Magazine article Artforum International

Forum and Function: Martin Herbert on "Experiment Marathon Reykjavik"

Magazine article Artforum International

Forum and Function: Martin Herbert on "Experiment Marathon Reykjavik"

Article excerpt

INTRODUCING "EXPERIMENT MARATHON REYKJAVIK," a two-day event that took place this past May in the Hafnarhus, the Icelandic capital's contemporary art museum, artist Olafur Eliasson described the occasion as "a parallel parliament that includes disagreement, a parallel Western democracy." Presented to a near-capacity audience, this alternative legislature was about to become manifest in the form of thirty-six fifteen-minute-long presentations from artists, architects, scientists, and theoreticians. First, however, Eliasson's collaborator in organizing the event, curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, reframed this ostentatious description, emphasizing the project's incursion into terra incognita. At a historical juncture when, Obrist ventured, "all kinds of radical gallery gestures have been tested," symposia offered a comparatively unexplored format.

This is less and less the case, admittedly. As critic Catherine Wood recently pointed out ("Art of Authenticity," Artforum, Summer 2008), visual-arts seminars--in tandem with their ever more frequent attachment to exhibitions and fairs--have become increasingly pervaded by an awareness of their own a priori codifications and, consequently, their theatrical nature. But compared with the consciously staged conference-as-performance that, as Wood noted, the "Our Literal Speed" conference this past spring in Karlsruhe, Germany, ended up becoming, "Experiment Marathon Reykjavik" greeted its audience with a complicated mix of self-consciousness, sincerity, and ingenuousness. We were here, apparently, to witness a potentially fractious pooling of knowledge; at the same time, the whole thing was also positioned as a groundbreaking form of art. Could these positions coexist?

The marathon concept has itself been tried several times before: Obrist hosted a twenty-four-hour "Interview Marathon" with Rem Koolhaas in 2006, and he and Eliasson in October 2007 organized the one previous "Experiment Marathon," in London. (This Icelandic edition was, by turns, an exotic variant and a reprise of the London version, featuring some of the same practitioners and some of the same actions, with a smattering of novelties.) Whereas the "Interview Marathon" was devoted solely to interlocution, however, an "experiment"--as defined in practice by the events in Reykjavik and London--can apparently mean virtually anything the practitioner chooses to do during his or her Warholian quarter hour onstage, including having a straightforward conversation with an interviewer (as, for example, John Brockman, the American founder of Edge.org, chose to do). The investigative undertone was bolstered by an accompanying exhibition, however: Here, alongside a slightly sketchy assemblage of works by several of the artists giving presentations (among them Marina Abramovic, Tony Conrad, Jonas Mekas, and Carolee Schneemann), was a diagrammatic representation of "Laboratorium," the group show Obrist curated with Barbara Vanderlinden in Antwerp, Belgium, in 1999, which supplied a historical context for the emphasis on "experimentation." The latter show, which mingled work and texts by artists and scientists, consciously compared the artist's studio and the laboratory, suggesting the risk of failure in both.

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This notion seemed germane to "Experiment Marathon Reykjavik"--not that one necessarily got much sense of that from the eight back-to-back "experiments" presented in the marathon's first two and a half hours, which were more like illustrated lectures. Among them was a choreographed demonstration of hydroelectric process, using dancing humans as molecules and overseen by Icelandic Nobel laureate in physics Thorsteinn I. Sigfusson. Belgian artificial-intelligence professor Luc Steels then discussed how robots learn from each other, developing "perceptual repertoires" that model how the brain grows through sociability. And English astrophysicist Peter Coles briefed his listeners on, among other things, cosmic microwave background radiation and the Big Bang's musical qualities. …

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