The Institutional Beast

     In 1973 when I happened to be passing through Paris, I was asked by a local organizer of music and dance events if I would do something there. I agreed, but said I didn't want to do an event, but instead, an installation. I also insisted that I wanted to do it in the city itself rather than a theater or concert hall.

     At this time the idea of contemporary artists working in public spaces rather than exclusively in the cultural context of museums had not yet been established in the United States, and it would be another fifteen years before it arrived in Paris. My host was naturally puzzled, but in good faith agreed to try.

     She assigned a translator to take me around the city to look for a site. As they thought of me as a distinguished musician, they felt nothing but the most prominent landmarks of the city would do. It became clear fairly quickly that, unlike New York with its many raw, rough and ready sites, most of Paris had already been done in some fashion or another. I tried to explain that what I was looking for was something ordinary that I could make into something extraordinary, but I was stepping into dangerous territory - they did not want to entertain the idea that it was possible for me to reject a famous Paris landmark as a site for a work of mine.

     On the second day, while on the way to one of these landmarks and when we couldn't find a taxi, we were forced to take the Metro. As it happened, we had to change trains at the Montparnasse-Bienvenue interchange. After winding our way through several narrow tunnels, we suddenly came out at one end of a long wide corridor with three moving sidewalks. I was stunned. The bell rang.

     I insisted that this was the place. Over many objections, even after we got past the no landmark issue - if it has to be a tunnel in the Metro at least do the one at Chatelet, it may be small and constricted, but it's near the theaters - it was agreed to go ahead ... but things did not move very fast.

     On my once or twice a year sojourns through Paris, contacts were made and a few meetings with the Metro administration (the RATP) occurred; but basically throughout the seventies, they humored me. In the early eighties, though, a group of sociologists working within the RATP heard about the project, and became interested. Their role in the organization was to find ways to make the Metro more amenable.

     They wanted to know what it would be like. I told them I didn't have the slightest idea, and explained my method - entering the space without preconceptions, exploring with sound by ear, and forming the work from what I found there. It took another year before their Descartian inner voices could be muffled sufficiently for us to proceed.

     In 1983, they provided some money to allow me to start exploring the space with sound. At this point they proposed that we contact the Ministry of Culture. In France, organizational responsibilities are clearly divided and there was no way they, being under the Ministry of Transportation, could proceed with a cultural project without the agreement of the ministry which governed culture.

     This is where the real trouble began. First, the ministry was deeply offended that I had approached the RATP first instead of them. In my naive manner, I had thought that if one had a proposal for a particular space, one should approach the organization which controlled that space. In fact, it turned out that I was right - the Ministry of Culture had been at war with the RATP for years. If I had approached the ministry first, I would not have gotten as far as I had.

     Given this bad start, it was a miracle that I got any further. Eventually the project was grudgingly shovelled down through the various layers of the ministerial bureaucracy to a new program concerned with 'connecting the arts and the private sector', i. e. Arts and Business, an already very tired idea in the mid-eighties.

     By that time I had begun working with sound in the corridor from one to five in the morning, when the Metro was closed. After several months of negotiation a meeting was finally set up in the tunnel one night, between myself and the director of the Arts and Business program (I've forgotten his name).

     It did not begin well. He began by saying he hadn't been in the Metro for years, but it was much nicer than he remembered, without all the people. Next, he wanted to know exactly what the work would be; he wanted me to play the piece for him.

     We had had discussions before about my method and the reasons for it, but I think he had dismissed these as obfuscation and, more important, a challenge to his authority to decide whether my work was worthy of support or not.

     I played nice.

     Explaining carefully that it was impossible to 'hear' the work before it was built, I went on to give him and his cohorts a demonstration of how I could transform the huge rumbling sound of the moving sidewalks, simply by mixing with it some sound colors I had been preparing. I felt that I should also explain why I was interested in working in a place they disdained so much, and the next day wrote the following statement:

     ‘Although I work in the cultural context of museums, many of my installations have been in public places - on the street or as part of transportation systems. I am always surprised when people ask me why I am interested in working in such places - as if these places were somehow unworthy of serious aesthetic endeavors. The idea being, I suppose, that unless we carefully prepare and maintain special places like museums and concert halls, and educate audiences in how to perceive works of art within them, the aesthetic experience cannot occur.

     ‘I feel the opposite, i. e. that the aesthetic experience is natural to the human being, a phenomenon of living, and further that it is highly unique to each individual. By limiting it to one singular approach or particular kind of place, we have codified and classified it to the point where we begin to endanger the possibility of its occurrence.

     ‘The impetus for my first sound installation was an interest in working with a public at large. Inserting works into their daily domain in such a way that people could find them in their own time and on their own terms. Disguising them within their environments in such a way that people discovered them for themselves and took possession of them, led by their curiosity into listening.’

     It didn't take. The message from the ministry was that without a maquette there would be no support. This turned out to be such a laughable response (they wanted me to build a model of an empty tunnel with an invisible sound work in it?) that later they decided to make a deal, hoping that they could finally rid themselves of this troublesome project: if I could raise seventy percent of the budget, they would provide the remaining thirty.

     I didn't mention that I thought it was supposed to be their specialty to connect the arts and business, realizing that getting artists to do their work for them was probably their technique. I am sure they never thought I could do it (he can't even speak French).

     I found someone who could help with the fund raising, and went on working in the tunnel. After six months, they were presented with commitments from the RATP and a major French bank for the seventy percent.

     Then I waited.

     After a year, the support from the RATP and the bank disintegrated: they were mystified.

     The ministry had simply never replied.

     When it became clear that no one else dared even to ask them why, I bowed and admitted defeat. And went on to other things.

     This story does not depict a particularly French problem; it could have happened anywhere - cultural bureaucracy is a global disease. In fact, often the French are more bureaucratically adept than other cultures.

     The problem lies with the mixture of something new with the dogma of ingrained institutional habits, and the tendency of bureaucracies to collect the inept. The larger the bureaucracy, the more slowly it adapts to change. Frequently it consumes the core of the innovation while absorbing it, leaving only a hackneyed skeleton of the original idea.

     Cultural institutions commonly rely on committees to make their decisions. It's safe; no one has to take responsibility, nobody can be blamed for anything. Yet the nature of committees is political. Even if the committee is composed of dedicated members of the cultural community, the nature of the organism itself dilutes its concern with the aesthetic.

     Sometimes attempts are made in the cultural world to justify the committee as democratic. This poor word, recently mauled as a euphemism for capitalism by the free booters to justify global economic exploitation, and in the process applied to the arts as a justification for mediocrity (a more broad based line of products). And leading then, through further semantic confusion, to 'non-elitist' art - not a bad idea if applied to the audience of art (why should the appreciation of art be limited to those with insider knowledge?) - but becomes a disaster when applied to the art itself.

     A culture is not a form of government. It grows only with a constant and passioned refinement of its particular way of life - its language, its food, its art ... its spirit.

     When it stops growing, it begins to die. It needs constant replenishment by consideration of its current options. Its essence is to discriminate. It must differentiate the alive from the vacuous, the altruistic from the commercial, the truth from the convenient lie - or it dies.

     The accomplishment of a work of art is not a common occurrence; it is rare because it is difficult. When it happens it is always extraordinary. Experiencing it is automatic; we all know when it's there. Yet in our present day world where the mediated reality of television is becoming the only reality for many, and the arts are becoming just another form of business, many people now deny that the extraordinary exists.

     We are in danger of losing it.

     Looking back at the statement I wrote for the ministry now after more than ten years, and at my ideas about working outside the cultural context fifteen years before that, it is clear the conditions are no longer the same. Working as an artist in the public sphere is no longer moving in uncodified territory. 'Public Art' has become simply urban decor as it slipped into the cultural muck of the mainstream. The habitat of this particular institutional beast seems to be expanding - its offspring spreading as the underdeveloped develop.

     Which means, I suppose, that to do something interesting there now, one has to be just that much more diligent ... and clever.



First published in Max Neuhaus, Sound Works, Volume I, Inscription (Ostfildern-Stuttgart: Cantz, 1994)