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Oliver Herring’s performance art, staged for the camera at Emerson

Oliver Herring paints Richard Gilman, Cristina Stubbe, and Charlie Brewer for “Areas for Action.”Suzanne Kreiter/Globe staff

Earlier this week, three people laid down in an unfinished storefront space across the street from the Ritz Carlton — two on a mattress, one on the concrete floor in front of them — and got sprayed with paint and sprinkled with flour.

It was the first day of artist Oliver Herring’s five-day participatory performance piece, “Areas for Action,” which runs through Saturday. Anyone is welcome to participate (sign up first via e-mail: joseph_ketner@emerson.edu ) or just come watch. The plan is loose and the action improvisatory, but Herring builds each eight-hour day around a particular theme or material. Thursday is glitter; Friday is red, white, and blue; and Saturday is foil.

“Areas for Action” is staged by Emerson College School of the Arts’s Urban Arts Program. The storefront at 80 Mason St. is an Emerson space, and many of the volunteers are Emerson students.

Senior Cristina Stubbe had already modeled for several hours Tuesday when the group broke for lunch. Narrative was the theme. Herring had spent the morning spraying colors on his reclining performers and rearranging their bodies. The artist and his assistants photograph and videotape the entire process.


Stubbe signed up because she thought it sounded like fun. “And it is fun,” she said, casting an eye over her paint-covered body. She was black, with hints of red and yellow, from head to toe. “It’s going to be even more fun walking home.”

The day had been challenging, as well, since the performers had to hold their poses for long minutes before they shifted.

“I go in and out of phases of enjoying it and not enjoying it,” said junior Charlie Brewer. “It’s a lot more tiring than I thought. I’m also lying on concrete. But [Herring] is very accommodating.”

The artist had sat down to view the morning’s photos. They were striking and painterly; they popped to life as visual art, distinctly different than the spectacle of the live performance.

“These pieces work on multiple levels,” said the Brooklyn-based artist, who has presented “Areas for Action” around the world, most recently in China. “It’s a hybrid between painting, sculpture, performance, and photography.”

The photos and the videos stand on their own. Over the summer, Herring will edit them for an exhibition to be staged in the same space next fall.


The performances don’t all require the rigor of a still pose. In videos of past “Areas for Action,” participants spit colored water in concert, creating a fountain, and move about in the dark covered in phosphorescent paint. Their interactions are at once intimate and outrageous, like those of small children playing together.

“Everybody is a creative agent,” Herring said. “I’m trying to unleash that.”

Although he directs the actions, the artist said much relies on the participants. “It’s like a school dance,” he said. “I just went to these three people and asked them to dance. They said yes. Next, we’re going to tango.”

Joseph Ketner, Emerson’s chair in contemporary art and curator-in-residence of the school’s department of visual and media arts, invited Herring to bring his project to Boston. He said the space will evolve over the five-day performance.

“It will build,” said Ketner. “The premise is to do it in this unfinished space and to accumulate all of the residues left around the space, plus still photos.”

Already on Tuesday, one wall had been spray-painted with red, black, and yellow, and the floor and mattress where the performers reclined were covered in layers of pigment and flour.

“We have carte blanche to go a little crazy,” Herring said.

Before Herring made art out of public performances, he spent years knitting sculptures in mylar and tape. He found it a lonely endeavor.

“Part of our purpose as a social being and a human being is to connect intimately, productively, and creatively with other people,” he said.


In 2002, he developed TASK, an art event in which participants work together to contrive instructions for projects, and then carry them out.

He began to see people as his greatest and most challenging resource.

“You have control over a material, but not over a person,” he said. “Their comfort zones, their abilities and disabilities, their personalities determine the piece.”

His aim is to work in tune with his volunteers, not push them past where they want to go. “There’s no pressure to strip to your underwear and cover yourself in glitter,” Herring said. “I might hand you a camera.”

Boston artist Julia Csekö had stopped by Mason Street to get the lay of the land before her volunteer stint at Thursday’s glitter performance.

“There are 50 pounds of glitter here,” she said. “I’m usually not a person that likes to get messy. But glitter — I don’t mind having it in my hair forever.”

While most of the week’s activities have revolved around the instincts of the artist and the input of his volunteers, Saturday’s performance — followed by a closing party, the Foil Ball — is a little more mapped out.

“One or two people as models will hold a pose they choose for the entirety of the performance,” said Herring. “Anyone who walks into the gallery will add foil to the people. These things can be visually amazing. The foil can go anywhere.”


Oliver Herring: Areas for Action

At 80 Mason St., through May 7. 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; closing reception May 7, 6-8 p.m. www.emerson.edu

Cate McQuaid can be reached at catemcquaid@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.