In 1972, three New York conceptual artists devised an experiential project entitled “The Carpe Diem Game.” They were Robert Cawley, the performance artist, Annie Chen, the experimental filmmaker and Louis Vermeulen, the French painter. Each artist has referenced the game as being a life-changing experience. Here, Cawley gives an interview in May of 1981 to Artforum about why the project so deeply affected them.
Robert Cawley: It was only a few years before, ’67 or ’68 that Sol [LeWitt] coined the term “conceptual art” although the idea had been floating around for some time. We were all starting to think that the point of a work could exist independently of a material or medium. Yayoi Kusama was taking off all her clothes and prancing around in MOMA’s pool and the fountain in Washington Square and calling it art. There was this realization that a public gesture could be just as valid as a painting or sculpture or architecture. It was a very exciting time in New York.
Artforum: And how did the Carpe Diem Game come about?
RC: Well Annie [Chen], Louis [Vermeulen] and myself had been having a series of conversations- basically a series of conversations revolving around the Greek philosopher Epicurus, the poet Federico Lorca, Existentialism, Transcendentalism, spirituality… about how different levels of consciousness effect daily activity and the urgency that awareness elicits.
AF: Can you tell us some about the rules of the game?
RC: Basically, we would agree on a time at which our lives would end, let’s say, three or four o’clock the morning. There were a lot of us into meditation at the time, Dove Bradshaw and Bill Anastasi and so on, so we would begin with meditation. We’d start at Louis’ apartment down by the White Horse [Tavern] and meditate for an hour or two. The point was to come to the realization that we were going to die in less than a day.
AF: Were there other rules?
RC: Yes but, in retrospect, they were a bit tangential to the major thrust of the project. The major thrust was a certainty of death.
AF: How did the games play out?
RC: We played three times and starting out was always hard. When you walk out onto the street, you really don’t know what to do with yourself. I think… the first time we went to a bar and talked. The main thing, if I remember correctly, about that conversation was about consequences. If you were going to die, if there was no tomorrow, you could do whatever you wanted! So we had a few more and went out to make trouble.
That first game was a real mess. And maybe Louis or Annie will remember things differently but, for me, it was awfully fun. We danced with strangers, sang our favorite songs, ate and drank. I found a girl to kiss me inside a church and Annie took the waiter into the bathroom and did god knows what. I don’t think Louis would mind my saying but he told me that he had the best orgasm of his life that night! All in all, it was just a huge, great mess. A mess I’ll never forget.
Oh god and was that ever a hangover! [Laughing]
AF: And what sorts of insights did you gain from that first iteration of the game?
RC: I think we all noticed a sort of exponential escalation, a real urgency as the deadline approached. It felt like a sort of madness. It might be relevant to compare it to New Year’s Eve. You find yourself checking your watch more and more as time takes on a heightened importance. And you’re constantly thinking, in an almost frantic way, about where you want to spend those last moments.
AF: And what did you do when the deadline arrived?
RC: We had agreed to immediately go home, alone, without speaking to anyone, even to say goodbye. And that’s what we did.
AF: But you played the game twice more.
RC: Yes. I remember that Annie had a long talk about it with John Cage who was very interested. He had invested himself very deeply in meditative practice and was writing music based on the I-Ching and so on. John told Annie, based on her description of our first game, that he thought we were maybe not meditating as effectively as we could. He gave her some good suggestions regarding technique which we adopted.
AF: For the second game.
RC: That’s right.
AF: And when was that?
RC: Two… two, maybe three months after the first game.
AF: And what was the difference between the first and the second iteration?
RC: I think that we all took it much more seriously. The welcome advice from John also led to a deeper experience. He was, for the most part, interested in Zen which entails meditating on the void and awaiting enlightenment. In this case, the precipice was our imminent death.
AF: Was the tone of the game different?
RC: Oh absolutely. Absolutely. It was a much more somber experience. I got on the phone almost immediately to everyone I cared about. I called my mother in Pomona first. I must have called 30 or 40 people and probably spent sixty bucks on charges.
AF: What did you tell them?
RC: Well, I didn’t feel comfortable telling them that I was going to die in 12 hours, which is what I was thinking. I told that “if” I was going to die, they would be one of the people I would call. Then we’d talk, mostly about our favorite memories. It all felt very past tense. I felt pulled along by a very powerful ache. A sadness, I guess. But a certain joy too. I was really surprised by how many people I felt compelled to call, even people I hadn’t talked to in years and years. Those were probably some of the best conversations I’ve ever had and they were all at once! I don’t think I’ve ever cried that much in a single day.
AF: And what was the experience of the others? Chen and Vermeulen?
RC: Annie ran to her apartment to get her cameras. She wanted others to see what her last day looked like. Don’t quote me on it but I think… the Museum at Potsdamer Platz owns most of that footage now. So she spent her day doing that.
Louis was another story. He had a very, very dark experience. I think something about that meditation put him in front of the void in a way he was not prepared for. He was plagued by all sorts of existential problems of temporary-ness. Is that a word? Anyway he was really felt as though, on that final day, his life really had no meaning. He never said so, but I think he really intended to commit suicide at the deadline. But somehow, he managed not to, thank god.
I’m certain, absolutely certain, that his experience in that second game deeply influenced his later works, especially the Blue Paintings and the charcoal work.
AF: But you played a final time.
RC: Yes, although it took a great deal of convincing for Louis. It took him so long to recover emotionally from that second round and I think he was genuinely afraid of a third go.
But it was really important to Annie and me that all three of us do it together. I suppose so we could sort of triangulate our experiences. Eventually Louis accepted but made us promise to be with him at the deadline.
AF: What was the emotional timbre of that last game?
RC: Again, totally different! Totally different! We meditated for two hours at my place and right when we finished, the first thing Annie said was, “Our lives are over and I don’t think there’s any point to try to put an exclamation point on it. I think we should have a picnic!”
So we had a picnic. In Central Park in the Sheep’s Meadow. And we had told a few of our favorite people what was going on and invited them. For a long time it was just the three of us. We sat on a blanket and ate good cheese and fruit and crackers and just listed what we would miss most and it was very sad and funny and thankful. It was quite lovely and very peaceful.
But then our friends arrived and they had told other people what was going on and wanted to surprise us. Eventually our little picnic had over 400 people at it! It was as if the three of us got to attend our own funerals!
Eventually a police officer told us that we needed to leave and so we took the party over to Gagosian’s place. That night, there were just a lot of tears and laughter. When the deadline came, everyone was counting down with us. I remember getting chills all over my body. I looked at all of my favorite faces as they counted down to zero. I… really felt as though my soul or whatever was getting ready to leap out of my body.
But Annie and Louis and myself felt a so calm. It was almost a supernatural calm.
AF: Do you think you will play the game again?
RC: No, heavens no. Well, yes and no. I don’t think I’ll ever have it in me to play it again. It’s extraordinarily excruciating to do it well. It would also feel wrong to do it without Louis. It belonged to him as much as it does to us and since his funeral, Annie and I have decided that the project should be put away.
On the otherhand, I say yes because we all play this game all the time. The only difference is that the rules aren’t so strict. The deadline could come, unheralded at any moment. And when the hour arrives, it will not be a game. It will be real.
AF: Well thank you for speaking with us. It was such a pleasure.
RC: As is often the case with Artforum, you’re totally wrong, as the pleasure was entirely mine! [Laughing]
*Note: This entire story is entirely made up, a fabrication, a fable, a tall tale, a work of fiction, a figment, a yarn, a flight of fancy, a myth, a terminological inexactitude. It is not true in any way.