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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


Italo Calvino on Abortion and the Meaning of Life

“A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions, but through an act of will and love on the part of other people.”

“In the current abortion debate, there is no talk of children. … They never talk about nineteen-year-old fetuses,” lamented SNL’s Nora Dunn in a recent anthology of women writers and entertainers on the choice not to have children. But this sensitive subject was addressed even more eloquently and timelessly by beloved Italian writer, cultural critic, and literary jukeboxer Italo Calvino nearly three decades earlier, just as the second wave of feminism was gathering momentum. In a letter to Professor Claudio Magris from early February of 1975, found in the altogether fantastic newly released tome Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 (public library), Calvino responds in outrage to Magris’s pro-life article titled “The Deluded,” published in Italy’s premier newspaper, Corriere della sera, on February 3 that year. With a broader meditation on the meaning of life, Calvino makes a passionate yet crisply lucid case for abortion as respect rather than disrespect for life:

Bringing a child into the world makes sense only if this child is wanted consciously and freely by its two parents. If it is not, then it is simply animal and criminal behavior. A human being becomes human not through the casual convergence of certain biological conditions, but through an act of will and love on the part of other people. If this is not the case, then humanity becomes — as it is already to a large extent — no more than a rabbit-warren. But this is no longer a “free-range” warren but a “battery” one, in the conditions of artificiality in which it lives, with artificial light and chemical feed.

Only those people … who are a hundred percent convinced that they possess the moral and physical possibility not only of rearing a child but of welcoming it as a welcome and beloved presence, have the right to procreate. If this is not the case, they must first of all do everything not to conceive, and if they do conceive (given that the margin for unpredictability continues to be high) abortion is not only a sad necessity, but a highly moral decision to be taken with full freedom of conscience. I do not understand how you can associate abortion with an idea of hedonism or the good life. Abortion is a terrifying thing…

In abortion the person who is massacred, physically and morally, is the woman. Also for any man with a conscience every abortion is a moral ordeal that leaves a mark, but certainly here the fate of the woman is in such a disproportionate condition of unfairness compared with the man’s, that every male should bite his tongue three times before speaking about such things. Just at the moment when we are trying to make less barbarous a situation which for the woman is truly terrifying, an intellectual uses his authority so that women have to stay in this hell. Let me tell you, you are really irresponsible, to say the least. I would not mock the “hygienic-prophylactic measures” so much; certainly you will never have to undergo a scraping of your womb. But I’d like to see your face if they forced you to have an operation in the filth and without any recourse to hospitals under pain of imprisonment.

Calvino ends the letter by making his convictions actionably clear:

I am sorry that such a radical divergence of opinion on these basic ethical questions has interrupted our friendship.

Italo Calvino: Letters, 1941-1985 is indispensable in its entirety, a treasure trove of timeless insight on literature and life.


Space for Equality: NASA Joins the It Gets Better Project

“It’s becoming the new normal — you’re being defined by your character and not by whom you love.”

When we lost pioneering astronaut Sally Ride in 2012, many knew that as she boarded the Space Shuttle Challenger in June of 1983, she became the first American woman in space and the nation’s youngest astronaut to ever launch into the cosmos. But few were aware that she was also America’s first lesbian astronaut in space — a quiet but powerful rebel of gender diversity on multiple levels in a field still dominated by rigid stereotypes and gender norms. At the time of her death, Ride had been with her partner, Tam O’Shaughnessy, for the past 27 years. And yet one can only imagine the pressures, both inward and outward, she had to withstand coming of age at a time of extreme orientation-based discrimination.

Hardly any movement has done more to alleviate the spectrum from crippling self-doubt to suicide that young queer people struggle with than the It Gets Better project, masterminded by Dan Savage and his husband of 18 years, Terry Miller. Since its conception in 2010, it has drawn thousands of brave people of various sexual orientations and gender identities, as well as a cohort of heterosexual supporters — from countless individuals to the staffers of organizations like Google, Apple and Etsy to the cast of popular TV shows like House and True Blood to President Obama himself — to face the camera and help struggling LGBTQ youth face themselves with dignity and inner peace. Thirty years after Ride boarded the Challenger, NASA joins the It Gets Better ranks with a heartening testament to the diversity of the LBGTQ community, with space agency staffers ranging from interns to managers, engineers to astronauts, and even NASA’s Chief of Staff.

It almost doesn’t matter anymore — it’s who I am; it’s one part of who I am and not everything that I am.

Complement with Dan Savage’s recently released and excellent American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics, discussed in brief here.

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