Oliver Herring on failure and success at FLUXspace

Oliver Herring dressed for the chill at the FLUXspace preview of his videos.
Oliver Herring dressed for the chill at the FLUXspace preview of his videos.

Oliver Herring, 43, was having one of those flush-of-success moments in the world of art–celebrating his exhibit at Max Protetch Gallery–when Philadelphia FLUXspace organizers, Joe DiGiuseppe and Chris Golas walked in, recognized the artist, and blurted out a request.

The two younger men are recent graduates from Tyler School of Art. They started a gallery and studio space in one of the rougher parts of town. DiGiuseppe ran with the moment and asked Herring to use his art magic to help build some bridges between FLUXspace and the local residents.

Oliver Herring, Airborne_03
Oliver Herring, Howard St. (Airborne), showing the FLUXers and Kensington neighbors.


They got lucky. Earlier that day, Herring had decided he wanted to change the way he made art. “So I decided at the beginning of the show to say yes to everything.” Chris and Joe were the first people to give him an opportunity to put his new resolution into action.

So a willingness to fail is the explanation, fundamentally, for what brought artist Oliver Herring this time to Philadelphia (he’s been here before, including at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at Basekamp). Herring was willing to take a chance, and so were Chris and Joe.

“Failure is highly undervalued in contemporary art,” Herring said at a preview of the two videos that grew out of the FLUXspace request. “You have to fail all the time. You don’t see it [the failures] in contemporary art galleries.”


The end result is an exhibit of two Philly-made videos by Herring, coming to FLUXSpace Dec. 15. to Dec. 22 from 6 to 10pm. The reception is the 15th, and it will include the Kensington neighbors plus a cross between a game and art orchestrated by Herring.

Oliver Herring, Waterloo_01
Oliver Herring, Waterloo St., with FLUXers and Kensington neighbors

The videos, “Howard St (Airborn)” and “Waterloo St.” are transcendent collaborations between Herring, De Giussepe, Golas, and some of those neighbors.


Roberta and I saw the videos at a press preview Tuesday, and I can’t say enough about how much I loved them. They are something special, about the power of creativity and community, the limits of the human body, the forces beyond the individual and the forces of the individual in the environment. It’s man (or boys) vs. the universe and its laws on two little streets in Kensington. Spectacularly entertaining and beautiful, the videos pack an emotional punch that took me by surprise.

There’s a lot of mundane social work that’s been passing itself off as art projects all around the city, but this project, which bypasses the do-gooder institutions and channels of power and misspent money, is everything that they wish they could be but aren’t.

That success brings me back to the importance of failure (am I really still nattering on about how foundations completely miss the forest for the trees because they are so stuck in their risk-averse requirements?). This particular success required not only risks taken by Oliver, Joe and Chris, but also the people in the neighborhood who put aside their fears and reticence and revealed themselves to the camera and one another. The embarrassment potential was high here, but what happened instead was an intimate picture of peoples’ imaginations and mutual trust.

On a somewhat different note, when upstart gallerist Jenny Jaskey (she’s pretty close in age to Chris and Joe) snagged a group of Philadelphia’s older big name artists– Sidney Goodman, Ben Kamihara, Tina Newberry…–for her show Finding a Form: Influences in Figurative Painting in the spring, people asked her how she enticed them to her barely hatched venture. After all, most of them were represented by other galleries, and didn’t have much need to be in the exhibit.

Her answer was, “I asked.”

In Philadelphia, which is known for its risk-averse approach to everything, this is the way that the art world here is changing. It’s a good thing.

Herring sometimes in his art asks people to take similar risks, to act outside their sphere of comfort and cross boundaries. For the videos he asked Chris and Joe to jump and spin around a fire hydrant. “I had these guys make fools out of themselves,” he said. The young Kensington residents who joined in and became partners in making the video also took a risk and broke their reserve.

At the opening reception for the videos, Herring will once again ask people to step out of their usual roles. “I’m not treating this so much as an art opening, but more like a game.” But it’s a game that requires trust and the ability to make leaps beyond usual behavior.

Herring will be passing out slips of paper with tasks for people to perform. He’s not confident this will be a success. In fact, he doubts it. He’s willing to face the possibility of failure. It’s the only way to succeed.