NGV Friday Nights (On Audience Participation)

A few weeks ago I went to see Grouper play at the NGV. It was the only Melbourne show she was playing on this tour, and despite reservations about the appropriateness of the venue, I purchased a ticket, thrilled at the thought of being swept up in haunting live renditions of songs I’ve relied upon in mediating moods both good and bad.

Anyone who has attended a show at the NGV as part of the Friday Nights series–a season that includes entry to the current exhibitions along with admission to a musical performance–will know that it is perhaps not the best venue in which to facilitate an immersive sonic experience. The hall’s greatness is part of the problem, as the cavernous space lacks any sense of intimacy, and sight lines are limited once a crowd is on its feet. Yet ultimately the bigger issue is that the space tends to fill, not with the sounds of the musical acts, but with the chatter of attendees. This seems almost, bafflingly, by design on the NGV’s part. In an attempt to exude a casual atmosphere, communal seating fills two thirds of the space, allowing patrons to eat over-priced snacks and lean across tables to talk over each other and the string quartet.  This season, the resident opening act is Alto Strings, who have been booked to jauntily play dull arrangements of a repertoire that includes Pachelbel’s Canon, as if the event were a wedding, or perhaps a funeral. The consequence of the insipid opener, in conjunction with the seating arrangement, is that, once the main act takes the stage, attendees have settled into a rhythm of filler conversation and a mild to cooling state of attention towards the night’s entertainment.

This would all be fine if the NGV didn’t also insist on booking very excellent talent as headliners. On both of the evenings that I attended Friday Night events, the programmed artist was a performer who works with looping technology to create ethereal, ambient soundscapes that are notable for their depth and quiet invitation to engage wholly. On both counts this invitation was turned down by what seemed like the majority of the audience. The first time this happened, during Kaitlyn Aurelia Smith’s set in January, I thought it may just have been a one-off tough crowd. After my most recent experience it appears that this atmosphere is a symptom of a broader issue regarding the uncomfortable relationship between the artists the NGV wants to give a platform to and the audience it wishes to profit from.

The NGV don’t seem ignorant or unconcerned of the fact that audiences attend the Friday Night series with the intention of treating the gallery like they might a bar. They even went so far, apparently at the artist’s request, to try to quell the potential lack of audience attention, announcing five minutes prior to Grouper’s set that it was necessary for the audience to assume a state of silence if they were to get the most out of the music. Yet it took the five minutes between that announcement and the start of the set for almost every patron in my vicinity to disregard that message and proceed to actively disrespect both the artist and their fellow audience members by continuing their conversations about work or family or friend’s gossip, throughout the entirety of the set. The NGV did nothing to inhibit this. In fact they only added to it, their bar staff making considerable contribution to both the stream of mundane discussion and clatter of glasses and cutlery that cut through the immersive experience that Grouper was attempting to foster.

At this point, I surely sound like the kind of up-tight shusher that mutters loudly about the need to keep the rag-tag youth out of established cultural institutions. But this is not my intention, as I feel that the atmosphere at NGV Friday Nights touches upon a much more pertinent issue of audience engagement and institutional image curation. The Friday Nights initiative is undoubtedly an attempt by the gallery to invite regular patronage from a demographic defined by their wish to eschew the stuffiness that the notion of a National Gallery may evoke, while also revelling in the cultural currency dispensed by the idea of spending Friday evening in a gallery as opposed to a bar or restaurant. Admittedly, these people are not my people, and if you value being an active audience member for acts or shows you’ve paid to see, they are probably not your people either. However it seems that they may be the kinds of people that the likes of the National Gallery pin their hopes of ongoing financial gain and cultural relevancy to. But at what cost?

I am not here advocating that the gallery be an elitist institution that only admits serious art lovers, whatever that means. To the contrary, I am frustrated by the artistic hierarchy that the NGV enacts when they book artists like Aurelia Smith and Grouper–artists that push the boundaries of their art in subtle, nuanced ways–and then program them as side show acts.

Sure, the idea of being able to see the works of a great master such as Van Gogh and then sit down with a glass of wine and take in the pleasant sounds of a contemporary artist plying their craft is, in theory, a not a bad one. But the NGV, in my experience, tends to treat the acts it books as entertainment–not art–to be served as an aside to the ‘real’ masterpieces. This expectation then filters through into the audiences attending the shows, who act as though the person or people up on stage are merely a backing track to fill in the gaps of their night on the town.

More and more the NGV seems to be embracing and promoting a participatory approach in the curation of their exhibitions. The Ai WeiWei/Andy Warhol two-hander and the recent David Hockney exhibition are evidence of this, in that they encouraged interaction in the form of selfie sites and social media posting. Yet the kind of participation that is foregrounded in these instances is selfish. It is entirely about individuals clocking themselves as having encountered something, and promoting this fact. It’s just about having been there. At the Grouper show, very few people were really there with her, looking for a way in to the ocean of complex, undulating sound that she crafted. Those that tried had to work for it, not because the music is difficult, but because their fellow audience members refused to allow the artwork to be anything other than a soundtrack for their social interactions. If the National Gallery wants to brand themselves according to their capacity to invoke the greatest possible level of audience complacency, then they appear to be succeeding. However in doing so, they risk becoming the decorative backdrop in an escalating narrative about mindless consumption, rather than a trusted harbour for artists whose work has something pressing and compelling to say, if only one would stop for a moment and listen.

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