A Sense of Direction
Instruction-Based Art Has Ric Royer Seeing A World Overrun With Chains Of Commands
Clad in a red vintage shirt, slacks, and navy peacoat, Royer exudes an insouciant air. His curly black hair sweeps across his forehead as if he just got out of a convertible, and he’s not the sort of young man who feels the need to touch it during conversation as a nervous tic. His eyes swim around you during conversation, which feels like a guarded self-consciousness until you realize he’s taking in every millimeter of the surroundings. And he speaks with a lucid sleepiness—perhaps due to the coffee not taking hold yet—that masks an omnivorously observant intellect.
He adjusts his weight in his seat, starts taking his peacoat off, and then stops, one sleeve remaining halfway over his shoulder as he resumes his train of thought. “I went to get some posters made, and when I went to the counter they gave me a card and said I had to speak with a projects manager,” he says. “Projects manager? All I need is for somebody to take these, go back there, and push a button.”
Don’t misconstrue these remarks. If they contained a smidgen of animosity they would be rants. If they contained an ounce of exasperation they would be common whining. And if they contained even a whiff of self-consciousness they would be blank sarcasm. No, Royer was merely narrating changes in a process, how you get from some point A (needing copies) to endpoint B (copies made). That process had altered in a way that influences how you negotiate a trip to Kinko’s. And such hidden in plain sight behavioral codes are what Royer has spent the past three years studying for his thesis project, “The Art of Instruction,” a pan-media monograph on not only the instruction-based works of the experimental 1960s (see: Yoko Ono, Sol LeWitt), but the embedded instructional elements of musical notation, theatrical script directions, etc., that, although often hidden in the apparatus, permeate the arts. The culmination of this thesis is Royer’s 30-artist-strong These Are Your Instructions, which opens this week at Center Stage’s sixth-floor rehearsal studio.
“I’m calling it an ‘event exhibit,’ but I am more interested in the opening-night performance events, because I think it’s very integral to what the exhibit is—work that’s charged with potential to become more than static,” Royer says. “The opening-night performances are contributors performing the pieces that they contributed to the exhibit. They’re actually taking those pieces off the wall, in essence, and performing. To me it’s a culmination of my academic work, like writing the book and seeing that book come to life.”
Royer recently returned from a year at Dartington College of Arts in southwest England to write his project, which swelled to 100 pages as his research took him down many aesthetic and conceptual rabbit holes. And now, as many writers have discovered before, sometimes when a book comes to life it can also take over the life of the author.
“It’s good to be aware that there is this grid of instructions, this grid of guidelines of behavior that we’re following in everyday life,” he says. “So it’s become a bit of obsession with me. I see it everywhere, which is a good thing if you’re thinking of making it your life’s scholarly work. But I’m absolutely doing that to the point that it’s ridiculous. I’m looking at this cup and I’m thinking, This cup instructs the liquid how to fill it. It’s a structure and it instructs the liquid how to—and then I’m thinking, Oh, God. Stop.”
What’s curious isn’t that Royer has reached such an intellectual rope’s end—it’s that he arrived there through art, and a type of art that isn’t something you can easily pick up, analyze, look at, and think about. “None of the work really looks like this,” Royer says, holding up a piece of paper. “There are a couple of wall pieces that are more conventional. Blaster’s is just an 8 1/2-by-11 piece of paper with instructions on it.”
What that piece of paper says is why Royer included it in the show. It’s one of Blaster Al Ackerman’s scores, which he will perform. This one consists of ingesting a mouthful of corn, inhaling a big puff of cigarette, and then forcefully expelling both.
The rest of the show is just as elusive. For her performance, Lauren Bender is building a table from Ikea by following its instructions. Royer wrote a piece to build a model without using the included instructions. Kevin Thurston is following mouthwash instructions—rinse twice daily—and documenting the discharged collected artifacts. Jackie Milad is including instructional drawings on how to be dead and how to be asleep. And for her submission, Julia Dzwonkoski has contacted the few remaining hand-painted sign-makers in Baltimore and given them instructions to make the best signs possible that read signs by julia, toying with authorship and concept trumping the labor.
All these works straddle as many conceptual lines as they do media, with the interconnective tissue a tad slight at first blush. And in fact, “instruction art” as a genre is one of those tags that often reads like a subgenre of a subgenre of a subculture, depending on who is doing the looking. Ono’s 1964 “Cut Piece” piece is obviously instructional—where the audience members were invited to come onstage and cut Ono’s clothing using the provided scissors—but art-historically is more allied with the performance-friendly Fluxus group. Other infamous and influential 1960s and ’70s works—Bruce Nauman’s “Walking in an Exaggerated Manner Around the Perimeter of a Square,” Paul McCarthy’s Red Poster Video Tapes—contain instructional elements but are most often thought about as performance art.
Royer is in no way interested in hairsplitting such categorization; it’s the instructional construct in the arts that sets his mind reeling. His interest in instruction-based art came from his involvement with the Bufffluxus group in Buffalo, N.Y., where he attended the University of Buffalo as an undergraduate. He studied writing and was involved in the city’s active experimental visual and sound poetry community, through which he started to gain an appreciation of Fluxus works by Ono and Allison Knowles.
“I think, as the case usually goes, I just became curious on my feet about it,” Royer says. “When I was working with the Fluxus group, I became very curious about instruction there. And in the research of it, it just became more and more important that I do this as a long-term study.”
Royer started his MFA at Towson University in 2001, enticed to Baltimore by its arts scene—“One of the first places I saw [in Baltimore] was Normals [Books and Records], and I thought, If a place like this could exist with the Red Room next to it, it can’t be that bad around here—that was actually one of Baltimore’s selling points”—and immersed himself both in the local arts community and his research. He joined Bonnie Jones and Jackie Milad as one of the organizing minds behind the Chela art gallery and collective, putting him in touch with more and more fringe artists. Meanwhile, his scholarly work put him in touch with more and more instruction-based ideas.
One of the figures he came across was Stanley Milgram, the Yale University social psychologist who conducted an experiment in which people were recruited to give electric shocks to students (who were actually actors) every time they gave wrong answers. He was investigating how many people would do this merely because they were told so in the guise of science by a man in a white lab coat.
“In those obedience experiments, it got me thinking about instruction in everyday life, and instructions within both society and instructions within structures,” Royer says. “My big coinage in my thesis is ‘instructures,’ which are, like, when we see a green light, we know to go. It doesn’t need to tell you what it means. There’s no process of interpretation anymore. It’s the same with perforated lines—whenever we see those somewhere, you think you’re supposed to cut them, although it doesn’t say somewhere to cut them. These are these instructions that have been absorbed into a structure.”
And once Royer started recognizing an instructional overlay of everyday objects—well, after three years of this you can see how he might start looking at a cup of coffee with different eyes. “My thesis adviser is really interested in the politics of it, especially in the current political climate, where you have an us or them or very black and white climate,” Royer says. “Just thinking about patriotism as a score—there’s a textbook to how to be a patriot and a textbook of how to be either/or, really, Democrat or Republican. You see it on both sides, really, towing the party line, and how that can be more dangerous than good.
“That’s probably the next step,” he continues. “What I’ve done so far is really the poetics and aesthetics of instruction, but more and more I’m leaning toward the politics of instruction, once I can get my head around it. I think it’s good when your project changes the way you think. I think it’s kind of rare these days to get something out of your thesis in the arts.”
Just how much it’s changing the way he thinks is what he’s trying to figure out right now. Recognizing his thesis in everything around him is one thing; reacting to it is something else entirely. When Royer sees a crosswalk sign informing him to walk, does he? Or does he rebel against the silent directive. “I still walk, but I tell it that I don’t have to,” he laughs. “It’s good to be aware. That’s the whole thing—it’s not always good to disobey it, but it’s always good to be aware that you can.
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