Bellen met Buren

Minka Bos

James Lee Byars (beeldend kunstenaar, filosoof,1932-1997) zocht in 1970 naar een manier om de kennismaatschappij van zijn tijd te onderzoeken. Het leek hem onzin om daarvoor naar de bibliotheek te gaan en miljoenen boeken te lezen. Uiteindelijk leidde zijn onderzoek tot de creatie van zijn World Question Center. Byars’ plan was om de honderd meest briljante geesten in de wereld bij elkaar te zetten in een kamer, ze op te sluiten achter gesloten deuren en elkaar de vragen te laten stellen, die ze zichzelf afvragen. Het verwachte resultaat, zou een synthese zijn van alle gedachten. James Lee Byars vond de, voor hem, honderd meest briljante geesten, belde ze op en vroeg hen welke vragen ze zichzelf stelden. Het resultaat: zeventig mensen hingen op.

Drieëndertig jaar later, probeerde Jens Hoffmann (curator) in samenwerking met BAK opnieuw Byars’plan tot uitvoering te brengen (in het kader van Now What? Dreaming a better world in six parts). Op 1 november vond in het Voormalige Gerechtsgebouw in Utrecht de laatste WQC plaats: tijdens een openbare performance werd contact opgenomen met vierenvijftig grote geesten die in een vraagstelling de huidige staat van kennis belichtten. Kunstenaars, curatoren en andere deelnemers aan Now What? hadden de lijst met meest briljante geesten van onze tijd samengesteld, (op deze lijst ondermeer: Kitty Zijlmans, Marina Abramovic, Daniel Buren). Deze grootheden werden van te voren benaderd en hen werd Byars’ inmiddels historische vraag gesteld. Een kort interview met Jens Hoffmann, curator en initiator van de eerste WQC van de 21ste eeuw, begon dan ook vanzelfsprekend als volgt:

What is the question you ask yourself at this moment, that is important to you?
How can I answer this question?

What is your connection with James Lee Byars?
There is no special personal connection if that is what you mean. When BAK told me about Now What? and particularly about the idea of Dreaming a better world I had to immediately think about Byars and his WQC. Especially the idea of looking at the different capacities of art, the political potential of dreaming, the aim of reclaiming the space of dream and imagination to dare to envision our world differently, reminded me of Byars who was setting up an utopian program for creating an idealistic future and who took the contradictions between art as an aesthetic exploration of the world and art as a socially transforming tool as the foundation of his artistic work.

Why reload The World Question Center?
I understand Byars’ concept behind the WQC as a method of producing a dialogue, a form of intellectual exchange and research to grasp the large diversity of contemporary thought. The WQC should therefore be understood as a tool that can be applied again and again similarly to a computer program that we are reloading every time we want, or maybe even need to use it. I think it is a rather open format that can be used by everyone. When we consider the fact that art works are in someway statements, assertions of some sort that address us often in the declarative mode, we see that Byars’ question pieces try to show that art does do need to make statements. His works simply try to generate an openness shifting artistic expression from the declarative to the interrogative mode. The idea of the interrogation is at the center of Byars’ work as he always desired to put us in the questioning mood, encouraging us to take nothing for granted and to doubt everything that we got to know as our so-called reality. He wanted us to be alert and to develop a sensitivity that can perceive all the different nuances of the present moment. A declaration may point forward or backward in time. A question, whatever it’s content, always focuses our attention to the present. I think that is the urgency right now. To mistrust what we have gotten to know as reality to question the world. Just like this program: Now What?.

Do you think or hope this performance will lead to anything new/specific? (a better world).
If one seriously talks about an active engagement of art with society one has to aim at a much more radical practice that goes towards the integration of art into society by freeing itself of traditional aesthetics and concepts that are bound to a specific medium and measured by so called artistic quality. This is however very hard to achieve. On the other hand I also think art has the right not to be concerned with society at all, the question is only if that is really possible as every work made for a public and exposed to a public is always an intervention into a certain social order. Obviously one has to make a differentiation here since art is a rather complex and diverse thing. One has to distinguish between art that engages with society directly in an active way, art that represents society in one way or the other through visual metaphors and art that willingly does not care about society but only about itself. I see the WQC somewhere between the first and the second point which means that I hope that our project and the overall program of Now What? will add a part to imagine our world to be a better and different place. Once we start thinking we already made a first step.


BAK, Lange Nieuwstraat 4, Utrecht, open wo tm zo 13-19