In 1971, an exhibition of modern art at the Tate Gallery in London had to be closed after four days. Visitors had been going berserk, hysterical, screaming. A reporter at the time noted:
Some of the 1,500 visitors became so intoxicated by [the] opportunities that they went around “jumping and screaming” to quote the exhibitions keeper, Mr Michael Compton. They went berserk on the giant see-saws, and they loosened the boards on other exhibits by trampling on them…”
It was the first time that the Tate had hosted a ‘fully interactive’ exhibit. They didn’t do another for awhile. The exhibition has been recreated in the Tate Modern (one of London’s best galleries; if you’re coming here and like art at all, it’s well worth a visit) and this time around, the reception was very different indeed.
When we went last weekend, people were having lots of well-behaved fun with the interactive exhibition (read: adventure playground). They were queuing politely, laughing, and enjoying the heck out of the whole thing. I saw people of different ages playing together, from the Japanese teenagers, to the family helping their tiny daughter onto the balance board, to my husband trying (fruitlessly) to climb up the interior of a bookcase –- no I don’t know why either.
Leaving aside the question of whether an adventure playground becomes art just because you put it in a gallery (to be honest, half the fun of going to a place like the Tate Modern is that you can try to answer that yourself), you have to wonder what changed.
The exhibition was almost identical.
But maybe people these days are more comfortable with the idea of play. It’s one of the ways we approach the world. If you look at a new computer UI you’ll very likely be encouraged to play with it to work out what it does.
And it makes me wonder whether in 30 years time we’ll look back at today’s MMOs and all the associated hijinks with exploiting, griefing, fake identities, elitism etc and think, “Man, they were fun games. But those poor people … they just didn’t know how to play nicely in virtual worlds back then.”