December 12, 2012  |  Collection & Exhibitions
“What Can I Do with It?”: Activating Franz Erhard Walther’s First Work Set

On selected dates, trained activation facilitators have been stationed in the Drawings Galleries to assist visitors in using the interactive components of Franz Erhard Walther’s First Work Set—a unique work that requires the physical interaction of the viewer to be complete. First Work Set is currently on view as part of the exhibition Eyes Closed/Eyes Open: Recent Acquisitions in Drawings. I asked Hannah Anderson, one of the activation facilitators, to respond to her experience, and she shares her insight on the work and its history below:

In 1969–70, MoMA presented Spaces, a revolutionary exhibition designed to extend beyond the traditionally singular element of art—vision, instead focusing on art that engages all of a viewer’s perceptual faculties. Included in this show were works by artists such as Michael Asher, Dan Flavin, and German artist Franz Erhard Walther. Walther’s First Work Set (1963–69), composed of 58 individual canvas objects, was installed in the Museum’s lobby, next to floor-to-ceiling windows looking out on 54th Street.

Installation view of the exhibition, Spaces. December 30, 1969 through March 1, 1970. Photographic Archive. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York. © 2012 The Museum of Modern Art, New York

With the guidance of the artist, visitors were welcome to interact with, or “activate,” the objects. Each object was unique, ranging in form from a long cloth cross connecting four people by the neck, to a pocketed canvas bag for collecting items, each with a designated number of necessary participants and brief directions for use. Now, 42 years later, selections of these works are available at MoMA to be used again.

First Work Set is fundamentally different from most work displayed in museums in that the objects Walther created are not self-reliant; without the physical interaction of the viewer they are incomplete. Because the works are meant to be handled and used, the artist considers the activity performed and experienced by the participants to be the art. The result of the activation is a cognitive process stimulated by the conditions of the interaction.

In their inactive state, it is difficult to discern what each piece is—they are displayed meticulously folded or in canvas storage bags. Their nondescript appearance sparks questions such as “what does it look like unfolded,” “what is it meant for,” and “what can I do with it?”  It is only with the action of the viewer that the work becomes complete and is understood. The physical transformation is obvious—the works literally take shape and have mass thanks to the viewer—but there is another aspect that holds more importance to Walther: the physical and cognitive experience of the activator(s) as stimulated by each object.

First Work Set installed today. Installation view of the exhibition, Eyes Closed/Eyes Open: Recent Acquisitions in Drawings. August 9, 2012 through January 7, 2013. © 2012 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

Being so dependent on the participants, their physical perceptions and mental processes, these pieces are in many ways timeless. It is work that one can imagine by observing, but which holds entirely new meaning when actually used and experienced physically. These objects are designed in a way that mandates the user become hyperaware of their relation to the space around them, to others (fellow activators and onlookers), and to the objects themselves. Suddenly, familiar and minute actions take on a new sense of importance, simply because one’s attention is focused on them. Restrictions of senses or movement, physical and mental connections to others become the focal points, and the experience of the individual is guided by these parameters.

Activating Cross Connecting Form (1967) from First Work Set. Installation view of the exhibition, Eyes Closed/Eyes Open: Recent Acquisitions in Drawings. August 9, 2012 through January 7, 2013. © 2012 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Julieta Cervantes

As an activation facilitator, I see the same objects repeatedly activated by visitors, witnessing the wide variation of approaches to seemingly straightforward, simple activities. Each activator has a unique experience; how they perceive and react to the work is based as much upon their personal experiences as to the work’s parameters. Even though the objects appear to be simple, don’t be fooled—their simple construction enables them to be extremely effective. The best way to understand this is to perform an activation yourself. You will see how the combination of simplicity and active participation will ensure the continual relevance of Walther’s work to the human perceptual experience.

Facilitators are on hand in the galleries every Wednesday and the third Saturday of each month, from noon to 4:00 p.m., to assist visitors in activating Walther’s First Work Set. Upcoming facilitator hours will take place on December 15 at 12:00 p.m., December 19 at 12:00 p.m., December 26 at 12:00 p.m., and January 2 at 12:00 p.m.  Eyes Closed/Eyes Open: Recent Acquisitions in Drawings is on view through January 7, 2013.