What Ever Happened to Fun: Carsten Höller’s Test Site
As part of the “Unilever” series, Test Site was Carsten Höller’s response to the Tate’s comission to actively use the Turbine Hall space to implement an artwork. The installation consists of five slides descending to the main floor from four different gallery levels. The combination of the playful and the utilitarian is not foreign to Höller’s artistic endeavours: by creating an alternate mode of circulation within the museum, Test Site explores human behaviour in relation to the surrounding environment. Miwon Kwon’s article “One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity” provides an illuminating theoretical backdrop to discuss the role of architecture and the physicality of the museum space, as reflected by Höller’s Test Site. By way of entertainment, this pleasure-inducing artwork challenges the historically-accepted purpose of the museum by physically engaging with the viewer within its wall. In analyzing the audience’s involvement with the work and the slide structure itself, the installation can constitute as a critique of the museum space which reminds one of the curatorial decisions concerning the paths that visitors should take when walking through exhibitions. Although fun, Test Site can thus be used to explore deeper concerns about the role of the artist, the participants, and the architectural structure through which a discursive field has been created within the contemporary museum space. As demonstrated by Carol Duncan and Allan Wallach’s institutional critique of the MoMA and the traditional labyrinth motif, Test Site reveals itself not solely as entertainment but as an allegory for museum ritual.
Re-Thinking Museum Rituals
Drawing from Pierre Bourdieu studies of the habitus, the installation of the playful Test Site within the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, takes on a meaning that transcends the simple pleasures of the audience. The physicality of the work, which modifies the very architecture and structural functioning of the Turbine Hall, as well as the adjacent galleries, reminds one of the significance of the architecture in relation to the formation of social behaviours. In The Silent Complicity of Architecture, Kim Dovey argues: “The more the structures and representations of social practices can be embedded in the framework of everyday life, the less questionable they become and the more effectively they work. This ‘complicitous silence’ of architecture is the source of its deepest power.” Höller’s Test Site clearly uses the architecture of the Turbine Hall to disturb its usual functioning by offering an alternate mode of transportation. As an alternative to traditional stairs, slides are introduced at each gallery level. The participants can thus slide all the way to the ground floor instead of walking. It might be relevant to point out that although the four slides connect the different gallery levels to the ground floor, it cannot be used to slide from one gallery floor to another. This particularity relates to how the traditional museum, as an institution of education and contemplation, arranges its collections according to space. The audience is guided through the institution and led through a certain path. Defined by one’s conscious and counter-intuitive decision, the installation alters and disturbs the museum’s authority, which is constructed by the designed pathways. Test Site can be spatially analyzed through ritualized movement within the museum environment. It can certainly be seen as an allegory of the prescribed path that the museum imposes on the viewer who cares to enter its walls. This allegory reminds one of Bourdieu’s symbolic capital, which involves “the power to establish the legitimacy of a particular symbolic order within a given field,” in addition to Foucault’s notion of the capillarity of power. Thus, the Tate Modern has the power to dictate what is good and what is not for its audience; in the case of Test Site, riding down an aluminum slide is considered appropriate.
The combination of the structurally altering slides and the ‘sanctification’ of the slide as appropriate for the Tate’s audience also emphasizes the contemporary issue of the changing purpose of the museum. Mostly because of social, political, and economic change, the purpose of the contemporary museum, now comprised of both culture and entertainment, directs its attention towards fun-inducing practices and the engagement of the audience as integral to the artwork itself. Although this mode of participation is clearly different for Test Site, the placement of the piece within the Tate institution repurposes the museum as a site of entertainment. One can argue that as consequence, it simultaneously diminishes the subversive power of the piece, which as Höller points out, is in fact a test site for the instigation of slide systems as a legitimate mode of transportation. In an article about the “Unilever” Series, it is argued that the series is “the final capitulation of installation art to the demands and logic of the culture industry and the ultimate subsumption of the latter’s critical ambition.” While the argument is not without weight, one can refer to site-specificity or site-responsivity to interpret Test Site in light of how the dispositions of such works function within the institution of the museum.
A Supersized Labyrinth
Test Site, with its vertical labyrinthine form, exposed uncanny resemblances to the critique of the architectural and curatorial choices made at the MoMA in New York. The entertainment provided by the ride of Höller’s slides seems undermined by the ritualistic and symbolic value of the museum viewer, turning into an active component within the site-specific work. In both situations, the audience member still absorbs the museum’s ideology, whether it instils discipline or bodily engagement. About the MoMA, Duncan and Wallach discuss:
“This totality of art and architectural form organizes the visitor’s experience as a script organizes a performance. Individuals respond in different ways […] But the architecture is a given and imposes the same underlying structure on everyone. By following the architectural script, the visitor engages in an activity most accurately described as a ritual.”
The labyrinthine path prescribed to the viewer by the MoMA, which can be described as the prototype for the modern museum, is a series of galleries that are arranged in a chain-like pattern. To deviate from the route, it leads one off to cul-de-sacs and secondary paths which contain art that is obviously deemed to be of secondary importance. Assuming one does not deviate from the main route, artworks physically situated outside this conceived path remain unseen. The authority of the museum can never be evacuated because of their curatorial agenda. As discussed by Duncan and Wallach, the labyrinth form is a common image in ceremonial and ritualistic architecture, traditionally associated with enlightenment and rebirth, symbolic of the passage from darkness to light. The physical and conceptual metaphor of the labyrinth is the equivalent to the museum positioning itself as the guardian of art considered worthy of cultural recognition, but also as a provider of historical and artistic truthfulness. The museum is the ultimate provider of secular knowledge. The labyrinth “lead[s] you along a spiritual path that rises to ever higher levels of transcendence. […] Enlightenment in the labyrinth means detachment from the world of common experience and material need.” This experience desired by the viewer at the MoMA, parallels the experience at the Turbine Hall: a descent in one of Höller’s slides. It relates to the experience of the viewer within the slide, the meaning of controlled experience, and to the museum’s wish to provide another form of entertainment that involves the body rather than the intellect. The mere contemplation of artworks is therefore no longer enough. Fun and pleasure, such as in Test Site, is a safe bet in terms of visitor flow.
The awareness of the human body and the offering of an experience in a larger than life installation is what characterized Test Site and is what propelled its popularity. The scale of the installation impacts the human experience. Discussing Susan Stewart’s argument about the antagonism between gigantic and miniature, Davits writes: “although oppositional at first, [they] depart from the same distorted relationship to reality.” This distortion of reality is present in the vertigo and the abandonment induced by Test Site. As Dorothea von Hantelmann points out in the exhibition catalogue, the piece messes with the participant’s perception of space, inducing a loss of spatial and moral orientation. Thus, experiencing Test Site through the illusion of losing control, is telling of the abandonment of the viewer to the museum’s prescription. It also relates back to the experience described at the MoMA: “You are in a ‘nowhere’, a pristine blankness, a sunless white womb/tomb, seemingly outside time and history. […] the substance of the ritual is an internal drama.” The experience is lived internally; the aesthetic of the piece has nothing to do with it.
Introduced by von Hantelman, Foucaultian theory also finds echo in the human experience: Test Site relates to the modernist ideology of the consistently confident subject. Höller’s piece invites the audience to abandon itself, but unlike the traditional contemplative mode, consciously demands it in order to function as art. Test Site mimics the museum apparatus within the museum, through an entertaining form of engagement.
The entertainment provided by Test Site at the Turbine Hall assesses the new role of the museum, the artist, and the viewer in the contemporary art world. The installation of the slides as a site-responsive work, as described by Miwon Kwon in the article “One Place after Another”, disturbs the traditional conception of how to get involved in an artistic experience. This is not without bringing to memory Michael Fried’s argument about the theatricality of minimalism and how the involvement of the viewer is a perverse wish.
The modern museum increasingly relies on the engagement of the viewer. The entertainment value of Test Site, felt through the body instead of the eye, is telling of the shifting practices of the art world and the evolution of the criteria applied to the categorization of art. Art today is less about the visual aspect of the work. Thus the museum has to adapt its practices to stay viable while still maintaining its original purpose and intent. In the particular case of Test Site, it can also be said that the work integrates with the institutional framework. Through the experience of the ride, it can allegorically relate to the experience expected in a contemplative setting, as suggested by Duncan and Wallach.
As Miwon Kwon argues, “The work no longer seeks to be a noun/object but a verb/process, provoking the viewer’s critical (not just physical) acuity regarding the ideological conditions of that viewing.” Kwon also discusses how Minimal art “voided the traditional standards of aesthetic distinction based on the handiwork of the artist as the signifier of authenticity.” It is evident that the production of works such as Test Site is dependent upon participants, while the museum is dependent upon the viewer for its subsistence. The involvement of the viewer is a primary wish of the artist, because the work, although arguably pleasant to the eye, is not intended to be a strictly aesthetic experience. Höller’s production is perhaps one of the best examples to illustrate this shift towards the enjoyment of the viewer. One only has to look to his work Flying Machine, (1996) or more recent Mirror Carousel (2005). Both engage the viewer in an uncommon experience, whereby the audience is actually in the artwork and is intended to function as operator. The contemplative aspect is nullified; the audience and their experience are now the signifiers of authenticity and thus, the barometer of the museum’s curatorial and financial success.
In their essay, Duncan and Wallach write:
“The everyday world, ostensibly banished from consciousness, nevertheless haunts the labyrinthine way. The labyrinth is, in fact, not a realm of transcendence but of inversions in which the repressed realities of the mundane world return, as it were, disguised as […] overwhelming forces.”
Those few words obviously don’t refer to Carsten Höller’s Test Site, but to the architectural and conceptual structure of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The discussion brought forward in the last pages make it easier to juxtapose this critique with Höller’s work. Test Site has the capacity to open a discursive field that relates to both the traditional museum ritual and the contemporary museum’s entertainment premise. The participant’s experience, as enjoyable as it may be, is nevertheless determined by the conceptual and physical structure of the Tate Modern.
The euphoric state induced by Test Site, as well as the focus and emphasis put on the audience, testifies to the success of the privately-funded contemporary museum. They evidently achieve their goal: curating an art exhibit that compels the viewer and dismantles the myth of the intellectually elitist museum. The focus seems to have shifted from the intellectual reflection to the bodily engagement, from the silent contemplation of art to the involvement in it.
The labyrinthine construction of space at the MoMA and the physicality of Test Site, which is basically a vertical labyrinth, are two different yet similar ways to explore the audience’s control (or perhaps loss of) within the museum wall. The path through MoMA and euphoric ride of Test Site address issues of rituals –whether the intention behind them is education or sheer pleasure. The playfulness of Test Site and the entertainment it provides is seemingly not enough to alter the ritualistic power and discipline advocated both by the traditional and the modern museum. The placement of Test Site within the museum institution proves Bourdieu right when discussing the role of avant-garde art: “[It] change[s] and enliven[s] the field without disturbing its foundations.” Clearly, fun is not sufficient to overturn the impact of institutional forces.
Bourriaud, Nicolas. “Relational Aesthetics.” Participation: Documents of Contemporary Art, (2006): 160-71.
Carsten Höller Test Site. Edited by Jessica Morgan. London: Tate Modern, 2006. Published in conjuction with the exhibition “Carsten Höller Test Site” shown at the Tate Modern in London. An exhibition catalogue.
Davidts, Wouter. “The Vast and the Void: On Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and ‘The Unilever Series’.” Footprint (Autumn 2007): 77-92.
Dovey, Kim. “The Silent Complicity of Architecture.” Habitus: A Sense of Place, (2005): 283-96.
Duncan, Carol, and Allan Wallach. “The Museum of Modern Art as Late Capitalist Ritual: An Iconographic Analysis.” Modern Art Culture: A Reader (2009): 178-94.
Fried, Michael. “Art and Objecthood.” Artforum (Summer 1967): 12-22.
Kwon, Miwon. “One Place after Another: Notes on Site-Specificity.” October 80 (Spring 1997): 85-110.
McClellan, Andrew. “From Boulée to Bilbao: the Museum as Utopian Space.” Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline, (2002): 46-64.
Schubert, Karsten. The Curator’s Egg:The Evolution of the Museum Concept from the French Revolution to the Present Day. London: Ridinghouse, 2009.
LIST OF FIGURES
Figure 1 Installation View. Carsten Höller, Test Site.2006-2007. Turbine Hall, Tate Modern, London. Photos by M. Leith, A. Dunkley, O. Leith, S. Drake, M. Heathcote, J. Fernandes © Tate Photography.
1 Kim Dovey, “The Silent Complicity of Architecture,” Habitus: A Sense of Place (2005): 291.
2 Ibid., 288.
3 Carsten Höller Test Site exhibition catalogue, 28.
4 Wouter Davidts, “The Vast and the Void: On Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall and ‘The Unilever Series’,” Footprint (Autumn 2007): 79.
5 Carol Duncan and Allan Wallach, “The Museum of Modern Art as Late Capitalist Ritual: An Iconographic Analysis,” Modern Art Culture: A Reader (2009): 178.
6 Ibid., 190.
7 Ibid., 184.
8 Ibid., 187.
9 Ibid., 189.
10 Davidts, 81.
11 Davidts, 86.
12 Duncan and Wallach, 187.
13 Carsten Höller Test Site exhibition catalogue, 27.
14 Miwon Kwon, “One Place after Another: Notes on Site-Specificity,” October 80 (Spring 1997):103.
15 Ibid, 91.
16 Ibid, 99.
17 Duncan and Wallach, 190.
18 Dovey, 289.