How to Recognize a Furtive Practice: A User’s Guide

By Kathleen Ritter
'Lieux et non-lieux de art l'actuel', Les éditions Esse
Montreal, 2005

In writing about the work of artists, I am first confronted with a peculiar task of determining which voice to use: the voice of one who stumbles upon such works accidentally, the voice of one who has willingly taken part in a number of such projects, the personal voice of one who makes similar work, or the feigned voice of an omniscient outsider. I have trouble making a decision. All choices are appealing and have their advantages. Perhaps each one will prove useful in describing what I see as some characteristics of contemporary visual arts practices that take place at the threshold of the doors to the museum. Specifically, I am interested in what we have called “intervention” or “infiltration”, though I hesitate to use these terms in describing artistic actions as both have military connotations. Instead, I would like to adopt the term “furtive” in the hopes that it is more apt in describing the surreptitious and complex ways that art today permeates civic and social spaces and conflates our notions of an ideal or expected public.

How can we learn to recognize a furtive practice? It is, by nature, performed in secret. It takes pains to avoid being observed. A furtive art often disguises itself by mimicking something else, inserting itself into the social fabric almost seamlessly. It makes use of language and the ways we read the city as a semiotic space. Also, if we call an artistic action furtive, then we also imply that is not intended to be confrontational, at least, not in a way that is immediately obvious. Its politic is not performed or spoken; it is imbedded in the nature of the activity. The furtive is risky because, like irony, there is the chance that it will not be noticed. But this chance of misrecognition is what makes the discovery of the furtive act rewarding. It underscores the possibility that furtive actions may be performed around us everyday, yet go unnoticed.

What I can offer here is no more than some sporadic hints; a user’s guide to discovering the furtive in acts of contemporary art. As art practices continue to move outside of the museum, artists make use of their surrounding social, urban, economic, and media conditions and become part of the fabric of the society in which they intervene. In the catalogue Les Commensaux, editors Loubier and Ninacs identify these projects as: “…works that are open, in their risky immersion into lived reality, works in which the author actually stops in mid-course to propose them to someone else as a circumstance to be lived, inviting the other to invent it alongside them”.

In the spring of 2003, several projects took place in Vancouver that attempted to alter our usual routines of walking through the city. Using strategies of irony, generosity and unpredictability, artists used modest engagements in daily life to critically investigate the social conventions, pedestrian movement and regulation of public spaces. The work, although performed outside of the art gallery and often for an unsuspecting public, used an art discourse as its foundation and primary arena from which to draw meaning. Three projects in particular stand out as fine examples of furtive behaviour: Diane Borsato’s Touching 1000 People, Sarah White’s Monologues for Public/Private Spaces, and Norma’s Dog Day Afternoon.

In Touching 1000 People, Diane Borsato alters her daily habits of walking through the city in order to accommodate touching as many people as possible, subtly breaking the invisible social barriers and codes of expected behaviour in public space. Borsato’s minor physical contact – a gentle nudge, discreet grazing, or brush of the hand – turns the act of touching into transgression. The work is performative and temporal. It exists in the moment of its enactment. It is for an incidental audience, rather than an invited audience, and is relayed to an art audience only when the artist presents it in a talk or in its occasionally published documentation.

In Monologues for Public/Private Spaces, Sarah White delivers monologues from inside the stalls of public washrooms. White’s monologues elaborate on the difficulties of speaking in public space and use the often silent and socially awkward space of the public washroom to reflect on her personal history, thoughts and insecurities, and socio-political views. This project is similarly intended for an incidental audience: those who stumble into the public washroom at the (in)appropriate time.

In the project Dog Day Afternoon, Norma, a collective of eight artists, occupy a public park in Vancouver in the form of an “idealized public” represented in schematic drawings of civic spaces. Over the course of a day, the performers assemble in small groups, performing repetitive actions and dialogue. Their script is lifted from Sidney Lumet’s 1975 film Dog Day Afternoon, which anxiously details a failed bank robbery. The repeating dialogue of the performers has little to do with their actions: these characters sit at a fountain, stroll the grounds, toss a frisbee and lounge in an exact reflection of billboards advertising new housing developments in the city. For one day, life mimics the idealized vision of public gathering.

These three projects do not announce themselves or self-identify as art. They are skillfully astute in their negotiation of public and social space with a marked lack of candor. In each case, they are humorous in their reversal of a learned behaviour (Borsato) or in the perverse insertion into a site or social space, using it in a way not necessarily intended (White) or using it too much in the way it was intended (Norma). How do we come to know these projects? How do we learn to recognize their cues?

If we start by considering the spaces in which these projects take place, then it is important to begin in the curious place just outside of the museum. The door to the museum is that threshold between the expected and unexpected sites of cultural production as well as the boundary between those who may or may not feel entitled to enter. While artists have often challenged these very conventions, it has been for different reasons: to refuse the authority and value that the museum attributes to works of art, to critique the way museums mediate our experience and understanding of works of art, to make site-specific work (since the museum is constructed as a non-site), or simply to reach a broader audience. Though it is no longer radical or new, I think a work’s presence outside of the gallery today is still significant since our performance as viewers is based on the visual, linguistic and architectural cues of the gallery space. In this way, it is important to recognize the location outside of the museum (and its unpredictable relationship to an audience) as a necessary part of the meaning of the action. This distinction is especially significant in relation to the traditional concept of the museum, both in terms of the design of the museum as well as its ideological underpinnings.

In the traditional, modernist conception of the museum – the space historically designed as best suited for the contemplation of works of art – the space inside is, quite obviously, differentiated from the space outside of the museum. Inside is a carefully delineated and visually minimal area in which the usual, everyday markers of time and place are removed. With this lack of temporal and spatial specificity, the museum is designed to be best suited for “aesthetic experience” in the sense of the modern, western concept of aesthetic experience which can be described as “…the mode of receptivity thought to be most appropriate before works of art.” We view works of art as a series of isolated objects and are asked to make meaning from work without considering a context for its production or presentation. The museum is constructed as a non-space that inflects no meaning on the works at hand.

Since their appearance in late eighteenth century Europe, the development of the museum emerged from the Enlightenment ideological division between religious and secular experience. Despite museums being relegated to the domain of the secular, Carol Duncan suggests that they continue to operate in a way that is ritualistic. In the ritualized conception of the museum space, the museum is a kind of theatrical stage set, a highly scripted and choreographed space, where the visitors enact or perform the ritual. “A ritual site of any kind is a place programmed for the enactment of something. It is a place designed for some kind of performance. It has this structure whether or not visitors can read its cues.” The space of the museum choreographs a ritual or some other structured experience that relates to the history of a site or of the objects in that site. “The museum’s sequenced spaces and arrangements of objects, its lighting and architectural details provide both the stage set and the script…” This structured experience is what distinguishes everyday activity from the performance of aesthetic receptivity in a museum. This difference is precisely what is conflated in art practices that take place outside of museological spaces.

Further, the aesthetic experience in the modern tradition is based on the primacy of the individual as the receiver of this experience. In art practices outside of the museum, the relationship to viewers is more complex. First, it happens in the time, place or social milieu in which one is not expecting to find art or have an aesthetic experience. Second, viewers are often implicated in the action directly, becoming part of the work and having an impact on how the action unfolds. Finally, the work is not made with an individual viewer in mind. Instead, it is often made for many people to experience the work and in very different ways. While the museum is a mechanism that controls the perspective of the work, streamlining viewership to elicit individual experiences, outside of the museum viewers come upon the work unexpected, mid-course, far off, from many angles, at a glance, or altogether. These varying perspectives are important to how the work is played out and this difference is key; it is not simply the viewer that completes the work, but many viewers that complete the experience of the work.

While artists have often chosen to work outside of the space of the museum, what is different about the furtive act? How do we distinguish it from other outside practices? What are the characteristics of a furtive practice?

Furtive behaviour is secret and sly; it targets specific individuals and takes place in specific locations. It is both intimate and unavailable, since it does not readily make itself known. The first characteristic of a furtive action is that it is done without permission. Although, at many levels, permission may be given, the action cannot be authorized at every level, otherwise, there would be no need to hide it. Borsato does not ask people before she touches them; White does not ask the authorities if she can perform a monologue in their bathroom; and Norma does not ask for the city’s permission to post a billboard and occupy the park for the day. In each case, it is important and necessary to the work that they neither asked for permission nor are they explicitly invited to perform by the people directly implicated by their actions.

Further, this activity of concealing or disguising the action as something else means that is it not necessarily easy to access, user-friendly, or social in character. In this way, it distinguishes itself from “relational aesthetics” since, as Nicolas Bourriaud has claimed; relational art takes the substance of human relations as its point of departure. In fact, there is something fundamentally anti-social in the furtive act. White quickly ends her series of monologues when a voice from the next stall replies to thank her for her thoughts. Borsato’s touching, the action performed outside of socially expected behaviour which I first imagined to be a careful and gentle brush on the shoulder proved to be, upon discovery, a somewhat uncontrolled and erratic flinging movement of arms that at times hit rather than touched. This act was not performed in a desire to be touched back. Instead it imposed a distance between Borsato and the subject of her movements; people invariably moved away from her as she touched them. In the case of Norma, their repetitive dialogue was not interrupted when someone approached them to inquire. Instead, they marched on, unfazed by the interruption. The works deny an easy “engagement” with their respective audiences. In this way, the furtive act does not necessarily lend itself to broadening of social connections within public spaces, as Bourriaud claims relational art does. Rather it resists them, choosing to remain anonymous and distant.

However, if I argue that this activity is not allowed, then on some level, we must recognize that it is, otherwise these actions would not continue. These artists are not asked to leave the sites in which they intervene, rather, they find gaps and interstices in the social fabric that leave room for their interruptions, that people allow in their passive acceptance of unexpected behaviour. In these actions, artists reveal to us that public and social space is more permissive than we had imagined. This is something particularly intriguing and encouraging in the work. While I have no intention of, say, repeating White’s action, it nonetheless tells me that there are still opportunities to act outside of the expected and prescribed, without disastrous consequences.

On another level, it is also important to recognize that the action is permitted by an institution that supports the activity as an art practice. This may be further endorsed by funding agencies, media interest, local businesses and/or audiences who learn about the project after the fact. In this way, the question of permission in furtive practice is complicated since the work, in order to operate successfully, must be both allowed and unauthorized at the same time.

Another characteristic of furtive action is the recognition or use of the moment when an accidental gesture becomes an intentional one. This is a distinction Borsato notes when discussing the project Touching 1000 People. While the furtive action may initially seem like a mistake, as a momentary rupture in the social, spatial or linguistic fabric, it is done with intention. Borsato may accidentally touch people everyday, but the moment when she decides to touch them on purpose is when the work becomes art, or rather, she invites the action to become subject to interpretation within the discourse of art. Similarly, the moment when we, as viewers, discover the intentionality of the act is the moment that we can question the act itself and give it meaning. This moment, which Loubier describes as “a pure, sudden appearance” is characteristic of the furtive act. White’s monologue from inside the bathroom stall seems first like a mistake. (She could be rehearsing for an audition. Or perhaps she is talking on a cell phone.) But she carries a small, wooden instrument into the stall with her, an African thumb piano, that she plays while she is talking. Her monologue is punctuated by the sounds of flushing toilets, anxious travelers, cleaning staff and conversations between friends. It is the sound of the instrument in the background of her monologue that reveals it as a premeditated action.

Similarly, with Norma, there is an uncanny moment when we realize that their actions are highly scripted and staged in the park. At one entrance to the park, they installed a billboard with a drawing that mirrors their actions and positions in the park precisely. It is this drawing, done in the style of architectural illustration and portraying an “ideal” public using the site, that gives away the ruse (or reinforces it). The park becomes the theatre of their performance and, incidentally, the stage for all other activities in the park thereafter. Even after Norma’s project ended, I could not help but see the other people regularly using the park as a reenactment of their initial performance.

A third characteristic is the use of language in the furtive work. It not only addresses the textual space of the city (from signs, warnings, billboards, advertisements, directions, etc.) by interrupting and misdirecting our reading of that text to something else, but language is the vehicle in which the works travels back to the art community after the performance. The work comes to be known through language, myth, anecdote, description, rather than through traditional exhibition methods. The use of language to communicate the work, after the fact, to an art audience operates on the level of myth making. This is a condition of the work – we are not necessarily invited to see the work in situ, during the event of the performance. If we were, it would change how the work functions. We cannot be invited into the bathroom for White’s monologue or to be touched by Borsato. In this way, the work is only available to its other intended audience — the art community — by its telling, at the artist’s talk, published documents, rumors that circulate about the work, etc. And, while art practices often rely on the visual image to communicate the work, here the documentation of the performance serves merely as a prop in communicating the story of the work afterwards.

The furtive action is also characterized by a kind of resistance, as it runs against the stream of acceptable or expected behaviour in public. It is by nature political, that is, it is concerned with the complex of relations between people living in society. The furtive act offers a proposition for an alternative way of living, opening up possibilities in how we imagine public space.

Looking at furtive practice serves as an interesting contrast to Suzanne Lacy’s book, Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art, which similarly examines art projects in the late 80s and early 90s that take place largely in public spaces in urban centres. The work catalogued in the book crosses boundaries between art and activism, and the role of the artist is multiple: artist as community worker, artist as political activist, artist as participant. In her words, Lacy claims that unlike public art, “new genre public art” is: “…art that uses both traditional and nontraditional media to communicate and interact with a broad and diversified audience about issues directly relevant to their lives (and it is) based on engagement.” What Lacy defines as “new genre public art” is a particular practice based on direct engagement with audiences to deal with issues relevant within a larger socio-political context, one that is outside of the museum’s doors.

However, if this book were written today (now ten years later), how would the texts be different? That is, how have the intentions and motivations of the artists changed since the time of Lacy’s writing? Can we still look at artists now who make work outside of the gallery and call it “new genre public art”? By contrast, in the catalogue NICE! Towards a new form of commitment in art, Rutger Pontzen identifies the work of a group of artists from the Netherlands as a reaction to the cynicism of the late twentieth century and disappearance of the great (modernist) aspirations and ideologies. Their work, which ranges in discipline, shares one thing in common: a desire to promote small virtues, like respect and helpfulness. Written in 2000, five years after Lacy’s Mapping the Terrain, his words offer a contrast: “Changing the world is not art’s job – it’s not capable of such a task anyway. But it can make life more pleasant…”

The furtive is unlike both of these models. It is too sneaky to be “nice” and is not activist in its approach. Rather than situate these practices in an avant-garde tradition of the “new”, as is implied by Lacy’s term “new genre public art”, furtive practice neither claims to be new, nor revolutionary. It, in many cases, is not intended to mobilize a public to collective political action. It is not confrontational and does not have the ambition to reach the greatest number of people in the spirit of activism. Perhaps then, it operates both in the real and on the level of representation; it offers up a likeness or a model of the world, while at the same it is actually takes place in it.

Finally, the furtive action is specific to and draws meaning from the time, the place and the social milieu in which is it performed. The work operates within a specific set of conditions and cannot be transferred to another without it changing significantly. Borsato found that touching people in Montréal was easier than in Vancouver. It rained too much in Vancouver, people walk further apart from each other and their umbrellas created a spatial boundary that was difficult to penetrate. White’s monologues were not performed in any bathroom, but at the Pacific Central Station, Vancouver International Airport, and Pacific Centre Shopping Mall. The content of each speech was specific to the location of the washroom. In the airport she told the story of a friend who misses a flight due to increased airport security and racial profiling. In the mall her monologue considered the problems of consumerism and its relationship to constructs of femininity. (This speech in particular is performed with the sounds of young women gushing about their recent purchases, oblivious to White’s critique). The furtive allows these moments of poignant juxtaposition to happen. Similarly, Norma’s performance took place in a park recently redeveloped for the benefit of nearby condo development. Like many parks in Vancouver, these leisure sites are constructed long before people move into the neighbourhood, and remain empty as a site of a potential public — one that does not yet exist (and ostensibly never does). Norma’s performance makes use of one of these parks in the way that it is seemingly intended, yet we are surprised to find the park suddenly populated one day. This perfect scene is, of course, undercut by their scripted dialogue, which is aggressive. The young couple tossing a frisbee scream, “Attica! Attica! Attica!” and demands “Put down your guns!” The mother pushing a baby stroller irritably asks over and over: “What do you think I’m doing? You think it’s easy? You know, you’re startin’ to get on my nerves”. Meanwhile, the elderly woman quietly warns her companion: “They’ll shoot you, you know. The cops, they don’t give a fuck about your bank insurance.” While this presented a particular rupture with the intended use of this particular site (even eliciting complaints from nearby residents), the dialogue would not have been foreign in other parks in Vancouver, namely in more impoverished areas. This is one of the differences in the way public space is divided that the performance highlights, calling attention to the problems of gentrification and increasing displacement in urban centres.

The specificity of the work to its time, place and social conditions allows us to examine the work externally. That is, we do not just look to make meaning from the internal connections and trajectories of meaning within the work itself, rather we examine how the project operates in relation to its external forces, in terms of the inflection of various conditions that act upon it and give it meaning.

In short, the furtive nature of practices that take place outside of the doors of the museum reconfigures the complex of relationships between the artist, institution and the viewing public. The furtive act works both within and outside of the conventions of acceptable activities of society, carefully straddling this line. It is covert and stealthy, yet we can identify some of the characteristics of furtive behaviour in contemporary art practices by: its intentionality, its use of language and myth-making, its quality of resistance, its specificity to the site in which it takes place and finally, by the fact that it is performed without permission.

I offer these points as an incomplete guide to assist in recognizing the furtive acts in contemporary art. It is incomplete because I trust that many aspects of the work are still concealed. After all, it is in hiding. But this guide is also incomplete because the furtive resists being defined in its entirety. It purposely slips out of existing theoretical models such as Bourriaud’s “relational aesthetics”, Lacy’s “new genre public art”, and even Pontzen’s “nice”. While the furtive borrows aspects from each, it stays faithful to none.

I am indebted to Patrice Loubier’s use of this term. See Loubier, “To Take Place, To Disappear: On Certain Shifts Between Art and Reality,” trans. Janine Hopkinson, Les Commensaux eds. Patrice Loubier and Anne-Marie Ninacs (Montréal: Centre des arts actuels Skol, 2001).

The word ‘intervention’ means to come between two things or to occur in time between events. It also implies interference, especially by one country in another’s affairs. Similarly, the word ‘infiltration’ means to permeate literally by filtration, but it also denotes a military action – to pass troops through gaps in the enemy line. Lorna Brown refers to this in her text “Public Ideals,” Prefix Photo 9 (2004): 31.

In its etymology, the sense of the word ‘furtive’ has been consistent since its Latin roots. The Latin noun ‘furtum’ means theft or robbery while ‘furtivus’ is the adjective form for something stolen or concealed. Figuratively, it connotes a trickery or deceit but it can also mean a secret or stolen love.

Patrice Loubier and Anne-Marie Ninacs, eds., Introduction, Les Commensaux (Montréal: Centre des arts actuels Skol, 2001)14.

These projects were part of the series “Expect Delays” and was produced by Artspeak, an artist-run centre in Vancouver, in April and May of 2003. Eight artists were invited to produce performance projects that took place outside of the gallery, in the space of the city. See: Expect Delays, ed. K. Ritter, 2003, Artspeak, Vancouver <http://www.expectdelays.com>

Carol Duncan, Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums (London: Routledge, 1995) 11.

Duncan 10.

Duncan 12.

Duncan 12.

Nicolas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics Trans. Simon Pleasance, Fronza Woods, and Mathieu Copeland, (Paris: Les Presses du Réel, 2002) 113.

Lorna Brown, ‘Public Ideals,’ Prefix Photo 9 (2004): 32.

In the case of “Expect Delays”, the series was produced by Artspeak artist-run centre. It was funded by the Canada Council for the Arts, the British Columbia Arts Council, and sponsored by local businesses and community organizations.

Loubier 202.

Suzanne Lacy, Mapping the Terrain: New Genre Public Art (Seattle: Bay Press, 1995) 19.

Rutger Pontzen Nice!: Towards a New Form of Commitment in Contemporary Art (Rotterdam: NAI Publishers, 2000) cover.