Being Available in Response

Frank Chimero, a man full of good ideas, shared another one recently: a text playlist. Basically, it’s a selection of readings that he revisits on a regular basis, “almost a pep talk in text form,” as he describes it. Frank’s list included a ton of good stuff (I’ve done some thinking about “stock and flow” myself), and the wonderful Liz Danzico responded in kind with a great list of her own.

I’m still working on my list, but while I’m in the process of pulling it together I decided I had to share one reading that I’ve been revisiting a lot over the last few days. It’s from Lawrence Weschler’s incredible book Seeing Is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees, which is about the artist Robert Irwin. Chapter 15 is called “Being Available in Response,” which is also the name of a project initiated by Irwin.

The first time I read this chapter I nearly lept out of my chair — I got so excited I reread it three or four times right away.

Rather than trying to explain the project too much, though, I’ll let Irwin (and Weschler) tell you about it as they do in the book. Here’s Irwin:

“I just sort of let it be known that I was available, in a way like I’m saying it to you. I mean, I didn’t put out any ads or anything, but word got around. And you could be, let’s say, up at UCLA, and you’d say, ‘Well, let’s take advantage of that. We’ll have him come up and talk to the students.’ And that’s what I’d do. Or, ‘We’ll have him come up and do a piece on the patio.’ And I would just come up and do that.

“There’s an important distinction to be made here,” [Irwin] continued, “between organizing and proselytizing, on the one hand, and responding to interest, on the other. I was and continue to be available in response. I mean, I don’t stand on a corner and hand out leaflets. I’m not an evangelist. I’m not trying to sell anything. But on the other hand, if you ask me a question, you’re going to get a half-hour answer.’”

People scratched their heads. Weschler explains:

Irwin was available in response but for a long time nobody asked. Nobody knew what to make of the offer, and Irwin was no help: he didn’t have a clue. “Curators would ask me, ‘If we invite you, what are you going to do?’ and I would have to say, ‘Well, I don’t know what I’m going to do; I’ll just spend some time there and then decide.’ […] In other words, we had no connection, because they kept needing something tangible, and I kept saying, ‘I don’t know,’ which also put into these situations the possibility of failure. I could go to the Walker Museum, let’s say, and they’d set up an exhibition with all their catalogues and press releases and everything, and there was a risk that when I got there, I wouldn’t be able to come up with anything.”

Though it was slow to gain momentum, Irwin’s idea eventually caught on. Weschler continues:

[…] By 1972–73, enthusiasm had soared to such an extent that Irwin was almost continually on the road, wending his way through labyrinthine tours, traveling weeks on end, for example, from one small midwestern college to another. […] At each stop he might stay a week, talk with students, contrive an installation, stir things up, and then be gone. For many young art students in the vast middle reaches of this continent during the pale middle reaches of the past decade, Irwin’s roadshow constituted a first exposure to significant strains of modernism and minimalism.

The trips also grounded Irwin:

“The ideas I came to be dealing with during this period were getting real obscure, even for me, to the point where I was beginning to wonder what and how I practiced in the world. There were some critics who from a political perspective attacked that obscurity as a kind of elitism. […] To me, the crucial difference between obscurantism and elitism is availability.”

He charged nothing for his visits:

“I do things which from any social or political view are outrageous. I mean, they absolutely ignore all the social issues of the day. […] But my way of balancing that out is that there’s one thing I can do that has immediate social value, and that has been this kind of running around and talking with people. So I do that for free. Because I don’t want to put economics on it at all.”