Can a tug-of-war be theatre?  Or when does art become not-art?

Convener(s): Nicky Petto

Participants: Ed, Matt, +1, +1

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

Bad art is still art.  Just because a piece seems insular or frustrates its audience it’s still art.  Abstract visual art is valued for its impenetrability or the sense of disruption/ shock it causes the viewer.

On the other hand, a mundane or familiar event/ activity (such as a tug-of-war) may be suffused with drama and become something more than it appears.   For example, if two tug-of-war teams were labeled ‘Israel’ and ‘Palestine’ their struggle could be seen as a dramatic enactment of particular story. 

If one of the basic tenets of art is that of the metaphor then any tug-of-war can be read as a symbol of struggle or the competitive nature of humanity.  However, as the context is developed a more detailed reading could be possible.

Is the onus on the participant, producer or audience to develop this context?  How important is the intention of the event?

A company called Search Party has created a work called Search Party Vs.  In it the Search Party performers take on a whole town at table tennis.  It looks and feels like a table tennis tournament.  In this scenario, non-professionals experience the drama of the sporting event directly.  It also provokes a feeling of commonality between townspeople as they face a common ‘adversary’.  As it happens around the world, a larger thread connects the various towns that have taken part adding another dimension of community.

A similar non-art event could be the Nike 10k run when it pitted South against North London.  This relatively accessible sports event created a feeling of community among runners as they represented North or South.  The act of running, or perhaps any sports event, has a narrative.

Zidane is a film documenting the story of a football player, who plays himself.  How does this differ from the ability of the Sky viewer to follow the journey of a particular footballer using ‘Player Cam’ on Sky Sports?  The artistry depends on the constructs put in place and intention of the editor to tell or reveal a story.

How does the frame of the event signal the viewer to look at it?

If a tug-of-war was held on a stage, behind a curtain, would it become drama?  To go this far would provoke a strong element of doubt in the viewer who may question whether it is art or whether they’re being fooled.  Without overt staging, the affect of the work may still be the same.

What is the part played by the participant?  There needs to be a contract or agreement between the actor/ participant and the audience, negotiated by the artist or producer.  Culture can be something that is mediated or it can be something that is simply customary.  With honesty, an Inuit throat-singer who would not be considered an artist within their own culture, can still perform, entertain and transport a ticket buying audience without feeling used or tricked.

Reader Response Theory considers the agency of the audience in creating meaning where none was intended.  This doesn’t mean the participants are artists but it does suggest art can be created without the presence of artists.

When this art is practiced in a community setting, and an artistic purpose is explored within a familiar form of popular culture (e.g. karaoke) does it become stealthy, untrustworthy?  Does art become done to people?  If people are tricked into becoming protagonists or audience members (i.e. are given a role in the creation of an artwork) should we question the artist/ producers’ motives?  Or perhaps it’s precisely this concern for that the affect of the work on the participant that connects with the practice of community development.

If the position of neutrality remains, i.e. the ability to see the event as a tug-of-war taking place within a historical context of social sport, then its possible for it to be both art and not-art i.e. to be read in a variety of ways.