ROLU is three people who describe themselves as an art and design studio in Minneapolis. Together, they’ve exhibited their work nationally and internationally; in fact, a spring New York triple-header saw their work installed at galleries in Tribeca, the Lower East Side, and Williamsburg. And here at the Walker, we’re referring to them as artists-in-residence at Open Field in July. So why do they avoid assuming the actual “artist” mantle? Greg Allen, author of this essay, understands. He shies away from the word on his greg.org blog (he also manages daddytypes.com, even as he refers to his “filmmaking, art, and writing projects” and the “things” he makes, including paintings and photographs. Here, Allen writes on art, ideas, ROLU, and various points connecting them.
Let me get this out up front: the “But is it art?” question is over for me. Done. Finished. So asked and answered. It’s been almost a hundred years since Marcel Duchamp signed “R. Mutt” on the side of a porcelain urinal, titled Fountain, and covertly submitted it as a sculpture to an open call art show in New York City organized by the Society of Independents. Who rejected it, even though Duchamp was on the jury. Which rejection became the righteous cause for the artist and his outraged confrères, who devoted an issue of their Dadaist quarterly, The Blind Man to the defense of “Richard Mutt’s” artwork:
“Whether Mr. Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view—created a new thought for that object.”
In declaring to the Independents that Fountain was created ﬁrst and foremost by the artist’s choice, his idea, and “the force of [his] imagination,” The Blind Man became a foundational document of Conceptual Art, and Duchamp its founder.
It still took a while to sink in. In June 1967, a full 50 years later, and several months before Duchamp’s death, Sol LeWitt published “Paragraphs on Conceptual Art” in Artforum:
“I will refer to the kind of art in which I am involved as conceptual art. In conceptual art the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work. When an artist uses a conceptual form of art, it means that all of the planning and decisions are made beforehand and the execution is a perfunctory affair. The idea becomes a machine that makes the art.”
Not only is “art” whatever the artist thinks it is, it’s thinking itself—the concept. And while there have always been those who reject the entire premise, there have also been, and continue to be, artists who have questioned, poked at, and stress-tested this definition of art. The conclusion has always been the same: Yes, it’s art. Even if it’s only art because the artist says it is. But where does that leave the object—the thing that results from the execution, the product of the thinking? And what if, for whatever reason, you don’t declare yourself an artist. Then what?
These are the questions I think about when I think of ROLU’s work. Because these talented, inspirational folks—mainly Matt Olson, Mike Brady, Sammie Warren—who make wonderful things, have not identified themselves as artists.
In fact, their unspoken aversion to the “artist” label seems to become more resolute, even as they draw more cohesive inspiration from contemporary art history and collaborate and engage with capital-A Artists and institutions like the Walker Art Center.
I ﬁrst met ROLU on the Internet. Not in a chat room, but in empty search results, where our respective blogs would be among the only sites to mark some lost moment in art history, a message in a bottle, tossed into Google to be found by the half-dozen other people in the world who cared about the out-of-print plans for Enzo Mari’s autoprogettazione furniture, or the lucite sculpture Terry O’Shea delivered to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art by throwing it into the La Brea Tar Pits next door. Or 9 Artists/9 Spaces, the Walker’s own politically charged public art exhibition from 1970.
From what I could first tell online, it seemed they were landscape designers, whose commissions sometimes evoked the vocabulary of art—especially sculptors such as Richard Serra—and who demonstrated an unusual afinity for space and site, an awareness of the experience of being in a place. Then they seemed to become furniture designers, making chairs inspired by such artists as Enzo Mari, Donald Judd, and Scott Burton. For A Simple Chair (Returning Home), their project last summer for the all-night Northern Spark arts festival, they didn’t just make a chair; they performed the making of a chair, using wood cut from a Minneapolis city tree, working on the roof of the Soap Factory, then lowering the chair down the side of the building and conveying it in a ceremonious procession to Riverside Park, where the tree had grown. It was as if they were demonstrating that idea and production and thing and experience were all equal sources of meaning.
Then last fall, at High Desert Test Sites, an intermittent exhibition of art installations in the Mojave, my suspicions of ROLU’s artist-ness spiked. Their collaboration with Los Angeles–based Welcomeprojects, titled HERE THERE-THERE HERE, was a literal line in the sand, a two-mile strip of white industrial felt rolled across the desert. It was an ambitious gesture straight out of Earth Art’s golden age, exactly the kind of thing they’d put on their blog.
This is where I saw it, and when I considered their non-claim to artistry, it made me start to wonder. Did they even actually make the full two miles of the installation, or just create and propagate an image of it? Was it real and now, or a forgotten, maybe even imaginary project from the past? If I’m only ever going to see a picture on a blog, does it matter? ROLU had homed in on one of the deﬁning complications of Earth Art—that few people ever saw anything more than a documentary photo—and made it central to the experience of their project. As with A Simple Chair, ROLU had created a project where the various modes of engagement—whether in the Mojave, or on the blog post, or via the zinestyle HERE THERE-THERE HERE catalogue—were equally valid and interesting.
It feels as if ROLU’s blog is at the center of their practice, that it functions as a sourcebook for their projects, a sketchbook, or a nursery. But as Matt Olson explained on another blog, ROLU’s ideas and things don’t so much ﬂow from their blog as around and through it, via other blogs and the rest of the Internet: “We are interested in reaching into this river of images that almost starts to seem unreal on some level and make something tangible from them. Creating something physical—taking an action… I think our community is on the Internet.”
Online and off, they take and give, copy and credit, collaborate, make, quote and share, navigating “this river of images” and ideas with a ﬂuency and ﬂuidity that marks our cultural moment. It’s as if ROLU adopted another, less frequently quoted of Sol LeWitt’s paragraphs on conceptual art literally, as their blueprint, their to-do list:
“If the artist carries through his idea and makes it into visible form, then all the steps in the process are of importance…. scribbles, sketches, drawings, failed works, models, studies, thoughts, conversations…. Those that show the thought process of the artist are sometimes more interesting than the ﬁnal product.”
It turns out LeWitt wasn’t privileging the idea over the thing. He wasn’t calling for hierarchy, but for equality. The idea, the thing, and everything in between, were equally, potentially interesting. And ROLU, I think, knows that: for them, ideas become conversations and models and blog posts as much as they become things. If objects can show a thought process, then making them can be a form of thinking. And a thing can generate an idea as readily as an idea can generate a thing.
In their Open Field residency at the Walker Art Center, ROLU turns LeWitt’s notion of process and “ﬁnal product” inside out as they turn the museum, its art, and its community into their studio. One of their activities involves taking some of the greatest “ﬁnished products” in the Walker’s collection as their conceptual starting point, and making their own versions of selected artworks. As they bring the making-as-thinking process literally out into the open and invite visitors to make and think along with them, they will build a collection of things on the Walker’s lawn, things which bear a striking resemblance to the precious, unique treasures inside. Things which might even prompt the question, “But is it Art?”
And I imagine these friendly folks—who so carefully avoid calling themselves “artists”—might reply: “Here’s a hammer, what do you think?”