Cynics will say there’s a foolproof formula for creating blockbuster art these days: Make it novel, and make it fun for kids. And sure, participatory art has become super popular over the past few years—just think of Carsten Höller’s slides at the New Museum, or even Tatzu Nishi’s Discovering Columbus. But this month at the Park Avenue Armory, the artist Ann Hamilton proves that participatory art can be deeply thoughtful and fun as hell.
Hamilton’s installation, The Event of a Thread, invites visitors to participate in a sweeping tableau of sounds, textures, and physical actions. The architecture of the installation is remarkable. First, there are the swings: 42 of them, wide enough for two adults, attached to a spider web of ropes and pulleys 70 feet above the ground. Each swing provides its own music: the bass of rope against steel, and the tinkling bells that are attached to each rope. In the middle of the Drill Hall, a wide piece of white silk shimmers and bobs when the swings are swung. People congregate under it, enjoying the breeze. It’s almost as if you’re looking up at some giant sewing machine with hundreds of moving parts, bobbing in and out of sight to form something cohesive.
Next to each swing is a brown paper bag, trussed with twine and stamped with a wax seal. Hold the bag up to your ear, and you’ll hear radio transmissions of voices reading texts from Aristotle and Charles Darwin. You’re free to carry the bags around the hall with you—a prototype iPod from the 1940s. Where are the voices coming from? At the entrance to the hall, two people sit at a table reading from scrolls into microphones. Around them, homing pigeons hoot quietly in wooden cages. The hall is full of murmurs from the readers, shouts from the swingers, and the chime of brass bells from the swings themselves. At the end of each day, a vocalist sings from the balcony, and the recording is cut on a vinyl record, which is played back when the Armory opens the next day. There are also silent words being exchanged: There’s a free newspaper with Hamilton’s writing, and at a desk, a third volunteer writing letters with their observations. Two paragraphs isn’t enough space to describe The Event of a Thread, but in the interest of brevity, I’ll cut myself off.
Hamilton is a maddeningly giving artist. There’s simply so many ways to understand the piece. You could talk about it as a social network, or as a history of language (written, printed, spoken, and broadcast). You could talk about how the costumes, scrollwork, and wax seals reference a time when Luther revolutionized Europe using the printing press. You could even talk about it in terms of the Armory itself, which was built in Lincoln’s day and saw use during World War II.
Thankfully, we’re given a simple metaphor to work with: weaving. Hamilton studied textile design in college, and lifted the title of the installation from a text by the Bauhaus textile artist Annie Albers, who wrote that all weaving can be traced back to "the event of a thread." At the Armory, each person, each voice, each broadcast, is a thread in a vast piece of cloth. The dense network of motion—beginning with the swings—is what weaves it all together into a rich tapestry. "Our crossings with its motions, sounds, and textures is its weaving," explains Hamilton. "[It] is a social act."
The Event of a Thread is on view until January 7th.