Together, patron and artist endure a live-in, week-long performance art project

May 15, 2011

For a week-long art project that ended Sunday, D.C. collector and patron Philippa Hughes hosted Agnes Bolt, a Pittsburgh-based artist and graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, in her home. The visit, an art performance, was meant to test the boundaries of the artist-collector relationship.

Testy might be the best word for the mood at Hughes’s 14th Street NW condo over the course of a week.

“It has been awkward,” Bolt says. “I didn’t think it through when I agreed to it,” Hughes says.

That was Monday — one day into the artist’s visit. Almost by design, this stay was not intended to go well. Bolt’s piece is an endurance performance that succeeds or fails on Hughes’s ability to endure it.

The 32-year-old artist set up shop in Hughes’s roughly 1,000-square-foot condo on 14th Street NW. Though Bolt stayed in Hughes’s home, she lived there quite separately. Taking up approximately all Hughes’s central living space was a transparent polycarbonate enclosure—a bubble, basically—inside which Bolt sequestered herself.

That’s one of the rules Bolt imposed on the situation: She was not to leave her bubble, except by way of dog-agility tunnels — structured, expandable tubes that look like they are the bubble’s appendages. She used these to extend her private zone to include Hughes’s balcony or bathroom. Visitors had to crawl through the tubes for face time with Bolt.

Hughes, 42, a long-time arts booster, paid nothing for the performance, but a lengthy contract spelled out the terms of the artwork. Hughes was to prepare “nourishing” meals for Bolt twice daily. She joined Bolt in regular bonding exercises, and gave Bolt a kiss on the cheek to start each day. Hughes was to communicate all messages unrelated to art through paper notes, to be passed through a two-way message portal that intersects the bubble.

“The Artist apologizes in advance for any discomfort this situation may cause but reminds the Collector and her Cat of its decided importance,” the contract reads.

“The last 24 hours have been really anxiety ridden,” Hughes said at one point last week. To start, Hughes said she could not make the time to prepare meals for Bolt daily. The day after she arrived, Bolt was enduring takeout. And Hughes rejected a request from the artist that the pair reenact a Bruce Nauman art performance, saying that she lacked the time to do it properly.

“I’m really hoping Philippa will find ways to meddle in my world more — react or reciprocate,” Bolt said. “I am slowly expanding myself to absorb more and more of her world into mine, so I hope she will do similarly.”

Bolt’s efforts to engage Hughes led her to seemingly violate her own self-imposed restrictions, as Hughes documented on the blog she kept on the performance — titled “Art Is Fear.” On Tuesday morning, upon returning from a workout, Hughes discovered Bolt, wrapped in a blanket and lying prone on the floor.

“She said she was testing or seeing what it felt like to be an inanimate object. Maybe because I’ve been treating her like an object,” Hughes said. “It kind of scared me.”

That afternoon, Hughes returned home to discover her surfboard had been wedged into Bolt’s bubble. Part of Bolt’s contract specifies that at the end of the exhibition, she has the right to remove objects from Hughes’s home, which she will sell as artifacts of the performance in an exhibition at D.C.’s Project 4 gallery this fall.

Hughes notes that it was Project 4 on U Street NW that reached out to her on Bolt’s behalf. Hughes’s Pink Line Project — a prominent social hub for the arts in Washington — got its start with two collaborations with Project 4. Loyalty to the gallery led Hughes to say yes without giving it much thought.

“Part of what always interests me about Agnes is how her work always involves other people,” says Project 4 director Brittany Yam. The gallery originally discussed a photography project that evolved into an effort to facilitate the performance at Hughes’s place.

Bolt’s performance seemed to achieve the desired result. “Each day felt like a week,” Hughes said Sunday. But by then, the collector and artist had arrived at some mutual understanding. Bolt is storing her bubble materials at Hughes’s place. Both of them independently “chickened out” about wearing paper mâché helmet cameras shaped like one another’s heads to a gala at the Phillips Collection on Friday night, despite a mandate in the contract.

“I sincerely hope there’s a way she can take the material she gathered over the past seven days and turn it into something universally relevant,” Hughes said. “It wasn’t about Agnes and Philippa.”

“My primary interest is the experience,” Bolt said. “It’s really a piece for one.”

Kapps is a freelance writer and associate editor at Architect magazine.

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