A programme of events at the Royal Academy was meant to engage young minds, but did it just get between the art and us?
On Sunday 1 July, the Royal Academy of Arts presented Animating Architecture − a schedule of what was described as ‘hands-on architectural activities for families’. The event was included in the extensive list of activities offered by the recent London Festival of Architecture, which was styled this year as ‘Playful City’. The RA picked up the baton and proposed their own brand of playfulness that could take place throughout the galleries of Burlington House and the Annenberg Courtyard in the form of ‘performances, talks, tours and workshops … special activities for all ages’.
The programme included an Interactive Drumming Workshop (animating Chris Wilkinson’s courtyard installation From Landscape to Portrait), a Courtyard Dance Performance (a courageous attempt to generate a contemporary dance piece in response to said installation), Sketching in the Courtyard, a drop-in workshop with Aberrant Architecture (seasoned designers of hands-on workshops), a ‘Playful City’ Workshop in the Summer Exhibition (junk-modelling on the floor of one of the galleries), a Family Tour of Burlington House, and much more. For fear of being overly prosaic, it is important to set the scene in this instance because all the above activities can be said to have been initiated by a contemporary, smoking curatorial gun called ‘augmented participation.’
It is, as everyone who goes to the Royal Academy at this time of year knows, the season of the much fêted Summer Exhibition. Now in its 244th year, it is the world’s largest open submission contemporary art show, which means that potentially anyone who makes art might be lucky enough to have their work selected and displayed in one of the RA’s illustrious galleries. At its best it is a salon display of British tendencies, at worst it is an anyone-can-do-it jamboree.
As a child my mother took me each year, as part of − as she would see it − my visual education, and source of inspiration. I liked the room containing miniature paintings − they were small and so was I. At the other end of the scale, I also liked the really big paintings in big silent rooms because, although I didn’t want to make them, I liked looking at them and it seemed they wanted me to look at them too. I liked it that when you reached the shop, which supplied drawing materials rather than tea-towels, you could pick up a special brush or pen, go home and immediately get to work.
In all respects I was fully able to participate − and by that I mean be involved − in the activity of looking at art. I learnt to admire someone else’s skill and ability to show me the world through their eyes, understand that the activity of making is a continuous, laborious and technical process − sometimes good, sometimes bad − and appreciate that curious, ugly, beautiful, provocative things on walls are there to lift the spirits or prompt a conversation.
I would like to know at what point it was decided that the looking part simply wasn’t enough, or that we were all so good at looking now that we need MORE. It is, after all, our very democratic right to participate in all things, to play a part … have a hand in … be associated with; all developments in politics and communications technology, for instance, feed this desire and with some outstanding results. But I fail to see what that has to do with the pleasures of looking at paintings, sculptures and architectural models.
It pains me to be critical of the eager beavers who work hard to devise such programmes, and even more of those who give up their precious time to enthusiastically hand out pipe cleaners, sugar paper and Pritt Sticks, but what transpires is a sequence of pointless distractions specifically designed to divert us from the very thing we have come to see. Never mind that in an attempt to put the programme to the family test we found that many of the events overlapped, affording no possibility of watching dancing and taking a tour at the same time; and if they didn’t overlap, they gave insufficient time to sketch, attend a workshop and look at the exhibition, other than in the hyperactive and rather unedifying mode of an organised school trip for under-5s.