Tate Modern’s Chris Dercon at Joburg Art Fair

There was something disturbing about listening to Tate Modern’s Chris Dercon at the FNB Joburg Art Fair this weekend. Dercon’s talk was titled “Audiences: How much do we really care?”. It’s a good question, and one that requires an urgent response in a world where every medium, be it visual arts or newspapers and everything in between is being challenged by an economy ruled by a surplus of information and a deficit of attention.

Tate Modern Director Chris Dercon, photo from vintageyoga.typepad.com (who clearly got it from somewhere else)

Then there’s the ongoing conversation on social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, the urgent need to share information and images, to tweet, chat, instagram and post. These conversations, all this participation, and the need to share are shaking the foundation of institutions long used to being in control of information.

The audience just isn’t who they used to be – passive consumers waiting at the bottom of the mountain for some great message to be broadcast at them. Today Moses would have a hard time delivering those tablets – cue the hashtag #thosetabletsfromMoses on twitter and a whole lot of conversations about what the tablets said, whether carving things in stone is a good idea, and maybe even what Moses was wearing when he delivered the news (too dressy).

Dercon’s talk focused on he changes taking place in the art world and museum space. He talked about how “until recently we had cared less for the audience and tended to see them as a burden, a hindrance”. He noted that art institutions, and particularly London’s Tate, are undergoing great change, and beginning to embrace their audience as a “stakeholder”  (that word always makes me think of cheesy Count Dracula movies where the stakeholder is the one who plunges the stake through the Count’s heart, but I digress).

Gratuitous image

It appears that the audience has jumped out of its box, no longer content as spectators we also want to contribute (you could hear the sharp intake of breath among some of the gallery and curatorial folk in the audience).  Dercon said the Tate commands an audience of 5-million visitors per year, many of whom are under 25 and who represent diverse cultures and backgrounds. His team has acknowledged that “the museum is everywhere” , and that institutions like Tate Modern can no longer think of themselves as being exclusive distributors of art or culture. He also called for an alternative architectural model of museums that would embrace the values of the museum as a meeting place. “It’s time to rethink the social organization of museums, to move them beyond the typology of the Louvre, Tate Modern and MOMA”

There are all sorts of questions being asked about the sustainability of museums. He spoke about curatorial decision-making and the need for institutions to be innovative about engaging their audiences; about museums as platforms for a secular culture to thrash out ideas and issues.  “We need new types of institutions”.

“Art is hiding behind it’s empty thesis,” he challenged. He talked of visual arts as having been a sponge soaking up so many expressions without giving anything back. Talking to the audience is not a “form of outreach”, he said, “the audience demands it”. I like the power shift inherent in that view. No longer exclusive, the museum should be about inclusion. The art world is not the first to wake up to a loss of supreme control.


London's Tate Modern

For Dercon, there are also many successful examples of where museums have invited visitors to participate.

One I can think of was Olafur Eliaason‘s “Take your time”, an exhibition I saw at Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art last year. Part of the exhibition involved a huge room filled with white lego pieces where museum visitors were invited to sit at long tables and create their own works of art. Many were collaborative pieces, started by one group of visitors, and finished over time by another. The results were extraordinary, arrayed around the room, playing with your idea of what was the artwork and who had created it. It stretched the limits of what usually takes place in an art gallery as kids and adults took pieces of earlier creations to rebuild and remake them. There were robots and other figures, architectural creations, dogs and cats and even a gothic cathedral. Everyone at the table was an equal, all creators. And the best pieces came out of collaboration. It was also the most active and noisy space in the Museum, and most people would have spent more than a few hours playing there, and feeling rewarded by their visit.

This is the museum as a true meeting place, of networks, rather than a “civic laboratory” with all the sterility that conveys, “where art can be acted out by artists and non-artists alike”. “We are not just there for objects,” said Dercon, “we are there for people.”

Now for the part that disturbed me. None of this is news. I have spent the past few years watching the newspaper industry grapple with all of these ideas, with the idea of “conversation”, a dreaded two-person encounter in an industry more used to monologue than dialogue. And yet, it seems that to most local art institutions and museums Dercon’s message is either thoroughly distasteful or just far-fetched. What is most frightening is having watched how commercial brands, who do not have the unbelievably soul-satisfying cultural capital that galleries, museums and artists have, have long realized this and are able to create audience engagement with nothing more than a Facebook page and a packet of chips. And this while most of our country’s most creative and artistic are unable to find  ways of rethinking the relationship between the audience and themselves. There are some exceptions though.

Responding to Dercon, SA National Gallery‘s Riason Naidoo said one of the biggest challenges was “How do we make people see their own reflection in art museums?” He spoke about the exhibition he curated last year called “1910-2010: Pierneef to Gugulective” in which he included a number of artists previously not collected by the museum. “The intention was for people to see their own history.” The result was a doubling in visitor numbers at a time when Cape Town’s other museums saw a 2 percent drop in audience figures. The current exhibition on Tretchikoff, an artist long rejected by the art establishment but loved by just about everyone else,  resulted in a 106% increase in attendance for the quarter.


Tretchikoff: The People's Painter


Naidoo’s approach is not without it critics, he has even been accused of “Wal-Marting” SA art through his unorthodox choices but the mutterings about “quality” are often shorthand for resisting change to the status quo. Any art institution not intent on building new audiences may some day soon find itself irrelevant, as artists themselves are also no longer dependent on the institutions to be the final of arbiter of what the public gets to see. The tools and channels to build relationships with audiences have never been so plentiful and in so many hands.

Additional salve was the performance that followed the talk at the fair. Without warning the airport-like announcements over the Sandton Convention Centre’s PA system were replaced by music and the sound of wood being worked as two models entered the space in the dining hall causing most people to stop what they were doing and to watch as they performed a dressing-up ritual, each a mirror image of the other in movement.

First Cut: Paper Scissors Block Print


The models were part of a collaborative installation by clothing designer Lisa Jaffe of Guillotine who had worked with artist Mary Wafer, musician Joao Orecchia and Jillian Ross of the David Krut Workshop to produce “First Cut: Paper Scissors Block Print”, a work of art, sound, woodcuts and fabric. It took all of 15 minutes but it completely transformed the space, holding everyone spellbound. And it was also an interesting statement about art: While it can be dressed up in many complex layers, it can just as easily be undressed.

And finally, some suggestions for next year’s Art Fair, seeing this is all about dialogue:
1. More performances and interventions are needed to shake up the space and transform it from having the atmosphere of an airport lounge
2. Next time put the talks programme in a glass cube so that it is visible and better attended and more integrated into the fair rather than hiding it away like a dirty little secret
3. I discovered my favourite artworks on day 3 (Dan Halter’s work at whatiftheworld Gallery) through word-of-mouth recommendations. All the best parts of the fair were revealed through conversation so why not create a platform for the audience to leave messages about their favourite works, digitally or just with paper and pen.
4. And last, make information about the programme visible – rather than relying on visitors to unfold the programme. The origami techniques required to fold it back into place meant a lot of people missed the best parts.

Dan Halter, 'One Dollar,' 2011, Original map of Zimbabwe farming regions woven with 300 Trillion Zimbabwean Dollars (which at the height of the inflation of the currency was equal to US $1 Dollar)


* Chris Dercon was brought to the FNB Joburg Art Fair by the Goethe Institute.

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