These Play Associations

Tino Seghal’s These associations, in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Gallery, took me by surprise, which is exactly how I recommend that anyone should experience it. If you have an inkling that you will see it in London before it ends October 28, stop reading this now.

No travel plans? Then read on.

These associations, viewed from above, is a shifting landscape of human bodies:

On the neutral backdrop of the Turbine’s concrete floor, approximately 35 people run in tight circles, playing tag. Most people appeared to be in their early 20s, with the exception of one brunette man in a maroon sweater vest who I imagined to be in his 40s or 50s. My first assumption, perhaps a telling one, was that this was a college course, that the majority of the people were students, and that the man in the vest was their professor. I  stopped and watched.

I had no preconceived notions of what the Tate typically shows in the Turbine Gallery. Creatively curated spaces like the Tate’s Turbine Gallery or MASS MoCA’s football field-sized installation area allow me to imagine what it would be like to go to a museum– any museum– for the first time; to feel the surprise and uncertainty I might feel if I had no sense of an art museum as a place in which framed artwork hangs on white walls. I don’t remember the first time I went to a museum as a child, but I imagine it might have felt a bit like this.

I left the mezzanine viewing area and walked down the stairs to the main floor of the gallery, still not knowing that the game of tag was a different type of game. I leaned against a shiny black steel support girder. Two small, blonde girls, perhaps six and eight, watched the game of tag nearby. The woman with them encouraged them to go play the game, almost pushing them gently by the shoulders. The girls looked at the game, and then looked at their feet. They each nervously twisted their toes into the concrete floor. And then each hid in the space provided between the sides of steel girders identical to the one where I leaned.

They may have been feeling what I at that moment felt: a transition from curiosity to a sense of exclusion. This was clearly more than a pick-up game in a gallery. There was a culture to it that was not immediately accessible to the average bystander (or by-leaner, in my case, and by-hider, in theirs). At that moment of felt exclusion, whatever was happening in that space went from private game to performance, almost as a form of emotional defense. I would not feel excluded from a painting, so why should I feel excluded by a performance?

I’m not sure if the woman who pushed the girls to play was aware of this being a performance. I also found it interesting that she nudged the children with her to join a game with all adult players, rather than joining the game herself. The girls clearly knew, from the basic indicators of the age and behavior of the players, that this was not a game for them. What was the woman seeing? Did she see the game as playful, and therefore appropriate for children? Why didn’t she join in herself?

As I watched, a man approached me. “I’d like to tell you about my best mate Pete,” initiated a story of how his friend bought him surprise tickets to see a Jay-Z concert: a short story about a nice thing someone did for another person. I asked if I could play the game, all the while acknowledging that the first rule of Fight Club is to not talk about Fight Club. Did asking this man– who had just shared a sweet personal story– about the game diminish the game? He seemed a bit uncomfortable, but, when pushed a bit, said that they were all trained volunteers. As I and the little girls had guessed, we random bystanders could not “join” the game. However, though we were an essential part of the performance as consumers of stories and watchers, we could truly only observe, and not play ourselves.

I don’t know whether play– on the part of the viewer or the part of the performer– was central to Tino Seghal’s intentions in creating a performance for deployment in a museum gallery. I imagine that it was. Either way, the experience was transcendent, for certain, in the way play can often be and feel.

As the group of performers sat down on the concrete floor and began singing, slowly “E…. lec… tri… ci… ty,” what felt like a game one moment transitioned into something sublime. When the overhead lights dramatically went out at the clipped, tail end of that word, I was left in darkness in a turbine room with only the sound of a reverberating syllable sung by strangers. When the lights flickered back on, I moved on through the museum, subtly changed.

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