By Anthony Marcellini
Have you have heard of the Experientialist movement. Maybe you read the term on a press release, on a website or heard it spoken somewhere. But what is an Experientialist and what do they do? There is no manifesto and there has been nothing written to explain the experientialist position. This is because the experientialist movement is actually partly fiction, an artwork that poses as an art movement, created by the artist Lee Walton.
An artist creating his or her own movement is not unusual. It has happened throughout art history: Dada, Fluxus, Guitai Group, Constructivism, Surrealism, Futurism, and Happenings were all movements coined by an artist. However, it is a strategy most closely linked to avant-garde art practices during modernism; the formation of a movement established avant-garde intentions in opposition to other art practices and upper class elitism. In recent years, artists have been more interested in a diversity of practices and less interested in marginalizing themselves by forming movements. Individuality, pervasiveness, and a direct engagement with audiences is now favored over being defined by parameters. So this begs the question, why would an artist create his own movement, and box himself in? It is either a nostalgic action or a strategic one, perhaps both?
Lee Walton is an artist whose practice leans heavily on the concerns and strategies of modern avant-garde art movements because his work is engaged with a similar investigation into the intersections of art, life, and perception. His work has been most often compared to Happenings and Fluxus, two art forms known for their attempts at breaking down the formal barriers between a creative act and an everyday occurrence. These practices were considered anti-art, anti-formalist and anti-consumerist because they focused more on the art act or event rather than the commodifyable object. They often incorporated games, everyday materials, and welcomed events unfolding by chance. Preferring unceremonious to formal presentations, they favored non-art sites and audience participation. These practices were purposeful attempts to level the playing field between the typical hierarchy of the performer and the audience.
Lee’s practice has moved on from these concerns. He is not investigating a blurring of art and life; these realms have already been investigated by his predecessors. Rather, Lee accepts this notion and comfortably situates his practice inside this established blur. Lee Walton coined the term Experientialism in 2000, after reading Art and Experience by the pragmatist philosopher John Dewey in which Dewey emphasizes the reintroduce of art into the realm of everyday life and promotes the study of art as a function of experience.
Experientialism has two purposes; it is a set of rules that Lee must follow that structure his practice, and it is also a tool to challenge an audience’s preconceptions. By inventing a seemingly legitimate movement and launching it into circulation, Lee is asking us to pay attention to everything that governs our experiences. It is not just the phenomena that surround us, but also the prescribed ideas or definitions; from every angle our experience has been constructed.
These questions of truth, fiction and perception were most evident in The Experiential Project (2005) a work commissioned by Art in General and presented in its storefront gallery the Project Space. That the title of the project shares the erroneous movement’s term hints at its preoccupations. The Experiential Project consisted of three projects, one central project and two periphery projects, that all used the Project Space as their base of operations. The two periphery projects centered on actions taking place at specific locations around New York City and were presented through 5 x 6 inch limited edition postcards, which could be picked up from the gallery. The first set of postcards titled Experiential Project introduced 11 different weekly activities that took each participant on an unusual adventure through the neighborhood surrounding Art in General. At times resembling a scavenger-hunt and at others times a provocation, the experience was directed by clues surreptitiously placed at local shops or through directions to interact with the people working or shopping there. One card featured a photograph of Leo’s Barber Shop and read: “Bring something red and give it to Leo.” Or on another under a photograph of the Nancy Whiskey Pub it read: “Inside pocket of red jacket.” For the audience these ambiguous instructions and the uncertainty of Lee’s aims persuaded an interaction.
In a set of 14 postcards, a second project titled Life/Theater Performance could also be picked up from the gallery. Each postcard described commonplace actions, such as “a woman carrying an ironing board repositions her heel before increasing her tempo”, or “a paunchy man, leisurely admiring the statue, will suddenly realize he is late for an appointment.” and listed the exact date, time and site where each would take place. They were such subtle and brief interventions that the only way an audience member could tell that an action was staged was by its correspondence to the description on the card. What was important was not the spectacle of the actor but of the viewers cheering for a completely normal event.
Life/Theater Today was the nucleus of The Experiential Project and the most complex in the scale of its interactions. Life/Theater Today was presented in The Project Space, and invited passers-by to join the audience through a sandwich board outside the gallery advertising “Life Theater Today from 4-5 PM”. Viewers would sit upon a three-tier platform custom built for the gallery space and look out of the 7-foot tall bay windows onto the street. A clock was hung on the center column between the windows set to the current time, and underneath it was vinyl text that announced: “Between 4-5pm on Thursday-Saturday some of the things you will see on these streets have been orchestrated by Lee Walton.”
Outside the storefront windows people were walking by, going about their everyday routines. However, some of these activities were not real, they were performed. Lee had contracted actors through the online posting board Craigslist and assigned each of them to act out a specific action that one might see on the street. These performances were only distinguishable from the actions of other passersby because they were repeated, exactly the same way, every 3-5 minutes. A typical performance might go something like this. Initially, you don’t notice anything out of the ordinary, but after 10 minutes you realize that something is unusual. After 15 minutes, you realize the man who had just peeled and ate a banana five minutes before has just returned to the same spot to peel and eat a new banana. Then you began to focus on the rest of the street and noticed other people’s actions repeating; a woman drinking a cup of coffee keeps checking her watch, a man at the corner keeps asking people for directions, a guy jogging by in florescent running attire keeps running past, and then the banana man walks by again.
By guiding the act of looking while never defining exactly what was orchestrated or circumscribed, The Experiential Project allowed for multiple interpretations. Without a clear answer to this game the viewers were prompted to question whether every event was constructed or orchestrated. It equalized every event, raising the everyday to the status of art and art to the status of the everyday. In Life/Theater Today you might have thought that a man carrying wood and continually walking by the gallery space was taking part, when he was simply a delivery man. And as an audience member you were not immune to this conception. For every passerby it was your presence upon the stage framed within the vitrine-like gallery space, not them who were the Life/Theater. This questioning of roles extended beyond the gallery space: even the actors taking part in the project became hyper-aware of what was happening around them, not always knowing who else was a part of the performance. The shop workers surrounding the gallery were similarly affected, as every five minutes the same guy would come into their store to buy another banana before walking off.
But The Experiential Project, like the Lee’s movement Experientialism, was not about what was artificial or real, or about discovering truth or fiction. It was about the experience—simulation was simply the structure. It didn’t matter whether the audience could differentiate the artificial actors from the real people on the street or experientialism from a real art-movement. The goal was to take part in a creative action, question the roles and constructs behind your perception, and plunge into the game without a clear idea of the goals or intentions. I hope for Experientialism’s sake, that this text further complicates any explanation.
from "Lee Walton: The Experiential Project":/store_items/88