Instagram Meets the Museum Dance Exhibition

A woman records on her smartphone a museum performance artist laying on the ground.
A visitor records Maria Hassabi's PLASTIC, performed at MoMA in 2016. Photo by Thomas Poravas

Many art museums now host dance exhibitions, which attendees have been quick to document via their smartphones. The trend concerns many in the art world, notably critics and historians, who dislike that technology mediates the viewing experience. But Professor Claire Bishop (Art History), a noted historian and critic, pushes back.
 
In her new article, “Black Box, White Cube, Gray Zone: Dance Exhibitions and Audience Attention,” published in TDR: The Drama Review, Bishop examines how dance exhibitions — or extended performances meant to fill a museum’s hours — have a symbiotic relationship with smartphones. Tracing the rise of dance exhibitions in recent years, she moves away from notions of “good” and “bad” attention, analyzing instead how they raise questions about spectatorship in compelling ways.
 
What is it about the performative nature of the museum space that you find so compelling?
 
A lot of my research takes its lead from what I see happening around me in museums and galleries, and responding to that. The presence of live performance was something I’d noticed become hugely popular over the last 10 years. A very particular way in which that was being manifested was contemporary dance rather than visual artists with an interest in performance.
 
What’s the problem with smartphones being used to capture museum-based performances?
 
A lot of art critics and historians would denigrate this kind of exhibition as Instagram art, and I think that’s a little bit too rapid a mode of judgement. It’s not as if we pay tight, focused attention to works of art when we’re in museums. We’re always aware of other people, just as when we listen to music on headphones — we’re not paying full and absolute attention to that or we wouldn’t be able to cross the street. I want to argue that these kinds of objects don’t in fact destroy our mode of attention when we’re looking at any kind of performance in museum, but can operate symbiotically with it. This kind of socialized attention you have through smartphones at dance exhibitions is actually not about distraction, it’s just a different mode of attention, more similar to a pre-modern mode of attention when people would go to theaters to socialize.
 
You mention near the end of the article a handful of dance exhibitions pushing back against smartphone usage. How are they succeeding?
 
Well, it depends on your idea of success. It’s interesting that the reaction to it, and it’s only a very few artists, is in withdrawing rather than embracing it. I wonder if they’re actually fighting a losing battle. It’s really a tide of visual information that’s now available about works of art online. But I also respect the desire to control the context of a work’s circulation. When something appears on Instagram or on Google Image, there’s no sense of the context of spectatorship. Artists do think carefully about the size of a projection, or the scale of a performance, or the materials, or the sound. There’s a whole load of contextual issues that artists think very carefully about that are completely razed when things are reduced to the size of a JPG.
 
What do you hope readers gain from your article?
 
It’s not as if I want to encourage everyone to be taking photos. The title includes the phrase “Gray Zone,” and I think spectatorship exists on a scale of different gray. It’s not as if there’s a good spectator who is fully engaged and a bad spectator who just looks at their phone. We should be open to thinking through different types of spectatorship. Smartphones are here to stay, but I think we can be attentive to the different uses and social dynamics they set up.

Submitted on: NOV 19, 2018

Category: Art History | Faculty | General GC News