Visual Arts

"Josh Greene: Some Parts Might Be Greater Than the Whole," the latest in ASU Art Museum’s "Social Studies" series, is a literal work in progress

"Josh Greene: Some Parts Might Be Greater Than the Whole," a current offering at Arizona State University Art Museum, is a work in progress. Literally.

Greene's project is the second installment in ASUAM's "Social Studies" series, an ongoing series of exhibitions — if they can be labeled as such — initially conceived by the museum's curators under the aegis of retired director Marilyn Zeitlin and carried on by interim director Heather Lineberry. "Social Studies" is a peculiar, multifaceted undertaking in which, as ASUAM's Web site description points out, "the museum turns over a complete gallery to an artist to explore their social interactive approach."

For artist-in-residence Josh Greene, a well-known San Francisco-based conceptual artist who's worked with the likes of bigtime French conceptual artist Sophie Calle, that means sitting in a 2,200-square-foot gallery space at a desk with a computer on a wooden platform, waiting for inspiration to strike — or walk through the door — with the hope that some sort of creative alchemy will occur.

Basically, the artist was given a green light by ASUAM to do just about anything in, on, and/or to the space, short of irreparably destroying it — a scary prospect for just about any museum in the universe — as long as it involved "social interaction," a common buzzword in participatory conceptual art circles.

"Through our first 'Social Studies' project with Brazilian artist Jarbas Lopes, we learned that we have to keep more freedom in the project," John Spiak, lead curator for Greene's residency project, says, referring to last fall's initial effort in this project. "We can't pigeonhole the artists until they arrive to develop their own concepts. You can develop only so much off-site — it's the human interactions that we want. We want the whole thing to be totally organic."

But such limitless artistic freedom comes at a price.

Josh Greene admits to having a lot of sleepless nights over exactly what he would do in the museum space, to which he was invited by Spiak several months ago. "Artists are usually not on stage like this," Greene says. "How do you deal with just being in a place where the public is coming through and the notion of expectations?"

It's that very idea of what the public ordinarily expects in a museum experience that forms the foundation from which his project has unfolded.

Greene set up shop, so to speak, on February 18 and will remain physically in the gallery until April 4, when he returns home; however, the fruits of his labor will be on display until May 18 and, theoretically, his work is considered open-ended, meaning it could be revived or added to in the future. By the time I visited in mid-March, he had made the empty, white gallery space more inviting by decorating part of it with a cozy sitting area, complete with shag rug, mirror and fishbowl, per his wife's directions during a Gmail chat, which he's posted as wall text.

Before the space was decorated, however, he took the suggestion of Jessie Smith, a member of a Canadian seniors tour group visiting the museum on Greene's second day there, to put some art up. Smith and her group had been told by their tour leader that the museum had an artist in residence, so Jessie and her husband, Alastair, made a beeline to meet him.

"On his desk sat an apple," Smith relates in a written wall text, "and I immediately thought of art and, possibly, a still-life image in watercolor. But this apple was just a part of his lunch!"

Greene and Smith exchanged ideas about filling the stark, white-washed space. After the couple toured the rest of the museum, they returned to say goodbye. That's when Greene asked Smith if she would be interested in helping him choose some work for display. The tour member enthusiastically agreed and returned several days later to assist the artist.

In a complete turnabout, Greene invited Smith to choose pieces from the museum's permanent collection, which she did. He videotaped the process and threw an opening reception for her group, showcasing the pinch-hitting Canadian curator's final selections. My favorite of Smith's final choices was a piece with a disemboweled Lichtenstein-style mouth telling an eye on a stalk, "It's about the seeds of art history, stupid." The final videotape of Smith's curatorial foray will be a part of the continuing exhibition.

Reconfiguring other museum spaces has also been a major component of the artist's unorthodox art-making. When he discovered that the men's room in the museum didn't have a couch, as the women's room does, he "equalized" the two restrooms by moving the office couch of curator John Spiak into the men's room. The private curatorial bathrooms are now equipped with CD players immortalizing the unmistakable sounds of bathroom activity, which one can ignore or choose to listen to.

Recently, the artist was so impressed by the kinetic chaos of Spiak's office that he moved its entire contents to the gallery, painstakingly re-creating its visual bedlam from photos he took of Spiak's work space. Greene's 3-D vignette dutifully documents books and papers scattered on and under the curator's desk, strange stuff strewn about the floor, including a gigantic deflated bear costume, made-to-scale bookcases crammed precariously with hundreds of videotapes and exhibition catalogs, suspended "walls" plastered with assorted images and a video monitor stacked with crap. Spiak, in turn, posted a video of his new office location (

Greene concedes that his experimental activities are not exactly mediagenic. In fact, the press has been as confused about what he's doing as unsuspecting museum-goers are. "I don't actually make things that often," Greene recently explained to a Channel 3 news crew that seemed completely baffled by Greene's work. "So, a lot of the projects are often inspired by various conversations with visitors to the museum."

News anchor Scott Pasmore was so flummoxed by the whole concept that he ended up nervously laughing and babbling incoherently on-camera. The artist later made color copies of Pasmore's head shot and had 80 fourth-graders draw Pasmore based on the photo. All the drawings will be on exhibit. There also will be a video of Greene conducting a deadpan, one-sided interview with a chimpanzee about potential art projects on which they might collaborate.

The artful antics of Josh Greene, who has a master's degree in sculpture from the California College of the Arts and teaches classes there, have reached outside museum confines as well. Greene made himself available for student videos in which he was completely directed by the budding filmmakers. ("I didn't ask a lot of questions about what they were doing and had no aesthetic involvement. There's a lot of blood involved.") A compilation of the results will be on display.

The artist also lays claim to being a regularly employed waiter in a San Francisco fine-dining restaurant, a job that inspired him to switch places with a waiter at the museum's recent Ceram-A-Rama gala, to which he had been invited as a guest. Surreptiously switching clothes with one male waiter, Greene began to serve other gala guests, which, after five minutes, so unnerved the waiter that the artist was forced to ask a female server to trade places. She thoroughly enjoyed being waited on by Greene. The artist's guest/wait staff performance could be considered a continuation of his ongoing "Service-Works" project, in which he pools his monthly tips earned as a waiter and funds art projects proposed to him by artists via applications submitted to a Web site (for details, check out Greene's Web site at

Blame all this on the French, if you must. Ever since French art critic and curator Nicolas Bourriaud coined the term "relational aesthetics" in the 1990s to describe new, hard-to-pin-down participatory work he was seeing, this sort of art activity has become fashionable in the international museum and art worlds, though its precursors can be found in Dadaist and Surrealist practices. Relational art involves "interactivity" and "connectivity" among artist, audience and physical space, with a distinct movement toward reshaping the entire museum or gallery experience.

Bourriaud, who is now director of Paris' Palais de Tokyo contemporary art museum, believes that today's museums, once-revered repositories for objects traditionally presented on pedestals or hung on walls, should be more like interdisciplinary studios or, better yet, gigantic experimental laboratories. According to art historian Claire Bishop, this kind of work is the natural evolution of art in societies shifting from a goods-based to a service-based economy aimed at creating and marketing entertaining "experiences," not to mention people's increased desire for real face-to-face interaction in a faceless, virtual, Internet-driven world.

Curator John Spiak views Greene's ASUAM work as ultimately revolving around decisions — how decisions are made, how individuals become empowered to make informed decisions, and how decisions that already have been made are challenged.

For me, the work is about, in part, transparency — laying bare the inner workings of a museum to examine its very purpose, as well as the manner in which objects are chosen for exhibition. It's about smashing restrictive historical barriers between artist, institution and viewer, who ordinarily do not personally interact in any appreciable way. Best of all, it's about extemporaneous, seat-of-your-pants creativity and pure, spontaneous human interaction. I just hope this kind of wild-ass, forward-looking experimentation continues under the next permanent director of ASUAM, who, according to the university's official P.R., will serve in a purely administrative capacity.