Through examining four pieces in The Museum of Modern Art’s collection, one can better understand how John Cage’s embrace of indeterminacy can be traced in the period following 4’33″ (1952) and in more recent years, and how these later works play with the concepts of chance and the ephemeral in different ways. Ian Wilson’s Discussion 10th of July 1970 (1970), included in the current exhibition There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33″, and Lee Lozano’s similarly aligned Dialogue Piece (Started April 21, 1969) (1969) are examples of Cage’s influence on Conceptual art of the 1960s, with its focus on experienced moments and a corresponding move away from physical art objects. Two more contemporary works, Rirkrit Tiravanija’s untitled 1992/1995 (free/still) (1992/1995/2007/2011–) and Tino Sehgal’s Kiss (2002), are also collaborative actions that exist in limited moments, and these pieces in particular blur the line between public performance contextualized in art spaces and the more private acts of the everyday. Looking at these works helps one comprehend how the concerns and techniques of 4’33″ (chance operations, participation, and the creation of a unique experience that cannot be captured through objects) were addressed and altered by other artists.
Ian Wilson’s Discussion 10th of July 1970 is a transcription of Wilson’s conversation with fellow artist Robert Barry, whose Inert Gas Piece/Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon/From a Measured Volume to Infinite Expansion (1969) is also included in the exhibition. In Discussion 10th of July 1970, Wilson (British, born South Africa 1940) and Barry (American, born 1936) talk about Wilson’s redefinition of his artistic practice as oral communication beginning in 1968, the relationship between spoken and written communication, and the role of chance in Wilson’s projects.
Like Cage’s 4’33″, Wilson’s Discussion casts an everyday experience, in this case the act of conversation, as an artwork. The piece also emphasizes how all interpersonal interactions contain an element of chance: one doesn’t know how a conversation partner will respond to a question or expression of thought, and vice-versa. Although Wilson chooses a topic for his discussions and guides the participants towards a conclusion, ultimately the artist relinquishes much control to others. As Barry says to Wilson during their encounter, “There is a question of control there. Yours is a kind of situational art. When you said ‘oral communication is my art’ you didn’t consciously plan what you were going to talk about; you didn’t have a program; you just continued the flow of conversation as it was going, although your statement may have influenced what was said after you said it.”
While this piece presents the full conversation in written form, since 1970 Wilson has conducted his “oral communications” without documentation, except for a certificate listing the time, date, location of the piece and, occasionally, the names of the participants. He prefers that conversationalists retain the memory of the encounter as a dematerialized work: the mental stimulation, exchange of dialogue, and the lingering thoughts in their minds comprise the artwork. Despite this avoidance of the conventional art object, both 4’33″ and Wilson’s “oral communication” contain a prescribed beginning, middle, and end, retaining the predicated structure of a formal performance or score.
One year after Wilson redefined his art as oral communication, Lee Lozano (American, 1930–1990) pursued a similar exercise that also embodied the cultural and artistic shifts of the late 1960s. Wilson’s and Lozano’s interest in dialogues, conversations, and meetings reflects the rise of Conceptual art, with its stripping down of physicality, and the collaborative political atmosphere of the time. In her Dialogue Piece (Started April 21, 1969), Lozano set out to “call, write, or speak to people [she] might not otherwise see for the specific purpose of inviting them to [her] loft for a dialogue.” These people, she notes in a humorous footnote, can be defined to include “‘perfect strangers’, an animal, [and] an infant.”
She writes, “The purpose of this piece is to have dialogues, not to make a piece. No recordings or notes are made during dialogues, which exist solely for their own sake as joyous social occasions.” Similar to Wilson’s discussions, the unique and private experience of each conversation was emphasized; Lozano’s dialogues were not documented for content. In subsequent pages in her notebook, she simply lists the time and date of her dialogues with friends, neighbors, and fellow artists, as well as her state of mind at the time and the quality, for her point of view, of the information exchanged. However, Lozano pursued a far less structured approach than Wilson: her conversation partners were allowed to discuss whatever they wanted, and the discussion did not move towards a prescribed conclusion. Like Cage’s 4’33″, Lozano’s dialogues cast an everyday occurrence as art and include participants who determine how the work unfolds. Her notebooks position the artist as both participant and observer, documenting her interactions in a style that combines the dryness of lab reports with a more freewheeling sense of humor and openness to chance.
A contemporary example of these explorations can be found in the field of Relational Aesthetics, a movement defined by the curator Nicolas Bourriaud in his 1998 book of the same name as “a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.” In other words, the interactions of the modern world become noticeable through their placement in an art context, allowing encounters to unfold and upending expectations about the authority of the artist or institution.
A prime example of this type of work is Rirkrit Tiravanija’s untitled 1992/1995 (free/still). In 1992, Tiravanija (Thai, born Argentina 1961) took over a venue, 303 Gallery in New York, installing cooking appliances and seating areas in order to serve free Thai green curry and rice to gallery-goers. The typically hushed gallery space became a communal environment, inviting unplanned encounters in which visitors to 303 Gallery became active participants in the work. The piece, acquired by MoMA in 2011, takes place in a space constructed of open lumber framing that mimics the floorplan of 303 Gallery, thus providing a historical mirror of the original presentation. Diners eat on folding chairs and tables, and the cooking appliances are in full view. Similar to the way in which Wilson’s and Lozano’s experiential pieces left traces in the form of written documents considered inessential to the “real” work, untitled 1992/1995 (free/still) leaves detritus in the form of meal scraps and empty plates, which Tiravanija does not deem part of his art.
Tiravanija describes untitled 1992/1995 (free/still) as “a platform for people to interact with the work itself but also with each other. A lot of it [is] also about a kind of experiential relationship, so you actually are not really looking at something, but you are within it, you are part of it.” Like 4’33″, this work transforms a common experience, recontextualizing it into the framework of a museum or gallery space where it can both be continued as an active environment and seen in a historic light.
Tino Sehgal (British, born 1976) is another contemporary artist who regularly stages nontraditional interactions in traditional art environments. In Kiss (2002), two dancers reenact famous kisses from art history. The piece is highly choreographed and formally staged within the context of the museum, and Sehgal considers it a “constructed situation,” weighty and deliberate like a work of sculpture. The artist prohibits photographs or videos of Kiss, emphasizing that certain reactions can only be activated in the minds of the viewers when they actually stand in front of the work: the memories of their own kisses, the underlying embarrassment in watching an intimate moment staged in public, and the physical fact of movement and existence in space. What remains is completely ephemeral, as Sehgal said in a 2012 interview: “Somehow [my piece] exists in the mind, in my body, and in the bodies of the people who know how to do it, and it also exists in their memories, and of those of the people who saw it.” With its focus on experience over documentation, its upending of the traditional classification of sculpture, and its lack of physical remnants, this work recalls the way in which 4’33″ expanded the formal structure of music to include the presence of the audience, with each unique performance leaving only memories in the minds of listeners.