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Broken Engagement

20 November 2013

I’m sat on the floor in the dark, in a room about the size of a football pitch. Hanging from the ceiling, 16 marquee lights of varying shapes and sizes twitch and flick on and off accompanied only by the minimalist soundscape of their own noises. This is Marquee, an installation piece in Philippe Parreno’s recently-opened exhibition in Paris’ vast Palais de Tokyo.

I itch to do something, anything to break the glass in front of this emergency window. I want to start clapping, or singing, or declaiming lines of Shakespeare – I feel a kind of violence wrap itself around my shoulders. Why are we all just sitting here looking? I need to do something, and yet the knowledge that such acts of engagement are uncalled for means that eventually I gather my things and wander off to the next room.

Variations of the word ‘engage’ appear frequently in writing on installation art – it’s a genre eager to be perceived as a two-way conversation between art and art-goer. Equally, there seems to be an underlying assumption that it is inherently more engaging, even more challenging, than the traditional gallery experience.

And yet, so little significant interaction with installation art exists in the contemporary art world. The ‘do not touch’ signs may be stowed away, but there’s something about the form that often engenders a surprisingly passive experience. Installation art can leave little room for the viewer to develop their own response, because the script has already been written. Some become almost more oppressive experiences than the simpler act of considering a painting on a wall.

Though nice to look at, Parreno’s marquee-light installation left little space for the viewer to genuinely engage. Other recent works further illustrate the problems. In Tino Seghal’s These Associations, for example, groups of volunteers sang, walked, and talked – seemingly at random, sometimes in unison – in the vast space of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. Visitors appeared delighted. And yet, despite the huge space, there wasn’t room for genuine interaction. Though performers spoke to you, one couldn’t shake the sense that talking back was an utterly unwelcome act of ‘engagement’.

Likewise, Theaster Gates’ Soul Manufacturing Corporation, which appeared in the Whitechapel Gallery’s recent ‘The Spirit of Utopia’ exhibition, had its problems. A ceramics workshop had been set up on the ground floor of the gallery as a space to teach people how to make pots and bricks and other useful things. But the training wasn’t available to just anyone. It was only for artist volunteers who had been selected in advance. Exhibition visitors could ask questions, which were politely and helpfully answered, but again, the lines of division were clearly drawn. Visitors, the installation said, this is not for you.

But perhaps the most interesting thing, returning to the stage/script metaphor, is that even when true license is provided, visitors seem not to know how to act. Take the Elmgreen & Dragset installation, ‘Tomorrow’, at the Victoria and Albert Museum. More interesting than the installation itself is the fact that the books can be taken off shelves and read and sofas can be lounged upon. And yet, at least when I was there, visitors tiptoed around – barely breathing, let alone touching, as if every object were a priceless antiquity.

We’ve been so well trained to think that we aren’t allowed to touch anything in a museum context, that intelligent adults with well-developed critical faculties turn into simpering idiots who won’t do anything without first asking permission, even when it’s already been granted.