The students from Bowie High School’s percussion ensemble showed up downtown for what they were told was going to be an “exhibition activation” to prepare for presenting one of their own the following week.
They weren’t completely sure what they would find inside the glass front walls of the Contemporary Austin Jones Center on Congress Avenue for “Hi, How Are You, Gonzo,” an exhibition conceived by Mexico City-based artist Abraham Cruzvillegas.
Bowie teachers wanted the students to get out into the community more often. And Contemporary Austin guest artists Diego Espinosa Cruz Gonzalez and Nadia Lartigue were supposed to lead some sort of improvised public performance, then help explain Cruzvillegas’ curious and constantly changing art on two stories that includes roughly made movable cubes, ramps, paper collages, food makings and wheeled objects, along with paintings.
“The students were going to meet with the artists after the performance,” says Andrea Mellard, the museum’s director of public programs and community engagement. “Instead, the artists adapted their improvisational performance into a percussion and movement workshop, but in a nonverbal way. They didn’t say: ‘This is what’s going to happen. These are the rules.’”
Thus prompted nonverbally, the Bowie students felt free to move all over the dispersed objects at the museum and turn them into all-purpose sounding boards.
“There was this freedom for the students and the public, getting to do things they had not done in a museum before,” Mellard says. “If they had even been in a museum before. Like drumming on sculptures, or using everyday objects like glass jars and seeds and vegetables. It’s telling how free and special that experience was. When the students were later invited to ask questions, the first one said: ‘Are you mad at us?’"
And why not ask that? How often is one allowed to do exactly what one wants to do in a museum — at any age? Museum decorum is normally pretty rigid even when the art is not.
“The students weren't sure where the boundaries were, but they felt like they had gotten close to the edge,” Mellard says. “That shared experience for community to come together and learn is baked into the project.”
Cruzvillegas uses the term “autocontruccción” — or “self-construction” — for the process of turning objects and even the walls around the artists and guests into a playground for music, cooking, storytelling, skateboarding and other sorts of “art making.”
Every Tuesday and Saturday through July 14, community partners, along with visitors, are invited to add, re-arrange and enliven the exhibit. This differs enormously from the standard contemporary art “assemblage” that might look random, but is instead carefully planned and put together then rigorously policed for any element that might alter the artist’s intended impression.
For all the creative freedom he invites, Cruzvillagas is not operating in a vacuum. The idea of combining everyday objects with improvised performance goes back at least 100 years. The practice reached its peak in isolated American and European artistic circles during the late 1950s, then entered the relative mainstream through “happenings” during the 1960s and ‘70s. Happenings were then combined with social activism and political protests to emphasize the artificiality of conventional expectations about social behavior.
Anyone who has spent time around performance artists since the ‘70s knows that the practice can be revived at any moment. In fact, there was a point in the 1990s when an informal class at the University of Texas was devoted entirely to artists who used just such methods.
The activations staged during this Contemporary Austin exhibition have not only enlivened the space at 700 Congress Ave. on a more regular basis, they have given Mellard, who joined the museum 15 years ago during one its many previous incarnations, more ways to work with the community.
“If this was a typical exhibition of static work, I would probably do four to six public programs,” Mellard says. “A majority would involve community partners but likely to be so participatory or experimental. Some would involve experts. I'd stagger those events over three months. In this case, we are doing more like well over 36. The majority of them have local involvement and the artists invite guest collaborators, many of them from Mexico City, to work here.”
This time, too, concepts for the activations come from all over the place.
“Usually, chief curator Heather Pesanti and I brainstorm together to interpret the art,” Mellard says. “This exhibition, and recent ones by Rodney McMillian and Janine Antoni, have changed the process to be more open to community input. In this case, the artist and museum invited even wider staff and community participation. We posed the question: ‘What do you want to learn? What do you want to teach? And what makes Austin Austin?"
The exhibition title, by the way, reflects the cultures of the two cities where it will be seen, Austin and Aspen, Colo., taking under one conceptual umbrella Daniel Johnston’s “Hi, How Are You?” mural here and the cultural residue of the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson’s time in Aspen.
“Some of the events are participatory,” Mellard says. “Some take the form of performances. Many are improvisational in nature. They look more like life outside the museum than it typically looks inside the museum. They can be loud, active, playful, messy. There's a real openness to it. They are not 'directed’ by the museum.”
Some of the activations so far, which could have worked equally well at parts of the museum's Laguna Gloria property, have involved an herbalist, karaoke, ceramics workshop, families making art with food, a book swap, storytelling by the Hispanic community and a dance workshop.
Meanwhile, the space is in a state of constant creative change. One visitor added a video of rippling water over some of the pre-existing house-like objects to reflect a concern about flooding. In April, the TXRD gang used the galleries like a roller derby. Skateboarders are expected in July.
Just as with the other activations, these guests are expected to add their own singular insights.
“Everybody brings their unique perspective to understanding the objects in this exhibition," Mellard says. "I'm interested in how a community of skateboarders will teach other visitors to see the sculptures in new ways, and maybe even view skating as a type of performance."