Anachronistic Desires: The Impossibility of Controlling the Image in the Information Age
As artnet.com reports, however, the ban on photos isn't exactly going as planned:
Berlin-based artist Tino Sehgal’s show has opened at the Guggenheim Museum to generally good reviews, particularly for his moving performance This Progress, which has volunteers engage visitors in philosophical conversation while ascending the museum’s famous spiral ramp. However, one aspect of the work has notably provoked a small-scale revolt -- Sehgal’s much-commented-upon prohibition on photographic documentation of his work. Even before the show had opened, in fact, the art blogger Martin Bromirski (a.k.a. Anaba) posted some lovely shots of Kiss, the performance piece that occupies the museum’s central atrium (the work is in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, which has “loaned” it to the Guggenheim). Asked in the comments section of his blog where he had acquired the pics, Bromirski answered that they were from “someone's facebook” whose “photo settings are public.”Not only was Cotter correct in noting that a photo ban is essentially unenforceable, but as artnet.com also noted, a video ban is likewise wishful thinking in this day and age:
This was followed, on Jan. 31, 2010, by a thoughtful review of the Gugg show by Holland Cotter in the New York Times. Cotter (approvingly) described This Progress as “awkward, rambling, indeterminate, peppered with doubt and ambiguity.” Of the photo ban, however, Cotter stated that it “may be unenforceable in this day and age.” And, to hammer home the point, his article was illustrated with two more photos of the embracing actors interpreting Kiss in the Guggenheim lobby. Both were captioned that they were “taken on an iPhone,” yielding the humorous mental image of the Times critic sneaking a snap on his phone while the guards were looking the other way.
And though Flickr doesn’t seem to be overflowing with newly purloined images of the show, people are posting rather impressive homemade vids of the exhibition on YouTube, here and here.As I noted a few posts back, very few events in the course of contemporary human history are not being recorded in pixels or video. But here we have a very highly acclaimed artist who goes to great lengths to set up situations in which we, the viewers, can focus on (as the Guggenheim statement notes) "the fleeting gestures and social subtleties of lived experience rather than on material objects." That goal is so gorgeous that part of me wants his photo ban to succeed so his ideas are realized as purely as possible. On the other hand, however, what he desires (that viewers agree to certain terms so that others can have this experience) apparently requires that his work exist in another time.
Or, what he's creating has the unfortunate side effect of also requiring a draconian overtone. Yes, museum visitors are accustomed to having guards rush up and remind them of the no photography policy, but many institutions have caved with regards to non-flash photography opting not to fight against the tsunamic tide that is the contemporary impulse to flip open one's phone and snap. How pure an experience is it for a 21st Century viewer to curb that impulse under such duress?
There are other installations that require the viewer to give in to the work to experience it. Ernesto Neto's work (which I love) frequently requires you to take off your shoes to enter. Other work I've seen requires the viewer to don a lightweight hazmat-looking coverall outfit before climbing in. It seems feasible (philosophically more than logistically perhaps) for a museum to insist viewers leave all phones and cameras with the coat check before entering, but the dread many visitors would feel not being connected to their portable link to the world would be another distraction from the experience the artist created.
All of which makes me wonder whether what Mr. Seghal is hoping to achieve at the Guggenheim is truly possible today. He's received rave reviews (including this one from Jerry Saltz, who visited five times), but the fact that even the New York Times ran an image, against the artist's will, tells me that the artist can't control such matters in this point in history and therefore, to be of its place and time, such experiences will (fortunately or unfortunately, depending on your point of view) need to take that into consideration.