“Want to play a fun game?” an artist asked me once at an international art fair. “What piece of contemporary art here is going to be the ‘selfie’ piece?” he asked. We both kept this underlining dialog going throughout the fair as we snickered and jaunted around the galleries. What is acceptable behavior in the art world, I wondered?
At some point in the past 10 years, the ability to enjoy art in the moment has all but disappeared. Remember when you could go to a museum or gallery and actually see visitors indulging the exhibition with their eyes? Damn, I barely do! Why is it that we need to over-document every single moment? There is nothing more infuriating than walking into an exhibition and finding out it’s “selfie central.” I’m not saying that you shouldn’t snap some photos from time to time. Maybe you are writing about it later, or maybe you’re moved by it. I understand that there is sometimes a time and a place for that. However, why in the hell must you capture that moment with a selfie? We all know that when you enter a library you’re suppose to be quiet. I couldn’t tell you at what age it was that I was told this or was first scolded for talking too loud in a library or museum, but I know it was when I was quite young. So at what point did shit get so mixed up with art-viewing etiquette? Selfie sticks were banned from institutions almost as soon as they were conceived. Hmm, I wonder why I’m not allowed to bring my selfie stick into the gallery? I don’t know, maybe because it’s a 3-foot-long stick that you are going to be swinging around wildly while trying to find the right angle all while standing in a room filled with millions of dollars worth of fine art works?
I know it’s sometimes hard to follow the rules and prevent your urges from leading you to push the proverbial “red button” in regards to what is acceptable behavior as a viewer of art in a gallery or museum. All we can think about sometimes is, “What happens if I do?” Perhaps I could just push it a little. Is it sensitive? I bet I could push on it just a tad and it would be fine. Just a halfway push? It’s stuck in your head now — the outcome of depressing that shiny red button is looming. But try to check your ego at the door of the museum, or at least take it no further inside than the umbrella receptacle — if you must. It’s worth saying that if you’re feeling the urge to take a selfie in a museum that badly, you probably aren’t at the museum for the actual art. You’re probably there so you can document your outing and post it on social media so other people can see how cultured you are.
That being said, artists, galleries, museums, and institutions have routinely pushed the envelope on the topic of “what is appropriate.” And sometimes, they’ve even been kind enough to invite viewers to push the red button, just when it’s appropriate and can add to the experience. Selfies aren’t usually a part of this though. In 1917, Duchamp created “Fountain,” thus changing the way we view contemporary art. And by the late 1950s, Andy Warhol could be expected to do any number of things at his openings, where the “anything goes” attitude was a given. Then in 1972, at the Sonnabend Gallery in New York City, Vito Acconci performed “Seedbed,” where he lay under the floor of the gallery masturbating and making sexual comments about the experience of the visitor walking up and down his “sexy-time” ramp. Imagine today, the hashtags, the orchestrated selfies lying on the floor: “Just me and Vito masturbating, y’all.” At his performance in 1972, the experience was fresh and raw. The viewer had only themselves, the other visitors, and their thoughts of what was unfolding just below their feet. It was an experience that you had to live and play out in your head. As with so many works of art and other performance, it’s about the time and the place. Yet it just seems like something has slipped up a bit with awareness of your surroundings and the lack of a need for a commemorative photo to prove it. Take an installation for example. Imagine a massive set of lights on a time sensor with ambient music playing as the lights change to the visitors movements. Seems great in theory, bouncing around within it triggering the sensors as the artists intended and feeling the sensation of the light and sound wash over you. Well, you’d probably be wrong in thinking that experience would actually happen. There’s a 90 percent chance there would be at least 60 people standing in place taking a blurry photo of their foreheads and about a dozen poor quality videos of the light show. ENJOY THE WORK, FOLKS! It’s you as the viewer that has to gauge what is what upon entering an exhibition. Yes, it’s all in the eyes of the beholder, but that comes with a baseline of rules.
Last year the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston hosted a retrospective exhibition for Mark Flood. The opening was a zoo — almost literally. There were folks dressed to the nines, dudes in underwear, people in costumes, and a confusion as to who was performer and who was the viewer. The idea for the most part was just that — confusion. What was allowed and what wasn’t allowed wasn’t firmly explained. It was like the red button scenario. I know it’s art, but it’s contemporary and conceptual art, so how far do I engage and what is acceptable? Yes, selfies, selfies, selfies! It’s what Flood wanted. Add the dialog of social networking in the realm of contemporary and fine art. I mean, New Media has only existed as a legitimate department for less than 15 years or so. Flood’s planned and unplanned performances were entertaining. The surrogates Mark and Clark Flood were twins in a cage. As the night began, for whatever reason, everyone just started throwing the omnipresent “LIKE” paintings into the cage. These were the small paintings that were originally part of a interactive piece in which viewers were encouraged to place the petite canvases in front of their favorite works. So I guess the crowd was saying, “We like these fellas.” I watched as the twins deflected the paintings and slowly got buried by them as the cage filled. Soon enough, guards rushed in and stopped the crowd from slowly smothering the two under a pile of tactile “LIKES.” The impromptu performance had ended, and everyone had to behave again, if only for a moment.
We are working within the realm of technology and instant gratification. And as such, we are increasingly challenged as viewers while artists and spaces blur the lines of viewing. It was actually just recently at Atlas, Plural, Monumental, Paul Ramírez Jonas’ solo exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, that I saw interactive symbols posted for the first time. One reads “You can touch this” and another reads “You can play this.” At first it felt as though the experience was dumbed down, as if it was needed for someone to tell the viewer which pieces were interactive, but I soon found it to be a clever museum move. You want the new or inexperienced viewer not to be afraid to get near to the work and be part of it. It also keeps the ass-hats from say, plunging their hand into a pool of mysterious liquid when you very well should not do that. Most of us are dubious viewers. Within myself is my knowledge in art preparation, handling, and curation that leads me to approach things with caution when indulging in my art viewing adventures. I assume it’s an “err on the side of caution” or “mind your P’s and Q’s” sort of situation. Moreover, it could be “don’t be that idiot when out in public, especially in places with lacquered wood floors or marble tiles.” So if you are that shining star visitor who caused $200,000 worth of damage while attempting to take a selfie a few weeks ago at The 14th Factory in Los Angeles, staged or not, maybe you should rethink the amount of likes you might get on that Instagram photo? Because as Ad Reinhardt said, “Sculpture is something you bump into when you back up to look at a painting.” Of course, this comment was made prior to the advent of smartphone culture.