When Art Venues (Might, But Probably Won’t) Attack

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Last week, I played fast and loose with my bodily well-being, nay, my very life. Like a badass. Like a badass at an art show. And it wasn’t the first time I’ve exercised my devil-may-care bravado for art. It’s like I’ve got ice-water running through my veins.

Kara Walker at Domino
Visitors risk calamity to see Kara Walker’s
A Subtlty at the Domino Sugar Factory
Photo by John Paul Hennessy,
a.k.a. Instagram user “yewnork” / via

Provocative American artist Kara Walker has a site-specific sculptural installation, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, currently on view at the Domino Sugar Factory in Brooklyn (Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays through July 6). The danger arises not from her provocativeness, but rather from the wildcard Domino factory building. (This post is about legal release required to enter the site, not the installation itself—that already has been elegantly reviewed and analyzed by Hilton Als in The New Yorker, Blake Gopnik in The New York Times and Zoë Lescaze at Gallerist, among others.)

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But I’m here to tell you that I survived the quicksand, the explosive booby traps, the marauding Williamsburg hipsters, the terrifying proximity to water, god help us all—and you can survive, too; it’s an interesting installation, and you should see it. Visitor information is available here.

Before I could prove my bravery by strolling through the building among the several sugar sculptures, however, I signed my life away in the form of a legal release. Sorry, my heirs and next of kin…although, since I didn’t, you know, die: whew!

Some of the dangers I willingly embraced, according to the waiver:

I am aware that the PROPERTY contains inherent risks and hazards, including but not limited to, risks involving asbestos, vehicles, machinery, uneven or slippery surfaces, smoke, chemicals, emissions, a waterside location and other hazardous substances, materials and conditions.

I was, more or less, just kidding about the rampaging hipsters.

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Obviously, I understand why I had to sign the release—this is the embarrassingly litigious United States and I was entering a non-traditional exhibition venue that hasn’t been sanitized into an accident-resistant white cube. The floor wasn’t polished and the walls were exposed brick rather than smooth plaster. Oh, the humanity.

Included in the release I signed (with my own blood!) was a binding promise that if I were to stumble across any “confidential information,” I wouldn’t “disclose such information to any other person or use it for any purpose whatsoever.” I honestly have no idea what that’s about, Walker’s installation being one monumental sculpture and an array of smaller sculptures in an otherwise empty industrial warehouse. I can’t begin to imagine what information, confidential or not, prompted that clause. I guess I’m not much of a spy.

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All in all, though, the release seemed to me fairly standard and straightforward. But I’m as good a lawyer as I am a spy, so what do I know? I did wonder, though, whether having to sign a waiver added anything to the overall experience of seeing the show. There’s a slight frisson of danger, however ironic, that made the visit to the Domino factory a little bit of an adventure. It also provides a (very) modest ritual marking the transition from the street to the interior of a previously forbidden—or, at least, private—space that most visitors had never before entered and never would again; Walker’s installation at the Domino factory is a swan song before the complex gets totally overhauled and converted into some kind of bourgeois “multi-use” something or other.

The last time I remember signing such a waiver before seeing art was the 2011 New Museum show “Carsten Höller: Experience.” That waiver made more sense, the exhibition being more physically participatory, but it still gave the whole affair an ominous cast that I’m choosing to semi-gently mock here.

Among the risks I subjected myself to at the hands of Mr. Höller:

I am voluntarily visiting the exhibition on the premises of the New Museum and physically participating in its related activities and assume all risks associated with it, including but not limited to falls, bumps, bruises, sprains, friction burns, fractures, head and neck injury, headaches, dizziness, claustrophobic reaction, and/or any physical or mental adverse consequence resulting from interacting with the artworks.

Carsten Höller Slide
“Carsten Höller[‘s terrifying deathtrap]: Experience,”
New Museum, 2011
Photo: Benoit Pailley / via
The Höller show included a looping slide that carried visitors swiftly through two floors of the museum, an Altered States-style floatation tank (called Giant Psycho Tank), and an excruciatingly slow-moving mirrored carousel. All, of course, covered with guns, razor blades and poisonous snakes.

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The New Museum’s release for Höller was fairly elaborate; it included separate lists of restrictions, admonitions, warnings and instructions for each of the three deathtraps interactive artworks. For example, regarding the slide, the form warned not only about physical risks (“Do not use the slide if […] you have heart, respiratory, neck, or back conditions.”) and psychological risks (motion sickness, claustrophobia, vertigo), but even about the risk of epileptic seizures because the bottom of the slide spit visitors out near a totally separate artwork incorporating flashing lights. One really cannot be too careful about anything anymore.

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The waiver indicated that elbow pads and crash helmets were optionally available for the slide, but, true to my badass self, I took the risk without them. It all turned out OK. I’m just glad my grieving family didn’t have to tell everyone that I’d met my end in a tragic sliding misadventure in an art museum. It’s not like they’d have been able to sue for damages, anyway, since I’d signed that form.

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