The current pandemic and mandated quarantines have prompted myriad new questions around the role of art and society and what it all means in a digital, socially-distanced world. Do it, an exhibition conceived in 1993 by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist with artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, in many ways answers the prompt organically. It is a constellation of instructional art that can be explored at home cross-continentally.
This year, Obrist collaborated with Sydney-based Kaldor Public Art Projects for its first iteration of the exhibition as well as with Independent Curators International (ICI), which built upon its 1995 do it. Separately, the Serpentine Galleries in London, where Obrist serves as Director, worked with Google to present a history of the exhibition—including old work—alongside 30 new commissions. The tentacles of do it (around the world) are expansive and exploring all of its iterations is discombobulating. Each host presents do it on a distinct platform. Kaldor and ICI, showcasing different artists, create platforms that allow one to sink into the exhibition, fostering a sensation of surprise as works jump from being centered around spirit to craft to food.
do it works are primarily written texts that may be accompanied by a video showing the artist, architect, or dancer completing or reading the instruction. Kaldor Public Art Projects invited 18 artists to create works that are presented on a single landing page organized by artist name. Latai Taumoepeau (b. 1972 Eora Nation, Sydney, Australia)—whose interdisciplinary, body-centered performance practice explores climate change, assimilation, and ancestral heritage—prompts a meditative confrontation of genealogical pasts. The work invites the viewer to imagine the umbilical cord, travel slowly in a circle, and recite the names of siblings and generations that came before. A video featuring a sign language interpreter accompanies the work, and the translator stands in front of an oceanic gradient screen. The blue palate and the video expand access and awareness, and allow viewers to sink into the work, despite digital dimensionality.
ICI’s manual builds upon the institution’s 1995 production of do it (home). For this revamped and augmented version, Carrie Mae Weems (b. 1953, Portland, OR), directs viewers to “face the daily force…and remember to dream.” The second half of the text is overlaid on a black-and-white photograph of dense summer clouds. It’s easy to imagine the cerulean sky that spills through the condensed water above. The work of Weems and Taumoepeau sprawl within these devoted digital spaces.
On Google, do it (around the world) is presented in a manner that privileges action-based headlines, allowing visitors to target which works of art they seek to engage. But whatever advantages may come with the self-selecting layout are muted by the categorizations which prioritize action-based projects over expansiveness and imagination.
Google Arts and Culture collaborated with the Serpentine most directly for do it (around the world). This presentation includes a comprehensive history of do it, a question and answer with Obrist, and the presentation of older work alongside new. To allow visitors personalized paths through the exhibition, Google offers headlines. For instance “Rirkrit Tiravanija cooks up some flavor” and “Set the table with Tracey Emin” hover above the respective artist’s work. While these actions are incorporated in the works that follow, the works are also far more expansive than the headlines convey. Tiravanija (b. 1961, Buenos Aires, Argentina) directs readers to store the final product “in the jars for distribution” and Emin (b. 1963 Croydon, UK) sets the table not with dishes and cutlery, but with 27 bottles of different shapes and colors. Tiravanija’s do it may prompt an analysis of distribution pathways or an imagining of the final consumer, yet the microaggressive banner limits the ideas into a twee DIY culinary activity. Similarly, Emin’s work may be read as a subversive questioning of the ritual of table setting, yet it is presented as a surface activity for passing time.
While it is not the responsibility of Google to mine the depths of each work, there could have been a more thoughtful exploration of the exhibition. The lack of regard for the potential layers behind the artists’ actions is underscored by a bulky and cumbersome presentation that makes the exhibition difficult to maneuver. Besides the bannered headlines, there is little attention to visual identity and finding the same work twice does not happen effortlessly. The other presenting organizations—including Bloomberg Connects App who showcases the new do it works also on Google—carved more focused digital spaces. The clarity in their presentation encourages exploration simply by allowing the work to expand in the digital realm. Google Art and Culture’s approach mirrors the search engine method: provide as much information as possible, allow the explorer to self-select. The lack of refinement when it comes to digital art sours.
If committed visitors make it to the bottom of the exhibition, a disclosure that underpins do it Google is revealed: “The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.” The third party is of course the Serpentine Galleries. In collaborating with Google for this exhibition Serpentine seems to have bent to the whim of the tech behemoth. An organization with a market capitalization of one trillion coupled with a pioneering arts institution could have used this opportunity to create something truly meaningful. Instead it seems Google received the content and made it clickable at the expense of depth.
The platforms of the other presenting institutions which showcase the work in a fashion that allows viewers to explore more liberally without prompting headlines, emphasizes the differing priorities between the organizational hosts. As digital humanities retain a foothold and expand, and while the role of museums in societies continues to shift, fostering audience growth and supporting artists and their work presents opportunities for thoughtful collaboration and new conversation. The case of do it and its 2020 iterations should enable conversation around growth with an emphasis on what the next chapter looks like.