“Action!” was a brief—five-week—and limber show of works by thirty artists that illuminated some key approaches to Happenings, performance, and process in art since the 1960s. As the exhibition demonstrated, such strategies gradually gained acceptance as art mediums over the decades and today face pressing new realities, with artists having to develop innovative forms of action that can contend with changing sociopolitical pressures and the rise of digital technologies. Curator Mirjam Varadinis took Allan Kaprow’s notion of the museum as an “agency for action” as her departure point. In keeping with Kaprow’s ideals of informality, the grand galleries of the Kunsthaus were transformed into a string of interconnected sub-spaces that had an accidental, unplanned feel, with artwork labels bill-posted to the walls. This approach effectively defamiliarized the venerable institution and opened up new possibilities within the building’s solemn architecture—aims that were notably met with William Forsythe’s A Volume Within Which It Is Not Possible for Certain Classes of Action to Arise (2015), a massive block built into the exhibition walls that hovered about three feet above the ground and prompted viewers to crawl under it.
The show opened with Yoko Ono’s Imagine Peace (Maps), 2003/2017—maps of places including Israel, Iraq, Europe, and Central America pinned to the wall that visitors could stamp with the phrase imagine peace. You were unlikely to become a fan of Ono’s work on the basis of this gesture, which smacked of self-importance and futility. Mounira Al Solh’s Clogged (2014) also involved a slight action, but a resonant one: visitors could swap their shoes for wooden qobqab sandals, a traditional form of Syrian footwear now in decline as rubber styles become more popular. Most visitors rapidly returned the uncomfortable sandals, demonstrating a brief engagement that was perhaps the point of the work, as it illustrated a certain precariousness of Syrian tradition, not to mention our freedom of movement in relation to those from the war-ravaged country.
The exhibition included performances staged inside and outside the museum, as well as video and film documentation of historic live works—some fitting the template of Happenings, others traditional performances onstage, and still others employing action as one of several mediums. One documented work was Dieter Meier’s 5 Tage (5 Days), a 1969 performance in which the Zurich-born artist sorted thousands of small pieces of metal outside the Kunsthaus. Several of the works were mercurial. Florence Jung’s Jung40 (2017), for instance, was a performance in which an actor played the role of a visitor to the show, though viewers were not told whom the actor was, leaving them guessing and eyeing one another suspiciously. The curator’s definition of “action” also extended to works in progress, to processes of automation, and to the activation of objects. Illustrating this last tactic, San Keller re-created Kaprow’s 1961 used-tire environment, Yard, and invited the audience to employ the tires as workout aids.
Artists have historically used action as a medium to create fleeting and expressive works, to disrupt typical social behaviors, and as a direct form of protest. But how is the tool evolving as society itself changes? The exhibition closed with several works that deal with action as it is found on or affected by digital technologies. In Alexandra Pirici’s Signals (2016), for instance, actors carry out performances based on stories or phenomena—ranging from news items like the killing of Osama bin Laden to memes like Grumpy Cat to means of communication like Tinder profiles and emoticons—whose reach or very existence has relied on computers. The internet has proved excellent at absorbing—and possibly nullifying—actions by turning them into concentrated cultural units that can ping-pong around the globe. The show left viewers wondering: What happens when action is filtered through computers? Does a YouTube clip effect more or less engagement than live action?