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“Is This a Social Experiment?” Performing John Cage
Serra Sabuncuoglu and Robert Barry participate in Performing John Cage, The Museum of Modern Art, February 18, 2014. Photo by Sarah Kennedy

Serra Sabuncuoglu and Robert Barry participate in Performing John Cage, The Museum of Modern Art, February 18, 2014. Photo by Sarah Kennedy

Twice daily, from February 7 to 20, MoMA staff and invited artists performed John Cage’s score 4’33″ in an area just outside the exhibition There Will Never Be Silence: Scoring John Cage’s 4’33″. Over the course of those two weeks, 28 renditions of 4’33″ were performed by 20 staff members and eight guest artists. These performances were part of a new initiative to offer pop-up activities and spaces at MoMA in order to engage audiences with the ideas explored in exhibitions and to enliven non-gallery areas at the Museum.

Making 4’33″ Their Own
Each performer put their own spin on Cage’s score. Creative twists included Martha Wilson wearing a paper bag on her head, Lizzi Bougatsos conducting an ice cube to melt, Michael Smith dressing and acting like a baby, Erin Holland relaying an anecdote about John Cage wearing squeaky shoes when he taught at the New School, Alex Roediger counting out the score in his head rather than using a time piece, and others who invited other musicians to join their performance. Cage’s score is completely open to interpretation, and part of the challenge of performing it is determining the approach to take. It was very satisfying to see all of the performers enthusiastically and successfully take on this challenge.

Geoffrey Hendricks participates in Performing John Cage, The Museum of Modern Art, February 14, 2014. Photo by Sarah Kennedy

Geoffrey Hendricks participates in Performing John Cage, The Museum of Modern Art, February 14, 2014. Photo by Sarah Kennedy

What We Learned
The performances were observed and documented by staff using photography and an observational form created for this purpose. At the end of the two weeks, performers were also invited to complete a reflective questionnaire.

On Performing
Performers of 4’33″ got a lot out of the experience. Ninety-two percent of staff conducted some research prior to their performance, many watching videos of performances online, and 45 percent felt that performing 4’33″ made them more attentive to sound, silence, and their surroundings, including one who wrote, “There is a ‘strain’ involved particularly if you’re not accustomed to performing, and that, along with [the] intent of ‘listening’ rather than creating, is an incredible feeling.”

Artists were equally enthusiastic about this opportunity, and saw the invitation as a chance to show their admiration for John Cage and to challenge themselves. While all of the artists thought about how they would perform 4’33″, 60 percent conducted research prior to performing.

Lizzi Bougatsos participates in Performing John Cage

Lizzi Bougatsos participates in Performing John Cage, The Museum of Modern Art, February 14, 2014. © 2014 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo by Alvaro Congosto Martinez

For staff and artists the best part of performing 4’33″ at MoMA was the experience itself, and the feeling that they were part of something—MoMA history, the legacy of John Cage, a community of performers. Staff and artists also agreed that the most challenging aspect of performing this score was staying focused, silent, and still for the duration and “being present in the moment.” The silence in each of these performances was loud, and as one performer commented “Cage would surely have approved” of this.

The Space and Audience
In terms of future programming, we learned that this location, on the Museum’s second floor, is ideal. Not only did this placement allow visitors to have chance encounters with the performances, but the configuration of the space helped provide some crowd control when, on a couple of occasions, the audience swelled to over 100. As one performer noted, “The space was perfect for this piece. It allowed people to gather and not feel intimidated.” The ambient noise in this location also provided the appropriate accompaniment to Cage’s score.

On average, performances attracted around 45 audience members, and we found that the 3:05 p.m. performances tended to have a larger audience than the 12:05 p.m. While performances of 4’33″ by invited artists, musicians, and other guests tended to draw bigger crowds, it was clear that audiences enjoyed seeing MoMA staff perform as much as staff loved performing. And many MoMA staff attended performances to lend support to their colleagues.

The majority of the audience stayed for the entire performance, with several lingering afterward to find out more information. On a rating scale, 75 percent of the audiences were rated as being “very attentive,” and were characterized as being engaged, curious, and confused—which is exactly what we had hoped for. As a visitor researcher amid the audience, I often found myself paying as much attention to the audience as I did to the performers, fascinated by the bits of conversation overheard and the expressions on their faces. At one performance a pair of visitors said, “I really don’t think they are going to perform. Look, all they are doing is moving the music stand.” Another visitor exclaimed, “This must be a social experiment,” pointing to the arrangement of stools. My favorite comment came from a gentleman who said, “Leave it to MoMA” at the end of the performance. The location and a semi-unannounced occurrence came together to create a unique experience for visitors to happen upon, and it was exciting to see visitors having an experience they couldn’t have anywhere else.

Comments

Enjoyed being part of the project and reflected on my own association with Cage and the piece. Just got back from 2 weeks in Germany where I had a chance to tell people there about the performances. While in Berlin also saw some great performances by Ben Patterson, a fellow Fluxus artist/composer and friend of Cage.

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