“I Was a Tino Sehgal Interpreter” (As Told by Work-Study Students at the CCA Wattis Institute)
"Three hours of sitting in a chair and kissing my girlfriend seemed like an amusing thing to get paid for," muses Susannah Magers (MA Curatorial Practice 2011), reminiscing about the work-study position that she’ll probably always remember as one of the oddest jobs of her career.
Between 2007 and 2012, Magers and dozens of other CCA undergrad and grad students got paid by the college to serve as interpreters of artworks by the contemporary art phenom Tino Sehgal. The Sehgal artworks were presented one at a time, continuously over those six years, at the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts, in conjunction with its regular exhibition programming. The participating students all had to audition, and then, if selected, went through a rigorous training and worked many hours a week for the 12-week duration of the piece.
Often the works called for interactions with gallery visitors that were deliberately disjunctive -- somewhere between pranksterism and institutional critique -- and surprising to many attendees, who showed up expecting a nice, sedate gallery experience rather than some kind of live intervention.
For some of the students it was a thrilling brush with fame in the form of an international art star. For others it was just another (albeit pretty out-there) work-study gig. A few finished their first day in tears. And many came away from the experience with their own artistic or curatorial practice forever changed.
Up Close and Personal
"I was really interested to apply for the job," continues Magers, of her involvement in Guards kissing (2002, presented at the Wattis in 2010). "It was an opportunity to actively participate in an exhibition and with an artwork, in a different way from what I was doing every day as a student in the Curatorial Practice program.
"Our instructions were to sit in a chair, one in the other's lap. When we heard a visitor approach, that was our cue to start kissing. Then when the visitor wandered into audible range, one of us was supposed to look up, vacantly state the title of the piece and Sehgal's name as its author, and resume kissing. Calm and steady, not like a violent make-out session. And we weren't supposed to act startled, like the visitor had caught us doing something illicit. The idea was that they were happening upon us.”
But then, two hours into the first day, the work suddenly became excruciating. "I thought I'd enjoy it, as a curator, someone equipped to understand the conceptual underpinnings of the piece, but I found myself reduced to tears. I'm not sure if it was part of Sehgal's artistic intent! But I just felt really vulnerable. Of course I got over it, kind of. But it was an interesting 12 weeks."
This Is Production
Rebekah Goldstein (MFA 2012) interpreted Instead of allowing some things to rise up to your face, dancing bruce and dan and other things (2000, presented in 2011). "The work is a series of 16 different poses, and you are supposed to be always moving in the gallery, slowly, with total consciousness of your breathing. I’m a painter, and ordinarily I don't like being the center of attention, but I do have a background in dance and yoga, so it seemed like an interesting opportunity.
"Interpreting the piece was so different from my normal art making. Our coaches were two professional dancers from Berlin. They would tell us things like, 'You're not being honest with your breath.' It was funny, but it was also very serious.
"For the piece to be interpreted correctly, you have to commit to it. I went into it feeling lighthearted and was able to have fun. Once I got into that zone, it was very meditative. The shifts were three hours long -- extremely mentally and physically challenging. That is a really long time to lie on the concrete gallery floor."
Indeed, the job could be tough on an interpreter for a number of reasons: long periods of time when there were no visitors but you constantly had to be ready to launch into your act; times when you were distracted or low-energy and had to commit to a high-energy conversational piece; or times when you found yourself completely stressing out a hapless gallery visitor who had innocently wandered in to see some paintings. The best conditions were when there was steady foot traffic and visitors were arriving ready and excited to experience a Tino Sehgal artwork.
Ben Vilmain (MFA 2012) is one of the few students who worked on multiple Sehgal pieces. "The first one I performed was That absence (2009, presented in 2009, 2010, and 2011). I immediately found common ground with it because of its playful nature -- it felt like a variation of a hide-and-seek game I would have played as a kid. The downside was that I had to remain huddled behind the front desk for pretty much my entire four-hour shift. My instructions were to only speak if someone asked 'What are you doing down there?' or something to that effect, but people couldn't see me."
Em Meine (MFA 2013) recalls, "With This is production (2004, presented in 2012), which was a conversation-based piece, the most generative conversations happened at the opening. The visitors immediately understood what was happening as a Sehgal artwork and got into it."
"My most memorable day of interpreting Instead of allowing . . .," says Rebekah Goldstein, "was the day a couple stared at me for what seemed like an eternity, mesmerized. It was always more exciting and dynamic when there were people in the gallery. I found I brought a lot more to the piece, and it really came alive for me, when I knew I was being intensely watched. No one was ever hostile, but a lot of times people were uncomfortable and would tiptoe around me, trying to leave the room as quickly as possible."
Between Interpretation and Sabotage
Sehgal's work at times created a difficult situation for the interpreters, who were generally expected to serve simultaneously as gallery monitors. Many of them still to this day feel conflicted about the works they were paid to enact, which often subverted, or even flagrantly contradicted, the facilitating role a monitor is usually expected to fulfill.
Ben Vilmain performed kWh (2002-9, presented in 2011), which involved turning off the lights for two minutes and singing the title of the piece. "It was difficult because at times the work seemed to border on cruel mischief. Visitors would hear the 'chikclunk' of all 26 light switches flipping down simultaneously and they would be, like, 'What the f&%k is going on! Who turned off the lights?' Then the chant-like singing would ensue. By the time I had sung 'Teeeeeeenooooooo Saaaaaaaaygalllllllll . . .' I could hear the elevator being called. It was like clockwork. Lights go off, people leave. I had mixed feelings about the work, because I felt like I was an obstruction to those people just trying to look at some paintings, not to mention the other artists in the show. This caused me a decent amount of anxiety at first, but as the weeks wore on I embraced my role and used the periods of dark quietude to meditate. I thought to myself, 'This is not my work, and I cannot control how people react to it.' By the end I’d come to enjoy performing. All the initial anxieties were shed, and it became just me and my voice in an empty, dark room."
Em Meine also remembers kWh as somewhat agonizing, but for a different reason. "Visitors would feel uncomfortable, and sometimes they'd express their frustration at me. But ultimately, I felt less guilty about how the work was disturbing them than about how the work was disturbing the other works in the show and the artists who made them. Basically, for two minutes, we were taking a group exhibition and turning it into a Tino Sehgal solo show."
Nicolás "Nico" Colón (Sculpture and Media Arts 2011) was an undergraduate interpreter, and like Vilmain he worked on many pieces over the course of several years. "Because Tino's work is active in a passive gallery environment, it can sometimes walk all over everything. You cannot pay attention to a painting while someone is yelling, singing, or dancing, or the lights are off. That wasn't problematic for me as an interpreter but, as an artist, I can see it being problematic for another artist exhibiting their work in the same show."
"Sehgal's work is very obvious, very overpowering, very aggressive," agrees Susannah Magers. "At the Wattis, it seemed to me that the intentional tension was the dynamic of interference with other works in the concurrent show. As a curator I've thought about this a lot since, and I go back and forth on whether it’s a good thing. It can be really frustrating. But I think all of Sehgal's work has a strong conceptual integrity."
This is production was pitched to the interpreters as an artwork where they could come up with their own vision for an (unrealized, potential) Sehgal artwork. Ben Vilmain recalls it as one of the tougher pieces to hang in there for. "Our job was to initiate a conversation with a visitor and then tell/sell them on our idea, or at least keep them from just dismissing us. The times that I performed it, I felt like I was abusing my position of power. The visitor basically had to be impolite in order to get out of what was almost always an awkward situation. I felt like a sleazy used-car salesman. No, actually, I felt like one of those people you see outside of Whole Foods holding a clipboard. I was essentially asking, 'Hey, do you have a minute for Tino Sehgal?'
"The fact is that interpreting Tino Sehgal's works can at times be a very complicated venture," Vilmain continues. "There are aspects of his work that I did come to understand after having done multiple pieces, but I cannot say it made me like them more. The reactions were across-the-board and heavily dependent on the particular piece. I understand also that the Wattis was a special case for Sehgal in that it acted as a kind of testing ground. Our experiences were really different from, say, those of the interpreters at the Guggenheim in New York."
The Big Ask
Claire Fitzsimmons, deputy director of the Wattis Institute for the entire run of the Sehgal project, did most of the recruiting and training. "When we first started in 2007, Sehgal wasn't so well known in the U.S. and there was a certain amount of needing to sell the CCA students on the idea of working as interpreters. It’s a big 'ask,' if you think about it, but the first batches of work-studies became committed to an equal degree, meaning that they really believed, and became evangelical about the work."
This is production, Em Meine reflects, sometimes felt like a chore, since it involved an extended conversation with a gallery visitor, and it was a balancing act to keep the visitor engaged, stay in character, and adhere to Sehgal's conceptual intent. "I appreciated that the piece was so open-ended, but it was difficult to resist the urge to make up my own 'conditions' under which I would perform it. I was definitely working against what I thought Sehgal would have wanted. The line between interpretation and sabotage got a little blurry."
Nico Colón reports having felt "a real obligation to give the visitor a good show. They came to see some art, so, I figure, I need to execute the piece correctly or else I'm doing an injustice to the visitor, I'm doing an injustice to the work, and I'm doing an injustice to Tino Sehgal.
"Most of the training sessions were on Skype. Sehgal is amazing in that he remembers every interpreter -- their name, stuff about them. He makes you think of him as your friend and want to please him. He was very, very aware of the need to make sure we were happy, felt included, felt special, not like cogs in a machine, because we were the ones producing his work. If we as interpreters were not happy in our relationship with him, then the work would not have been good, and it would have reflected poorly on him.
"And then there’s the fact that it's a job. You start to like it more because you get better and better at it, but you also start to hate it because it’s always the same, or you get upset that you aren't getting paid enough or aren’t getting more recognition for good work. All normal things in the workplace. Sehgal does a great job of getting the interpreters excited, but in the end they always break down. Because of my Wattis experience I was hired to work as an interpreter and trainer at the Guggenheim when Sehgal had his solo show there. And the breakdowns happened at the Guggenheim, too."
They Pay You For This?
Sehgal's works never, as a matter of principle, involve the production of objects. Indeed, he doesn’t even allow the venues presenting them to generate the usual "paper trail" of wall labels, brochures, press releases, and the like. Which creates a situation in which gallery visitors may not identify what they are seeing as art, and assume it's just strange behavior on the part of gallery employees.
"One time," Susannah Magers remembers, "a couple of kids came in with their mom while I was doing the kissing piece. Children are interesting barometers because they say what's on their minds. 'Mom, what is that?' 'Oh, that's art, move along!'"
Nico Colón summarizes visitor types: "There are the ones who get overly excited and think, 'Hey, this is really cool!' and start talking to you, even though the rules of that particular work may not allow you to talk back. Or they wink, like, 'Yeah, I get it! Good job!' You get this especially from people who arrive already knowing about Sehgal's work. There are the people who are shocked or bewildered, and question everything -- this is the reaction Sehgal is really looking for—or say, 'I can’t deal with this,' which is powerful too. Then there are the people who completely ignore the work -- which I think is a really rude reaction -- or completely misunderstand it. When I was doing Guards kissing, some people would say 'They pay you for this?' or 'Get a room!' thinking we were just some college kids making out in the gallery."
This Is Indeed Critique
Arden Sherman (Curatorial Practice 2010) was an interpreter for This is critique (2008), which took place during an exhibition that she and her classmates had organized as their thesis presentation in 2010. The thesis show is always a thorny matter for the curatorial students, since so much is at stake and so much compromise is necessary, and tensions tend to run high. They decided the theme of their show would be a meditation on resistance to institutional demands, and Sehgal decided that the perfect work to complement all this contrariness would be This is critique.
Sherman remembers: "We had to approach visitors and state three criticisms of Tino Sehgal's work. One, of course, is that it disrupts contemplation. Another is that the artist refuses to allow photographic documentation of it. Then we were supposed to do the big reveal -- 'What I'm doing now is a piece by Tino Sehgal called This is critique. And I think it's really egotistical to create a work about your own criticisms' -- and then seamlessly segue back into delivering the criticisms.
"It was funny, because I totally agree with the criticisms—his work does disrupt contemplation, and I don't think it's a good idea for an artist to resist documentation of their work -- and yet I really admire Sehgal for being unconventional. We need more artists like him.
"And it was amazing to work with him. He didn’t always come to the Wattis to do the trainings for his pieces, but he did for this one, and he worked very intensively with us for three days. It was wonderful, the best training. I would love to work with him again in some capacity."
For This is about (2003, presented in 2008), halfway through a conversation in which the interpreter is giving a tour of the show, the interpreter is supposed to break character and begin speaking in a zombie-like voice for the reveal -- 'What do you think this is about, Tino Sehgal, 2003' -- then dive back into the tour. Nico Colón remembers, "It's ironic, and intentionally so, I think, that in executing a work called What do you think this is about you don't let people formulate their own thoughts about what they are seeing. You destroy the poetics of the open work because you, the interpreter, become this authority explaining it to the layperson."
Each group of students ranged from eight to twelve, and at any given time, says Claire Fitzsimmons, two or three of them really owned the piece at hand, really took possession of it in an interesting way. "Some were very starry-eyed about working with Sehgal, and others engaged on a deeply conceptual level. Some hadn't done anything performance-related before but became very interested in it, and their practices changed profoundly."
"My work was very much affected by Sehgal's work," says Nico Colón. "At first I was overwhelmed; I didn't know how I could make work post-Tino. But this was mostly because I was a student. I hadn't been exposed yet to other forms of institutional critique. As my education progressed, I started to have my own critiques of Sehgal's work. This was really important for my growth as an artist."
Rebekah Goldstein was simply excited to be part of the art piece. "It didn't register as work. It wasn't about the money. And I didn't think about the power dynamics much. It was just an awesome, unusual job for a couple of months."
Arden Sherman had an interview recently for a position in a museum public programs department. "It was a useful thing to be able to say I'd performed in a work by Tino Sehgal that dealt both very directly and very abstractly with visitor experience and interpretation. That work-study position didn’t have a massive impact on my practice personally, but it definitely made me less interested in the typical, static 'gallery experience' of art."
At the end of the day, reflects Em Meine, it's strange to be an artist getting paid to perform another artist's work -- essentially getting paid to be an artwork. "I still can't say whether I like Sehgal's work or not. But it's definitely interesting. A lot of the things I'm making now are also somehow antagonistic toward the audience. Interpreting Sehgal's work allowed me to explore how people respond to different kinds of antagonism."
It's My Experience
Sehgal's mandate banning photo and video documentation of his work and his recent refusal even to give interviews has resulted in a situation where very little has been recorded about the actual mechanics of his pieces. The future may well reveal that the recordings of musings by CCA students who worked as his interpreters are a major gold mine of information for scholarship surrounding his work. If most of the sophisticated thinking about the work exists purely as oral histories, then these alumni are the living archive.
And their cumulative experience is far more than the sum of its parts. Sehgal has in the last couple of years reached the elite circles of his craft, landing shows at the Guggenheim, dOCUMENTA (13) in Kassel, Germany, and Tate Modern in London. But the interpreters at those other venues were not likely to be artists themselves, whereas at CCA they were almost all art and curatorial students, and thus coming at the work with greater than average critical insight.
For instance Nico Colón mused, during his interview for this story, about his authorial claim to his own memories. "As I am describing my experience of Tino Sehgal's work to you right now, I find myself wondering if I'm even allowed to. I don’t know! There were no photos or video allowed, but am I still documenting it by talking about it?
"I guess as long as I'm not actively working for him, at this moment, I can be free to express myself. So I am morally off the hook. It's my experience, after all. The artwork is Sehgal's, but I own my own experience. If he owned my experience, that would actually bother me.
"I suppose it's good that his work makes me even think about this."