Task Master

An artist turns ordinary chores into improvisational art.

By Nate Lippens December 28, 2008 Published in the June 2008 issue of Seattle Met

FOR OLIVER HERRING, contemporary culture provides few creative outlets. That won’t be a problem for the 35 participants of Task, the artist’s day-long improvisational performance to be held at the Seattle Public Library.

Born in Germany and based in Brooklyn, New York, Herring elevates the ordinary by emphasizing the artifice in art. He made his name in the 1990s with his series of life-size sculptural portraits from thousands of layered digital photographs. Since then he’s moved on to stop-motion video and performance, often pulling in strangers he meets on the street. Task turned Herring from director to instigator. "Task is not about me or about my interacting with someone else,” he says. “It’s an outlet I initiate and help to produce that allows people to have meaningful, creative, open-ended, surprising, idiosyncratic, chaotic, messy, productive, and definitely memorable encounters with a whole variety of other people.”

Performers, of various ages and backgrounds, were selected though an application process organized by the Frye Art Museum. The day begins with Herring writing down random activities on slips of paper to be drawn from a “task pool.” Previous performances in Paris, London, Philadelphia, and Washington, DC, included dancing, chanting, singing, banner-making, fountain-decorating, and crowd-surfing. Each participant carries out an eclectic chore, then writes a new one, puts it back in the pool, selects a different duty, performs that…and so on. “After the first five or 10 minutes, the performance is entirely self-perpetuating and unpredictable,” says Herring. “You don’t know what’s going to happen. The unpredictability is inherent to the artwork, which is shaped according to the creativity of the performers. It’s about their interactions and choices.” The simple and strange actions break through people’s inhibitions and self-censorship; the result evokes reality television minus the humiliation, but with the odd mundane bits left in.

The Seattle performance, a collaboration of the Frye Art Museum, the Tacoma Art Museum, On the Boards, and the Seattle Public Library, will be the first Task staged indoors. Herring’s relationship with Seattle began at the Frye with his 2005 photography and sculpture exhibition Taking and Making. He chose the library for its architecture, and because the public location invites an audience unaccustomed to performance art and exposes them to a truly democratic improvised experiment.

The community aspect of Task holds a special interest for Herring. “One of the most rewarding by-products of Task events is that some of those people remain in touch and become friends,” he says. “This is very important to me. The way I approach art is from the belief that it can have a real impact on real life.”

Filed under