The Art of Doing: Oliver Herring’s Task Parties.

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Most of us think of artists as rather solitary figures, toiling away in front of a blank canvas or untouched piece of marble in a desperate attempt to express themselves.

There are, of course, some who still fit this description.  More and more, however, the most interesting and dynamic art is breaking down the traditional barriers between an artist and their audience, allowing everyone to take part in the creative process.

Take Oliver Herring.  One of the great experimental artists of his generation, he has effectively embraced the idea of giving total strangers control over his work

And on more than one occasion, this has resulted in him literally embracing total strangers.

Herring, who was born in Germany and is currently based in Brooklyn, NY, has been in Sioux Falls all this week, courtesy of an invitation from the Washington Pavilion.

The artist’s visit will culminate this Friday with something that has become his calling card: the Task party.

Simply put, the Task party is a “happening”: an interactive, spontaneous event that has its roots in the kooky performance art pioneered by Allan Kaprow during the fifties and sixties.

But Herring’s definition of a “happening” is much more inclusive than Kaprow’s.  His goal is to get ‘everyday people like you and me,’ as KSFY recently put it, to let down their guard and do something bold and extravagant. To make art.

Here’s the New York Times explaining how a Task party might work:

“Organizers gather simple raw materials, like cardboard and plastic wrap and tinfoil. Participants are asked to dream up assignments and describe them on a sheet of paper. These go into a big ‘task pool,’ from which fellow participants draw a task to complete. The assignment might be fanciful and abstract (‘fly’), or socially awkward (“kiss five strangers”) or materials oriented (‘build a bridge’). Once the tasks have been drawn, Mr. Herring is fond of saying, “anything is possible.”

Anything, indeed.

Wednesday night, in a talk that covered the scope of his career as an artist, Herring explained the evolution of the Task party. The first one was staged at a London Masonic Temple in 2002, with Herring and ten participants engaging in an array of bizarre antics, many of them involving art supplies run amok, over the course of two eight-hour days.

Since then, Herring has progressively upped the ante, organizing Task parties across the globe and at a wide-ranging number of locations: from inner-city neighborhoods, to evangelical churches, to Madison Square Park in New York City.

Herring says he hopes to facilitate unexpected encounters between people of all walks of life, allowing them to learn something surprising about themselves and each other.

“I try to get as much of a mix of people as possible, primarily people who are not exposed to a lot of creative outlets. It gives those people a way to express themselves creatively and adventurously that they may not otherwise have,” the artist told the Toronto Star in 2008.

At the Wednesday-night talk, he mentioned one particularly memorable moment at aTask party in Seattle, where an eighty-four-year-old man and twenty-two-year-old women were instructed to lay down on a makeshift “bed” for ten minutes and converse about love.

The pair seemed to make a connection and wound up chatting for over twenty minutes.

Herring has also gradually transitioned himself from one who oversees a Task parties to one who participates in them.

The Times gleefully described how the artist was “hoisted on his own petard” at one event, when a paint-splattered man gave him a rather messy hug. Herring’s “formerly white shirt” suddenly resembled a Jackson Pollock painting.

“It’s alright,” Herring said. “It doesn’t look too bad. Actually, I’m happy.”

Today, it is increasingly clear that the Task party has taken on a life of its own. What began as Herring’s pet project is now practically a cultural touchstone: something that teachers, pastors, and corporate C.E.O.’s use to help break the ice in the classroom and at meetings and retreats.

He readily acknowledges that this particular creation is now fully independent of its creator.

“I chose to let it [the Task party] take its own course,” he said.

He has even created a blog where he keeps track of both his own Task parties and those he hears about secondhand.

Over the course of his career, several critics have linked Herring’s work with the tradition of feminist art, reflecting on its “democratic” ethos and its attempts to speak to the experiences of ordinary people rather than just an exclusive avant-garde.

The Task party represents perhaps the most logical outcome of this artistic mindset. It is, at the very least, a surprisingly fun and joyous one.

Oliver Herring’s Task party will be held at the Washington Pavilion this Friday from 6-9pm. The event is free and open to the public.[]

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2 thoughts on “The Art of Doing: Oliver Herring’s Task Parties.”

  1. Went today ( Thurs.) to the Pavillion for an OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute) class with the artist. He is fascinating!- and a very accessible easy to talk to man. Everyone should definitely make it to the Task “Party” on Friday night (6-9pm) in the Schulte Room of the Pavillion. Come one, come all – young and old – let’s get a good mix and show him what Sioux Falls can do!

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