In ‘Something To Do’, a lockdown essay from the collection Intimations, Zadie Smith praises the honesty of a simple answer to all kinds of activities that have kept us busy over the last year — ‘Why did you bake that banana bread? It was something to do’.

Her sentiments seem to resonate with Hans Ulrich Obrist’s Do It project, which relaunched in a virtual form in March last year. The idea was born in 1993 out of conversations between Obrist and artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier; these focused on 21st century art, which concerns not only the physical artefacts, but also the instructions for the viewers. They invited artists to write instructions and exhibited their artworks in a variety of museums across the world.

But Do It serves a different purpose in the midst of a global pandemic. I discovered the project on Obrist’s Instagram, which is much less formal than official gallery websites, and does not seek to reconstruct the experience of a gallery through a film or virtual reality. Instead, it mingles with our everyday online lives, the art inhabiting the same space as photos of our friends. Ironically, the Do It Instagram Exhibition is a call to get viewers off Instagram; it is an exhibition which intrudes into the mundanity of our everyday lives, encouraging us to make art and thereby find ‘something to do.’

"It is an exhibition which intrudes into the mundanity of our everyday lives; encouraging us to make art and thereby find ‘something to do.’"

We build Do It ourselves. Obrist used ‘zones of contact’ as a working phrase for the project. Originally coined by the anthropologist James Clifford, ‘zones of contact’ refers to a new model for ethnographic museums, wherein those whose culture is presented in the museum can propose their own alternate forms of exhibiting and collecting. Do It, then, is an example of this kind of museum because it allows the audience to curate. Clifford’s notion of ‘zones of contact’ also suggests that museums can adapt alongside changes in how we understand our own history. After each set of instructions is carried out, the creation is dismantled — this embraces movement and replaces static display.

While the in-person exhibition was built around communal experiences, having been carried out at the shared, public space in a museum, the virtual version forces us to encounter the instructions alone. Many of the instructions seek to engage with our domestic confinement; some even urge us to transform our home space in an attempt to see it differently. For example, Hani Rashid’s Do It Number 29 instructs the viewer to survey their ‘domestic space for curious spatial and enigmatic objects and artefacts’ and then arrange and attach them to one another on a large table so that they would reveal ‘some strange and curious micro-architectural potentials’. Such a transformation is central to Obrist’s curatorial vision for the project – to quote his own words in ‘Ways of Curating’, the ‘mundane was transformed into the uncommon and then converted back into the everyday’.

The instructions are, more than anything, about lifting us out of our ‘new normal’ and introducing us to an alternative physical and psychological space. One set of instructions, from the artist Precious Okoyomon, is wild call for freedom: ‘Roll downhill yelling, "I am not my body, I am the universe"’. This instruction, like many others in the project, encourages us to liberate ourselves from our bodies while still maintaining a degree of connection to them. 

These instructions are not only personal and meditative; they seek to engage with the contemporary political sphere. This has value in the online world, where political content often mingles with personal. There is a cry to think and to engage. For example, Simone Forti’s Do It Number 55 invites us to ‘think about climate change. Sit for some moments in dumb grief, dumb knowing, dumb amazement’. By encouraging us to think and make, rather than merely observing the artworks, this online exhibition is utterly refreshing.

This project liberates us from many things: from mundane routines, our restrained creativity, and most importantly, from ourselves. It is in these artistic activities that, in Smith’s words, ‘adults get to behave like children’. Such an unrestrained and playful understanding of creativity is also central to Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, a programme which seeks to unblock creativity by, in part, encouraging a rediscovery of an inner artistic child. It is this ‘play space’ towards which Do It urges us.