Commodifying Experience? “14 Rooms” at Art Basel


The shared interests of museums and the market are often played down by all concerned.Yet nowhere is the overlap more clearly on display than in the new project “14 Rooms,” an exhibition-within-a-fair featuring 14 performance art pieces at the current Art Basel (through June 22). Co-presented by the mammoth fair along with the Swiss museum Fondation Beyeler and municipal playhouse Theater Basel, the show is co-curated by a globetrotting duo made up of Klaus Biesenbach (director of New York’s MoMA PS1 and MoMA curator at large) and Hans Ulrich Obrist (co-director of exhibitions and programs at London’s Serpentine Gallery). The curators’ stated aim, as they explained in a self-described “ping-pong presentation” to a small press corps on Tuesday, is to lay the groundwork for a future museum of performance art.

This is the fourth itineration of the pair’s “Rooms” project, which was launched in 2011 with “11 Rooms” during the Manchester International Festival. It continued as “12 Rooms” at the International Art Festival RuhrTriennial in 2012 and at Kaldor Public Art Projects, Sydney, Australia, in 2013.

Basel-based, Pritzker-winning architects Herzog & de Meuron donated the box-like construction that houses the exhibition. Its many mirrored surfaces seem conceived to encourage Internet dissemination of selfies, the epitome of corporate-style “guerrilla” marketing.

In Tuesday’s presentation, Biesenbach and Obrist outlined some “rules of the game” for the exhibition: the works had to be conceived as human sculptures; they had to include very specific and clear instructions for their implementation, almost like a script; and they could not be performed by the artists themselves.

These rules certainly seem to work well for some of the projects, such as Marina AbramoviÄ?’s Luminosity, one of 10 pieces that have been included in every previous iteration of “Rooms.” It features a naked female perched on a bicycle seat mounted high up on a wall, with her arms extended, under a bright spotlight. Given the grueling nature of the performance, questions of exploitation and self-abuse immediately arise. Performers proved to be more difficult to recruit than expected, according to the curators. Indeed, why subject oneself to such exposure and vulnerability, except for the perceived glory of working with a world-renowned artist on a global stage?

And what of performances that depend on the element of chance, as in, for example, all of Tino Sehgal’s “constructed situations”? Relying on unrehearsed public participation, they cannot be fully scripted, despite Biesenbach and Obrist’s wishes. Another work that relies on chance is Roman Ondák’s Swap (2011), in which a performer sitting behind a desk holds an object of his or her choice that he or she must swap with a visitor. Once the exchange is consummated, the performer begins anew, trading the object with the next visitor. In Yoko Ono’s scenario, visitors entering the box are plunged into complete darkness. Uncertainty permeates the experience, since participants have been instructed to touch other visitors already inside. Indeed, this performance has but one instruction—”touch.” The outcomes are unknown. How can such a work be bought and sold?

Biesenbach and Obrist’s intended commodification of experiences into salable concepts destined for a museum collection goes against the grain of the founding philosophy of performance art, which, at its inception, was intended to be ephemeral. In view of that, only a few institutions have started collecting performance work. It remains to be seen how this proposed museum of performance will take shape.