Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘books’

03 JUNE, 2013

Do It: 20 Years of Famous Artists’ Irreverent Instructions for Art Anyone Can Make


“Art is something that you encounter and you know it’s in a different kind of space from the rest of your life, but is directly connected to it.”

One afternoon in 1993, legendary art critic, curator, and interviewer extraordinaire Hans Ulrich Obrist — mind of great wisdom on matters as diverse as the relationship between patterns and chance and the trouble with “curation” itself — sat down in Paris’s Café Select with fellow co-conspirers Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier, and the do it project was born: A series of instructional procedures by some of the greatest figures in contemporary art, designed for anyone to follow as a sort of DIY toolkit for creating boundary-expanding art. Over the twenty years that followed, manifestations of the project popped up in exhibitions around the world, from the most underground galleries to the most prestigious museums.

Twenty years later, Obrist is releasing Do It: The Compendium (public library) — a wide-ranging medley of artist instructions spanning performance art, sculpture, urban intervention, philosophical reflection, and even recipes from, contributors like Lawrence Weiner, Louise Bourgeois, Ai Weiwei, Douglas Coupland, David Lynch, and Sol LeWitt. The project, above all, explores art as unbridling of author and authority, art as internationalism, art as a homage and a middle finger to Art. It lives somewhere between Yoko Ono’s instructions for art and life, John Cage’s interpretable notations, and Philip Glass’s notion of authorship as transformation.

Obrist, who considers do it “not a sprint [but] a marathon” and the book a “progress report” on a perpetually open-ended project, writes:

Do it rejects the notion of the original in favor of an open-ended conception of the creation of the work. … No two versions of do it instructions are ever identical when carried out. … The exhibition takes place in the inter-spaces between interpretation and negotiation. … It is important to bear in mind that do it is less concerned with copies, images, or reproductions of artworks, than with human interpretations.

Here is a selection of the contemplative, silly, subversive, profound, playful, and infinitely diverse contributions, stretching our conception of what art is, who should enact it, and how — the essence of Obrist’s gift.

Celebrated architect, educator, and architecture critic Cedric Price adds to The Artists’ & Writers’ Cookbook in a 2005 piece titled Gilding the lily part II:


Skin but do not stone a peach. Brush lightly with a weak mixture of clear golden syrup (corn syrup) or melted brown sugar and brandy. Heat more brandy in a soupspoon. Ignite, and pour over the peach. Eat immediately.

A particular favorite of Bucky’s.

Sculptor Nairy Baghramian (2012):

Following Gertrude Stein, every now and then sit with your back on nature.

Many are intently irreverent in the face of the art establishment. Performance artist and invisible media maestro Robert Barry (2012):

Do something unique that only you and no one else in the world can do.

Don’t call it art.

Paris-based self-described “readymade artist” Claire Fontaine (2012):

Whatever you do, do something else.

Lawrence Weiner: A 36'' x 36'' removal to the lathing or support wall of plaster or wallboard from a wall (1968)

Conceptual art pioneer Lawrence Weiner, regarded as one of the greatest modern artists of our time, in a 1968 piece Cat. #21 and presented in characteristic all-caps:



Conceptual artist Sol LeWitt (2001):

A black not straight line is drawn at approximately the center of the wall horizontally from side to side. Alternate red, yellow, and blue lines are drawn above and below the black line to the top and bottom of the wall.

Some fall at the intersection of the profound and the sentimental. Federico Herrero, in a 2002 piece titled Secret Friend:

Choose a person you like, or that you would like to love, or at least, a person you have good feelings for.

Leave small gifts for him/her in personal places for five days.

During those five days, secretly record in secret conversations with that person. The recording can be for a short time or as long as possible.

Listen to the taping every night before bed.

Louise Bourgeois: Instruction (2002)

French-American artist, sculptor and confessional art founder Louise Bourgeois (2002):

When you are walking, stop and smile at a stranger.

Paul Chan: Instruction (2005)

Artist and publishing provocateur Paul Chan (2005):

When you meet someone new tell them the following:

“Our modern age is characterized by a sadness which calls for a new kind of prophet.

Not the prophets of old who reminded people that they were going to die, but someone who will remind them that they are not dead yet.”

Do not be embarrassed.
Do not be afraid.

(This is a riff on the following passage from the 1912 novel Manalive by G. K. Chesterton: “There should be priests to remind men that they will one day die. I only say that at certain strange epochs it is necessary to have another kind of priests, called poets, actually to remind men that they are not dead yet. The intellectuals among whom I moved were not even alive enough to fear death. They hadn’t enough blood in them to be cowards. Until a pistol barrel was poked under their very noses they never even knew they had been born. For ages looking up an eternal perspective it might be true that life is a learning to die. But for these little white rats it was just as true that death was their only chance of learning to live.”)

Danish-Icelandic sculptor and large-scale installation mastermind Olafur Eliasson (2002), in a piece titled Physiological Memory:

1) Choose a person, older than yourself, you see frequently — not too often by approx once a week or once a month. Maybe one of your grandparents if they are still alive.

2) Every time you meet the chosen person you press your 2 pointing-fingers firmly against your eyes for 10 to 20 seconds until various colors and patterns arise.

3) Try to note or memorize the patterns and colors in connection with the context and repeat the practice every time you meet the chosen person for a as long as possible, minimum 6 months.

4) After minimum 6 months of this practice you can recall the person, virtually by pressing your eyes for a while. In the midst of the colors and pattern a sense of presence of the chosen person arrives even after the chosen person has died.

Some expose the role of art as a tool of sociopolitical reflection. Italian-American postmodern choreographer and musician Simone Forti (2012):

Think about climate change.

Sit for some moments in dumb grief, dumb knowing, dumb amazement.

Others are decidedly, if subversively, dogmatic, like Ten Commandments for Gilbert and George by graphic art duo Gilbert & George (1995):

I. Thou shalt fight conformism
II. Thou shalt be the messenger of freedoms
III. Thou shalt make use of sex
IV. Thou shalt reinvent life
V. Thou shalt create artificial art
VI. Thou shalt have a sense of purpose
VII. Thou shalt not know exactly what thou doest, but thou shalt do it
VIII. Thou shalt give thy love
IX. Thou shalt grab the soul
X. Thou shalt give something back

Others are unabashedly playful. Conceptual artist Stephen J. Kaltenbach (1969):

Start a rumor.

American artist Ben Kinmond, in a 1997 piece titled The possibilities of trust as a sculpture and the question of value for each participant:

Invite a stranger into your home for breakfast.

Swedish installation and video artist Klara Liden (2012):

LOST — street sign exchange program

Take down a street name sign.
Go to a different city.
Put up the sign in place of another sign.

Austrian artist and “one-minute sculptor” Erwin Wurm (1995):

Put on a pullover — but don’t stick arms or head through the normal openings — squat down and pull the end of the pullover down over your knees and feet.

In this position, endure for 20 seconds.

One of the most irreverent and wonderful contributions, at once charmingly dated for its tech references and timelessly delightful in its spirit, comes from Canadian novelist, design writer, and media commentator Douglas Coupland (2004):


1) Go to an instant print shop run by a multinational company such as Kinko’s.

2) Log onto the internet.

3) Open a blog page account on a blogging site such as It’s free.

4) Give your blog home page a name composed of two relatively unusual nouns such as ducklingspaghetti. There is a reason for this which will come shortly.

5) On another on-screen window go to

6) Select a book that you’ve read many times in your life.

7) Chances are that Amazon has many pages from that book excerpted. Select one page.

8) Go back to your blog page.

9) Transcribe into it the page you selected from Amazon.

10) Post that blog page on the internet.

11) Now go to or or or any Google for a language you don’t speak.

12) On this foreign Google site, search for your blog entry using the name of your blog page. The unusual nouns selected for your page will make it easy for Google to find it.

13) Once your blog page appears, click Google’s translation button. Your page will be translated within a second or two.

14) Print out this page on 8.5 x 11 paper or A4 or whatever is the standardized letter paper dimension for the country you’re in.

15) Return to your blog account.

16) In a new blog entry, paste into it the freshly translated page.

17) Using Google from another country, repeat the above procedure, translating your page from, say, Dutch to French.

18) Print out this ext translation but do it on a differently colored page of letter paper.

19) Continue this process repeatedly, always from one language into another, printing onto a differently colored sheet of paper, until you have used up all colors of paper available at your specific Kinko’s.

20) The final sheet of paper should be in your mother tongue.

21) For final presentation, paste the sheets like a checkerboard onto a wall, in sequence. The proportions of the pasting should be a vertical rectangle as close to 8.5 x 11 or A4 as possible.

In this short video interview, artist and curator Richard Wentworth, one of the original contributors to do it, adds to history’s notable definitions of art and echoes Adrienne Rich with a meditation on the project and its significance:

The point about art is it’s all in its interpretation. Art is something that you encounter and you know it’s in a different kind of space from the rest of your life, but is directly connected to it. … It’s a great privilege to be near art because when you’re near art, you can be another kind of person, and it allows you to think differently about things that you have never done.

Do It: The Compendium, a refined addition to these activity books for grown-ups, is marvelous and endlessly delightful in its entirety.

Thanks, Rachel and Bettina

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31 MAY, 2013

Patti Smith Reads Her Poetic Tribute to Robert Mapplethorpe, Plus Her Handwritten Verses


“Blessedness is within us all.”

“The mere addition of meter does not in itself entitle a work to the name of poem, for nothing can permanently please which does not contain in itself the reason why it is so and not otherwise,” Coleridge asserted. “Poetry is the first and last of all knowledge — it is as immortal as the heart of man,” Wordsworth famously proclaimed. Nowhere is this dual definition more ablaze with life than in The Coral Sea (public library) by the eclectically brilliant Patti Smith — a breathtaking collection of prose poems exorcising Smith’s profound grief for her lifelong spirit-mate, beloved photographer Robert Mapplethorpe (1946–1989). She describes the collection as “a season in grief” and writes:

All that I knew of him encrypted within a small suite of prose poems. They speak of his love for art, his patron Sam Wagstaff, and his caring for me. But most importantly his resolute will to live, that could not be contained, not even in death.

Her short foreword stirs the soul intensely:

The first time I saw Robert he was sleeping. I stood over him, this boy of twenty, who sensing my presence opened his eyes and smiled. With few words he became my friend, my compeer, my beloved adventure.

When he became ill I wept and could not stop weeping. He scolded me for that, not with words but with a simple look of reproach, and I ceased.

When I saw him last we sat in silence and he rested his head on my shoulder. I watched the light changing over his hands, over his work, and over the whole of our lives. Later, returning to his bed, we said goodbye. But as I was leaving something stopped me and I went back to his room. He was sleeping. I stood over him, a dying man, who sensing my presence opened his eyes and smiled.

When he passed away I could not weep so I wrote. Then I took the pages and set them away. Here are those pages, my farewell to my friend, my adventure, my unfettered joy.

At the recent opening of exhibition of the same title at Cincinnati’s Contemporary Arts Center — which also gave us Smith’s delightful lettuce soup recipe for starving artists — I recorded Smith’s moving reading of some poems from the book and photographed the handwritten originals of the poems, below, on display at the CAC.

I had the pleasure of hearing — and, to our shared delight, recording — Smith’s reading my favorite poem from the book, the stirring “Reflecting Robert”:

Blessedness is within us all
It lies upon the long scaffold
Patrols the vaporous hall
In our pursuits, though still, we venture forth
Hoping to grasp a handful of cloud and return
Unscathed, cloud in hand. We encounter
Space, fist, violin, or this — an immaculate face
Of a boy, somewhat wild, smiling in the sun.
He raises his hand, as if in carefree salute
Shading eyes that contain the thread of God.
Soon they will gather power, disenchantment
They will reflect enlightenment, agony
They will reveal the process of love
They will, in an hour alone, shed tears.
His mouth a circlet, a baptismal font
Opening wide as the lips of a damsel
Sounding the dizzying extremes.
The relativity of vein, the hip of unrest
For the sake of wing there is shoulder.
For symmetry there is blade.
He kneels, humiliates, he pierces her side.
Offering spleen to the wolves of the forest.
He races across the tiles, the human board.
Virility, coquetry all a game — well played.
Immersed in luminous disgrace, he lifts
As a slave, a nymph, a fabulous hood
As a rose, a thief of life, he will parade
Nude crowned with leaves, immortal.
He will sing of the body, his truth
He will increase the shining neck
Pluck airs toward our delight
Of the waning
The blossoming
The violent charade
But who will sing of him?
Who will sing of his blessedness?
The blameless eye, the radiant grin
For he, his own messenger, is gone
He has leapt through the orphic glass
To wander eternally
In search of perfection
His blue ankles tattooed with stars.

The Coral Sea is sublime in its entirety, as is Smith’s album of the same title.

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31 MAY, 2013

The Duality of the Adventurer’s Spirit: A 1929 Meditation on Our Core Contradictions


“One third of all criminals are nothing but failed adventurers.”

“The contradiction between your body and your mind, between your mind and itself … these contradictions and these tensions are the greatest gift that we have,” Joss Whedon told graduating seniors in his fantastic 2013 Wesleyan commencement address. “This contradiction, and this tension … it never goes away. … If you think that happiness means total peace, you will never be happy. Peace comes from the acceptance of the part of you that can never be at peace.”

In Twelve Against the Gods: The Story of Adventure (public library) — a 1929 collection of short and exquisitely written biographical essays on the lives of such famed adventurers as Alexander the Great, Casanova, Christopher Columbus, Napoleon, and Isadora Duncan — William Bolitho celebrates the contradictions and bipolar tensions that live inside and often drive even history’s most celebrated heroes:

In the titanic works and events of our day there is the same hostile co-operation of runaway and stay-at-home, the same cult-struggle with the same enigmatic goddess, who asks all and gives all. History has always treasured a catalogue of adventurers — she has not changed her ways, though she may not, for business reasons, be allowed to publish it.

These inner conflicts, he argues in a passage Anaïs Nin noted in the fifth volume of her diaries, are the core of the Adventurer’s spirit, and what sets the hero apart from the villain is the ability to channel this bipolar energy into a generative force rather than a destructive or self-destructive one:

The Adventurer is within us, and he contests for our favor with the social man we are obliged to be. These two sorts of life are incompatible; one we hanker for, the other we are obliged to. There is no other conflict so bitter as this, whatever the pious say, for it derives from the very constitution of human life which so painfully separates us from all other human beings. We, like the eagle, were born to be free. Yet we are obliged, in order to live at all, to make a cage of laws for ourselves and to stand on the perch. We are born as wasteful and unremorseful as tigers; we are obliged to be thrifty, or starve, or freeze. We are born to wander, and cursed to stay and dig. We are born adventurers. It is this double-mindedness of humanity that prevents a clear social excommunication of the adventurers. If he fails he is a mere criminal. One third of all criminals are nothing but failed adventurers. Society’s benefactors as well as pests. These are men betrayed by contradictions inside themselves, a social man at war with a free man.

Perhaps most poignant of all are Bolitho’s closing words, which, in addition to echoing Virginia Woolf’s meditation on imitation and the arts, remind us that as much as we may fall for reductionism, human character is irreducible and full of flux, a fluid self that warrants defending:

Life, that winged swift thing, has to be shot down and reposed by art, like a stuffed bird, before we can use it as a model. There is, therefore, in religion and ethics always art; personality has to be simplified, wired; both its incidents and its results theorized and coordinated before it can awake that only instinct working to our own advantage with which we are endowed: imitation.

Twelve Against the Gods, if you can find a surviving copy, is well worth a read, not only for the enlightening histories but also for Bolitho’s timeless observations on the most enduring and universal aspects of human nature. Complement it, if you haven’t already, with Whedon’s spectacular speech.

Public domain photographs via Flickr Commons

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:

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