Role of the artist

by Gina Ricker

I’ve been listening to a lot of Janáček recently – specifically the four movements of String Quartet No. 1, “Sonata Kreutzer” played by the Talich Quartet.

I listen to it over and over again: at home, on the walk to work, when I’m wandering around the city. My favorite time to listen is when I catch an uptown C train at 14th street. Living up in Harlem, it’s a straight shot to my apartment on the 8th avenue line. Most people going that far will cram onto an express train, but I prefer the local. It’s quiet and less busy, and when Janáček is with me, I have a very specific reason to wait patiently on the local side. C trains are sometimes made up of R32 subway cars, so I wait at the very top of the platform to enter the first car, and when I’m lucky, I get a train that has no driver’s cabin in the front. It’s just the normal door that would open and allow passage to the next car if it was connected to another. With no car ahead of it, this door is locked, of course, but there is a window. On the other side of that window are the cavernous, dark tunnels of the New York City subway.

There I stand as though at the bow of a ship, with the haunting, mournful, vast sonata playing in my ears, the sound coursing its way through my body, as I barrel forward through an unseen world that is unpolished and hidden from the light, not meant to be noticed or touched or experienced. It is an in-between place, a nowhere place. I can see it in the perfunctory finish on the materials, the decades of dust and grime that have settled on the walls and the ground, even in the way workers have left tools and garbage behind, tucked away just enough to allow continued, uninterrupted passage to the palatable, well-lit, intended destinations. When I look out onto this veiled labyrinth, I’m searching for something by inviting this unintended space into my awareness. It becomes a piece of a whole, curated experience. Hurdling forward through semi-darkness, the wind in my face, and Janáček blazing in my heart – it’s transformative.

I am an artist.

Sometimes I make, and sometimes I do not. Sometimes I go to museums and view performances, and sometimes I do not. What I am always doing is considering the world around me. I drink in color and texture; I feel time and challenge pace; I study interactions and dialogue; I interpret non-verbal communication. I synthesize all this information to understand myself and my place in the world, and the art I make is my response to that synthesis because when I look at art, I want to self-recognize. I’m looking for confirmation of my experiences outside of myself. But between that processing, dissecting, and archiving of observable information and the actual production of a piece of art, there is an imperative step – attentiveness to the spectator. As a person, I will look at the world and seek meaning. I will identify, make connections, and draw conclusions. As a spectator of art, I will do the same. As an artist, it is my responsibility to understand and respect the spectator. When I make something that I intend to be viewed, my choices need to reflect that others will participate. In my quest to keep growing and honing my practice, I’m preoccupied with the responsibilities of making art. A large part of understanding the roles and responsibilities of the artist is first understanding the role of the spectator, the viewer, the people who will interact with the art, whom the art is for.

 What is the role of the artist? Is this the best version of this question? A lifelong journey of questioning and making will encompass part of what will become my answer, but what follows is where I’m sitting with this question now, in the first origin reflection stage of my practice.

The Artist

The artist is the driver. The artist is the orchestrator. The artist is the ring leader. The artist is the parent. The artist is the child. The artist is the provocateur. The artist is the listener. The artist becomes who they need to be. The artist is the sociologist. The artist is the behaviorist. The artist is the manipulator (of artistic material to influence the spectator, not of the spectator). The artist is the translator.

Copyright Ashley Woo 2018

Copyright Ashley Woo 2018


The artist translates their skill and intention through their chosen material (sound, movement, paint, clay) with layers of meaning so the spectator may experience, rather than decipher. This is a key component. I don’t have to understand harmonics or Moravian tonality to be transported by Janáček’s music. He understood so I don’t have to. I can research and learn about these principles to deepen my understanding of his practice, but there is not a prerequisite for experiencing art. Art is made as a catalyst for an experience separate from the artist, the spectator, and the art itself. Artist Sydney Jackson calls this intended phenomenon, The Third Artist, in her research. In my story about riding the train with Janáček, I am acting as curator and spectator. I take responsibility to manipulate the materials in front of me to create a separate experience that I step into and live inside for the time available. The artist then needs to consider from where they are choosing to make.


Anything the artist chooses to create around is valid in a private space. They have arrived at that subject through observation and introspection, inspiration and drive. The artist’s role is to convince the spectator (non-private, public) of the validity of the subject. Part of this process is understanding where the work will sit on the spectrum of enjoyment and experience. Art may be only made to be enjoyed. Art may be only intended for experience and not for pleasure or enjoyment at all. Most sits along the bel curve. Convince me, convince your audience you know where your work sits by showing how you are asking the spectator to engage with it. Curatorial questions arise when the spectator is interacting with visual verses performative art.

The visual artist (non-live spectator driven artist, one who makes anything not performance-based) has the freedom to make on a singular line of desire, inspiration, and purpose serving their private reasons for creation because the role of curating - interpreting, mapping, and facilitating the spectator’s experience of something that is made and “exists”, like a painting or sculpture, verses something that is made and “happens”, anything that already exists but is not tangible until manifested with a performer, spectator, and with intention/agreement of performance, is delegated to a separate curator who may come into the work far away from the origin point within the fabric of time and space. The artists whose work resides in The Louvre did not originally intend for their work to be presented there and could not have anticipated how spectators would interact with their work today. The work was made under different circumstances and present-day curators interpret their work now and facilitate the viewers’ experience. The performance artist (live spectator-dependent artist/curatorial artist) is also responsible for curation in tandem with the origin point. When a performance is made, consideration into where the audience views from, how they view and why is integral to clarifying the performative intention and utilizing all methods of communication and stimulation for the spectators’ growth.


The Spectator

Copyright Webb Street Studios 2017

Copyright Webb Street Studios 2017

The making of performance-based art is directly dependent on the artist’s understanding and intention of the role of the spectator. To understand the role of the spectator in any circumstance of curation, the curator must know what they are asking of the spectator. How the artist is intending to influence to spectator gives information on material, subject matter, and approach. This tells the artist why it is important that the spectator be presented with this perspective. The artist can then understand which tools to use and how to use them. Is the artist trying to evoke or trigger a memory, sensation, emotion, or thought in the spectator? Does the artist achieve this by mimicking experience? Is the artist setting up, then redirecting expectation? Is the artist harnessing visceral information? How is the artist using time – linear, fractured, elongated, stationary? Where is the artist asking from? Where is the artist answering from? What elements of tone, pace, and energetic arch is the artist using to guide, root, or disorient the spectator? Is it material or image that catapults or submerges the spectator into the intended world? Is it empathy? Is it reflection? What is the significance of associations intended – not what something is directly, but what is implied? Is the work familiar? To whom? Is it absurd?

The questions are important, so clarity of intention is reached. It is not, however, necessary for the logistics of this clarity to be communicated to the spectator. As a viewer, I don’t need to speak the language, I just need to know that the artist does. The artist must be aware of critical distance, i.e. the space between the spectator and the artist’s process. This space is important; it gives way to a point in the process where the intention shifts. The lines of inquiry, the rules – they are all in place so they may be let go. In building the structure, the artist builds trust. When the work is viewed, the focus moves away from the structure, from the art itself, visual or performative. It becomes about the experience, the other phenomenon that is invited into the room when all the elements come together, The Third Artist.


More about Gina Ricker


Gina Ricker is a New York-based movement and installation artist. She received her BA in Contemporary Dance from Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance in London, graduating with first class honours. Ricker has worked with renowned choreographers in The States and abroad, including Christopher Dolder (The Martha Graham Dance Company), Ashleigh Leite (Stephen Petronio Company), Mata Sakka (Sasha Waltz & Guests), and Henry Montes (Susanne Linke), among others. She is also part of the BitterSuite creative team, a performance company directed by Stephanie Singer, which curates performances, experiences, and installations through cross-modality and sensory exploration.

Valuing authentic movement, Ricker’s practice is malleable; she adjusts the moment language and medium of materials to suit the subjects she is exploring, which often stem from illuminating, manipulating, and challenging social observations, cues, and constructs. Ricker’s work has been toured nationally and abroad, most recently in London in residency with Centre for the Study of Substructured Loss in December 2017 for applied grief and bereavement research.