The Exhibit that Wasn’t

I can’t remember the first time I wore headphones in an art museum. I imagine it was sometime in 2009, when I was in London for several months conducting research for my dissertation. One of my favorite places to spend a weekend afternoon or evening is the Tate Modern, the wildly popular modern art museum in a former power station on the south bank of the Thames. The Tate Modern has a tremendous collection of art from throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, and, like so many of London’s museums, makes its permanent collection available for free—meaning that I could frequent the museum as much as I wanted, and also, that it was guaranteed always to be crowded with visitors.

An art museum is a curious place in a number of regards, but to me, no more so than the density of people that flow through the Tate Modern, jostling for position in front of paintings and wall texts, discussing the art with companions, halting in the middle of a room to consider where to go next. Frankly, I find it all a bit overwhelming, made more so by the mass of sound that accompanies the throngs of visitors.

So one day I tried an experiment—not particularly novel, I realize, but still, one that had never seemed right to me: on a visit to the Tate, I put in my earbuds and roamed the galleries listening to music. The result was remarkable. All of a sudden, the pulsing soundscape of conversation faded away, lingering only vaguely behind whatever soundtrack I had chosen to accompany my wanderings. The mass of people no longer seemed so present and intrusive. My experience of the galleries was immediately more enjoyable and more personal.

Of course, this should not have surprised me as it did. Various theorists have long realized that control over your own soundscape can have a dramatic impact on how you experiences the world around you.1)This is essentially the argument of Shuhei Hosokawa’s landmark 1984 article “The Walkman Effect.” Still, I had some lingering worries that wearing earbuds in a museum would somehow disconnect me from the art in front of me—but, in fact, I found exactly the opposite.

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I recently attended Photo London, an event at Somerset House described as “London’s first international photography fair.” I went because I’m always rather intrigued by the implications and claims of photography as an art form, with its gestures towards realism and its ability to challenge our perceptions. The event was sprawling, occupying the better part of Somerset House’s massive exhibition spaces. (After almost three hours, I had seen less than half of what was on offer.) And it was crowded; it was later announced that over the four days of Photo London, more than 20,000 visitors had passed through.

Inside the exhibit, though—having paid my £20 (approx. $32) entry fee—I discovered that Photo London was far less a public exhibition and much more a trade show. I wandered into a room curated by Hamburg based gallery Robert Morat. As I made my way around the small room, I overheard (rather, was forced to listen to) a conversation by a man standing next to a table positioned near one wall. “Yes, of course, your wall looks beautiful,” he assured the individual on the other end. Hanging up the phone, the man mentioned to his colleague—a woman seated behind the table—that some of the other work in the room had already been sold to a collector in Dubai.

I proceeded to the adjoining room, the province of the London galleries Purdy Hicks. This room was a congested transit node, a room through which one had to pass to access the network of rooms in the rest of the building’s East Wing. As in the earlier room, a table occupied a prominent place, and owing to the congestion, here it posed a significant obstacle to the flow of visitors through the room.

The busy room curated by the Purdy Hicks Gallery.
The busy room curated by the Purdy Hicks Gallery.

By the third room, I had caught on to the scam: I had paid a not insignificant sum to tour a trade show where gallerists and collectors were conducting business. Each room featured a large table of its gallery’s publications, staffed by someone who was only interested in talking to serious collectors who could tender cash offers for the photographs on display. Most of these individuals were entirely uninterested in engaging with the hoi polloi, who, one sensed, were getting in the way of the real business of the fair. (To be fair, this wasn’t universally true: one of the women working for Lens Culture was quite eager to talk to visitors about their selection of photographs by Hungarian photographer André Kertész.) Many of the individuals present that day wore ID tags on white or red necklaces marking them as VIPs.

Now, I’m not so naive as to think that there’s anything particularly “pure” about any art gallery or museum that one may attend. To the contrary, I find the commercial trade of art to be a fascinating sociological practice, as it seems to work in a way that is wholly divorced from any traditional (or particularly logical) sense of value. But Photo London boldly dispensed with the pretenses that allow us plebs to pretend that our experiences of art are relatively remote from the elitist world in which art is traded as a status symbol. This was a trade show masquerading as a museum exhibition—and even more galling, it was a trade show build on the hefty admissions paid by enthusiasts and interlopers who, largely, neither have nor desire any particular interaction with the bizarre commercial world of art dealership.

(For my musicological colleagues, consider this analogy: what if we made attendance at the annual American Musicological Society and Society for Ethnomusicology meetings free for members and presenters, and charge admission to the general public to come and watch us present arcane scholarly research?)

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Of course, as I indicated at the start, I’ve never been particularly fond of the dense layers of conversations you experience in a crowded museum, and I often take specific measures to replace that soundscape with one of my own choosing. But as I wandered through the Somerset House that day, I longed for some of the (in my view) inane but heartfelt conversations you overhear in the Tate Modern—between the girls I recently saw doing their hair in the reflection of Michael Baldwin’s Untitled Painting, or the puzzled interest of a group of students contemplating Lucio Fontana’s Spatial Concept “Waiting.” Personally, I can do without the talk of a rich collector in Dubai and the passing around of business cards among people wearing VIP badges—when I’ve paid just because I’m interested in the art, anyway.

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1. This is essentially the argument of Shuhei Hosokawa’s landmark 1984 article “The Walkman Effect.”

One Reply to “The Exhibit that Wasn’t”

  1. Great write up and thought that it was interesting that most of these individuals were entirely uninterested in engaging with the hoi polloi, who, one sensed, were getting in the way of the real business of the fair.

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