To what extent can a contrived transgression of convention address its own contrivance?, asks Robbie Ellen of Tino Seghal’s performance work These Associations
A group of 30 to 100 people run together in the Turbine Hall. They sing, they move through it in frantic and organised patterns. They swarm together, they sit dotted through the hall, they walk and hum. These simple acts are immediately reminiscent. We might all know what they remind us of: flash mobs, army drills, Christian hymn and prayer, hackneyed zombies, demonstrators running through Central London, employees going through the motions of a consultant’s bonding exercise, etc. From out of this group, an individual participant can break off and address visitors. From a collective silence and integration, they begin to tell a story of an experience they have had. Without introducing themselves or beginning with the conventional tools that stabilize conversation between strangers they talk of a sense of belonging or arrival, satisfaction or dissatisfaction with themselves, for as long as their addressee holds this topic with them, and leave that visitor if they stray from it, or when their story has been told. That is a basic, working description of Tino Seghal’s These Associations, enough I hope to give those who didn’t see it a sense of what was going on.
It is the experience of confrontation and the constraints of its conversations that have been what most current reviews of this piece have focused on; and from those experiences an evaluative position is put forward, so that the work is defensible for ‘being about’ intimacy and community (this work is well considered), or it is rejected for its contrived transgression of the general silence between strangers (this work is pretentious).1 The affront of this piece is a departure – in Seghal’s work – from a more organised address, in the sense that 2007’s This Situation required its participants to memorize 100 quotations from philosophical and economic texts in order to initiate a conversation with visitors, who were frequently asked what they thought about the line. The affront in this most recent work, in immediate encounter, is a result both of the participants circling visitors, and then their stepping out of these movements to talk to those spectators, who had been invited to expect to remain the passive spectators of this group. The organisation of this confrontation is, to me, importantly part of an attempt to avoid more aggressive and uncompromising forms of social intervention. This is less in relation to Seghal’s previous work, and more as a consequence of making a work whose elements resemble kinds of public intervention and direct address. Those have their histories in and outside of a ‘live’ art context.
Image: Tino Seghal, These Associations, Tate Modern, London, 2012
As contemporary examples, some obvious candidates would be, ‘charity muggers’ being paid a rubbish wage to fix a smile and tell you that a charitable redistribution of money will end poverty; evangelical Christians trying to convince sinners to love Jesus; apocalyptic preachers at Speakers Corner, castigating everyone and anyone with the responsibility for the state of the planet, etc. Within artistic traditions or non-traditions of interactive or live work, even if historical examples do not spring as easily to mind in the many individuals who visit the Turbine Hall, I do think – or, I put this out there – that there is an atmosphere of confrontation and implication for many people around those interactive art forms. I mean by this that there is now, for visitors to the Tate, a general sense that an interactive work has an antagonistic relation to their ‘passivity’ as audience or spectators; and that this antagonistic relation very often carries with it implications about broader senses of their passivity. This can be expressed, consciously or not, in many ways. In its most politically sharp caricature, all audiences are equally accused of their apathy and social negligence. In its least exuberant and political expression – at its most tiny – the performers in an interactive work can give the faintest hint that those entering into it as visitors are comparatively inhibited, reserved (basically, squares). This feeling can be projected (an audience member imagines that the performer thinks they are more inhibited than themselves) or an accurately sensed reaction (there is just a glint of self-satisfaction in the eye of the performer who enjoys that this work makes him feel more out there than the audience). From directly accusatory to faintly condescending, those interventionist attempts largely fail to incite and alter audiences as they wish to, often because of a common element of superiority diffusely present in them.2 It is this atmosphere, and now habitually general reaction to disruptive and interventionist art, that just must be in the background of These Associations, because the work courts, and then underwhelms, that expectation to be challenged for one’s passivity in a gallery environment that continues to solicit passive identity from its visitors.
In circling and humming around visitors (for instance), the group move together and associate in ways exotic to visitors, as conventional physical distance is trespassed. When a participant breaks off from this homogeneous group and moves to confront a visitor, I think it likely that there is an expectation that this affront will be accentuated in the interaction – that it will intensify the division between group and visitor. Instead this expectation is undercut through the surprise and requisite quick re-orientation of the visitor, of hearing a stranger speak frankly, and carefully, about a very private and emotionally charged experience. However surprising that is, it is unlikely to be received as aggressive. It may or may not be a relief – may or may not have cultivated affront in order to dispel it more fully – but it has been a movement that requires a re-adjustment on the part of the visitor, and new conceptions of how to act and react, and has tried to avoid aggression, implications and light righteousness through this sudden, involving, personal story.
The argument of this article is that in wanting to organise some socially interfering work that takes group identity and belonging as its subject, and in trying to circumvent the now customary forms of intervention and address in and outside of interactive art, a work has been made which resembles – whilst not being reducible to – existing social identities and contracts particular to this capitalist culture. To intervene and ‘gift’ these stories to visitors is an attempt to address and mend the real fractures, conflict, pain, anger and voicelessness of an increasingly pointless and badly administered society. The work dramatises social inequity, the diremption of the identity of ‘consumer’ and ‘waged worker’ in an individual, and some of the current pressures and taboos of social interaction about these.
I want to further this argument by writing about the engineering of these anecdotes and encounters. Some of the questions that have guided this article are, what happens to a participant and the experiences they recount? And what happens to a visitor because of their organisation by this work; how does the control of their interaction affect who they can be to each other? I want to offer an attempt to answer these questions that is not based in particular encounters between participants and visitors. This might seem a strange, counter-productive decision. I have chosen to do so to find a way of considering what this work asks participants and visitors to be, what it must want to make the structure of their interaction. So it might well be the case that an actual encounter had in this piece was quite different from my reading, but I don’t think this necessarily invalidates my argument, as I am trying to speak generally, and keep close to what the piece tried to be, rather than all the myriad, inaccessible manifestations between people. This means too that I won’t say much about the choreographed movements or songs, nor about the larger historical context which undoubtedly influenced this piece – a major power plant now the most visited art gallery in Europe; the London Olympics; the Unilever Series.
The experiences that visitors are told about are answers to questions asked by Seghal and his co-organizers: when have you felt a sense of belonging or arrival or a sense of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with yourself? These answers must be anecdotes about a particular moment or event – participants must set the scene, include local detail and description – they must be about what happened to the individual and how they felt. They must not be too much that individual’s own analysis of their experiences, nor be accounts solely of ways in which they are or have been thinking that lack reference to a concrete occasion; they must not be only about what they thought. Analysis may follow from an isolated story that answers one of those questions, but the order and emphasis that I have suggested is a fair one, implicit in those instructions, which has quite plainly the effect of minimizing the critical capacity of the participants. This may or may not be felt by every participant, but it is an engineered shrinking of their imaginative remit, always ready to be sensed as a limit in the attempt to articulate their views. So the concepts are generating forces in the work, but co-ordinated in such a way that participants are implicitly invited to assent to them.
Image: Tino Seghal, These Associations, Tate Modern, London, 2012
As the participant begins to talk to strangers, they are instructed to exclude greeting, introduction, gestural or conversational hedging. Both this instruction and the emphasis upon offering an anecdote rather than, for example, an equivalent invite to talk about belonging more generally, contribute to the underwhelming of the group’s lightly aggressive confrontation, but my question is not how might they affect the participant, which cannot be answered broadly, but, what position does this put the participant in? Removing these conventional tools of social interaction is to remove the aids and social defences through which interaction can be assessed and controlled by the person risking their personal story. Dispossessed of those social defences that help to give insight about the person one is meeting for the first time so that experience can be shared with them without too much unwanted, unguarded exposure, participants can only present their own memories in an interaction they cannot control. I say ‘cannot control’ – of course much can be said with eye contact, with silence, with the body. It is more accurate to say, ‘are caused to find very hard to control’. Not all of these aids are removed, but the point is, some very significant ones are. From this we might be in a better position to detail what the surprise, on the part of the visitor, could be. From the lightly aggressive affront of a group of strangers, to the stark vulnerability of an individual stranger. The affect of this might be unease, or enjoyment, but structurally at least, it resembles – in the diremption of that personality from their own tools of power and defence – a position of service, where that resemblance is greatly intensified by the fact that in this diminished position, the participant is instructed to talk about the most formative and perhaps most emotionally demanding experiences from their life.
This position is demonstrated, anxiously, in one of the terms used by its organisers within the piece to clarify what this storytelling is. They are described in this piece as ‘gifts,’ but they are not gifts. Here, as elsewhere, the organisers struggle to create a terminology for the work that cannot bear to find keener articulation through the analysis of its social interaction in the existing context of an atomised, commodity producing society. Of course they are not gifts! Have you ever given a gift? I’ve never given a gift of something truly cathected and personally significant to a complete stranger with no foreknowledge of how that precious gift might be received. Whether it will be thrown back in my face, rubbished or ignored. Nor have I done that over and over again, unable to appropriately alter the manner of my giving in order to cope with this act. Gifts, and I venture this sort of hesitantly, are acts that work within an already existing set of expectations. You’d be pretty pompous to describe a conversation you start with someone on the tube as a ‘gift’ to them, but the piece does know that the participants are giving something; ‘gift’ is a neat way of avoiding the position and subjectivity these acts of giving make the participants into, which it believes can find its resource with reference to a spurious gift economy, when it is actually playing in a very real way at servitude.
The last thing I want to say about the organisation of the participants in this piece is that a consequence of the instructions explained so far is that their experiences become detached from the lived structures of the person telling them, and because of this they become a consumable nugget for the visitor. What are these structures? Why are they then consumable? By turning people who participate in this work into an accumulation of discrete experiences, the beliefs and world views that structure, process, interpret and direct their experiences are denied. What is left are a dissociated and neatly packaged set of anecdotes from that life. Now I can imagine that an immediate and a rational response to what I am saying is that in these anecdotes, those ideological belief structures are not dismantled and swept away tout court but are active and still at work in the choice of experiences described, the manner of their delivery, the ways in which they are still interpreted by the individual in telling them. This is surely true, but my point is not that these structuring aspects of a subject are entirely binned, but rather, by filtering experience into a rubric that turns out single story after single story, its interest surely must be to some extent in reducing the vital structures and organising beliefs of its participants. Isolated stories are its wheat, the temporally changing individual succeeding and failing to integrate those stories into their identity, are its chaff.
The stories are consumable for being dissociated from the total personality of the person telling it, so they don’t require effort or attenuation on the part of the visitor, but are instead offered to them outside of the reality of what would have been the reciprocal assessment and changing interplay between these two people. This dense and unpredictable living relation is disarmed, and so – as a result too of the prescribed content of the story through the concepts (as I talked about earlier) – are the anecdotes defused of too much opinion, so that they can be received or consumed by the visitor through a dampening of the potential conflicts, disagreements and difficulties which might otherwise result. I will pick up these thoughts at the end of this article when I think about another term the piece uses to understand these decisions: accessibility.
The focal and culminating part to play in this regulated social encounter is the visitor’s. Their actions and reactions to the address of the participant are where the tensions of the piece are brought fully out, which is only natural in a work so resolutely dedicated to ‘visitor (or customer) experience,’ (the brackets are for all us reductive, nasty cynics, skulking around in parenthesis). Many people addressed listened in silence to the anecdotes, or asked questions only in response to the stories they were told, but the more inquisitive and confused person visiting would want to ask why this person was telling them a story and what was going on. This happened very frequently, but it wasn’t simply to orientate themselves. In questions like, ‘are you an actor?’ or ‘are you paid to do this?’ there can be an impulse to re-organise the conversation such that the participant is given back possession of themselves in the interaction, through the thematic of work and wage labour.3 The visitor, and I think actually also the more caring visitor (of the participant) will want to ask not only those questions, but offer an opportunity to the person addressing them to talk about how they find doing this, what it is like for them, how they understand the effects upon their personal stories as now being the material for this ‘live art.’ But here is the most interesting and tense aspect of the piece: the more the visitor wants to offer the participant back the opinions, reactions to, and experiences of doing this work, the fullest ambit of their subjectivity and organising structures of their self, the more they want to treat this person like a subject – the more harm they will potentially cause them. Approaching a stranger and telling them about a real sense of belonging they have had in their lives, if met with questions about why they are doing that or what it is like for them to do this, has first of all to break that interaction off, but secondly, even though it may seem to be the more humane and generous reaction, by the structures of the piece, can really be hurtful, negligent of the very personal story they are trying to tell. By capitulating to the terms of the person telling the story and engaging with them solely about that, the structure and totality of the work has to be ignored, the two people play at private conversation and the mechanics that brought them together to talk – as well as what constrains the subject of the storyteller – remain silently present in their interaction.
Image: Tino Seghal, These Associations, Tate Modern, London, 2012
Again this is not a full account of the possible effects the interaction may have on the participant or the visitor, because I am not interested in whether a story leads on to a great conversation about belonging or a disagreement and argument, I am interested in how the dictates of the work’s structure can create contrary outcomes to the actions and intentions of the visitors. The more interested and vocal a visitor is about this art, about who and how this person addressing them is, the more their inquisitiveness is rejected and the person talking to them shunned. Equally, certain comparisons with other art forms do not explain and normalise this, they only avoid it. To say, well you don’t go over to a cello player in a concert and ask her about why she is doing that or what she thinks of the piece, or speak to a street dancer while they are performing, are false comparisons, not for the fact that we know how and how not to engage with those performers, but because the performance a visitor is involved with in this piece is a contrived conversation, in which there is an implicit invitation to speak frankly and openly as the participant is doing; because the performer is not performing a score or something written by a playwright or composer, they are talking candidly about their own most private and decisive experiences. But more importantly, these participants are not ‘like’ cello players in an orchestra, because they have been put in a position of vulnerability and in that position have to talk about their private feelings and memories. Cello players do not expose themselves in this conversationally stripped position; they do not generate cause for concern and the impulse for care in the same way. The piece does want to induce this confusion and create these risks, whether or not anyone in it or conceiving it thinks so.
And this is what I find interesting about it, in the briefest sketch, what it resembles and plays at being. A piece in which participants risk telling difficult and private stories to visitors who – in order not to upset them – are quickly prompted to induce pathos for this stranger who is confined to acting out a constant set of emotional anecdotes that are much more likely to provoke pathos than if the defences and structures of their subjecthood were intact. This is because the piece is set up so that engaging with them about the nature of their work, their wage, their own understanding and coping strategies during this piece would be to ignore the private story they offer. Isn’t this, and again I suggest this as a first sketch, a simplified and disparate dramatisation of the risks and hurts consequent of a capitalist society in the wake of a unionised work force, in the new bleak tide of precarious wage labour, in the bitter froth of work so demanding of personal identification, and in a culture so magnificently bent on pathos as the sole acceptable reaction to social injustice and private pain?
An era in which class consciousness has all but been extinguished, where there are fewer and fewer unions of related workers that have for themselves the social environment to talk with confidence, anger, direction not embarrassment about their wages and their conditions, is an era in which the stakes and risks of talking critically about our waged (often precarious) work with each other are particularly high. Those questions can seem unnecessary, rude, uncomfortable and even painful, with colleagues. In the piece, the vicissitude of the visitor’s concern into harm or offence for the participant, in asking about how they find this work effects their sense of self, echoes that culture of taboo and upset. In this way the resemblance is merely an indirect one. More an interesting coincidence that the focal point of the work mirrors this.
The work objectively splits the personal anecdotes from the organisation of the piece, either you act in accordance with the story or you don’t, and the encounter is broken off. The experience of the work for visitors as interactive can only be this set of strangers’ private stories (or the experience of rebuttal). It isn’t the fact of the split that I find strange, it is that the front and access to the work is the semblance of intimate conversation. It was just people talking about themselves. So there is no way to interact in the piece that addresses the artificiality of this intimacy. A work that pretends to deposit ‘real life experiences’ and conversations to its visitors, immaculately shuts off access to its own organisation and structure. This is the commodity form of customer service: an infinite and infinitely exchangeable front of personal warmth. Workers are not permitted to talk about the structures of their work or commands from management, but they are permitted (coerced) very strongly to play at being themselves. Companies create their self-image on their service front through the manipulation of their employees’ behaviour, artificial ‘informality’ (use of their first names). Just a lot of nice people who identify with and promote our brand, not really waged labour and structural private property at all. In this way the work shares a simple and unambiguous resemblance. But in this piece it isn’t just personal identification with their work, it is the most sensitive and often difficult experiences of their lives – reduced to nugget form – that the participants must offer of themselves. In this way it is a dramatically exaggerated resemblance. These resemblances are not entirely coherent, but bear relations to different aspects of the culture around forms of waged work; they are more the reflections in little shards of mirror, than anything more entirely representative. But to have constructed a work that pivots around whether or not a visitor decides to engage with it at the total expense of a reduced and exposed participant is kind of wonderfully illustrative of the imbalance of power in a culture that provokes and defends the identity and rights of the social type ‘consumer.’
I want to stress that I don’t think any of what I described is uncontrovertibly unacceptable, nor that the constraints of the piece, its resemblances and imbalance of power make simply a ‘bad’ and indefensible work. What I am trying to do is describe the implications of exactly those constraints and structures, in order to offer a description and set of terms by which I think the piece can be more adequately understood. To put down this attempt with one of those casual, generalising claims, for example that all live art is ‘artificial’ and puts constraints on its participants, is quite obviously true, but is a truism used to arrest the assessment of exactly what this particular artificiality is. I do think that this is a very weak work for what I believe it tries to do. For in wanting to positively intervene in the lives of those people who visited the Turbine Hall (and, dare I say it, the participants too), it ended up forcing into that social sphere a set of structures and conditions that were unknowingly borrowed from structures of work and consumption that directly contribute and bolster the social unease and atomisation that it wanted to address and counter. One short explanation for how this could be conceived of is what I suggest in the last bit of this article. So I don’t want to try and answer the question, why make a piece that worked in this way, but, what kind of thinking and concepts might have helped shape the actual structures of the piece?
Those in charge of These Associations often instructed the participants to make their anecdotes accessible. The effects of this instruction, to be accessible, upon the participants have been what I tried to detail. Being accessible meant: single event over analysis, stories centred around the self over too much uncontrollable opinion and politics, a socially diminished participant over one more capable of talking back. The use of it within the piece shared, with its use in the ‘arts’ more generally, two things: that its meaning was self-evident, as well as its value. Little was ever said about what inaccessible anecdotes would be, though it was implied that they would be those that were not relevant to visitors, that had references, information or knowledge that visitors might not have. This term can have within it a democratising impulse, it is no term to reject, but in These Associations, as elsewhere, it could be useful to clarify what it can do and how it can work.
Firstly its use generally implies an oppositional relation to ‘inaccessible’, ‘exclusionary’ or ‘alienating,’ where those three are pejorative and accessible is positive. In order for these concepts to have real purchase and valence those value judgements would need to be prised from them so that individuals are able to decide when accessibility can be of value and it can be retroactive, when alienating is inexcusable and when it is vital and good. As its application in this work bypassed this, what was generous and kind about it also had the effect of quelling the differences, antagonisms and peculiarities – dormant and awake – between those talking to each other. Accessible came to mean causing no offence. Sometimes however, offence, irreconcilable difference and unresolved disagreement are both productive and necessary features of conversation. But it is hard for accessible to encompass this idea, when the conception of a meretricious work in the Turbine Hall is based only on experience had that day. Accessibility is structured around an experience isolated in time, its temporal extent is an afternoon, and within that confine the work is expected to meet the demands of a definite and measurable effect. (Let’s not forget the Tate employees with a Kindle-like object suckered to their hands quizzing visitors leaving about their experience TODAY.) Conversations that could have gone badly, that didn’t end in agreement or pleasant, shared generalities would not have passed this test, but that would have been no indictment of the work. For such encounters might have persisted in those people’s lives, niggled them, continued to bring them back to the concerns at stake, and compelled them to work through what had happened. None of that is measurable by the exit.
To talk about the accessibility of These Associations in an artistic sense can only be indirect, as the anecdotes of that work were purposefully disconnected from the work as art, in the veto on talking about the piece and relating any anecdotes about contemporary art. What was made accessible in this work was the experience of individuals – those individuals themselves. Pushed to its limit, the common denominator of accessible is no one. Just as all that is advertised as progressive and refreshing about this work are the most comfortable and easy ways of avoiding the real social problems encountered by modern art – as if the answers to the authority of an artistic authorship are evaporated by making a very specious distribution of authority and authorship amongst ‘lay’ men and women – so too does this interactive art not do away with the real social problems of belonging and not belonging, but skirts around them. The individual model (or model individual) the participants were instructed to be was a generic type, wiped clean in anxious anticipation of any conflict, which disallows the real idiosyncrasies and particular strangeness of individuals as the basis upon which an encounter between them can form and grow.
If the piece did want to initiate conversations between strangers about belonging in each of their lives, it would have needed to brace itself for the potential effects of people able to speak as they needed to about the meaning of that term in their lives, and that some efforts to do so would be difficult, hard to understand, upsetting, offensive, provocative for others – not accessible in their sense – and not dominated by the time constraints of that visit, which calculates the success or failure of the work on whether or not a visitor had a nice time. It is possible to not immediately enjoy a work, but be able to value it for the reactions it caused you to have and the ways it has altered you. This is, however, outside the evaluative assessment form that surveys the experience of visitors to the Tate.
The anxious bookending – in this way – of choreography and intervening conversation between strangers benefits neither. The conversations are belittled and make a spectacle of attempts between strangers to try (and often fail) to work through the conflicts and contradictions between those lives, and the performance is reduced to a naive social work, administered confession and a tokenistic something shared. Rather than addressing belonging and alienation through sanitary, atomised anecdotes, an interactive work might resist filling the silence and latent, potential conflict between individuals by using the experiences of its participants to manufacture a sense of closeness between them and its audience. Of course the sharing of common experiences, generosity and kindness are the vital and living substance of care and solidarity with others, but here that is all which is permitted. That is one real reason why the intervention attempted is a spectacle: one aspect of a caring and generous sociality is pulled out of social life, cordoned off from ones that would try to address and not dismiss social conflict and resentment, and is placed in a visitor attraction where it is manufactured and simulated on repeat, again and again, with discrete anecdotes faintly echoing a service industry in which the platitudes of good feeling are constantly fed into the space between individuals.
The desire to work out in this tradition new forms that are less directly confrontational, finds itself resembling contemporary forms of precarious and emotionally demanding waged work, and submitting itself to the contemporary, en vogue constraints of accessibility. This need not be the case, (though it surely must have to be in the Turbine Hall). The swing from heady and gregarious social intervention, (perhaps with its politically righteous shadow), to diminished subjecthood and accessible personal anecdotes, are not the two final oppositional possibilities for live or immersive art. That Seghal’s These Associations is the latter needs to be admitted and the piece evaluated on those terms, but I do not think that rejecting a more accusatory art necessarily lands you in a lifelessly accessible one, or vice versa.
Robbie Ellen is a little person who lives, and has to work, in London. His email is maryjellyjames AT gmail.com
Two examples are, Adrian Searle in The Guardian, 23.07.2012, guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2012/jul/23/tino-sehgal-these-associations-review, and Alastaire Sooke in the Telegraph, 24.07.2012, telegraph.co.uk/culture/art/art-reviews/9421678/Tino-Sehgal-Turbine-Hall-Tate-Modern-review.html.
I must make it clear that I think projection of that superiority and righteousness is an essential element in this problem. I have tried to avoid direct psychological analysis in this article, but this issue does require it, because it is a common, conservative counter argument and defense to so much of the efforts of politically left culture over the decades to reduce those efforts to psychological analysis alone. ‘They just want to love themselves by feeling different,’ ‘Counter-culture just saves themselves by creating the social identity ‘norm’ for everyone else,’ etc. Reducing engagement to the psychology of individuals and doing away with the social injustices and conflicts at stake, makes it all the more easy and healthy to reject entirely.
I don’t make this argument to suggest that this was the case in all instances, because it might not always clear to someone visiting if they asked that because they found the address instantly uncomfortable and wanted to normalise it by steering the conversation into a question about work, or whether their reaction was to a discomfort they felt about the vulnerability of the person talking. It makes sense to me that the former helps to reorientate the visitor by rejecting this artifice of the situation, and the latter is an aid to the participant.