In Praise of the Gallery Invigilator

By Kenn Taylor 

The designer hymens had to be the peak – a work of art by Julia Reodica, part of her hymNext Designer Hymen Series. Having to ‘interpret’ this piece to men, women and children of all backgrounds was one of the more challenging tasks during my time as a gallery assistant – one of the many names applied to those who look after art, the spaces it is displayed in and the people who visit it. After a few months of describing designer hymens to the public I felt confident the old adage of ‘selling coals to Newcastle’ would be a piece of cake.

I worked as a gallery assistant of one form or another for nearly three years through numerous exhibitions in a contemporary arts institutions, and this gave me a perspective on the changing nature of this largely unsung role. In traditional museums and galleries, the role of the invigilator was very much one based around security, protecting precious works of art from the unknown whims of the public. This and perhaps occasionally suggesting where a particular painting – or the toilets – could be found.

In today’s new institutions though, the invigilator, while still fulfilling the role of keeping an eye on things and giving directions to the nearest gents, is also called upon to be interpreter, facilitator, demonstrator, guide and technician.

During my own tenure as an invigilator, my role varied from daily discussions with visitors about how a video projection could constitute art to more unusual tasks, including coordinating community takeovers of gallery spaces, making small animals out of pipe cleaners with children (a high point) and looking after shoes in an exhibition which required visitors to remove them – armed of course with a can of Odor Eaters.

A key task was demonstrating how to engage with various interactive pieces, ranging from huge wooden contraptions to talking sofas. In addition to having to apologise to people when ‘interactives’ failed – as they so often did – to stand up to the rigours of the public interacting with them.

I now have another job in the cultural sector, but memories of my time as a gallery assistant were prompted recently when I visited two exhibitions where the invigilator played a key role in the experience of the artwork.

The first was ZEE by artist Kurt Hentschläger. With this piece, the invigilator’s role involved leading participants into a small, smoke-engulfed room where they were subjected to intense strobe and pulse lights which cause the brain to generate surreal images. It was an exhilarating if extreme experience. The invigilator, while undergoing the same ordeal, repeatedly, was our guide and protector for the duration of our time in this disconcerting space – responsible for rescuing those people for whom it was too much, of which there were many.

The Humble Market project, put together by a mixture of Brazilian and UK theatre practitioners and artists, also saw an invigilators take you on an immersive journey designed to knock you out of your comfort zone. Here, they were responsible for everything from helping you dress up as a Brazilian carnival attendee to asking you searching questions about the nature of existence.

As certain branches of contemporary art become ever more based around the creation of installations, situations and ephemeral experiences, the function of the invigilator has increased and expanded. It has reached the point were this role frequently plays a crucial part in the creation of the artwork itself and certainly the gallery visitor’s experience of it. Depending on how an individual invigilator interprets what is presented to them to deliver, the experience becomes even more subjective for the visitor.

This adds another layer beyond the artist’s intention, audience preconception and curatorial interpretation. Speaking as a former invigilator, the experience of being literally ‘on the ground’ with any given exhibit for an extended period of time also sees you develop a unique relationship with an artwork. You are witness to every inch of detail, all its whims, the effects it has on an audience, its highs and lows.

This relationship can be more intense than that between the work and the artist who created it. This is especially true if the artists involved have had little hand in the actual fabrication or ‘demonstration’ of a piece, rather just the concept. It becomes the invigilator’s role to nurture, care for and present to the world someone else’s baby, whether you love it or not.

The role of the gallery invigilator is an area which deserves more thought and respect, yet is often forgotten by artists, critics and curators, even those who have been invigilators in the past. Currently many institutions under financial pressure seem keen to dispense with paid invigilators, replacing this important entry-level position, where a real understanding of arts audiences can be gained, with volunteers. This risks entrenching elitism in the arts, denying roles to anyone who can’t afford to volunteer for long periods of time.

Perhaps it is time that some acknowledgment be given to the important role that invigilators play in the ‘creation’ of many artworks and perhaps even academic research into the function that this unglamorous but vital job plays in our understanding and experience of so much contemporary art

This piece appeared on The Guardian and Museums Journal in July 2012. 

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