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[ Backstage ]

2. The Invisible Backstage I

- The Truman Show, 1988 - 

The backstage exhibition architectures, as highlighted above, are often invisible. This is similar to the infrastructures that manipulate our access to architectures, technologies, bodies and our interpretations of these elements. In Keller Easterling’s Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (2016), she states that ‘infrastructure space, with the power and currency of software, is an operating system for shaping the city.’[1] When translated into the gallery environment, this phrase suggests thatthe infrastructure of making work public has an invisible system for shaping the audience. For example, we could compare this hidden substrate, or system, to the binding medium that makes pieces of paper become a book (which I mentioned above). Most of the time humans do not notice the existence of these infrastructures because we are too familiar with living in this designed formula. As a result, it becomes more difficult to identify the agendas behind these familiar social constructions and to approach the invisible backstage.

Anna Minton in, Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-first century (2009), declares that, ‘the desire for security is not a need which can easily be satiated: the more security people have, the more they want.’[2] When applied to the art world, Minton’s theory suggests that the more the viewer relies on the system, the more difficult it is to see beyond the point of view provided by that system. In this instance, we are thinking about the art world system and exhibition practice that instill specific modes of behaviour in the audience that then get repeated once initiated.

Minton goes on to discuss the ‘secured by design’ model which began in the USA but is being applied to the UK. She explains that people are initiated into living conditions advocated and designed through the programme of protection that the government and private corporations deem necessary. Therefore, people assume that security is essential to their safety and in gated communities they depend on the visible facilities and technologies (CCTV, security gate, fences) to reassure them that criminals are kept out of the community. However, this belief in security can underestimate the amount that these visible mechanisms control everyone’s behavior inside the community as well. Again, this can be compared to the art world system in which (especially in the UK) we adhere strongly to the rules of no touching or talking loudly and we look to the institution to guide us through the exhibition.

Taking the movie, The Truman Show (1998) as an analogy for the infrastructures that control subjects, the audience is aware that the protagonist ‘Truman’ is monitored through his community and the infrastructure of his environment. Truman also serves as entertainment for a wider public that exists outside the parameters of his world and, much like CCTV, monitors his movements. Truman, unknowingly to the protagonist himself, is kept within a large studio environment which enables the character of the TV producer in the film to keep Truman on a ready-made life path that the director has built for him. The assumption is that Truman will never question the oddness of the ready-made habitual living patterns that he has grown up with. However, when he does question this habitual path... a glitch in the holistic system appears.

In Glitch Feminism: A Manifesto (2020), Russell compels the reader to try to consciously create a glitch in their habitual living. This is in order to liberate the reader from the limitations of social constructs that define gender, race and sexuality along rigid lines. Russell states that the glitches provide an opportunity, ‘Errors bring new movement into static space; this motion makes an error difficult to see but its interference ever present.’
[1] This notion of the glitch can be applied to Truman’s steadily increasing consciousness of the oddness in his life’s patterns. It might be difficult to initially discern his awakening but the interference of what it could entail is ever present. Truman finally decides to no longer follow the rules of the programme in part because Truman’s concerns are confirmed by the character Sylvia. Sylvia finally reveals to Truman that the wider context of his life is to be an object of entertainment to an audience outside of his world. Truman is infatuated with Sylvia, which leads her to have a certain power to affect Truman’s thoughts and to catalyse the glitch. Ultimately, Truman’s error, which was not to follow the system but to instead reach the walls of his world, caused the world of the TV show to collapse. Through this glitch, Truman refuses to be the property of the TV show; not only successfully exiting the designed path produced by the director but also posing ethical questions for the TV show and its wider public.

Truman’s life, which was directed by the designed path of the director, can be compared to the way in which visitors are directed through a museum or gallery space. We can read Truman’s life in this way, as the Director (backstage) has set up a consummate world (front stage) for Truman to live in (unwittingly performing). Truman found this world credible for quite a long period of time and accepted all the information and facts with which the artificial society had provided him. This is similar to our museum and gallery settings, with their designed facilities such as restrooms, book shops, and cafes and their signs of ‘Do not Touch’, ‘Press me’ buttons and lines/barriers signalling to the visitor that they should not get any closer to the exhibit. All of these elements are used to design a holistic environment that has its own set of codes that direct the visitor’s behavior. The list of the educational procedures which create directional paths and modes of interacting continues; maps are distributed, visitors’ guidance and exhibition statements/texts for each room are posted all around these spaces, invigilators survey the room, tours of the works are underway in some of the gallery rooms... Even for visitors that may want to determine their own direction around an exhibition, may find it difficult to not follow the directed path as too many obstacles prevent an alternative route from being accessible.

In the current art world system, there tends to be a trend in providing visitors with a comfortable experience in which we understand the complete message of the exhibition. This assumes that there is one way or path in which to engage with both artworks and exhibitions, as well as presenting them as easily consumable. Like Minton’s ‘secured by design’, in which security makes people seek for more security, you come to expect this reassuring experience directed by the gallery. This experience encourages the audience to think that we have ‘understood’ the exhibition and without this being replicated in other spaces and exhibitions we (the public) can feel awkward or vulnerable. This can mean that many viewers rely on the texts provided by museums, galleries, curators or artists, as this is the habitual path that we have been placed on.

[1] Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (London, New York: Verso, 2016), 13.

[2] Anna Minton, Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty First Century City (London: Penguin, 2009), 66.

[3] Legacy Russell, Glitch
Feminism, A Manifesto, (New York: Verso Books, 2020), 74.


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