DEVOTION GALLERY | AUGUST 6 – AUGUST 14
Morgan Packard’s participation-based art project, Dihedral Product, came close to taking a stance against creativity. In brief, he tasked participants with work so mindless and autonomous that it could have been done equally well by an idiot or a scholar. So in a way it was an ideal community activity, art as total democracy.
These types of community-oriented projects are certainly not new, but they never really get old either. Rikrit Tiravanija’s Thai meals will always be a good time, even if they become redundant in the contemporary art canon. The same is true for Tom Marioni’s bar/installation, The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends is the Highest Form of Art. Nicolas Bourriaud titled these forms of art “relational aesthetics,” advancing the notion that human relations and their social contexts can be a point of departure for artists. This is fine, but it speaks to a somewhat obvious point. Like-minded individuals have a desire to assemble and perhaps, even make something while they’re at it. This spirit is particularly strong in Williamsburg at the moment, which made it a fitting—if somewhat obvious—location for Packard’s Dihedral Product, which lasted a total ofeight days and included a sound component.
Packard is a Brooklyn based artist and musician with a background in mixing the two forms. It appeared as though Packard was far more interested in the construction of his sculpture than in its exhibition, given that he dedicated six days to building and only two to showing. The public was invited to help him out on each of the six days, during which time Packard also invited his musically inclined friends to contribute an audible element. Most of the music was electronic; a few of Packard’s sonic collaborators played live, others sent in recordings. This was arguably the sole creative act of the project. The musicians were free to decide how and what they would play—everyone else followed a set of instructions.
On Thursday, August 11 (the day before the opening), I took a few friends to the Devotion Gallery to participate in Packard’s project. The fundamental form of the sculpture was a tetrahedron, composed of used office paper and scotch tape. Packard instructed us to roll lengthwise, using three pieces of tape to secure the roll, and then he showed us how to assemble our rolled up paper into a tetrahedron. It was easy labor, accompanied on that night by Kenneth Kirshner’s recording of a Bach piece slowed down to last for 24 hours. It droned as we rolled, taped, and bantered.
The final sculpture looked something like a computer-generated image of a mountain with two peaks and faces that were alternately smooth and jagged, depending on whether or not any tetrahedrons were left cantilevered. It occupied roughly a third of the gallery, reaching for (but not touching) the ceiling. Scale was the dominant feature and was essentially a measure of the public’s participation. The more labor, the larger the sculpture, the more impressive the piece, and ultimately, the more sublime. After all, the pyramids wouldn’t be wonders of the world if they weren’t so big. The AIDS quilt wouldn’t be as affecting if it wasn’t gigantic. Participation-based art, however, champions the process over the object, which in this case was no more compelling in itself than John Cage’s 4’33 would be if played out of a stereo.
Initially the process of rolling and taping seemed like dumb labor, pre-Industrial Revolution type work. Rather than giving the public an opportunity to do something creative it set us up as if we were so many autonomous machines. Once we settled into a rhythm, however, the mindlessness of our task became relaxing, like an active meditation. After the chitchat began the process seemed more in line with the Amish or Mennonite tradition of quilt making—as much a social event as it was a working one—than any recent examples of contemporary art. And the fact that the gallery was formerly a hair salon—traditionally a place dedicated to beauty and gossip—gave the gathering a quasi-generational component, as if we were carrying on the legacy of the space.
In the end Morgan Packard’s Dihedral Product wasn’t exactly about sculpture; nor was it about the process, per se. Technically speaking, if the product was dihedral, then it occurred at the intersection of two planes: one musical, the other sculptural. Packard’s product, therefore, was the environment created by these elements. It was a relaxing environment, as simple as the tetrahedron, and just as easy to multiply ad infinitum. It may not have been the most stimulating or profound art project—that wasn’t the goal—but it was a nice place to spend some time, and that’s always of value.
CHARLES SCHULTZ is a writer based in New York City.