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The Productive Failures of a Weekend Spent Following Artists’ Instructions

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Leo Kaplan, Michael Kloss, and Nick Wylie chalk out their thoughts for Troy Briggs’s manual at the Manual Project #1 (photo by Ruslana Lichtzier)

TRIUMPH, Ill. — For four confusing and awkward minutes my obscured face occupied the screen of a mixed-sex chat room on Cam4. A cut and painted T-shirt blocked off my distinguishing characteristics while I was surrounded by four other equally ambiguous faces covered by makeshift masks. We were being broadcast to horny observers across the globe from the former library of a five-classroom schoolhouse in rural Illinois. The exercise was the last in a set of instructions outlined in an artist manual crafted specifically for the Triumph School’s first experimental weekend project, carried out from Saturday, September 17 through Sunday, September 18. Organized by curator Ruslana Lichtzier and her husband artist Ryan Coffey, The Manual Project #1 selected six artists to produce five printed manuals to be contemplated, constructed, and discussed over the span of two days.

Masked participants as a part of the final section of Nick Wylie and John Paul Glover’s manual, “To The Seminal Edge: A Manual for 4-7 Revolution Seekers”
Masked participants in Nick Wylie and John Paul Glover’s manual, “To The Seminal Edge: A Manual for 4–7 Revolution Seekers” (photo by Ruslana Lichtzier)

The weekend waxed and waned with participants, many of whom drove an hour-and-a-half west from Chicago — a mix of invited artists, writers, art administrators, and one infant prepared to set up camp between cornfields and empty classrooms in Triumph, Illinois. The early arrivers chose the order in which the group would tackle the printed manuals on Saturday afternoon, discussing factors such as estimated length of time, workload, and the combined talents it would take to complete each. I was able to participate in three of the manuals during my own 24-hour visit. I missed Joseph Grigely’s two-page “Blueberry Surprise,” which instructed Triumph School guests to fill in the spaces between snippets of written text the artist had collected over the years through passed notes. And Philip Peters’s “Complete Guide to Gas Station Firewood Reclamation and Preservation” asked participants through text and appropriated illustrations to form a loose assembly line to cut and polish purchased firewood, which didn’t occur due to lack of time.  

A section of the weekend’s on-site campground (photo by the author for Hyperallergic
A section of the weekend’s on-site campground (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

We started with Ayanah Moor’s manual: a one-page instructional that required a set of participants to sand and paint a wall of a shed located in the back corner of the school’s property. We were asked to spell the sentence ‘THIS BLACKNESS IS JUST FOR YOU’ by measuring the size of the letters with our arms and painting around them with heavily diluted black paint. We were then instructed to “complete” the mural with a slightly less diluted mix of the same paint. Instructions were simple yet surprisingly open-ended — the direction to “complete” the work holding a different meaning for each participant, with some feeling as if the letters should be painted in completely, while most were left unsure of Moor’s intention for the final work. This manual seemed the most beholden to the artist’s wishes, and I wondered how much interpretation the mural could be subjected to by the group, and how much authorship I had of the final appearance of the work, which I was unsure if I wanted to claim.

Participants of Ayanah Moor’s manual (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
Participants of Ayanah Moor’s manual (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

If Moor’s manual demanded specificity, Troy Briggs’s was deliberately open to interpretation, presenting a large folded piece of paper that looked more like a math equation than set of orders. To complete the manual we separated into two groups of three participants, each group subconsciously attempting to conceptualize the manual faster than the other. To solve for “B” each group had to decode the meaning of “A,” a black-and-white picture of what appeared to be the corner of a living room. Despite being the most directly confusing (there were no clarifications about how a “reproduction” should be created, or how one should interpret the image of the living room), the manual seemed to be the most generous of the five, offering participants a set of loose directions rather than strict demands. This allowed participants to contribute their creations and actions with confidence, without over-thinking whether what they were doing or saying accurately reflected the intent of the manual’s author.

The third manual of the day, “To the Seminal Edge: A Manual for 4-7 Revolution Seekers,” created by John Paul Glover and Nick Wylie, was a seven-part audio recording intended to bond the group through exercises that ranged from a guided meditation to an eventual improvised sex cam performance. Due to time constraints, the fluctuating group of participants (some came and went, while others simply dropped out) was asked to skip over several parts of the projected seven-hour manual, which posed increasingly personal questions, like, “When did you last cry in front of another person?” “When did you last cry by yourself?”, to be answered out loud to the group, and included a blindfolded walk throughout the property while listening to Jennifer Moon’s “4 Factions for Revolution.”

Process shot of Ayanah Moor’s manual in the making
Process shot of Ayanah Moor’s manual in-the-making (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

Like Moor’s piece, Glover and Wylie’s felt demanding to the point of some participants voicing concerns about being manipulated toward the end of the experience. Only after getting kicked off of the webcam site by its operators did we realize the questionable nature of our masks and broadcasted images, with some voicing their uncomfortableness with having documentation of this act posted online. Some in the group feared we appeared somehow terrorist-like, which incited confused conversations about the implications of our participation and even authorship. Were we responsible for these actions? Was the artist?

The same questions could be applied to any of the manuals throughout the weekend, as the authorship between the manual’s designer and participants blurred. Despite each of us being open to mystery and artful collaboration, consent was a tricky concept that was made most apparent and extreme by Wylie and Glover’s work.

In the end, Moor’s mural did end up being filled in: a vague outline of the text could be seen on the now mostly all-black wall, which could have looked like a mistake for those who didn’t have the knowledge of the manual. This “failure” — just like being kicked off the webcam in Wylie and Glover’s piece, or the incompletion of Phil Peters’s proposed project — encouraged more dialogue than if each had gone according to the artist’s intended plan — whatever that plan may have looked like. The uncomfortable nature of not knowing what the artists envisioned for their manuals incited more dialogue, especially at the Triumph School — a brand new project that openly voiced its confusion about its purpose in order to generate ideas about how they might grow and better serve the surrounding artist community.

Project participants Dan Miller and Danny Floyd led blindfolded through a field on the premises of The Triumph School for Part 5 and 6 of Nick Wylie and John Paul Glover’s manual, “To The Seminal Edge: A Manual for 4-7 Revolution Seekers”
Project participants Dan Miller and Danny Floyd led blindfolded through a field on the premises of the Triumph School for parts five and six of Nick Wylie and John Paul Glover’s manual, “To The Seminal Edge: A Manual for 4-7 Revolution Seekers” (photo Ruslana Lichtzier)

The Manual Project #2 will occur during the weekend of October 14 at the Triumph School, a space Lichtzier and Coffey hope to build into an artists’ residency in the future, and will include the work of Alex Chitty, Heather MacKenzie, Dario Robleto, Jason Lazarus, and a revised manual by Phil Peters. All manual authors will be allowed to revise their work, in case the original completion of their manual did not capture the essence of what they were trying to demonstrate. These manuals will not be given the space to be performed again at the Triumph School, but rather serve as learning experiences for both author and participant — a way to see the gaps between intention and group understanding.

Although this is an interesting way to elicit satisfaction from the author, I personally believe that each manual worked despite its inherent failures, and would be curious to see new audiences’ representations of the original texts. It is the very “failures” of the pieces in The Manual Project #1 that allowed them to be more than just straightforward artworks and become curious social experiments that allowed each participant to perform as well as produce.

The Manual Project #1 took place at the Triumph School (771 North 3906th road, Triumph, IL) on September 17–18. The Manual Project #2 will take place on the weekend of October 14 at the same location.

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