Art has, conventionally, been about disturbing convention. Traditionally, I think, this has been about challenging ideological conventions. The news that health and safety may possibly require the Doris Salcedo “Shibboleth” installation at the Tate to be covered over suggests that the convention is shifting. As does the work of Kendell Greers, currently on display at the Baltic in Gateshead.
Shibboleth, for those who haven’t seen it or read about it, is a crack in the floor which runs the full length of the (large) Turbine Hall at the base of the Tate Modern. It is designed (I paraphrase) to make people think about the instability of the foundations of what we take for granted, and of the cracks between different peoples and different cultures. As a piece of art, I found it unsettling. However, even though it can – at most – be 20-25cm wide at its widest point, no fewer than fifteen people have – according to news reports – managed to injure themselves on it. Easy for me to say that maybe they weren’t looking; it’s impossible to enter the gallery without being confronted by signs saying there is a crack in the floor and that care should be taken.
But also, of course, because of the way in which health and safety culture works, together with its first cousin public liability, the Tate’s health and safety manager is required to respond by outlining concerns and measures rather than saying they should have been paying attention to their surroundings or that by entering a large space in which the only possible purpose of being there is to look at a crack in the floor they were clearly accepting some level of exposure to risk. Instead (and I quote here from the story in This is London):
Dennis Ahern, head of safety and security at the Tate, told colleagues in an internal email that people could easily trip or fall if not paying attention, “with the potential for significant leg injury”. He added that if existing safety features such as lighting and use of signs were not sufficient, the museum should consider applying extra measures. “Such options could include, but are not limited to, higher levels of control of entry, barrier or demarcation lines, Perspex bridging over certain sections or other physical interventions which may become required.”
Since this isn’t an arts blog, not for me to suggest that a perspex bridge might negate much of the point of the work. Instead, there seem to be similarities with the work of Kendell Greers at the BALTIC. Greers’ work is also about risk and danger. There are pieces (on open display) made from razor wire. One exhibit is of a glass case into which a stone appears to have been thrown, with the sharp edges of the broken glass potentially exposed to the touch. Of course, entering the gallery is a challenge; one has to navigate one’s way through staff whose job it is to ensure that you have read a statement acknowledging the risks of entering such a dangerous space. (There is a video podcast of Greers talking about his work on the BALTIC site.)
What does this tell us, from a futures perspective? Art is often a weak signal of change. The health and safety culture, and the regulatory environment that provides its discourse, almost certainly has some way to run yet. But it perhaps suggests that its surge into the mainstream of public life is reaching its cusp.