Working with Wookey #1

Tate Collective St Ives trip to Tate Britain, London

By Rachael Coward and Sophie Ryder.

Over a series of workshops, members of the Tate Collective St. Ives have been collaborating with artist Sara Wookey in preparation for a series of live events to be hosted in the gallery this summer.

Sara Wookey is an American choreographer and performance artist based in London. She often works within gallery contexts in relation to her dance practice. Her work explores inserting performance in public spaces, and interruption of the normality of moving/acting in a space. We decided to take these ideas forward into a research project conducted at the Tate Britain Gallery in London.

“We weren’t going to be looking at the work on the walls…we had an ulterior motive.”

On arrival at Tate Britain, it became apparent that we weren’t going to be looking at the work on the walls as we might have expected; we had an ulterior motive.  Instead, our focus was based on the visitors of the gallery, and to explore their role within the institutional setting. We were particularly interested in how visitors would navigate around the gallery space; and the patterns and ‘instant choreographies’ that formed. We also had to adapt a mode of thinking to include ourselves within our research; after all we were also visitors to the gallery.

A sneaky peak at a few pages of Sophie's journal.

A sneaky peak at a few pages of Sophie’s journal.

“What is the difference between rules, allowances and accidental encounters?”

We adopted the roles of observers, in order to unpack the behaviour surrounding the institutional stereotype. Our aim was to identify the rules of behaviours, and the codes of space, both visible and invisible. We are all familiar with rules within an institution such as a gallery; no running, do not touch, no photography. But does this signage prompt certain behaviours? Words are underestimated. They subconsciously construct our day to day life, whether it be through road signage or commands in the gallery space. People might choose to ignore them, but they are still aware of their presence, and this affects the way that they behave in the knowledge of them.

What is the difference between rules, allowances and accidental encounters? Do we experience something differently when it is spontaneously presented to us, in comparison to the business of manufacturing an experience for visitors? Is it better to be instructed to look at something, or is it better to stumble upon it and face the experience with no prior knowledge?

Children making a fuller use of gallery spaces than adults, Rachael 'stepping forward' (!) and floor markings guiding visitor movement. Photos by Sophie Ryder.

Children making fuller use of gallery spaces than adults, Rachael ‘stepping forward’ (!) and floor markings guiding visitor movement. Photos by Sophie Ryder.

Floor and wall markings direct the flow of visitors. They act as two-dimensional boundaries despite there being no physical barrier for people to cross. Visitors are reluctant to encroach a distance of 1.5 metres to approach an artwork, so they find themselves leaning in to take a closer look, why not take a step forward? Their approach towards the space is dictated by the pace of other visitors, and the invigilators that observe them; are you judged for walking too quickly through a gallery? Furniture becomes a refuge; visitors feel the need to take a rest after prolonged amounts of time on their feet. Voices are in hushed tones, whispers scarcely pass between their lips before they seek out the approval of a nearby invigilator. Interactive work becomes an invitation for communication, and finally voices become pronounced to liven up the space.

Children see the world as their playground; they are yet to be formally constructed for the expected behaviour of an institutional space, therefore are uneducated in the rules. To them, visible barriers such as tiles on the floor become irrelevant, only physical barriers are noticeable to them.  It was refreshing to see the full potential of the gallery space being utilised.

“The role of the gallery is one of care; to take care of the visitors and to take care of the artwork that it houses. But which is more important?”

Through our research, we have compiled a typology of classic institutional stances and poses held by members of the public. Are these stances taken automatically or are they adopted to reflect the body language of others? Would you see these outside of the gallery walls?

Rachael and Sophie movie making in Tate St Ives gallery during the last Tate Collective session.

Rachael and Sophie movie making in Tate St Ives gallery during the last Tate Collective session.

The role of the gallery is one of care; to take care of the visitors and to take care of the artwork that it houses. But which is more important? From our experiences in the Tate we have discovered an underlying approach of thinking towards visitors in the gallery space; by taking on a similar role to that of the observational invigilators, we have identified certain behaviours dictated by the invisible and unspoken rules of an institution.

 

Interested in joining in with this project? Come to Tate Collective, which happens on the first and third Saturday of every month, 11.00-16.00. Our collaboration with Sara Wookey culminates in our Young@Tate event RE-A-LINE on Saturday 27 June: watch this space for details, coming soon…

Leave a comment