Don’t give me permission – just let me take it instead?

Recently I read a (not-so-recent) post on the Open Objects blog in which the author was reflecting on a visit to the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA)  in Hobart, Tasmania. The comments in the post about the experience of using the “O” device in particular prompted me to reflect on my own preference for avoiding the device and exploring the museum’s space and collection unchaperoned.

On my first visit to MONA, shortly after its public opening, I collected and engaged with “O”. It appeared, at that point in time, to be an essential part of the visitor experience. However, on every visit since then, including visits to new exhibitions, I’ve felt as though the “O” would restrict rather than enhance my experience.

Walking around the space without the “O” I feel more immersed and more able to find my own sites and moments of value. Ironically I think the “O” and the competing voices of interpretation and response that it presents are intended to encourage the individual journey and disrupt the sense of an authoritative, institutionalised voice. But I don’t want to be told I can explore freely–being granted that permission too explicitly actually undermines my sense of agency.

Perhaps I’ve been spoiled by my early experience of MONA at the weekend-long event “Synaethesia” (2013). (There’s something about it here and/or here if you’re interested.) During that event I sometimes opted not to move to the space where a particular performance was located (and where its audience was probably also assumed to be located) and instead took myself through the galleries (which were often otherwise empty of other people, be they other visitors or gallery attendants). The venue lighting was even darker than normal and it encouraged me to walk more slowly and deliberately throughout the space. I would catch faint wafts of sound from other spaces. I would also catch faint wafts of guilt or concern that somehow I wasn’t really meant to be doing this and that I was only by chance evading being shepherded back to the main group. I had been disappointed by the presentation of a program at the event (telling the audience what was on and when and where) as I’d expected, based on the marketing for the event, that I would instead be left to stumble and discover and experiment my way through the weekend. However, had my expectations been met, I may not have been able to have these quiet, individual-feeling moments of exploration.

Perhaps not picking up the “O”, not doing what many others do and avoiding what feels like the most established path, is my way of trying to re-find that moment that I had at “Synaethesia”. If so, I’m yet to succeed; although the tone of the current “Marina Abramovic Private Archaeology” exhibition takes me close. I also want to remember that another highlight of “Synaethesia” for me was actually the conversations I had (over beautifully presented and generous meals and under a large tent on the tennis court). So, it’s not only the individual, self-directed experience that I I think I seek at MONA and its events but rather the opportunity to move between the individual and the communal and to find my own combinations and points of return and departure.

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