Arts: The meaning of life

Adam Dant, artist and curator of the Institute of Coincidence, offers us some ideas.
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The Independent Culture
Adam Dant is much more normal than I expected, but then I was ready for almost anything. He is, after all, an "artist on the street" who has created an alternative universe populated by a man named Donald Parsnips, who has put out a (real) daily newspaper since 1995. Now he (and Donald) have created the Institute of Coincidence at the Hayward Gallery, which is all about "the interconnectedness of everything in the universe".

But in other ways Adam Dant is not surreal at all. I meet him the day after his stag night. Memories are hazy as to the events themselves but certainly there was a lap-dancing club, and then everyone got stuck in a canal tunnel. "It was disgusting. Rats were everywhere! And bats!" he says, whacking the air with his hands.

We are sitting on the ground floor of his terraced home in Shoreditch in east London. He is short, with a quiff. The room is tiny. The door is left open, so we have to shout over the traffic. "It's a bus route," shouts Adam, as if this were wonderful news. On the windowsill there is a bunch of yellow freesias and a lot of twittering from two parakeets who clearly adore each other. Before long we are joined by Adam's fiancee, Melissa Brady, who is Texan.

Sometimes this room is called The Gallerette, and there are shows here. The last one featured illuminated matchbox houses. But Adam Dant says it has to be a workroom at the moment because he is so busy. He has shows in Lyons and New York. Then there is the Institute of Coincidence, of course. And there is the Daily Journal, which takes 10-45 minutes to create every weekday. Then he photocopies it 50 to 100 times, folds it and hands it out to passers-by. Some people may call him a conceptual artist, but he prefers "17th-century pamphleteer".

The Journal is distributed wherever Adam Dant, artist, is appearing. So there are Donald Parsnips newsstands in Lyons, New York and, now, at the Institute of Coincidence. Distribution is a bit dicey at the moment because Adam Dant is in Texas for the wedding. Every day he has to fax the journal to France, New York and London. He says Donald is pretty versatile. He was born, fully formed and wearing a bizarre Amish-type hat, in Paris in 1991 and so is a natural French speaker. The Journal has appeared in French, Italian and, of course, English. So I ask the obvious question.

Me: Is Donald becoming Texan?

Adam: Yes, but he's been a Texan before.

Melissa: He is not Texan!

Adam: No, certainly not.

Melissa: Even if you are born in Oklahoma and move to Texas in the first week of being alive, you are not really a Texan, you know. I don't think Donald is famous, anyway.

Adam: Well, he's been on the streets of New York and Paris.

Melissa: Did he tell you about the dream? We were in a bar and this guy was buying us drinks. We asked who it was and the bartender looked down the end and we saw the hat. It was Donald!

Well, that is a coincidence, which brings me to the Institute. It began as just a drawing in the Daily Journal. "So it was just a matter of taking that page and making it into something real. Of course, it can't exist. Not a place called the Institute of Coincidence!" Well, it does, and it is a great place to meet, if nothing else. There is something satisfying about even saying the words: "I'll see you at the Institute of Coincidence." And so I go to the place that cannot exist. There, I find the "research site" that tells me what to do. There are huge billboards with interlinked speech bubbles on them. Pens dangle on indestructible wires. The idea is that people will write their experiences into these spaces, and link them up in the process. There is a chance that the finished work will represent the interconnectedness of all things in the universe. There is also a chance that it will be full of swear words and sexual acts.

Or both, as it turns out. When I stop by there are five boxes filled with the word "sex" and lots more less exciting drivel. But I like "Don't put Toblerone in the washing machine". One box is filled with a rather lyrical examination of the tides and there is love, too, as in: "I just had the best plate of fish and chips ever with the best man in the world. Tomorrow it could all be different but today could last for ever." There is also a weird discussion of suicide and lampshades, and an exultant "Whoopee!! I've just got my passport and I'm off to Paris."

So does Adam Dant believe in coincidence? He will not answer this question. Instead he talks about the way people use the idea of coincidence to make sense of their own lives. "It's the way people fashion an understanding of their lives. They exclude some things and take on others. They are building up a script, a narrative, of their existence in their heads," he says. People are always going on about destiny and the grand plan. In fact, he says, it could be just a lot of interconnected boxes.

I say that it would be nice if he would connect a few boxes for me so I could get a grip on his film script. He looks startled, and becomes businesslike. He is 31. His father, who has recently died, was a heating engineer. His mother was a secretary. He grew up in the Fens and all he ever wanted to be was an artist. He studied graphic design at Liverpool School of Art and fell in love with print-making while studying at university in Baroda, India. He got an MA in print-making at the Royal College of Art.

He likes art that becomes part of a city - like the Daily Journal - and he likes words, too. He is excited, for instance, by the idea of presenting news stories in rhyme. Evidently this has been done occasionally and he thinks it is fantastic. "It's, like, irrefutable if it's in rhyme. You cannot change the facts!" He shows me a dictionary he has had printed, with 1,000 French words that he made up, complete with meanings. Then, by a variety of means, he and others attempted to infiltrate them into the language itself. Interesting but not exactly lucrative. He says that he never planned to be rich, and sells enough drawings to make a living.

The interview ends with a tune. This is one of 1,000 that he has written and sung as part of the Donald Parsnips exhibit at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Lyons. Each is unique, and can be purchased for 50 francs. He plays me one. It is called "A Delight in Torture" and in it he really does sound like a tortured troubadour. It's about how children torture things in gardens, punishing snails, standing on ants and cutting up worms. It ends: "Children who delight in torture usually grow up the same, except when they are adults they direct their frustration at you and I from a government office."

I now ask the question that must be asked.

Me: Do people think you're mad?

Adam: No. Not clinically mad. It's just my take on things. It's just my own expression. That's not mad, is it?

Me: I don't think so.

Adam: I think it's just easy to say, this is mad. It's just an expression. The pub round the corner is opening up again and there is a sign in the window that says: `We are looking for bar staff. Must be mad!' But what kind of mad do they mean?

The Institute of Coincidence is outside the Hayward Gallery, South Bank Centre, London SE1 until 19 July. The Institute can also be found at www.hayward- gallery.