Tom Marioni’s most well-known exhibition makes a single, somewhat controversial declaration: The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art. The subtitle of his memoir and the name of his globe-trotting show might seem apropos of the moment, but the exhibit was first debuted by the conceptual artist in 1970. The same year, Marioni started the groundbreaking Museum of Conceptual Arts in San Francisco, a first-of-its-kind live art institution, and has since received a Guggenheim Fellowship and three National Endowment for the Arts grants. And yet, after more than a half-century of creating conceptual pieces, it’s the beer that’s persisted.
Now, having spanned the world—from San Francisco to Sweden to Sydney—The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art will land this month at Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center for an eight-week stint. Every Wednesday night from 5 to 6:30 p.m., the 2,200-square-foot gallery will be transformed into a communal gathering space, where free beer will be distributed and audience members will unconsciously participate in a piece of conceptual art.
“The gesture of giving away beer, and meeting new friends, is what it comes down to,” Marioni says, before describing the aesthetic elements that travel with the show: yellow lights; jazz music; a shelf filled with Pacifico bottles (he likes the yellow label), titled “An Aid to Communication;” and the “Golden Rectangle Beer,” a flat-screen TV showing a frothy glass of brew. Add bartenders, audience members, and free beer, and the event space becomes a stage of sorts—an “interactive sculpture installation,” as Marioni calls it.
The exhibition, which first debuted in 1970 at the Oakland Museum, was an early execution of what would later be considered “relational aesthetics,” an idea popularized by French curator Nicolas Bourriaud. He defined it as art that uses “the whole of human relations and their social context” as a departure point. The artist gives the stage to the audience, who in turn create the experience of art.
Pacifico is traditionally served at the gatherings, and it will be during the exhibition’s debut on July 18, when Marioni will give an introductory performance. After that first week, he allowed curator Joy Armstrong to select local craft brewers to provide refreshments. Colorado Springs’ Local Relic and Bristol Brewing Company, plus Bull & Bush, Epic Brewing Company, Tivoli Brewing Company, and Crazy Mountain Brewery will all be featured. “He said we could bring in any brewer we wanted,” Armstrong said, though the artist had one aesthetic stipulation: “They have to be served in long-neck bottles.”
With guest bartenders ranging from local artists to university administrators to political scholars, the piece seeks to unite otherwise separated groups—“kind of expanding our individual and institutional circles within the community,” Armstrong says. That’s the entire idea behind the exhibition, that a beer-filled gathering with strangers can bring them together, widen perspectives, and evolve an individual’s way of thinking. That in itself, Armstrong says, is a form of art.
Marioni forged this idea, and he’s been convincing audience members of this concept for decades. Some years ago, the artist was questioned by a doubtful participant. “I drink beer with my friends every weekend,” the man said. “Is that art?”
“No,” Marioni responded. “It’s a copy of my art.”
If You Go: The exhibition will be at the Colorado Springs Fine Art Center beginning July 14, but the first interactive conceptual art “performance” (i.e. beer drinking) will be July 18. The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art will be on display until September 9.