What Is The Future Of London's Art Scene?

Rachel Stoplar
By Rachel Stoplar Last edited 100 months ago

Last Updated 25 February 2016

What Is The Future Of London's Art Scene?
Top left: Lake Keitele was accompanied by birdsong at Soundscapes © National Gallery. Top right: Installation view of Jon Rafman exhibition, Zabludowicz Collection, photo by Thierry Bal. Bottom left: David Bomberg accompanied by smells and sounds © Tate Britain. Bottom right: Carsten Holler slides, Hayward Gallery, photo by M@.

Gone are the days when going to an art gallery meant standing in front of something, admiring it for a socially acceptable amount of time, and moving on.

Across the arts and beyond, Londoners are shunning the passive and embracing active 'experiences', chirpy PRs describe everything as 'multi-sensory' (you can see and hear things!) and even the fustiest of institutions are desperately scrabbling to get newer, younger audiences through their doors.

Is this all just a cynical ploy to trick punters into stepping over the threshold or coughing up for a ticket? The only way to get funding in a budget-slashed world? A shiny bit of novelty to win a few column inches?

Or is this a necessary, creative way of engaging new audiences and re-engaging old ones; of re-assessing art and our relationship to it; in short, of doing the work a museum or gallery is supposed to do?

We ask five curators and creators, each in their own way at the helm of London's interactive art scene, to share their diverse wisdom.

London versus the (art) world

The burning Londonist question: never mind anything else, are we doing interactive art best? The short answer is: no.

For one thing, we're "more risk averse than, say, New York," says Dr Minna Moore Ede, curator of the National Gallery's Soundscapes. "I think this has to do with funding problems here in institutions and museums — one can't afford for something not to work."

She's the first to admit that hers was an experiment with a mixed reception, so who knows if the National will keep moving in this direction.

Yet the city has played host to a series of world-class interactive shows: Tate Sensorium, Jon Rafman and Carsten Höller only a few months ago. And then there are interactive elements to more varied exhibitions: Ede cites the prison room section of the recent Ai Weiwei as one that really "blew me away."

Interior II by Richard Hamilton at Tate Sensorium was accompanied by the sound of clicking heels and the smell of Pledge and vintage hairspray, as well as glue to hint at the collage process © The Estate of Richard Hamilton.

But what on earth is 'interactive art'?

Everyone agrees that all art is interactive in some way. Ede explains: "It seeks to make a human connection." We don't just look at Old Masters or abstract expressionists because we're supposed to, or some critic tells us to. We react, and this is one step closer to 'interact'.

Ralph Rugoff, director of the Hayward Gallery, where the famous Carsten Höller slides couldn't get much more interactive if they tried, goes further: "Art only comes alive through our response to it."

Yet Maitreyi Maheshwari, curator of last year's cutting-edge, mega-interactive and virtual reality-including Jon Rafman show, takes an unexpectedly old-school approach: "the viewer completes the work by looking at it." Just looking is enough.

All very nice, all very true. But Tom Pursey of Flying Object, the brains behind the winning proposal for the Tate's IK Prize that resulted in the seminal Tate Sensorium, cuts to the chase. "That doesn't really get us anywhere useful." Quite.

Physical space and imaginary worlds

Impressionist landscapes, renaissance triptychs and medieval Marys don't get billed as 'interactive art', however interactive our experience looking at them might be. What does?

Two things, interestingly or ironically at either end of the experiential spectrum: physical, spatial things, and digital, virtual ones.

What unites them is both the idea of the viewer being "part of the artwork" (Ede), and the artwork being "conceived around the viewer doing something with it" (Pursey), whether that's walking through it, sliding down it, tasting it, smelling it, pressing a button on it or moving through it with a virtual reality headset.

Recent London-based digital experiences include After Dark, the 2014 IK Prize Winner, which involved people operating robots to navigate the nighttime gallery, and Oculus Rift (VR) headsets used as part of the Jon Rafman and Carsten Höller exhibitions, with Tate Sensorium's pairing of paintings with tastes and smells and the Höller slides at the other, physical end of the spectrum.

People want "total experiences", says Maheshwari, and they want some help getting there.

These instantly iconic slides, first seen at the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall, were the culmination of Carsten Höller's hit Decisions exhibition at the Hayward Gallery. Visitors were given constant choices on navigating the show. Photo by Phil H from the Londonist Flickr pool.

It's all about the yoof

Secret Cinema, Punch Drunk, inhalable booze — Ede reckons London's wider immersive scene "suggest young people are interested in an experience and not just in sitting and looking."

The National Gallery is no stranger to a blockbuster: Da Vinci, Goya, now Delacroix, it all sells out and packs out. But note the greying hair of many of their punters. Soundscapes got more under-25s through the door than any other exhibition they've ever put on, according to Ede. That's phenomenal numbers for a show without a tube-poster-friendly famous name or a host of five-star reviews.

The art world can get snobby about this at its peril. If future audiences don't come and actually look at stuff then we might as well put our priceless collections in storage, or sell them off. Ede's taking note, and getting creative: "I don't think we can afford to dismiss VR as a strategy to bring in young people."

But Tony Guillan, Tate's IK Prize producer, says "it goes far deeper than just 'trying to get them in'... What else could it offer?" Think of everything a gallery's trying to do and you only have to be a little bit creative to see how interactivity and virtual reality could achieve an awful lot more than just selling tickets to millennials.

And it's not just young people that can find art inaccessible. "To be perfectly honest," admits Pursey, "a lot of people find art uninteresting or difficult. The interactive element can be appealing itself... If that gets a new audience in, to our minds, that's a good thing." We're inclined to agree.

The Wilton Diptych was accompanied by specially composed music at National Gallery's Soundscapes exhibition © National Gallery.

On hanging stuff on walls

But is it really about interactive art at all? One theme that keeps recurring is rather the idea of interactive exhibiting. It's not really so radical, says Pursey. "The way we display art has barely changed in a hundred years. Rather than simply sticking art on a wall, let's try displaying art in such a way that the viewer's presence makes them see it in new, or different ways."

Soundscapes and Tate Sensorium are perfect examples of this: they're taking existing treasures of major collections and trying something just a little bit new. And as Ede points out, a little music or a whiff of scent to go with your 2D picture is "by no means radical."

The conventional approach to art is guided by little captions of text: history, art history, dates and jargon. Rugoff advocates an interactive approach as something "we can inherently relate to, without any specialist knowledge about art."

Guillan's own explanation of Tate Sensorium highlights this need to replace text as a guiding principle in getting people to experience art better. "The fact that visitors were stimulated sensorially encouraged them to think about how they feel when they look at a painting." If just staring doesn't do it for some, try something that will.

Or get them to stare for longer until something actually happens. Pursey reckons part of the Sensorium's success was just in slowing people down. It increased the "dwell time" in front of a painting from an average of 20 seconds to three minutes.

That may not sound like much, but think of the last time you went to a gallery and ask yourself truthfully if you even gave a picture that average 20 seconds. Hell, we can barely watch a YouTube video over 60 seconds. If this is what it takes to slow us down, that's got to be a good thing. But we can't help thinking a comfy chair on a quiet day would do it, too.

Tate's 2014 IK Prize Winner was After Dark, where remote participants sent robots roaming the galleries at night. Photo courtesy of The Workers.

The future is virtual

Engaging new audiences with Tate collections is the whole point of the IK Prize that brought us the Sensorium. But did Flying Object's bid win because of its different hang and charcoal chocolate?

Not really. Guillan rates its "original use of many new and exciting technologies — from hyper-directional audio to ultrasonic haptics, plus the opportunity to undertake a project in which visitors' physiological responses were measure using biometric wristbands: it also seemed incredibly exciting and new." That's a lot of flashy buzzwords to Google, despite Guillan saying "the aim is not to be distracted by flashy tech." Yet clearly digital terminology, if nothing else, has its appeal: the show sold out every day of its run.

Full-on VR was used at Maheshwari's Jon Rafman, but her reasoning is different. First off, Rafman's video work is freely available online, so visitors to the exhibition need something distinct from "sitting in front of a computer monitor."

But secondly, and more importantly, this is about art reflecting new realities, "the way in which we so easily get submerged in the online world." Anyone who's been down an internet rabbit hole for hours on end, or sat checking their phone through a meal/film/meeting should relate to this.

Tony Guillan agrees. "We are living through a revolution in how we experience all kinds of material whether interactive in terms of touch screens or gaming, of augmented or virtual reality." And what's art, if not a way of understanding the world we live in?

Not all Virtual Reality headsets are flashy. Google Cardboard, image under creative commons license.

What's next?

Touch screens, gaming, VR: "there's a lot the museum world can learn from entertainment industries when trying to tell the story of art and encourage the public to explore collections of objects." Guillan is definitely the most optimistic person we spoke to.

Maheshwari, however, despite curating a VR-including exhibition, is by no means a convert. "Unless the work itself demanded it, there would be very little reason for making an exhibition 'interactive'. The popularity of such exhibitions may in part be due to their comparative novelty still — in a city saturated with art exhibitions, audiences are always keen to experience new things."

It's also a logistical nightmare: long queues, bitty experiences, technology glitches and everything going rapidly out of date are all unwelcome factors to consider when putting on an interactive show.

Pursey, too, says he's "yet to see something really interesting in VR in the art world... a lot so far has been about wowing people with tech rather than content... I'll be interested to see what comes out of a really artistic interrogation of VR as a medium."

Maheshwari reckons this is on the cards soon as "artists are often early adopters of technology, as they're experimenting with ideas and looking for means to represent and communicate those." We're excited to see what the London art scene turns up.

Will all this kill off the old-school business of looking at paintings, sculptures and photographs? Far from it. We can look forward to "viewing exhibitions from around the world as virtual reality downloads," predicts Ede, and perhaps even the world's first virtual museum, "which I assume someone, somewhere, must be building" says Rugoff. We're already seeing VR projects recreating Iraq's Mosul Museum and Syria's Palmyra, both destroyed by Islamic State.

"The advent of cinema didn't stop people going to look at paintings," reassures Maheshwari. Based on the stellar line-up of shows across London, and the massive crowds at most of them, we're not going to start worrying any time soon.