Stepping off the tall place
by Sammy Jones
How do you experience art? Do you:
A.) Spend your morning swotting up on all the info you’ll need to feel fully prepared for what you’re about to experience?
B.) Run out of the door like me without considering the consequences, consuming artworks unfiltered, without a moment’s glance at any research?
Art institutions have a responsibility to warn us about potentially upsetting material displayed in their spaces, and not just because of rogues like me.
Curators, artists, and everyone working at museums and galleries put huge amounts of thought and labour into exhibitions, always considering how the artworks will be interpreted by their audiences. The intense decision of how an artwork is presented lies with them.
Content warnings in arts settings are usually conveyed through clear signage displaying themes that might be upsetting or uncomfortable to witness. It’s important for even the most prepared of us to take a moment to consider, ‘am I ready to face this particular brand of heaviness right now?’
When I started working at Artes Mundi as an Engagement Producer a few months ago, I initially focused on Meiro Koizumi’s Angels of Testimony. This film work is based on the first person testimonies of a Japanese war veteran deployed during the Second World War, who appears in the work alongside a group of young Japanese people who perform and repeat his words in public.
Angels of Testimony has a distinctly different feel to the rest of the works at Artes Mundi 9. The content is more unpredictably brutal, is communicated bluntly, and uses explicitly violent language drawn from real life and told from a first person perspective. I think that no matter who you are, there is a strong chance that it will be viscerally hard to experience, and feel overwhelming or even nauseating at first watch. It’s difficult to articulate in writing the depths of inhumanity the work refers to, and yet, it sheds light on a part of history that has been actively hidden away.
On first witnessing the work many themes stood out to me as possible triggers that could negatively impact audiences if they were to barrel into the gallery unprepared. Triggers are defined as, ‘any stimulus that makes a person with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or Complex PTSD (CPTSD) relive, flash back to, or experience severe anxiety or other emotional dysregulation related to their traumatic experiences’ by socialistworker.org*. I have lived experience of sexual trauma and physical abuse, and I was jarred by how much the work stayed with me throughout the week after my first watch. I even felt like I had to issue a verbal content warning before I spoke about it with my friends. And that’s the level of care that art institutions should be aiming for. Content warnings exist for people like me, so I can opt out of witnessing something that could set off physical and mental consequences that could have been avoided.
Because of this experience, I became interested in how Artes Mundi were going to deliver content warnings for the work when open to the public. There seemed to be a stickiness about doing this: being supportive versus being patronising; being vague versus being explicit… it’s all really hard.
In a book I edited, Rife: Twenty-One Stories from Britain’s Youth, my co-editor Nikesh Shukla and I decided to use content warnings throughout. They give readers a heads up of any challenging themes in each chapter before they dive in headfirst and come across something upsetting. But that’s a bit different to content warnings in a public setting like an exhibition – you can more easily stop reading something that feels uncomfortable, put the book to one side, and decompress in your own time and space. However, when you’re physically inside a public gallery, you’re, well, in public. You might not feel safe enough, or confident enough to leave.
Another thing that struck me about Angels of Testimony when I first experienced it was that you could potentially go and witness it as an audience member in a public gallery and then attempt to go about your day. The brutal events it describes could then drift unmoored around your mind without any support for them to cling to. How could we help people decompress from what they’ve just experienced?
When I picture this, I see myself helping someone down from a tall place that they’ve been stranded on, perhaps by taking their hand and helping them back to the ground. In my voice-over for Angels of Testimony I do this by offering a last line of support before the audience is returned to their everyday:
‘Reliving and acknowledging the pain of the past in order to heal is a powerful theme of this artwork. If you feel unsettled, remember the importance of recognising your discomfort, know that others are feeling the same way, and take some time before continuing your Artes Mundi experience.’
I hope this goes a small distance towards supporting those who witness it – but I would love to do more to integrate greater aftercare into difficult art experiences.
Don’t get me wrong – a lot of art is made to challenge, provoke thought and sometimes shock, and that’s okay. Angels of Testimony is one of them – and the aspects that sicken us about the work also open up questions, introduce nuance, and speak to a wider global context than described in the work itself. And that’s the stickiness of it again. There’s so much to balance. It’s important that audiences aren’t patronised by over-explanation. But in an exhibition context, I believe the duty of care, which includes being considerate of audiences and the trauma they might carry with them, lies with the exhibition team. It’s important to take that seriously, these are heavy subjects and they need to be curated with sensitivity.
The experience of art isn’t solely in the work itself, but lives in the space between the work and the audience. The audience brings their perspectives and experiences to the encounter and that colours how the work is interpreted. We don’t all experience art in the same way, and we can’t know how someone might react to a work with violent content, so it’s about mediating the potential for harm, rather than censorship.
I think anything that helps people feel prepared to feel part of the space they’re encountering, particularly in traditionally high-brow arts institutions is a good thing – it’s about stepping off the tall place together, and down to the floor below. Hold my hand if you want to.
Sammy Jones is an Artes Mundi 9 Engagement Producer, and a freelance journalist and editor. She is the Written Content Editor of Rife Magazine.