Participating in Live Art

Drawing on my recent experiences at the Tate Tanks and with Tino Sehgal’s These Associations, my most recent advice article for We Are Can was all about how to participate in Live Art. Mostly riffing on moments of awkwardness, I feel like I only just scratched the surface.

The article is partly the product of my own attempts to think through my experiences of live art over the past few months. It all began with Jeremy Deller’s Sacrilege a few months ago and this post, and now you can read my very loose ‘advice’ here too.

This summer the vast Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern and the newly converted Tanks have played host to live and participatory art.

When something makes it to the Tate Modern, it is clear that it has already been institutionalised, accredited and approved.  So if you are still baffled by the momentary and ephemeral nature of performance, participatory or live art, it’s probably time to get with the arts council funded programme.

Live art can be painfully awkward and a little baffling at times, especially when we are used to the quiet reverence of standing before a painting in a brilliant white gallery. Here are some tips I happen to have learnt from experience.

1. Make an effort

It took three visits to Tino Sehgal’s These Associations before anybody spoke to me. I didn’t quite do things right, I was a little nervous and a little hesitant at first. I wanted the performers to approach me but I’m sure that my nervousness shone like an aura of warning.

The work doesn’t quite function without these intimate associations. The participants are immediately obvious as ‘participants’; they are all wearing trainers so that they can sensibly run the stretch of the Turbine Hall, they gesticulate wildly (they have been taught how to communicate) and of course they are usually performing their automaton-style actions in unison.

The whole thing is curious, and at times unnerving (particularly when they all chant ‘Electric’ and the lights flicker on and off throughout the hall), but if the audience haven’t activated the work by speaking with one of the participants it drifts remote from us as an ‘experience’.

2. Be confident

I turned up to the Tanks in week 7 to find Haegue Yang’s Dress Vehicles limply rattling about the industrial cave pushed by some nervous invigilators, it was just embarrassing. Had they danced in those performance sculptures with confidence, the whole work would have come alive.

Creating a participatory art work is a little like lesson planning for a teacher, you have to be aware that no matter how exciting it all seems to you there is always the possibility that it will go down like a damp squib with your audience and have to be re-thought. So be kind to the absent artist, this is not the time to be shy or awkward, make sure you get involved.

3. Remember to forget, forget to remember

What an artist is often looking for in setting up a participatory art work is to challenge the socially instinctual reactions of the audience. If the artist can play his/her audience and catch them unawares, then the results are all the more revelatory. It’s as important to forget that you are being manipulated and let the work take control, as it is to occasionally remember to be on your guard and question the expectations and models of behaviour laid out by the artist.

Tania Bruguera’s Tank takeover ‘Immigrant Movement International’ was the perfect example of the artist playing a little at being God.

I arrived and proceeded to queue for 45 minutes for an unknown and unexplained ‘experience’. My submissive acceptance was gradually challenged as I and those in the queue around me, became more and more agitated. Tate invigilators were selecting people from the queue and allowing them to go straight into the room, skipping the lie detector test, and skipping us.  If anybody refused this preferential treatment they were granted the privilege of selecting another member of the queue to take their place.

My reaction was to take a book out of my bag and obediently wait my turn. When I was eventually granted entry the room was empty except for a workman cutting the words ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ into steel. I immediately knew that the work had been entirely about my experience of the queue and how I had responded.

4. Be Individual

Tracey Moberly’s Tweet Me Up was the most exciting Tanks takeover; by featuring London subcultures, Moberly got the work, photographs, and protests of many individuals up on the walls of the Tate Modern. On one wall the live tweets of artists, participants and the audience were also projected.

There was a pulsing current of excitement and an entirely new crowd gathering in the underbelly of the Tate to witness their work being institutionalised. Moberly had remembered that participatory art is about people just as much as it is about psychologies.

While so many of my examples so far seem to have been about behaving like socially and psychologically programmed sheep, the reality is that every participant experiences these works on a subtly different level.  During These Associations you might hear one of 200 personal stories and if all goes to plan this intimate revelation will feel more like a natural conversation than a forced confession.  That exchange will be utterly unique.

Participatory art is a little like those children’s books where you get to decide what happens next (I used to read the Goosebumps series); there is some kind of vague plot laid out for you but make a shift in your decision and things could spiral into an entirely new direction.  You can decide to be the hero who bravely opens the door to the haunted mansion or the coward who turns away at the last moment. Either way you can be as much of a master of the experience as the art work, so enjoy the power for once.



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