What if visual artists worked like composers, and wrote instructions for pieces to be realized again and again by others? Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist posed that question to a couple of artist friends in 1993. The resulting show of instruction-based artworks has been touring ever since, visiting more than 60 venues in more than 30 countries under the name, do it.
Do it is the most portable of exhibitions, and the most evanescent. The 250 artists' instructions that have been solicited so far by Obrist were published in a book that anyone can buy (do it: the compendium). Whatever gets built – by museum personnel or visitors to the gallery – is taken apart and recycled when the show is over.
Florence-Agathe Dubé-Moreau, the young curator behind the latest iteration at the Galerie de l'Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), chose 60 instructions from the book, and commissioned new ones from 10 Quebec artists. She asked another 14 artists to participate in periodic performances of some instructions, including choreographic actions by Paul-André Fortier and William Forsythe.
Instruction-based art is a simple strategy for demystifying the making of art. It also disengages the commodity and fetish value that cling to art objects, because in this setting nothing proceeds directly from the creator's hand.
At UQAM's do it, you can participate in a piece by the late Sol LeWitt simply by drawing a parallel line on a wall. Some may get a thrill from this active connection to the work of this art-world star, who put many parallel lines on many walls. But the result at UQAM will be scrubbed off the wall after the show ends, and won't be added to his catalogue raisonné.
Instruction-based art's bias against commodification is part of a larger moral attitude sketched out in Yoko Ono's sweetly subversive Grapefruit: A Book of Instructions and Drawings. Like Ono, several artists in UQAM's do it are less focused on getting us to make things than to change our outlook.
Larry Tremblay, for instance, asks for an old-school photo booth, dutifully built by gallery staff, in which we are instructed to take a selfie, and then vow that it's the last we'll ever take. Suzanne Lacy asks that we declare and publish our solidarity with rape victims, though when I visited no one had yet taken the obvious route of scrawling their support directly on the wall.
Dubé-Moreau has paired some artists in provocative ways. Martine Delvaux's empowering instructions to women artists, for instance, are displayed along with Michelle Lacombe's request that her name be struck out wherever it appears in the show or related materials. Bruce Nauman's Body Pressure (1974), which tells us to press our bodies into the wall into a consciousness exercise "that may become very erotic," is right next to Eszter Salamon's "slow and fluid" choreographic series of 46 love-making positions. She calls for three reps, clothed and in public, the first time with eyes closed, the second while as much kissing as possible, and the third while looking at the onlookers whenever one can. Wants & Needs Dance will try that on for size during a performance in the gallery on Feb. 3.
In the same spirit of public awkwardness, Dana Michel gives detailed instructions on how individuals should hand out Q-tips to strangers in an unsettling way at the door of the gallery building. There's a log for those who have done so, following the firm do it rule that everything must be documented.
Overall, however, there are fewer on-site DIY opportunities for the visitor than this kind of show seems to demand. The instructions for off-site actions such as Lacy's are less detailed and beguiling than, say, those featured in Miranda July's Learning to Love You More project, which published 70 "assignments" online between 2002 and 2009. These included "make a field guide to your yard," "draw the news," and "act out someone else's argument." Hundreds of people posted video and audio responses, in a guided public exploration that was acquired in 2010 by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
UQAM's do it seems less focused on the public as a dynamic body whose creativity is waiting to be stirred. Some of that comes through in responses to Etel Adnan's instructions for colouring squares in a grid, in a strict sequence of shades. The first grid begins in an orderly fashion, but people soon start drawing stuff instead of filling in the squares, and by the third grid, it's a free-for-all, with one person drawing an orange horse over four squares.
The lesson of that result is that if the rules are boring enough, a bit of anarchy comes into the gallery, as it almost never does otherwise. Christophe Barbeau plays more directly with the same idea, doubling down on do it's DIY approach by urging Montrealers to start another do it somewhere else, and to sow confusion about which is the "real" one.
Interactivity is a bigger thing now than when do it was first thought up 23 years ago. In that sense, even with new instructions added, the show betrays its age. The gallery space is still under tight curatorial control, the most complete control coming in those pieces that call for broad transformation but no direct action. As such, do it doesn't go nearly as far as it might to renovate the old Horatian axiom, that art should delight and instruct.
Do it continues at the UQAM Galerie, 1400 Rue Berri in Montreal, through Feb. 20. Live performances of selected instructions will take place at the Galerie on Feb. 3, starting at 7 p.m.