Turnout was so high for the sold-out talk at the New Museum last Saturday that it was almost as if applicants had been commanded to buy tickets. The attendees did seem to be there voluntarily, though, drawn by the powerhouse curatorial duo of Massimiliano Gioni and Hans Ulrich Obrist, who’d come together to discuss Do It, the movement that invites artists to issue instructions for an artwork as part of a bound “exhibition.”
Do It started in 1993 after a discussion among Christian Boltanski, Bertrand Lavier and Mr. Obrist at a cafe in Paris. “I think it’s Richard Hamilton who once told me that we only remember exhibitions that invent new rules of the game,” Mr. Obrist said on the panel. “And that’s what Boltanski and Lavier and I said at the cafe, that we wanted to invent new rules.”
Based on a manual for Singer sewing machines, the first Do It manual featured just 13 artists and came together quickly. (They called Mike Kelley, Mr. Obrist said, “because we knew he’d have instructions.”) Over the years, Do It spread to countries all over the world, some versions authorized, others not. In April, D.A.P. and Independent Curators International will publish Do It: The Compendium, a phone-book-length retrospective featuring over 200 of Do It’s esteemed contributors over the years.
The instructions, which were PowerPointed behind the curator’s heads, vary in length. Louise Bourgeois (“When you are walking, stop and smile at a stranger”) and Tino Sehgal (“You are already doing all of it”) are among the terser contributors. Matthew Barney, on the other hand, seemed to instruct the reader to film several sequences from his Cremaster movies, guided by drawings.
Mr. Obrist said he was once on an airplane with someone who took Christian Marclay’s exhortation to crumple his page of the book a little too seriously. This person began to tear and crumple every page, and the Air France flight attendants became nervous. “It was so destabilizing that they wanted to give him an injection!” Mr. Obrist said. The laughter died down. “So that was a novel Do It incident.”
“There were people who didn’t ‘do it,’” Mr. Gioni offered.
“Definitely,” Mr. Obrist continued. “Leon Golub got very upset; he started making videos saying ‘Don’t do it!’ He did manifestos, he did drawings”—many of which appear in the book—“he really launched the counter-movement.” Mr. Obrist didn’t seem to mind, after all, earlier in the talk he’d invoked Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s warning that “institutions are always replicating themselves like a virus.”
There was much reminiscing about 1993, the year honored in the New Museum’s current show. It was the first year Mr. Gioni, then living in Italy, went to the Venice Biennale, the year Rachel Whiteread became the first woman to win the Turner Prize. It was the year Alighiero Boetti, to whom the new book is dedicated, died. It was the time when art went global, they said.
They closed the talk by discussing the other kind of globalization, and noted how close the slogan “Do It” is to Nike’s “Just Do It” (which actually predates the art version).
“Maybe now we should call it, ‘What is to be done?’” Mr. Gioni said. “Like Mario Merz [and Lenin] said, ‘Che fare?!’”