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James Lee Byars: The World Question Center

1969 is a year of great change and turmoil. Man lands on the moon. The war in Vietnam rages. It is also the year American artist James Lee Byars conceives of the World Question Center and appoints himself Director. The World Question Center is initiated because Byars has questions about questions. Which questions have disappeared over time? Is a question the embodiment of a person? Do questions require more energy than other sentences? Is all speech interrogative? Can a question be art? Through The World Question Center, Byars collects questions in order to find answers. Questioning remains a part of his artistic practice throughout his lifetime.

The World Question Center begins while Byars is an artist resident at the Hudson Institute and culminates in November 1969 with a performance sponsored by the Los Angeles County Museum’s Art and Technology Project, staged at Wide White Space in Antwerp and broadcast live on Belgian national radio and television. Surrounded by a ring of seated participants draped in robes designed by the artist, Byars telephones some of the world’s most brilliant minds. He asks them to succinctly present, on the spot, one question that is pertinent to “the evolution of their own sense of knowledge.”

Byars speaks with luminaries such as actress Viva; sexologist Dr. Eberhard Kronhausen; heart surgeon Dr. Denton Cooley; politicians Uri Avnery and Hubert Kronenburg; writers Dr. Robert Jungk, Gisela Elsner and Jerzy Kosinski; artists Marcel Broodthaers, Jörg Immendorff, Joseph Beuys, and Jean Toche; composers John Cage and Luciano Berio; poets Simon Vinkenoog, Stefan Themerson, and Michael McClure; lawyers and activists James Butler and Edward de Grazia; futurists Herman Kahn and Arthur C. Clarke; architects Christopher Alexander, Cedric Price, and Hans Hollein; philosophers Jean-Pierre Faye and Michael Scriven; journalist Lenita Airisto; screenwriter and critic Burt Prelutsky; curator Walter Hopps; and architectural critic Reyner Banham.

The questions, posed more than 50 years ago, feel pertinent to today. Participants grapple with questions about war and peace, personal freedom, social inequality, environmental justice, as well as fears and hopes for technology and humanity. While some questions feel like a glimpse into the future we are living, other questions feel unresolved.

James Lee Byars was born in Detroit in 1932 and died in Cairo in 1997. He has been the subject of numerous museum exhibitions worldwide, including The Palace of Good Luck, Castello di Rivoli / Museo d’Arte Contemporanea, Turin (1989); The Perfect Moment, IVAM Centre del Carme, Valencia (1994); Life Love and Death, Schirn Kunsthalle and Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain de Strasbourg (2004); The Perfect Silence, Whitney Museum of American Art (2005); 1/2 an Autobiography, MoMA PS1, New York and Museo Jumex, Mexico City (2013-2014); The Golden Tower, Campo San Vio, Venice (2017); and The Perfect Kiss, Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp (2018).

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Written by Verónica López

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