Still underway at the Seattle Public Library right now is Oliver Herring’s Task. I just came from there.
First, what it is: Task is a work of art by Herring. Its entire purpose is to give other people a chance to be creative within a structure. Herring sets the structure, and then Task plays itself out.
It started this morning at 10, when a mix of art types and regular library patrons waited for the downtown library’s doors to open. By the time we got up to the main floor (the one level with Fifth Avenue), Task was already underway. The 35 volunteers of all ages chosen in advance by the artist had each received, randomly, one task to perform, written by the artist. (Other than that, the artist doesn’t participate. He walks around talking to people and filming and generally looking slightly stressed.)
The first task I witnessed was a man crawling on a path between the two main stages, then doing situps on it. I tried to guess what the task was that he’d been given, but quickly got distracted by another thing. After he was done, he discarded that task and wrote another one, then put it in a tin-foil-covered box. That’s what all 35 of them will do all day, until 5:30. Then, at 6, they’ll talk about it in an open Q&A.
After the tasks are performed, they are entered into a computer and appear on a screen near the stage, so you can see retrospectively what it was that you were just watching.
Here’s what I saw:
1. A young man in a plaid shirt vivisecting a plastic holstein cow with an exacto knife.
2. An older man wearing glasses on a chain, cutting a flower out of cardboard.
3. A dark-haired, busty young woman in an Obama T-shirt tied up in a chair. After several minutes of her sitting quietly, someone came over and freed her.
4. Three people standing on ladders and trying to sing “God Bless America.” An older woman in the audience stepped forward and mouthed the words because the singers didn’t really know them.
5. A thin and stylish older woman, holding a placard she’d made, announcing, “Refashion Nation parade starting! Please? Please?” No one responded, because the others were standing in a circle nearby and bouncing a beach ball.
6. A young woman declaring, “I am not disposable” while her legs were wrapped in toilet paper.
7. A scene from Oprah magazine performed. (Tips on how to talk about body image with family members.)
8. A sit-in protesting walking on the walkway.
9. Three women stretching in unison.
10. A young woman introducing herself to an older man and shaking his hand while saying, “Hi, my name is Tara. And now, you have to shake everyone’s hand in Task.” (The man then turned to me and said, “Everyone has to shake everyone’s hand! That’s 35 factorial!!” He was wearing a nametag that said “Sol (Actually Ned).” I asked but immediately forgot whether his name is Sol or Ned.)
11. A young man and woman inventing a secret handshake.
12. An old man and woman waltzing.
13. A young man subverting other people’s tasks.
14. An old tenor singing a few bars of an aria.
I was asked to participate in the singing of “God Bless America,” but I declined. I did allow my hair to be styled with clothespins by an older woman.
Because there are two stages, the energy in the place is oddly split. (One of the stages, on the bleachers above the auditorium, is generally empty, while the other is crowded.) By noon, the participants seemed to be flagging and I was mildly irritated. Then, I was talked into believing in Task again, by an older man wearing a worn blue U.S. Marine Corps cap and building a fort with cardboard and buckets. On the side, it said “Fort Badass.”
I started talking to him because he was very old, clearly the oldest in the group, and he had long black hair streaming out between the buttons on his shirt at belly level. When I asked him how he got so hairy in the middle, he said archly, “I beg your pardon. I can not help that.” He continued building Fort Badass with two young guys. They kept thinking they were done, and he kept adding features: smokestacks, chimneys, a box for A/C. He even “wired” the place using extension cords.
When he was finished with Fort Badass, I asked his name (Bob), his age (he turned 83 yesterday) and I asked him about his cap (I knew the participants can bring costumes, but he also looked about the right age for World War II service). We fell to talking and it turned out he did fight in WWII, including storming the beachheads in Guam and Okinawa. Later, in the Korean War, he sunned himself on an aircraft carrier in the Caribbean. After that, he owned five men’s stores in Southern California. He has been married 42 years; before that, he was married 21 years to another woman. I asked what was his favorite task so far, and he said making snow out of cottonballs. “I took this pile of cotton, and I knew I was being photographed, see, and I just threw it up to the sky,” he said. “Oh, and I got to read a love poem to a lady on the floor over here. Want me to read it to you?”
“Have a seat,” he said, returning from fetching the manila envelope containing his love poems. (The participants are also asked to bring a few of their own writings.)
“Now I’ve been in love since the first grade,” Bob said. “I have never been without a heartthrob in my life. This poem I wrote to woo my wife, 42 years ago.”
I don’t remember most of it, but it included the lines “Stir the passions of our gender” (!), “Give us love, give us peace,” and “I am yours, you are mine/We are sublime.”
He then read me a poem about his cat.
“Something like this is really good for us,” he said, unprompted, when there was a long pause in our conversation as we figured out a way to disentangle ourselves from this oddly intimate interaction. “Have you noticed that you can really get outside yourself? You can really communicate without anxiety here.”
Another participant came by. “Bob, you wanna be in a conga line?”
“Well sure, why not?” he said, standing up. “Where’s the rhythm?”