Agnes Bolt is smelling a little ripe. It’s hard not to notice the ripeness once you start crawling through the blue tube that gets you into the small plexiglass installation—sort of like a human-sized hamster cage, without the running wheel— in the middle of Philippa Hughes’ living room in her apartment just off U Street NW. This installation has been Bolt’s abode since May 8.
Once you get into the plexiglass installation—the “bubble,” it’s being called—and Agnes Bolt, on the floor cross-legged, in a tight black unitard, lifts her head, it’s also hard not to notice that she is a man with a big beard and mustache, saying hello in a man’s voice.
Is Agnes Bolt male or female?
“Genderless,” Bolt says. From now on we’re going with she, because that’s what Hughes says, and that’s what the installation’s marketing materials say. And “ze” has never really caught on.
What does Bolt have in the bubble? (Which is very warm, it’s worth mentioning; there’s not a lot of air circulating in there. See ripeness.) There’s a chair, a surfboard, a little green plant, a small fog machine, a papier mache head that is supposed to resemble Hughes, a water bottle, some books—Everybody Poops, and The Worth Of Art: Pricing The Priceless.
“If you read it as a series, it’s riveting,” Bolt says. “Everybody poops the worth of art.”
Speaking of: Where, and how, does she go to the bathroom? She doesn’t, she says; just uses the blue tube.
Inside the very warm plexiglass installation there’s also an iPhone that a visitor—another artist, Bolt says—left behind. Bolt says she doesn’t use the iPhone. Then she makes a call on it.
Hughes says this project got off to a rocky start. She lives alone, normally, and when Bolt turned up at her apartment, Hughes realized that she doesn’t know this person. While she trusted her not to be a murderer, Hughes says, giggling a little bit, she still wasn’t quite comfortable having this stranger around all the time. Especially since their relationship was contractually obligated to have some awkwardness built into it. Hughes has to feed Bolt twice a day; any non-art communication must be written down on a piece of paper, which is blown through a tube into or out of the installation; Hughes has to give Bolt a kiss on the cheek every morning—and that morning, Bolt turned her head and tried to get some mouth.
“Yes, it is part of the point to provoke or whatever,” Hughes says. “I feel like it’s brought out the worst in me and I don’t feel like myself. Just her mere presence was upsetting me of course. There’s a giant bubble taking up most of my apartment. You know, it’s been weird. We agreed that we weren’t going to over-analyze it.
“But honestly, today, all right, I’m embracing and I’m having fun with it. I know this is going to sound weird and fucked up but I almost wish this were lasting longer because I’m just now getting into the groove of it and now I feel like we could really have some fun with it.”
Is this experience as strange for Bolt as it is for Hughes? Bolt says she likes being collected by Hughes. After all, the installation is not so much smaller than a New York apartment, and she’s been enjoying the granola Hughes serves for the morning meal.
Does Bolt have roommates in Pittsburgh, I ask? Is that why it’s not so jarring for her to live with Hughes during this project, while Hughes—who usually lives alone—is finding it to be stranger?
“I don’t know with whom I live with in Pittsburgh, and I don’t know where I live,” Bolt says. “Sorry. I don’t mean to be cryptic.”
“Get out of there fast,” Hughes says. “I think it’s the air situation.”
I ask Bolt for ID. She shows me a hand-scrawled name tag. I ask for a driver’s license. She says she doesn’t have one.
“I am Agnes Bolt. But I am Agnes Bolt in this space. So my identity changes from what it was… but I’m Agnes Bolt. I’ve been collected. I’m here in this space,” says Bolt. “I am Philippa Hughes’ art. I have value, per the market. I decrease in value as per the art market. And I could be left at a thrift store after her estate is sold, and no one can see that Agnes Bolt has an aftermarket.”
Hughes is now ordering pizza, we can hear from inside the installation. Something with anchovies.
“It’s probably for someone else, right?” says Bolt. “I do get two meals a day, but I got to stretch it. I’m a big guy.”
Hughes gets off the phone with the pizza place and says that I should come out of the installation (where Bolt’s ripeness is hardly even noticeable anymore; you can get really used to anything) and come with her to an appointment. We walk down to U Street, and go into an upstairs hole-in-the-wall nail salon. Sitting in one of the pedicure chairs, with her feet in a container of sudsy water, is a woman in a white leotard, with towels taped to her knees.
“I’m Agnes Bolt,” she says.
Of course! The towels: They have appeared on the blog Hughes is keeping on this project. They protect Bolt’s knees, as she crawls around in the blue tubes. The lack of towels on the other Bolt’s knees should have been the clear giveaway that he is not the real Bolt. That, that he was a man.
Hughes is picking out nail polish; she chooses green. This Bolt, who is tiny and beardless, and wears red lipstick, is getting her toenails painted red. Hughes and Bolt are going to a party together later. This Bolt doesn’t smell bad. This Bolt cops to using the bathroom and showering, when Hughes leaves the apartment. She also knows where she lives in Pittsburgh, and knows she has a roommate, plus a boyfriend who comes to visit from New York a lot. She says the other Bolt, the one back in the bubble, is another artist, who decided to stand in for her today. (The project is partly about identity, remember?)
Real Bolt explains that she got interested in this project from “thinking about my own status as an artist in relation to the art economy. I just wanted to play on those dynamics a little bit. So I thought this would be a fun and interesting way to do so and create kind of like an obstructive, uncomfortable or awkward situations for myself to be in an art collector’s home.”
Her own art isn’t very collectable, usually. She does interactive projects, like Play Me Like A Video Game, where she invites people to tell her where to travel for a month. You can get grants for this sort of thing, but no one can buy it, really.
With this project, though, it’s been interesting to be a collected object—but also to be able to make demands on the collector, who is usually outside her ambit. “It’s part of the bigger picture of perhaps having a market in artworks, you know, who is capitalizing on art?” Bolt says. “Is the artist the commodity, or is the person that’s buying the empowerer of that? What catalyzes production?”
Hughes, with green nails, says goodbye, and leaves the salon to go home. She’s paid for the pedicures.
Bolt leaves this installation on Sunday. She says there are still open questions in this project. Like, what is the mindset of the collector? What does the collector want to know about her, as the artist, and as the object, and for that matter, as the house guest? She is planning to repeat the installation with two other collectors (they aren’t lined up yet; suggestions are welcome). Then she’s going to have an exhibit of some sort about the project, too, during which she will sell off some of the objects that have become affiliated with the installation (pity the iPhone owner). Maybe the questions will be answered by then. (Hughes hasn’t quite had enough of this, either; she has put out a call for applications for a Philippa artist in residency program. Bolt will help select the artist.)
But for now, nails polished, Bolt’s got to go back to Hughes’s apartment, to get back to the bubble, where she’ll relieve the stand-in Bolt, and “air out the space a little bit. I’m going to have to sleep in there, you know?”
Photo by Arin Greenwood