An Art Experiment Gone Wrong

Agnes in the structure

My good friend Philippa Hughes is hosting an artist in her home this week. It’s a project called Art is Fear.

Here’s the description:

This coming May 2011, for one week, the artist Agnes Bolt will move into the home of the very sociable and curious Philippa Hughes to playfully explore the dynamics between an artist and an art collector. With a naive optimism and subtle social critique the project will manifest itself with a large obtrusive structure situated within Philippa’s home in which the artist will live. The presence of the artist will be impossible to ignore. A series of rules, exercises, communication systems and bonding experiences will dictate the interactions between the two as will video cameras given to both parties. Both are required to follow the rules but mischief and expectations of an open spirited dynamic is highly encouraged.

A woman living in a bubble? I was intrigued.

I’m a huge fan of Philippa’s work with the Pink Line Project – with parties like Cherry Blast, she’s brought fun to a staid art world. I associate her with inventive and creative ways to engage people of all ages. From arm-wrestling with roller derby girls to scavenger hunts, her events are the very antithesis of serious Washington. In fact, I enjoyed them so much that I started writing for Pink Line.

I expected a similar light and fun touch to Art is Fear so I stopped by one afternoon to visit with Philippa and take some photos.

A clue to what was in store for me came from Agnes’s correction of photographer Matt Dunn, who took pictures of the bubble:

When I arrived, they were in the midst of an argument.  Philippa, smiling was explaining that the whole experiment was getting to her.  Agnes wanted to know exactly what was bothering her.  “This whole thing,” she said, indicating the structure, the imposition, the videographer who had also been staying with her the whole time, crashing on her couch.

crawling down the tunnel

They took a break from the “interesting discussion” as Philippa called it.  We had sorbet.  I crawled down a long blue tube (like something you’d see on a playground) and into the structure.

Inside the clear plastic bubble, it was stuffy and a bit claustrophobic but not necessarily uncomfortable. A couple of vents allowed in air. It was like a child’s play fort, where you could see the grown-ups but they couldn’t get at you. It was furnished with a little chair, a mat for Agnes to sleep on and other decorations. The videographer filmed things, looking down the length of the bubble

Agnes had a phone interview, taking the call through a tube in the structure. On the other side of the tube, Philippa held her phone so Agnes could hear the questions. They discussed the publicity the project had gotten, including the photos by Matt Dunn.

Philippa Hughes, outside the structure
Philippa Hughes, outside the structure

We had an interesting talk about the perils of being well-known. Philippa gets energy from being with people, throwing events, but dislikes some aspects that the attention brings. If you’re going to do things in public, people are going to criticize you. They’re going to hate you.

Despite her public face, she doesn’t want to be “on” all the time, which is why Art is Fear has been uncomfortable for her at times. Like all of us, she likes her personal space.

Our conversation was interrupted by a visit from the ASPCA. Someone had reported Philippa, claiming that she was abusing an animal in her condo. The caller described hearing an animal being tortured, one that was “bigger than a dog.” They had provided her name and apartment number.

The man from the ASPCA came in. Philippa showed him that there was no animal here – just a woman living in a clear plastic structure. He was good-natured about it, saying that he sees all sorts of things in his visits to DC.

visit from the ASPCA
visit from the ASPCA

After he left, Philippa began to speculate on who might have made this false report. She thought it might be one of her neighbors, or people who dislike her. Or worse. As a public figure, and a woman, she’s had unwanted and threatening male attention.

“Bigger than a dog,” Agnes said, pleased with herself. She had made the call.

Philippa got it. She stood up, went to her bedroom, and closed the door.

At this point, a normal person would have empathy.

Agnes sat there. I told her that what she had done was wrong and that she should apologize to Philippa for frightening her.

The girl explained that this was “payback” for being “objectified”. The night before, Philippa had people over, to check out the installation. They took pictures and looked at the girl in the bubble. Of course, she had willingly put herself in there and could leave at any time. And performance art is necessarily public.  And she wanted and participated in the publicity. She even invited people into the bubble with her.

Agnes Bolt
Agnes Bolt

Agnes thought that making the call to the ASPCA was part of a back and forth game that she and Philippa were having. She lapsed into artspeak, talking about conversations between collectors and artists and the difference between observing and participating.

I told her that it was one thing to have this little art game in the comfort and security of Philippa’s apartment but to drag the real world into it was immoral. And not just for scaring Philippa, the woman who was graciously hosting her for a week. She had wasted the time of the ASPCA, who had sent someone over to investigate a false report.

Agnes, however, was impressed by this turn in the game. There was in fact an animal trapped in a cage. Her.

There’s a fine line between a sociopath and an artist.

I crawled out of that rat’s nest of emotional dysfunction, on my hands and knees, glad to get out of this little art world.

Author: Joe Flood

Joe Flood is a writer, photographer and web person from Washington, DC. The author of several novels, Joe won the City Paper Fiction Competition in 2020. In his free time, he enjoys wandering about the city taking photos.

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