Take a tape of the sound of the snow falling.
This should be done in the evening.
Do not listen to the tape.
Cut it and use it as strings to tie gifts with.
(Yoko Ono, Snow Piece (Tape Piece III), 1963-4 in Iversen, M. Chance 2010, Documents of Contemporary Art, MIT Press, p.98)
Yoko Ono’s Snow Piece adopts a procedural-imperative form. It instructs the reader to do something, yet there is no sense that actually performing the action is necessary. The work is complete as something written and read, as something envisaged, imagined, conceived. Why then does it take a procedural form? Why not simply express in narrative terms? For instance, Ono could have written, “I recorded the sound of snow falling in the evening…”. This would, of course, have been entirely different. The work needs to take shape as a general shape of possibility – a sequence, an algorithm, a spell – rather than as a closed, accomplished action. It adheres to the logic of sequence, but at the same time undercuts it: a tape is recorded but not listened to, the context of recording is precisely described but is rendered entirely opaque in the silence of the gift strings. There is more to be said about the choice of the procedural mode but the most important point for my purposes is that Ono’s poetic concept could potentially be realised but would this work of performance would seem to have little scope for creative, poetic addition.
Draw a straight line and follow it
(La Monte Young, Composition 1960 #10, 1960 in Iversen, M. Chance 2010, Documents of Contemporary Art, MIT Press, opening pages – illustration)
Another instruction, but this one describes an infinite vector, one that cannot possibly be performed in its conceptual entirety. Nonetheless, paradoxically, this a work that leaves open a potential for performance – the line can be drawn in any way, the act of following can adopt all manner of forms, nothing in the action is precisely resolved. So this instruction indicates two field of creative possibility: firstly, the imagination of the instruction itself (especially in its mingling of concrete specificity and abstract generality); and secondly, the universe of possible/impossible realisations.
Lines not short, not straight, crossing and touching, drawn at random using four colors, uniformly dispersed with maximum density, covering the entire surface of the wall.
(Sol LeWitt, Wall Drawing #65, 1971, National Gallery of Art, USA, link)
Sol LeWitt Wall Drawing *65 describes a potential image. Although not explicitly expressed in imperative terms, the practice of artists who realise LeWitt’s wall drawings is to treat them as broad sets of conceptual instructions that they can follow in all manner of different ways. In a conceptualist polemical spirit, LeWitt rejects the need for the images to be drawn or painted, insisting that the have integrity as conceptual systems, but actually realisation is very important. The vital interest is in the interplay between general definition and specific realisation.