According to Dave Hickey in The Invisible Dragon, a book of essays on beauty I’m currently reading, all art up until the seventeenth century was participatory. The people who looked at paintings back then believed in the sacredness of the subject depicted, or had a window into another world of which they felt a part. These days, we look on painting's subjects with dispassion. To follow Hickey’s thread, artists have come up with other ways to get us involved in their art, performance and installations being two such methods.
Aesthetics are inherent in work where the artist is not out to create beauty, but to demonstrate an abstract principle. Take for instance the principle of modulation. Installation artist Amy Stacey Curtis theorizes modulation by putting a rainbow-colored piece of paper inside a tin can, setting the can on the floor, and having her audience walk around it so that the color inside the can is seen to change from red to yellow to green to blue to red. But just as one human does not make a race, so one tin can cannot not give the full effect of color modulation, and the completed installation, exhibited in Brunswick, Maine in 2004, consisted of a circle of 2,304 cans, around which viewers were asked to walk slowly and meditatively. A later version was over 8,000 cans big.
The larger principle supporting Curtis’ work is that everything we humans do affects everything and everyone else. The installation pieces in Curtis’ solo biennials are participatory, as for instance a floor maze where persons entering and leaving in orderly progression emit random sounds, so that the result is something like a flattened tower of babble. In another, viewers walking a line next to a series of pendulums cause the pendulums to sway. No man is an island, but that he ripples the air where he goes. In yet another, photo overlays of many faces make one believable androgynous face.
Curtis examines chaos, not the blow-em-up variety, but a more subtle dis-order that is orderly in its affect. Think of chaos not as a cataclysmic disruption but as gentle revolution: order>chaos>order>chaos>order. As participants in her installations, we combine and uncombine elements, from pattern to random and back again. Installations are made and unmade, labor intensive, maximal in numbers of components, zen-minimal in concept, the actions deceptively simple to perform.
And where the biennials happen is also important. The unused mills Curtis chooses for her installations carry vestigial reminders of multiples of humans performing repetitive tasks. For a complete rundown on the biennials, visit her website and check out her youtube video.