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Public affairs

Getting audiences directly involved in artworks is a growing trend, but is it a good thing?
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Simon Stephens
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Manchester International Festival closed this weekend following 17 days of performances and exhibitions.

The festival, which runs every two years, focuses solely on new works created specifically for the event. I experienced some of it when visiting Manchester on the first Friday after it opened.

One of the things I saw was Do It 2013, part of a series of exhibitions that were conceived in Paris in 1993 by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist and the artists Christian Boltanski and Bertrand Lavier.

The starting point for Do It is series of written instructions by the artists to visitors. These ranged from a request to throw a party, instructions on how to make fish curry, to more serious demands, such as a call to show solidarity with women who have been victims of violence.

Do It fits in well with the today’s desire by museums to engage people by involving them more directly in art. The recent growth of performance art led by the Tate and others is also part of this.

Artists such as Tino Sehgal, whose work has been shown at Tate and the Manchester International Festival, create works where visitors are no longer passive observers – they become part of the performance.

I didn’t experience the Sehgal work in Manchester but I did see a small part of Nikhil Chopra’s 65-hour performance at the Whitworth Art Gallery. Coal and Cotton was an exploration of Manchester’s links with India, although the artist was taking a well-earned sleep when I visited.

The growth of participatory art is part of a wider trend for museums to think harder about new ways to engage audiences. Many artists are also interested in involving people in the creation of their work, whether that is as part of a performance or in projects such as Gillian Wearing’s Your Views project, which is asking the public to contribute short films.

But is all public participation in art a good thing? The Guardian’s visual arts critic Jonathan Jones recently wrote that he found Wearing’s work boring and dishonest.

And public participation in artists’ work does raise some questions. What are the artists trying to achieve and what do the public get out of it?

Are the public willing participants or unwitting dupes? Is there a danger that artists are just using the public to lend credibility to their work?

The answers, of course, vary from artist to artist. But what is certain is that museums and galleries will need to work hard to maintain the quality of such work.

At the moment it is quite a novelty for many audiences but once this wears off it will be even more important to keep developing original and engaging projects, as the Manchester International Festival works hard to do.



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