At the Exploratorium in San Francisco on a recent Thursday night — when the playful science education museum stays open late for adults-only fun — the resident forest of interactive installations was alight with engagement. As knobs turned and screens flashed, some groups captured their shadows on light sensitive wallpaper while others roamed from one station to the next, learning about magnetism, light waves, and gravitational pull.
Meanwhile, I sat down on the floor in the middle of a busy walkway with two people I had just met to perform a “prose score” written by Exploratorium artist-in-residence Zarouhie Abdalian. Prose scores are compositions that rethink the types of actions that can make up a performance, often while breaking down the distinction between audience and performer. The notation typically comes in the form of written instructions. This past Sunday, Abdalian staged a performance of prose scores that inspired her own — from pioneering experimental composers such as Pauline Oliveros and Fluxus artists such as Mieko Shiomi — that partially involved a stage of musicians scrambling to retrieve sheet music being blown off of their music stands by an industrial-sized fan.
Abdalian’s score is called Functions, and it comes as a suite of note cards that can be chosen at random. They are installed in the museum in the form of laminated decks along with a collection of optional props — small flags, ribbons, drum sticks. The only guideline provided is that the instructions on the cards should be performed by a group of three or more people. My group chose a card that read, “Show that you’re disobeying.” So, after some deliberation, we decided to sit in a line in the middle of the floor. Others read, “Arrange yourselves as to show that you outnumber the others,” and, “Become unrecognizable.” The cryptic ambiguity is every card’s crux, and from it sprouts the processes of improvised group organization that Abdalian is interested in.
Abdalian is an Oakland-based artist whose interdisciplinary practice often involves attempts to disrupt conventional modes of operating within a given space. Her interventions are typically subtle audio or visual cues that differ only slightly from what would be expected but take the viewer off guard. For her 2013 installation “Occasional Music,” which was commissioned by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art as part of the 2012 SECA Award Exhibition, she installed hidden bells on the tops of buildings in Oakland’s Frank Ogawa Plaza, and each bell chimed in a random sequence at a random time every day for five months. Although subtle, the seemingly arbitrary ringing drew attention to the ways in which bells can function as cues to direct actions within an environment — signaling the end of recess or the turn of the hour, for example.
But the Exploratorium is an unconventional kind of space. There, subtle audio or visual cues would be lost amid the sensory overload of whizzing gadgets. Plus, social conventions are already eroded by the playscape quality of the museum. Abdalian thus opted to exploit that unconventional quality by directly dealing with the actions in the space — specifically focusing on group dynamics.
The Exploratorium was founded by Frank Oppenheimer, a scientist who was scarred by his involvement in the production of the first atomic bomb. Reflecting on his experience, Oppenheimer had a utopian vision of creating a resource for people to learn about science in hopes that it would make them more engaged, empowered citizens. “The only way that that’s really useful is if that knowledge is made common,” Abdalian pointed out in an interview, “And the only way that that knowledge can be made common is if we’re able to negotiate the terms of a group.”
Abdalian’s process was also shaped by the Black Lives Matter protests in Oakland and the traditions of Carnivale and Mardi Gras in her home town of New Orleans. “It also stems from formal concerns with the way groups in real space organize themselves in order to block or to announce or to know who each other is,” she said. At protests, shorthand words like “mic check” allow groups of strangers to develop and manage a specific power dynamic without assigning one leader. In a loosely analogous way, Abdalian’s cards require participants to negotiate decision-making and distribute power, always addressing an unspecified “you” that could include just one person or any number of people.
Like most installations at the Exploratorium, Functions is a simplified demonstration of something with serious consequences. At its fundamental form, the score asks complex questions about collectivity and power — who is included in “you,” and who makes that call.