TANKS BUT NO THANKS

26 Oct

It may surprise some of you to learn that I don’t go out looking for things to annoy me. Since I actually work in the arts and a lot of both my employment and (frankly, sadly) my socialising takes place in galleries and arts organisations, some of the bad work I see is all up in my face whether I actively seek it or not. I would still prefer to like things than not like things. As somebody who works in performance and video I’m particularly invested and interested in– and therefore conflicted about– Tate Modern’s Tanks, which opened a few months ago to provide spaces more suitable than the existing galleries for the presentation of live, ephemeral, performance and interactive art. It took me a while, but I finally got there just before their first programme of work comes to an end, along with Tino Seghal’s long-form live work in the Turbine Hall.

The Tanks are post-industrial, almost science fictional spaces. I wish any architect had recently designed a new, built-from-scratch gallery space in Britain that was anywhere near this inspiring, unique and full of character. The immediate unflattering comparison I’d make is to the dysfunctional Firstsite in Colchester, with its meagre selection of badly planned, sterile, poky spaces that in fact seem inimical to the showing of any and all forms of art, despite it being a purpose built new art gallery. Certainly I never saw anything at Firstsite yet that was flattered by the space rather than having to battle its quirks.

Secondly, I like the fact that the upper echelons of certain parts of the art world are finally waking up to what artists are doing and what they’re interested in now. Thanks for noticing that some of the most interesting, relevant artists around at the moment and in the recent past are once again not (or not just) working with flat objects you can sell and/or nail to a wall.

Having said all that, and also bearing in mind some of the incredibly vivid and arresting antecedents or trends in live art that even Tate themselves cite as vital, it can only be the most massive disappointment that the work on show at the Tanks is so uniformly mediocre, uninspiring, unadventurous, unchallenging, shallow and just plain bloody boring. It’s not even a case of “round up the usual suspects”, more like “who the hell are these people and who thought this stuff gave a good first impression to a general visitor who doesn’t know much about live, video and interactive art?” Live art at its best can be transformative and exciting, and there’s absolutely no shortage of intelligent, challenging artists working in that genre. Hopefully the Tanks might show some of them soon instead of the current crop of utter bores.

I feel the same way about Tino Seghal’s long-term installation of live people in the Turbine Hall. If you’ve somehow managed to avoid the hype for it, this involves a fairly large team of people interacting with each other and with the public in various ways, which may include individually telling stories, playing chasing games, or singing together. On one hand it’s a commendable achievement by Seghal to make something like this work conceptually and logistically, and to have it play well with the general public. Tate deserve a lot of credit for the punt they took on staging anything like it in their flagship space for the same money and length of time as– for example– Tacita Dean’s tedious, pretentious screensaver.

On the other hand, it just isn’t very good work. It smacks of the patronising artist-as-underpaid-social-worker, do-a-workshop-with-the-community hackwork that artists are often compelled to carry out as a kind of Faustian bargain in order to get around to actually making art, art being– duh– the primary way in which an artist should really communicate with the public, rather than through some phony sop to empowerment and participation. Truly great socially engaged art has been practised and is practised by some artists, but the type of work I mentioned at the top of this paragraph is not genuinely socially engaged, not least because it doesn’t change anything, it doesn’t change the participants, it doesn’t make them look at anything in their lives in a different way.  All it does is divert or entertain. Games or play can theoretically be vehicles for change or satire or comment, but there’s nothing inherently challenging, subversive or valuable about flash mobs– and that’s what Seghal’s work is– beyond their entertainment value. The proof of this is the avid way in which the advertising industry swallowed the flash mob concept whole and immediately spat it back out to sell things. To paraphrase a different cliché, if flashmobs really changed anything or anyone they’d be made illegal. A flashmob that isn’t just entertainment is a protest, a riot, or civil disobedience.

I know I’m probably not part of the general public at whom the Turbine Hall programme is aimed, but I spent some time with Seghal’s flashmobs and all I could think of were my old acting classes and theatre warmups. Again, 99.9% of people haven’t been in that world. It’s likely that nobody in a position of influence at the Tate has been at or worked at a school within the past 20 years, so I can well imagine how they might find this kind of stuff fresh. But to me it was just like a big, sloppy drama workshop. In a way it’s a bit worrying that the commissioners of this work want to do live art but are so easily blinded by Seghal flinging exercises from 1980s improv manuals at them.

Now, let’s all lie on the floor with our heads together and hum to synchronise our diaphragms, mkay?

PS: One of the Seghal storytellers thought about targeting me, got a bit closer, then visibly thought shit, no and did an evasive manoeuvre. I must have looked scary. I momentarily considered chasing him and making him tell me story. Coward.

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