Saturday, 1 November 2008

Waves of Engagement

An idea that's been coming back to me constantly is derived from my recent experience in Malta, of having many, many people sit at my installation in one night. I witnessed an audience engaging with my work in what to me looked like waves. They gathered, engaged and then disengaged over a period of ten minutes, 50 people at a time, throughout the night.

I wonder - does this wave-like engagement occur in a cinema audience in some way, or a gallery audience (famously described as being engaged in the act of 'strolling' by Susan Sontag) or a football crowd ? This brings to my mind the notion of fluid mechanics - the study of how the molecules of fluids flow and affect each-other. Imagine that study extended into the way that cars flow down a motor-way, then through and into the streets of a city, or further, into the acts of people.

The propositions that follow from a description like this is that if you imagine the way that scientists now think of the maths of chaos, the flow of things is actually describable, metaphors can be found to talk about something and concretize that function for people and that articulation is a way of knowing something about a thing that may not actually exist but that may be a product simply of the act of observing.

The base point here is that the description evokes an idea of a material act occurring. In this description I am trying to observe the act of attention as if it were a material act. The students of sub atomic physics are well aware of the idea that observation affects the thing observed. To describe or to name is an act that affects things - they've come to terms with the idea that attention has a value, the metaphor is that the energy used in the act of observing communicates with and affects the thing that is happening.

Mystics have long believed that attention is energy, or at least is accompanied by an energetic field. Think of complimentary medicine or the concept of gestalt and you realise that the idea has been accepted by that group of people. So at both ends of the spectrum, the base materialists and the ethereal spiritualists both believe the same thing but the people in the middle do not - fully. Relativity theory may have been accepted last century by leading thinkers, but many people are still functioning within the Newtonian Paradigm of cause and effect.

So if a slowly growing crowd does in fact have a characteristic expression as its members become engaged by an idea (in this case my table installation) is there something to be had by the artist in trying to understand a phenomenon that can then be positioned, named, articulated and presented back to those same people that might actually be involved in expressing this characteristic ? And, can other characteristics be developed from this understanding that are beneficial to the project that is being undertaken ?

The set of characteristics a 'strolling' audience might have will be different from those a seated audience has. Nameable things: locomotion as opposed to a state of rest, talking and exchanging with others as opposed to sitting silently and reflectively on ones own in ones own thoughts about what is being shown to one.

The strolling audience is active and then through engagement will come to rest into a similar set of characteristics as a seated audience - then, having greater 'freedom' to disengage from the work - because no actors or other audience members in front or near them will be offended by their disconnection and so they can choose their own moment of disengagement.

So here on musing on this I can feel my intuition sitting up - it is clear that there are methods of creating engagement in an audience and there must also be a way of dealing with the engagement that then occurs. You've basically said to an audience: "Look at this". Then you've used the function of time to reveal some images, ideas, feelings, sensibilities etc to them, then you use your own worldly experience to know that this sort of thing can only go on given that we are mercurial creatures in the main.

On this point much avant garde work has been done to examine how a person 'reads' images and sound and how they might be taken beyond their 'learnt' ways of behaving. For instance the act of showing something time and time again, or showing something that usually takes place over a short amount of time which is then run a great deal more slowly - and the upshot is the discovery by the audience that there are other pleasures to be had beyond those that we are equipped to immediately have in a form like popular entertainment. We might learn through these strategies of other ways of gaining pleasures and also that pleasure comes in different forms.

Anyway - I’m noting a phenomenon and shall attend to the ideas I’ve expressed here because my art form has the possibility of being shown to the many together and to the one apart and in many different situations and numbers in between. So it seems to me that this is a valuable acknowledgement for an artist to make. We’ll see.