5 June 1999

Walker Art Center

From the Minneapolis StarTribune, Friday, November 21, 1997 Page 8E



If scientists, lawyers and Groucho Marx conspired to make cheeky art, this is how they might do it: Wearing white lab coats, 21 guys and gals march into a busy public space, carrying clipboards or signs. They plant themselves at preselected spots and start taking notes or displaying signs saying cryptic things such as "Often compelling" and "Sometimes unsettling."

When the Praxis Group did that this month at Walker Art Center, a museum guard asked them to leave. Being a mild-mannered bunch, the Minneapolis-based group complied.

Praxis Group founder John Troyer is mystified by why such apparently harmless behavior got his folks evicted from the Minneapolis museum. A similar "performance" at the Mall of America last May elicited only a request that they ditch the signs, doff the lab coats and stop taking notes.

"As we've demonstrated at the Walker, something that is different can create a backlash even in an environment that is supposedly open to new and avant-garde behavior," said Troyer, who calls himself the group's "director of cultural subversion."

Praxis called the Walker performance "Operation Sacred Ground" and announced it via cryptic phone calls to the news media and messages at its Web site. Saying the event would occur "where the cherry rests in the spoon," the group teasingly referred to "an unsolicited, unsanctioned and destabilizing infiltration of all things Disney," an allusion to the Walker's current show of Disney memorabilia.

"It must not have been much of a bleep on any monitor, because I don't know anything about it at all," said Philip Bither, the museum's performing arts curator.

Mall symposium

Troyer will discuss the incidents - and maybe Praxis will practice a bit of provocative mischief - Saturday as part of the Weisman Art Museum's "Learning from the Mall of America" conference at the University of Minnesota. The four-day international symposium runs through Sunday and, coincidentally, is supported in part by both the Walker and the megamall.

Troyer's 5:30 p.m. presentation follows the keynote address by Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch architectural theorist, author and Harvard University professor, at Coffman Memorial Union. Troyer and his group of mostly undergraduates consider themselves the art world's civil libertarians. Their performances aren't exactly protests. They're not angry or even irked about anything. In the tradition of Dada performances, futurist manifestoes and '60s happenings, they're meant to provoke people to think about language, behavior, control of public and private space, what's funny and what's not.

"We're not trying to make the Walker look bad," said Troyer, who recently delivered an open letter of protest to the museum about the incident. "I'm a member and a strong supporter and would like to be a contributor when I can afford it."

Praxis members always quote the institutions' own literature on their signs. That way, Troyer figures, no one can accuse them of obscenity or other misbehavior.

At the Mall of America, their signs bore such promotional factoids as "THE 78-ACRE CENTER ATTRACTS FASHION-CONSCIOUS POWER SHOPPERS." At the Walker, they quoted phrases from the museum's annual report and labels from its Disney show. One sign said, "Evidence of rational planning and control was everywhere apparent." Its flip side read: "Abandon urban centers."

"We were letting the Walker and the Disney show speak for themselves," Troyer said. "But clearly we were saying something else, too, or we wouldn't have been asked to leave. . . . We became a mirror, but people couldn't see themselves in their own images."

Naive to possibilities?

Museum spokeswoman Karen Gysin said the group was naive in its assumptions about what's permitted in a public space. Pickets are permitted on the public sidewalk outside the museum, she said, but not in the galleries. In fact, Praxis performed in the city's sculpture garden next to the Walker before being denied gallery access. "I understand the freedom of expression issue," she said, "but you can't just walk into a public institution and do a performance."