Three artists come to mind whose practices I believe are in service of the future. I have been influenced by their work and have found valuable lessons, propositions, and provocations in their examples.
Considering the ethos of the 1960s Fluxus collective as a curatorial framework brings me to a premonition by one of its main protagonists, Robert Filliou (1926–1987): “This is what I suspect the art of the future will be: always on the move, never arriving, ‘l’art d’être perdu sans se perdre,’ the art of losing oneself without getting lost.” Filliou’s self-proclaimed “poetic economy” of language and objects was fueled by a continuous dérive. He upheld promise in precarity and advocated for productive failure. His spirited adage and unique sensibility inform my belief in dialogue without agenda—with artists, with audiences, and with colleagues. Not everything needs to be prescriptive or mission driven. Dialogue should not solely be the by-product of an itinerary. Some of the most productive ideas and decisions are generated in an exchange without expectation. Indeed, Filliou has inspired in me a methodology of getting lost with purpose. The ability to embark on something without direction can lead to a profound destination.
Fluxus cofounder Benjamin Patterson (1934–2016) was a “radical presence,” as curator Valerie Cassel Oliver so aptly put it. He was the only black American figure in the profoundly interdisciplinary and international collective that blurred the boundaries between the visual and performing arts as well as art and everyday life. I first met him in 2013 in Wiesbaden—the site of the first official Fluxus festival in 1962—and connected with him as an experimental artist whose work rarely explicitly engaged identity politics. He was an artist who was black and not a “black artist”—existing in excess of his race. However, Patterson’s refusal, erudition, and serious play—crumpling pieces of paper, releasing wind-up toy frogs, or playing an upside-down double bass with everything but a bow—addressed his unique lived experience and place in the world in nuanced ways. This is further demonstrated in the multichannel immersive outdoor sound installation When Elephants Fight, It Is the Frogs That Suffer—A Sonic Graffiti (2016–17), which I had the honor of stewarding into the Art Institute of Chicago’s collection in 2018, marking the museum’s first major Fluxus acquisition. Staging an artificial frog pond, the work’s twenty-four speakers are camouflaged in bushes and foliage, amplifying real and human-imitated frog calls with hidden political messages that operate as a material metaphor for the sonic dimension of resistance, while also providing a speculative interface for interspecies care and listening. Patterson’s Fluxus mischief was often a red herring for a critical examination of what it means to make noise, what it means to participate, and fundamentally what it means to be an iconoclast. One of the operative questions he left me with is “how do you misbehave productively?”
If there is one thing co-curating (with Ann Goldstein) the work of conceptual artist stanley brouwn has instilled in me, it’s carrying out an artist’s intentions with discipline, and embracing the right of refusal without compromise. This forthcoming exhibition, which is the first United States museum presentation of brouwn’s work, will be on view at the Art Institute in spring 2023, and stands as a testament to what it means to fully realize artists’ intentions through intimate collaboration—in this case, with the artist’s estate. Organizing a major exhibition of an artist like brouwn, who disavowed biography, written interpretation, and photographic reproduction, requires radical hospitality. Realizing the artist’s wishes entails creatively negotiating within institutional frameworks to encourage internal and external stakeholders and funding bodies to embrace new ways of working that defy and expand convention, habit, and protocol. In this way, brouwn’s practice powerfully shifts the institution’s terms of engagement. Honoring brouwn’s intentions and objectives without compromise ensures an unmitigated experience in a specific time and place between the visitor and the work, which allows brouwn’s practice to continue into the future.
Associate Curator, Modern and Contemporary Art, Art Institute of Chicago