The hustle and bustle of ‘interaction’
Reviews of Punchdrunk’s most recent production The Drowned Man – the latest in a line of stunning installation theatre pieces – have been mixed. Curiously, some critics have implied that audiences may be too savvy, too eager. Jostling and pushing to get their money’s worth, there is no longer a space for stillness and quiet discovery of rooms or details. Possibly the potential for audience members to have unique experiences is lost.
Yet Punchdrunk is still hugely popular. Clearly the impulse to determine and create your own narrative journey is very strong. It also seems bizarre that an art form based around interaction should be damaged by a strong desire in the audience to interact. I have been in very awkward audiences in interactive or ‘immersive’ theatre, which only drew my attention to the discomfort in the social situation, rather than any new artistic experience that could be had. Surely a willingness to engage from the audience could only be positive?
On the other hand, perhaps ‘immersion’ is the key word here, which is not necessarily the same as eagerness to ‘spectate’ as much as possible. The masks that Punchdrunk audiences wear encourage a sense of freedom to explore and react without self-consciousness. A chain of reactions is set off whereby each stage of the narrative would be determined by the reaction to the last. Each reaction would not necessarily be to rush to the next thing – the emotion of one discovery might lead to quiet contemplation or solitude. So do we need to relinquish a certain amount of control to the artwork, to create an experience that is really in flux and interactive?
Which angle for the shot?
However, interestingly, with visual art installations, the interaction often appears to be the other way around. The participants gain control over the narrative and limit its scope. The Barbican commissioned ‘Dalston House’, an installation in Hackney by Argentinian artist Leonard Ehrlich, this summer. An image of a house on the ground was reflected in a large mirror that stood upright. By positioning themselves somewhere on the house, members of the public created pictures where they were hanging on to the windows in desperation, sitting on the windowsills reading books laconically, or coming out from the house at different angles, seemingly at ease with their supernatural powers. The installation leant itself to deciding on and creating fixed images, almost like snaps you might take with a celebrity cardboard cut-out. How much loss of control or ‘immersion’ is there be, and ought there to be any?
Time and Space…
The problem is that any interactive art work requires the action, reaction and placement in space of an audience to actually exist, more even than a play requires performance to be complete. So the tendency to make a value judgement about different possible responses to the artwork – whether these ‘work’ in practice, and create art that is interesting and valuable – is irresistible and quite possibly legitimate.
Can we make our own art?
This might lead us to question whether these pieces really constitute art at all, if they are so reliant on the unstable reactions of individuals. However, there is something very powerful about the potential for artworks to really affect people personally, and lead them to alter their experience spatially and temporally, as well as emotionally. It is no coincidence that ‘cavernous’ is a word frequently used to describe installation art experiences, such as Antony Gormley’s ‘Model’ and the excavatory ‘Midden’ – just finished at Vulpes Vulpes in Bermondsey – the viewer is enclosed and protected individually, but also given a vast ‘cave’ to explore, the boundaries of which are never certain. Much art criticism is similarly based on carving a journey through an artwork springing from one’s own reaction, and there is huge possibility and a sense of opening in this approach.
What do you think? Are these pieces art, when they can’t exist without participants or spectators? How important is it for a participant to bring their own fixed ideas, or to surrender control to these artworks? How does this relate to criticism – are we creating a new imaginative or interactive piece by writing about art? If so, again should we allow the artwork to shift our reactions, or bring our own preconceptions to bear on it? These are interesting questions to formulate opinions on in the run-up to your interview.