Goffman in the gallery: interactive art and visitor shyness

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Scott, Susie ; Hinton-Smith, Tamsin ; Härmä, Vuokko ; Broome, Karl (2013)

In an effort to facilitate public engagement, contemporary art galleries and museums house interactive exhibits incorporating digital media. Despite removing traditional barriers of cultural capital, however, these exhibitions now presume a level of technological and performative competence, which can feel equally intimidating to visitors. Reporting on an UK-based ethnographic study and using dramaturgical theory, we show how interactive exhibitions can evoke situational shyness in visitors, through the combination of a demand for active, performative engagement and the deliberate restriction of instructional and explanatory information. In this ambiguous setting, visitors search for a social script to guide their action, the absence or opaqueness of which creates self-conscious inhibition. Actors adapt to this resourcefully by looking toward others to provide a replacement script; these may be companion visitors, strangers, or imaginary audiences. Some visitors, meanwhile, demonstrate resistance by refusing to engage with the interactive art agenda altogether, preferring to assume a role of detached spectatorship.
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