It’s a rainy November morning when I show up at the Museum of Modern Art. I find myself nervous to meet Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster. Just 12 hours ago,
I attended her insanity-inducing “K.62” performance piece, a collaboration with experimental conductor/composer Ari Benjamin Meyers and part of the Performa performance art biennial. This is how it happens:
You get a call telling you to show up at a bookstore at 8 p.m. No earlier, no later. There you meet your company while a violinist plays something vaguely familiar. You’re handed an envelope that says “K12” and told to get in a cab that drops you off outside a nightclub. You walk through the door and into one of the most common nightmares in the collective unconsciousness: you’re onstage facing a packed house and you have no idea what the hell is going on.
That’s one way of experiencing it.
And then there’s another, and that’s how it happened to me. I show up at the Henry Street Settlement on Manhattan’s Lower East Side with my sister. We’re each given a ticket—mine blue, hers red—and sent to separate theaters. Every once in a while some riffs on an oboe come from the back of the room. After 30 minutes,
a headset-wearing, clipboard-carrying assistant type apologizes—we’re in the wrong room. We’re taken to reunite in a larger theater where the waiting really begins.
I resist all urges to claw out my eyeballs as I patiently wait for something to happen onstage. After an hour, wide-eyed bodies start to emerge from the door at the back of the stage. Gonzalez-Foerster shows up and mimes her way through a Spanish guitar solo before giving a soliloquy on Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, one of two Kafkaesque films that inspired the evening (the other was Orson Welles’s interpretation of The Trial). The film “irritated” her, she explains, but 20 years later, she can’t get it out of her head. An orchestra shows up from the audience. They play. Meyers does a magic trick and talks about The Trial, and the frightening feeling of insanity that comes with having no idea what is happening around you. Some people get up and leave.
The show ends and we we’re all invited to a club called After. After getting past the velvet rope, we find ourselves standing on the very stage we’d just spent the last two hours staring at. A very friendly guy with a video camera tells me there’s someone he wants me to talk to and from what I can piece together from the conversation, 20 people have been stripped of their names and given “K-numbers”
(a nod to The Trial’s Josef K.) and sent to locations from After Hours, where a member from the orchestra waited. Scattered throughout Manhattan, the 20 musicians simultaneously (but separately) played music from the film’s soundtrack, which was piped into the theater through the occasional phone call.
In Gonzalez-Foerster’s hyperliterate work—whether installation or film, or a mixture of the two—time and space are the media. She doesn’t set out to prove something; she’s more like a scientist building an experiment. The hypothesis behind “K.62”: “What if the time you spent going to the theater was, in fact, more important than the performance itself?’”
The piece, with its if-a-tree-falls-and-no-one-hears-it ambiguity (it seems Gonzalez-Foerster’s answer is yes) and cross-cultural references, is emblematic of a lot of her work. The artist builds environments layered with personal memories and cultural citations. Her short films have turned the spotlight on cities through a series of seemingly mundane experiences. She turned the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern into
a dystopian vision of London’s future where you could pick up a copy of H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds and read it under supersized versions of a public sculpture by Alexander Calder and Louise Bourgeois. At the Dia Foundation’s Hispanic Society, she built dioramas, with the help of the Natural History Museum, filled with books instead of fauna.
In situations like this, ideas of beginning and end are meaningless. Her work relies, instead, on an audience to activate it. She presents the situation, and then it’s open to the audience to play the role of detective.
But what about those people who left the performance? If they didn’t make it all the way to the big reveal, did they fully experience the piece? “It’s one of the possibilities,” says Gonzalez-Foerster. “It’s also one possibility that’s given to any audience at any show—to leave; why not? Maybe the person who left, she got out and then she did something else that she wouldn’t have done… it’s still connected. I would say this is the beauty of that structure. At one point, the way it’s set, it can include almost any accident or event.”
If you follow that logic, then the community created with “K.62” includes the audience in the theater, all the Ks, and every one of the people they pass on their journeys. You could probably say that about everything—the idea of the unfortunate butterfly who flaps his wings in China causing a rainstorm in Central Park—but how often do you think about it? That’s the space where Gonzalez-Foerster works.
To get to those questions, those elemental experiences, you have to shake things up, change some parameters, and maybe even get a little uncomfortable, she explains. It’s an artistic sentiment that spills into her real life, half of which is spent in her native France, the rest in Rio. “This is why I like to live in Brazil and, in a way, I would say ‘less-controlled’ environment—because the fact that certain things are less predictable makes me feel that I have to be more awake. It’s almost like something uncomfortable wakes you up, but then it means you’re also more conscious of nice things, you know?”
That doesn’t mean she enjoys playing some sadistic game of puppet-master. It’s more of an Andy Kaufman-like attempt to wake people up. “At one point, yeah, you feel a bit evil, but then you also know it’s for the beauty of something.”
This attempt to shake the status quo is why her work frequently references others, whether through appropriation or collaboration, with an audience, or with other artists. (With Balenciaga designer Nicolas Ghesquière, she deconstructed and rebuilt the concept of a retail store; she frequently works with the likes of Pierre Huyghe and Rirkrit Tiravanija).
“I don’t believe in style and identity,” she says, suggesting that what she finds interesting instead is revealing those things that she is made of—the books and films and people and places that she’s encountered all her life. “For me, the whole thing is an endless chain. At one moment, as a person, you are one possible editing of all this material.” x