoped for was to explore my own anxieties about “good” and “bad” art. I wanted to have to stand publicly with work I didn’t like, work I might even be embarrassed by. Why? Because I was deeply curious about this category of “bad” art. Theodor Adorno once described the “ugly” as “a cannon of prohibitions.”[3] The ugly may now be an acceptable art category, but the “bad” remains forbidden, excluded, feared.

In the end, that’s not what happened. I didn’t have to stand next to much work that embarrassed me. Artists selected themselves for inclusion in the projects in a way that made that question disappear. Instead I was surprised by a flood of practices and projects outside of the art market that had previously been invisible to me.

There were psychogeographies, situations, one on one performances, interventions in public and commercial space, apartment installations and shows within the shows. Hundreds of multiples were given away. There was net art, mail art, telephone art, and pirate radio. New themes emerged from what the artists brought into this free space: the nature of the gift, what was possible to imagine or encounter in public space, alternative and critical economies. I found that the normal habits of curatorial exclusion and control were not in any way necessary to the creation of large, intellectually challenging, lively exhibitions filled with art practices that were rarely seen. All I had to do was keep my original ideas from preventing what emerged of its own accord.

I’ve been spending time with Umberto Eco’s The Open Work[4]. It marks a shift in collective awareness (c. 1962) among critics and artists around the idea of what it might mean for a work of art to be “open” (both Claire Bishop and Judith Rodenbeck have written interestingly about the importance of the idea of the open work to the history of participatory art). Eco described a kind of feedback loop between ideas of openness in reception (the viewer making the work as they perceive it) and in creation (the artist deliberately leaving aspects of the work unfinished, like a “construction kit”). The idea that “every reception of a work of art is…a performance of it” (as Eco says) opened new zones of creative possibility for artists. Works became more like scores. The idea of who might be performing those scores opened out to include those who had once been the audience.

Making social art, or doing any form of social practice, means being surprised by what enters when you open the door. You don’t know who will show up to be part of your work. You don’t know what they will bring. You may be delighted, or you may not like what appears. In a way, “open” is the same thing as “change” – “flowers fall although we love them, weeds grow even though we dislike them.” In relinquishing some of the traditional control of the artist there is the possibility of real curiosity and surprise. The rigorous joy of social art is the joy of unknowing.
free biennial

free biennial 2

Free Biennial. Photos: Sal Randolph.

[1] Cage, J. (1957 Winter). Experimental Music (Silence), Address given to the convention of the Music Teachers National Association in Chicago, Illinois, IL.
[2] Okumura, S. (2010). Realizing Genjokoan: The Key to Dogen’s Shobogenzo.New York: Wisdom Publications.
[3] Adorno, T. W. (2013). Aesthetic theory. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
[4] Eco, U. (1989). The open work. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

About the contributor: Sal Randolph lives in Brooklyn and makes artworks involving gift economies, social interactions, public spaces and publishing. Her Money Actions in which she gives away money to members of the public as both provocation and invitation have been featured in the 2011 Biennial of Graphic Arts in Ljubljana, Slovenia, the Live Biennial, Open Engagement, and in Cabinet Magazine. She has recently been doing research and teaching on the topic of attention as a visiting fellow at Princeton University and is developing new work for upcoming exhibitions at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris and at Raygun Projects in Toowoomba, Australia. She is also investigating experience, value, games, play, and language. salrandolph.com.