"This Progress," These Teachers

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Three Sarah Lawrence teachers recently experienced the Guggenheim Museum—not as visitors, but as part of the art. Roy Brand (philosophy), Danny Kaiser (literature), and Fred Smoler (literature) participated in “This Progress,” an exhibit by British-German artist Tino Sehgal that ran for six weeks and was part of the Guggenheim’s 50th anniversary celebration.

To prepare for the show, all other artwork was removed from the building’s spiraling rotunda. For the first time in the Guggenheim’s history, there was not a painting to be seen. Instead, a visitor approaching the ramp would be greeted by a child who asked, “What is progress?” After a short conversation, the child would pass the visitor to a teenaged guide, who continued the dialogue while ascending the ramp.

Roy Brand was one of the third guides, and though his role required him to disappear after only a brief interaction, he said he was “surprised by the level of intimacy that could emerge in a few minutes of conversation with random visitors to the Guggenheim.” Once the visitor reached the end of the path, the final (and oldest) interpreter ended the extemporaneous conversation by saying, “The piece is called ‘This Progress.’”

During the final week of the exhibit, Tino Seghal visited Sarah Lawrence for a round-table discussion with the College’s trio of volunteers. In an overflowing lecture hall, students questioned Sehgal about his piece, his intentions, and his philosophy.

Sehgal explained that he is more interested in art as a shared experience than as an object. The conversations about progress were an integral part of the exhibit, he said. The guides were given specific instructions on eliciting unique responses, and they were trained never to repeat previous discussions.

As visitors poured into the museum on crowded Saturdays, the process could be exhausting, the participants reported. Despite the crowds and the occasional difficult visitor who would try to control the conversation or sabotage the piece, the volunteers enjoyed their experiences overall. “The best part was meeting, however briefly, interesting and lively people from all over the world, as well as meeting some college students who were fun to argue with,” said Kaiser.

Smoler agreed that the conversations were the best part and explained that despite the constructed nature of the piece, most of the discussions with visitors felt authentic and genuine.

This intimacy through dialogue was precisely what Sehgal hoped to create. He said that he chose the theme of progress because the idea of striving is deeply ingrained in Western culture. “Each of us is always thinking, what is the next step, where am I going?” Sehgal said. For the approximately 100,000 people who visited the exhibit, as well as the 300-plus participants, such reflections were transformed, briefly, into art.