Performing Huebler

As I walk into Slottsskogen I’m immediately discouraged, the clouds are hanging low, light rain, the wind is icy and loud in my years, I can hear the sound of the road. I’m just about to turn around thinking how could any bird feel inspired to sing in this crappy weather? Then suddenly I hear the call of a bird, but where is the sound coming from?


With Douglas Huebler’s work Duration Piece #5 it’s the almost childish playfulness behind the facade of conceptual art’s seriousness that charms me. Something like a treasure hunt comes to mind, but while the treasure – the bird – is hard to “shoot”, photographing its call, is a mission impossible! The preciseness and absurdity of the task and the images in conjures up, is what makes this work magic to me. It’s Douglas’ simple and accesible process-based works that makes me feel inspired and enthusiastict, so I re-enacted performative concept, 33 years later in time, 6000 kilometers away in distance.


Douglas Huebler’s original work Duration Piece #5 goes like this:


                           Duration Piece #5

                                       New York

During a ten minute period of time on March 17, 1969 ten

photograps were made, each documenting the location in

Central Park where an individually distinguisable bird call was

heard. Each photograph was made with the camera pointed in

the direction of the sound. That direction was then walked toward

by the auditor until the instant that the next call was heard, at

Which time the next photograph was made and the next direction



The ten photographs join with this statement to constitute the

form of this piece.


March, 1969.


With this work Douglas Huebler[1] was in the beginning of his 20 years of experimenting with interventions into everyday life activities documented in the form of photographs, maps, drawings and descriptive text.[2] His artistic practice was an early example from the movement of “dematerialized”, idea-based, viewer participatory and performative conceptual art. To explore the participatory and performative element I’m using the instruction text I can literally experience the artwork myself, discover how it feels, and see what the documentation photos look like.  I want to take the implicit invitation for the viewer to engage in playing the game” seriously, and instead of watching the artwork in awe on MOMA’s website, play along with Huebler.


The bird is hiding somewhere up the steep hill it seems, being true to Huebler’s imstructions I walk through dead branches and piles of rust colered leaves, desperately hoping for another birdcall to save me from the climb, and there it comes: picture, turn. but from where? I take the chance to steer my bird hunt towards a flatter terrain, walking towards a tree with dramatic branches on the lawn but I can’t see the bird in the leafless crown. I’m probably on the wrong track, the bird is silent. Walking straight towards a lake I’m quickly realising that following the seemingly simple instructions of Huebler’s conceptual artwork is much more complicated than I thought.


When I first looked at Huebler’s series of greyscale pictures of the sad winterish trees and reading the accompanying text,I was laughing to myself.  A naked tree crown casting a web of dramatic shadows on the ground, skyscrapers halfway camouflaged between the treetops, a ray of sunlight on a naked branch in the foreground, the streetlamp imitates the slim dark tree silhouettes. I imagined the photographer walking around Central Parc as a Chaplinesque ornithologist following the birdsong, looking through the camera lens, turning on his heel the second he hears the next bird call, stumbling over rocks and branches in his eagerness to complete his task. It was fascinated by the energy in the concept comming from the interplay between the documentary images, the texts supposed scientificmethod and vocabulary, and the absurd performance that led the creation of the photographs.              


In re-enacting the performance there are some practical aspects of time-translating to take into consideration. Im photographing on my cameraphone, it which seems to me to be the best analogy to Huebler’s method of the orginal “Pieces” series of works, a snapshot camera with black and white film to produce cheap, fast, portable and simple artistic experiments needing only the prints, a piece of paper and a writing machine.


Two gray seagulls are silently circling under the heavy dark clouds, I’m cursing at myself for not choosing one of the few sunny days to reproduce the dramatic play of sun and shadow in the original photos. Then suddently a whole chorus of noisy crows, I see them in the top of a high tree, their dark silhouettes somehow so recognisable, picture, turn! I’m trying to stop myself in the instant urge to compose the image, if I tilt the phone up just a little I will have a frame of sky around the silhouette of the tree. I repeat Huebler’s statements as a mantra to myself: “I’m using the camera as a dumb copying device, no estetic choices are possible!”. A crow is jumping around the to the left of me, but dead silent. I’m a bit dissapointed, but having mixed feelings as Hueblers photos are strictly bird free, after all I’m photographing the call not the bird. What might seem as detail, has enormous conceptual implications, I’m trying to do the impossible! That’s why I’m here. Suddenly the sounds are coming from all around me, picture, turn. I turn around, then walk straight the camera positioned straight in front of me, my new boots are getting muddy, but I’m pushing on 2 photos left, I’m walking in Huebler’s footsteps.


[1] (1924-1997) American painter, Minimal sculptor and pioneer of Conceptual art, Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery

[2] Ronald Alley, Catalogue of the Tate Gallery’s Collection of Modern Art other than Works by British Artists, Tate Gallery and Sotheby Parke-Bernet, London 1981, p.364