dance & aesthetics, mostly
I’ve always felt uncomfortable about interactive performance – you know, the kind of work where artists invite you to step out of the role of spectator and contribute something to their creation, be it your words, your actions, or whatever. I remember attending a ‘performance installation’ by William Forsythe called You Made Me a Monster at Sadlers Wells a couple of years ago. We, the small audience, were invited onto the stage and asked to construct sculptures using bits of paper shaped like skeletal parts, which the dancers would later ‘interpret’. I felt the sculptures we made had a fragile beauty about them, but the dancers responded to them with screams of horror, doubtless because this is what they had been instructed to do so beforehand by the choreographer. As the work unfolded it became clear that it concerned the passing away of Forsythe’s wife from cancer; in effect, we were being asked to participate, in highly regulated and predetermined ways, in the mourning of a person we did not know. I left feeling disorientated and confused.
I assumed that my dislike of interactive art stemmed from my generally shy and reserved nature, but an event at the University of Kent this afternoon gave me chance to sample various interactive works-in-progress, and reflect on the nature of interactive art in general. It seems that the current fashion for participatory and interactive art, most prominent in experimental theatre and installation art but beginning to influence a wide range of art forms, began with the rather bizarre notion that audience spectatorship (the act of being present in a space and simply looking at and/or listening to a performance or object) is somehow a state of extreme passivity, lacking in any kind of mental, critical or emotional engagement. Historically, artists have tried to take advantage of this perceived passivity and use art to persuade audiences of the validity of particular political, religious or moral ideas. The resolute failure of such didactic art to effectively control what people think, however, demonstrates the freedom of the individual spectator in deciding for themselves how to account for a particular artwork in the context of their own experience and worldview.
It is this freedom, perhaps, that interactive art inadvertently manages to trample on by constructing power relationships that are almost always unbalanced: the artist requires either a level of trust, obedience and honesty from the audience that will not be reciprocated, or, as in the case of the Forsythe work, the reciprocation of feelings or beliefs that are not shared. In both cases interactive art appears to replace one arguably unequal power relationship (in which the artist is granted the power to perform without interruption or direct questioning, regardless of how the audience respond once the show is over) with a far less equal one (whereby the artist seeks to induce from the audience specific determined acts, or actions within a predetermined range). The social situation created by the work makes it hard to disobey the artist’s instructions, or respond in unsanctioned ways.
So when this afternoon I was content, in a one-to-one ‘conversation’ piece, to simply sit in silence with a performer and grab some respite from the constant pressure to interact, the performer waited patiently for a short while, then whispered, “You can leave now”. I left, and I won’t be back in a hurry.