Tino Sehgal, whose work has been described as operating “at the thinnest boundary between art and life”, makes provocative interventions into the institutional spaces of the international art world. In the German pavilion at the last Venice Biennale (where he and Thomas Scheibitz were the national representatives), Sehgal made a number of uniformed “attendants” of all ages skip around the space and chant “this is so contemporary, so contemporary” while in the next gallery more attendants—or interpreters as Sehgal calls them—engaged somewhat bemused visitors in animated discussions about the market economy. Last month saw the opening of “This progress”, the second of Sehgal’s three annual solo shows at London’s ICA, and yet again participation is the order of the day with a team of interpreters of all ages (including children) propelling visitors at a brisk pace through the spaces of the ICA. These interpreters engage in conversation with visitors by asking the question, “What is progress?” Tino Sehgal is also breaking the institutional hush in the Tate Triennial at Tate Britain this month with a piece called This is propaganda. This title will be sung in the galleries every time someone crosses the threshold.
The Art Newspaper: You describe your works as constructed situations rather than performances—why make that distinction?
Tino Sehgal: There’s a technical reason in that a performance is always something that has a specific set format: people meet at a certain time and then there’s one set of people who perform for another set of people. This does not have the same temporality as an exhibition. The word “performance” is linked to certain artists who are ideologically opposed to me because they want to disassociate themselves from museums and the market and romanticise themselves. A situation is something that you are involved in; it’s something which people take part in.
TAN: In your work—especially the new piece This progress at the ICA—anything can happen. Participants can trigger events and the format can change.
TS: Exactly. It’s not set in that sense. There was a woman from The Independent [newspaper] who said “I reject! I reject!”, but she participated in a way. She influenced the course of the piece more than people who took part in less confrontational ways.
TAN: What inspired you to choose progress as its theme?
TS: The museum is obviously a kind of power machine, introducing the idea of progress to citizens. I’m interested, as I work in this kind of space, to understand what the machine propagates, no matter what I put into it. More generally, I was interested in whether there can be progress which is not technological progress. Most technology is counterproductive but we need progress to open up new types of occupations.
TAN: Your work is resolutely immaterial, you don’t allow any documentation, or photographic record of the piece. When it is not active, it just exists in the memory.
TS: From a technical point of view, I don’t need documentation because I am collaborating with museums. All my work can be bought and can always be shown.
TAN: How can it be bought?
TS: Instead of a paper certificate, there’s an oral sale contract. There are three to six conditions depending on the work and a lawyer or a notary present.
TAN: They have to remember the contract?
TS: Yes, we also normally have a curator or an art critic as a witness and then the buyer and my gallerist are also present. It works well because you discuss it a few times, it becomes very apparent that this thing is now part of the institution.
TAN: But if those people leave the institution it has to be learnt by new people?
TS: Exactly—so we try to find people we think are going to stay for a while in an institution!
TAN: Is each piece unique or editioned?
TS: They are in an edition of four.
TAN: Can they be bought by a private individual as well as an institution?
TS: Yes. A lot of emphasis has been put on the fact that I don’t have documentation, but what is more relevant is that I don’t need it because my work takes place in exhibitions. This progress has been running for a few weeks at the ICA but it could run for the next 10 years in a museum.
TAN: Has Tate bought This is propaganda, your 2002 piece in the Tate Triennial in which, on entering the space, a woman dressed like a museum guard starts to sing, “this is propaganda, you know, you know, this is propaganda”?
TS: Yes. They acquired it last year.
TAN: How do you get paid? I heard you only take cash?
TS: Cash and wire, but we don’t do cheques—I don’t want to have one material thing that solely represents a transaction.
TAN: So again, this rigorous determination to leave no physical residue.
TS: But the work is something in itself. This is something one has to stress—it’s not nothing, it is something, it is a product at the end of the day, and a conventional product to a degree. It is produced, it can be sold, it can be collected and it can remain.
TAN: Your work can often be very funny—is humour important to your work or a by-product?
TS: I take it as a compliment that you find it funny. Although the questions that lead me to these things are quite heavy, I think the answers can still be quite light and, hopefully, refreshing.