easter island project (c) tiffany lee brown

The Swinging Acorn: in participatory art, who owns what?

Anonymity can be exhilarating. I love doing stuff for other people’s interactive, participatory art. You build or write or paint something and it gets layered in with what everyone else is making. Maybe your fervent words live on for years, written in archival ink on acid-free paper, sealed sacred in a hand-bound book. Maybe some yahoo scrawls “Fuk Def Leppard!” across your corner of a community DIY mural. Or maybe the artist burns the whole thing in a fiery ritual.

You become part of a mystery experience and an implied community of makers. You trust the artist with your contribution to the whole. You relinquish the illusion of control and set free what your hands have made.

You meld.

But who really owns these creations? The Easter Island Project asked people to contemplate the idea of creating, and then respond by–well, creating. Making tiny objects and pieces of writing that I would do something with. We called them “seeds,” seeds of creativity that could sprout into some plant we’d never seen before. Seeds that ended up giving me endless inspiration and comfort as I dragged through a harrowing time in my life. Seeds I could take with me to the island itself.

Someone made a swinging acorn sculpture as their seed. It is made from a beautiful chunk of wood hewn flat on the bottom. Following the long grain, it tapers up like a jagged mountain peak, and in the middle sits a natural hole. A knot once lived there. Now, an acorn swings back and forth. The sculpture nestled among the other anonymous offerings at a show I did in Fort Worden in Port Townsend, Washington.

In Fossil, Oregon, you can paw through a hillside of rocks behind the high school and take home whatever you find. I once dug up ferns that had been smushed in stone millennia ago. Going through the seeds felt similar, an archaeological dig. You don’t know anything about what you discover–how the fern got there, who carved the marble bas reliefs at Caracol, what the woman at Pompeii did on her days off before she got mummified.

I took the seeds home and lovingly photographed them, handled them in my fingers. It was exciting, not knowing who manifested each one. Everything felt OK, all meldy and loving, until it was recontextualized in a newspaper. The Oregonian did a big article on the project, an article I liked and that pretty much made me feel awesome. It featured a beautiful Matoya Nakamura photograph of the swinging acorn sculpture… without the real maker’s name on it. If you skimmed the article quickly, you might not realize that I hadn’t made all the cool seeds with my own hands. It was not the first time the Easter Island Project made me feel like an asshole, and not by any means the last.

Bonnie Schock, I found out, was the participant in question. She’s a theatre artist from Minneapolis and formerly one of my graduate advisers at Goddard College. The sculpture instantly became less mysterious, but now I cherished it in a different way. Now it was about relationship. I appreciated in a a new way the care and humor (it is, after all, a seed in a hole!) she’d put into it.

Since then I’ve asked around for a few more names to match up with the seeds, but I keep wondering how far I should take it. There can be such beauty, such release, in letting go of what you’ve made. As your creations meld namelessly with everyone else’s, the membrane between you and everyone else–everything else–becomes permeable. You are but one little star in a vast universe. But you are the universe, too.


Anakena: the Easter Island Project is the culmination of an interdisciplinary artwork spanning five years, seven cities, and the island of Rapa Nui. The installation will unfold organically for nine months at the Cooley Gallery’s Caseworks series and online at magdalen.com.

First I was a happily childfree woman. Next, a happy stepmom. Then I was walloped by the biological clock, a surprise attack that plunged me into deep grief and existential meltdown. Questioning my life path and belief in the sanctity of art and creativity, I invited audiences in the Northwest, New York, at Burning Man, and elsewhere to join me in exploring what it means to create. The “seeds” of creativity they made—tiny sculptures, writings, dances captured on video—are the true stars of “my” project.

A slow, arduous change occurred as I integrated the participants’ creations into the work and the generative urge into my life. Eventually I reached Rapa Nui transformed and very pregnant. A suitcase of “seeds” came with me.

“Anakena‚Ķ” documents the transformative process and shows the “seeds” themselves. I’ll be changing the installation at Caseworks every few weeks and telling the story online. The project’s 80-hour-long soundtrack, improvised in collaboration with Eric Hausmann, will also be available free online. I hope “Anakena‚Ķ” furthers the cultural conversation about childlessness and parenting in our culture, the human urge to create, and the ability of art to make meaning.

Immense thanks to all the participants, collaborators, and supporters who made this happen. The work is supported by a grant from RACC, the Regional Arts & Culture Council, and by Viator Travel.

About Tif
About the Easter Island Project
Posts & Galleries ~ EI Project
Visiting the Installation

More about Caseworks

One Response to The Swinging Acorn: in participatory art, who owns what?

  1. fJillK says:

    Your fallacy lies in assuming art makes meaning.

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