Professor Oswald Alfonso is part of a new interactive exhibit by British-German artist Tino Seghal at the Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan.
Alfonso, associate professor of mass communications and TV and film at St. John’s, is an interpreter who speaks during “This Progress,” a piece of art that is real, yet materially intangible.
The work consists of conversation between total strangers. A participant entering the Rotunda is greeted by a young child between the ages of eight and 10 who quickly questions, “This is a work by Tino Sehgal called ‘This Progress,’ can I ask you a question?”
“I heard about the opportunity like everybody else; a friend of a friend or a colleague of a colleague,” Alfonso said. There are many interpreters that rotate throughout the piece at any given time during the week.
“There are so many of each age group,” Alfonso said. “I have no idea how many total there are.”
Interpreters work in shifts with a usual duration of four hours a shift with a minimum of 12 hours a week. Alfonso recognizes the opportunity as a unique one for students and faculty alike.
“I became interested because I had never been involved with anything to do with a museum before. It’s fascinating because you get to talk to perfect strangers about all kinds of things,” Alfonso said.
“I’ve spoken with people from many different countries and of many different ages. Some people are tourists, some are art people. Some come for the exhibit, and some are only there to see the Guggenheim.”
Topics are unlimited; Sehgal’s only parameters are the prompts that he gives to the interpreters when they are trained.
“I’ve spoken with people about prejudice, war, religion, economics, and morality. The topics really run the gamut,” Alfonso said.
“I enjoy it as much as the visitor do I think, I’m learning from not just New Yorkers, but from people from Switzerland and Greece.”
Alfonso detailed several conversations that particularly stood out for him, including one with an Asian woman who refrains from all uses of technology, preferring to document in long-hand.
The aversion to technology is a trend in Sehgal’s piece, the nature of the artwork itself centering on its inability to be quantified, existing only as a conceptualization.
“I’ve begun to really think about the issue of technology and how it’s changing the world,” Alfonso said.
“One person-a teacher-advised me to view my student’s habits in a different way. He said, open your head and let your students teach you. Don’t run the danger of imposing your values onto them. Meet them where they are.”
He added, “I would recommend that students and teachers all come. It works best when your walk in and are immediately immersed in deep conversations with strangers of all ages. It’s really opened my eyes.”
Sehgal’s exhibit will be on display until March 2010. The Rotunda of the Guggenheim, usually filled with pieces by Kandinsky, now boasts empty white walls.
Instead, “This Progress” encompasses the spiraling space with much more than canvases.