For the first few cranks, you absorb how the machine works. You watch the exposed gears turning beneath the little stage, puppeteering the papier-mâché figures. You take in the actions that repeat as you turn the crank: An Iraqi woman is raped, a hooded Iraqi prisoner is strung up by his arms, a college student is pushed down and Tasered. On one level, you know these are news events that you had nothing to do with. On another level, you're the one standing there, turning the crank.

The toy torture machines are by Jon Haddock, an artist based in Tempe, Arizona. As a group, he calls them Automata, after the handcrafted mechanical toys children entertained themselves with in "simpler" times. But the title of his show, at Howard House through July 19, also invokes the way rote behavior can lead to amoral mindlessness. Haddock's uncomplicated mechanisms are ungodly, implying a world in which fixed systems produce expected results—except insofar as you, yourself, are the one who sets it all in motion. The critique inherent in these sculptures is sweeping: Every person is at once alone with the structure and complicit with it, hands on the wheel. In the most upsetting of Haddock's sculptures, you turn the crank and a prone U.S. soldier with his pants down fucks the empty air—you get to imagine the woman, her position, her words, her face—next to a tall, menacing-looking closed door, while another soldier plays voyeur-slash-lookout.

Nothing remotely like rape or torture happened at the Central Library on June 28, but the art event Task was an equally in-depth experiment in giving orders, giving permission, and seeing what a group can accomplish—and get away with—in contrast to what an individual can and will do.

Task is a weird sort of artwork, the kind that looks like nothing more than a game, and the kind whose failure or success is particularly hard to determine. As a critic, I am always asking myself about a piece of art or an exhibition, did it work? But Task was not made for me, or any single audience member. It is an artwork that only its participants, only collectively, know fully.

In Seattle, it involved 35 volunteers selected from a pool of more than 100 applicants by the Brooklyn-based artist Oliver Herring. (His criterion was diversity; the applicants were asked their age, their occupation, and why they wanted to participate.) At 10:00 a.m. on June 28, they met at the downtown library, where two main stages were set up for them, with a path marked out on the floor between the stages. To start, Herring handed out 35 tasks he'd written—a task can range from "start a revolution" to "build a fort," one for each participant. At that point, Herring sat back and watched. When a task was finished, the participant wrote a new one, put it in a box, and took another task from the box. This continued for seven and a half hours: a full working day. Seven hundred and nine tasks were done while the business of the library continued. (See the full list of tasks.)

Some of the tasks were barely adult versions of the occupations of children. "Throw a beach party"? No, thanks. "Take a nap." The turn toward childlike behavior (which I found oppressive) has been the most common feature of Task in all four of its incarnations before this since 2002, in London, Paris, Florida, and Washington, D.C., Herring said.

But beyond that universal, each installment of Task reflects the character of the city it's made in, since the participants write the tasks. So what do three-dozen Seattleites do when they can do anything? Herring, who has followed every performance of Task closely, is the only person who can answer this question in a comparative way. Paris was poetic, he said; the D.C. version was full of war, religion, and destruction (it had such an edge that Herring and an organizing curator both reported relief that no one died); Lake Worth, Florida (about an hour north of Miami), was political and, for whatever reason, preoccupied with clothing. Herring described Seattle's Task as sophisticated. No permanent structures or objects were created, or if they were, they were shortly destroyed (maybe participants already had their architecture jones satisfied by occupying Rem Koolhaas's overwhelming, steel-and-glass library design). There was a carnival and a birthday party, but generally, the flow of events didn't move toward recognizable climactic moments. Religion was pretty much invisible; so were overt politics. The number of tasks was unprecedented—Seattleites are workhorses when it comes to being creative.

But the real work of Task is not in describing a city. It's in determining what people are capable of when they are set in a group and given creative license. The answer is almost everything: being mundane, poignant, kind, cruel, dismissive, submissive. A wide range of human behavior was apparent, in the way the Task performers related to each other and the walk-by audience they by turns cajoled and excluded. But at the question-and-answer period afterward, the subject came up—as Herring said it always does—of why there wasn't more confrontation, more negativity, more anarchy. This question visibly irritated Herring, but it had occurred to me, too.

One participant, a young guy, argued that, bored with the nicey-niceness of it all, he started writing edgy tasks, trying to "get people to do things they didn't want to do." One was "make out with another participant." He seemed insufficiently undone when it was revealed that when another participant picked that task out of the box and coincidentally invited him to make out, he refused, citing loyalty to his partner at home. Intriguingly, his original question was answered in part when another participant revealed that a team of de facto regulators formed around the box, throwing out tasks they came across that they deemed inappropriate.

But basically, nothing shocking happened during Task, which is not to say there were not tears in the fabric of the temporary society. I saw the most pernicious one when it began: Someone put in a chain-letter task. It spread like an illness, and I couldn't believe it when I saw participants going along with it. They were supposed to follow the tasks, sure, but there was nothing saying they had to do one that was both dumb and endless. Finally, it was phased out with a combination of outright defiance and creative rule-bending. It seemed a good lesson in how to reach in and rearrange the figures rather than just continuing to turn the crank.

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