Laura Gascoigne: The Experience Economy – January 2019

Laura Gascoigne
January/February 2019

The buzz of anticipation in the COL Ballroom in Davenport Iowa is audible, the audience murmurating like a flock of starlings; then the first twangs of an electric guitar tuning up, followed by a smoky voice: “I’m going to ask one question before we start: Are y’all experienced?” “Yeah!” roars the crowd, unleashing a 10-minute guitar solo of yowls, howls, skitterings, screeches and kerrangs. August 1968. How experienced was Hendrix? He was 25.

I don’t know whose idea it was to call the band The Jimi Hendrix Experience – you can bet it wasn’t Jimi’s – but they were ahead of the economic curve. It would be a generation before America woke up to potential value of ‘the experience economy’, identified in 1998 by B Joseph Pine II and James H Gilmore in a ground-breaking article in Harvard Business Review: “Commodities are fungible (no, me neither), goods tangible, services intangible, and experiences memorable.” (Their italics.)

Economic trickle-down effects, like leaks, always debouch in the wrong places and the experience economy has now seeped into the art gallery, where the trickle is threatening to become a flood. One of the first to open the stopcock has been Tate Modern with its immersive Turbine Hall installations, the most memorable to date being Olafur Eliasson’s The Weather Project, which reportedly drew over two million visitors in 2003. I don’t remember it, not for the reason I’ve forgotten the 1960s but because I was never actually there. Which made me doubly keen not to miss In Real Life, Tate Modern’s latest show by the Danish-Icelandic artist who “puts experience at the centre of his art”.

Eliasson really understands this game: his exhibition ticks all Pine and Gilmore’s boxes, beginning with its theme: “An effective theme,” they recommend, “is concise and compelling.” Where the Hard Rock Café has rock music and Planet Hollywood has Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Eliasson has climate change. His show was swarming with Gen Zedders taking selfies of their coloured silhouettes cast on the wall by a row of lighting gels, or dancing in rainbow mist falling from the ceiling. There was something for everyone: for the sober-minded, a wall of before-and-after shots of shrinking glaciers; for the frivolous, a spiral mirror tunnel in which to admire their kaleidoscopic reflections; for the mystically inclined, a longer tunnel of radiant fog that made me feel I’d died and gone to heaven. As fog art goes, the experience was feet-in-front-of-your-face ahead of Gormley’s miserable pea-souper at the Hayward in 2007. So top marks all round. But at £18 a ticket? 

When you own a press pass you forget how the other half lives, but I looked this up and then, for comparison, I looked up the prices of other London visitor experiences: London Sea Life Aquarium – £22; London Dungeon – £24; Jack the Ripper Walking Tour – £19 for two (you’d look suspicious going alone); The Slide at the ArcelorMittal Orbit – £33 for two; The London Bridge Experience – £36 for two (now half-price, and bring your own narwhal horn); Save Humanity: Cocktail Infused Escape Room for Two at the Grid – £60, for which you get to play with AI tools, do crazy puzzles and try to defeat an evil corporation (while enriching the one that dreamt this nonsense up).

OK, the Eliasson experience offers something these don’t: a sense of satisfaction at being on the right side of ice age history. But face it, this is a competition art can’t win. True, Gormley’s golden-ager adventure playground at the RA was heaving when I went, mostly with bewildered biddies navigating the energised spaces, negotiating the slabworks (I so prefer slobworks) and gawping in disbelief at a roomful of muddy water describing itself as “a kind of primordial soup of matter, space and time”. Gormley’s “invasion of the inside by the outside” may be a novelty worth £22 to Londoners while the Thames Barrier holds up, though probably not to residents of Tewkesbury where primordial soup is free at the point of delivery. There was a tunnel here too, a dark cuboid cloaca which I chose “to navigate around the outside” as I feared it might get clogged with costive biddies and Dyno-Rod might have to be called to flush us out. Such are the risks of “embodied experiences in art”, as they are now known.

Still, one can’t object to contemporary art installations being sold as visitor experiences, because if they’re not then what is the point of them? The trouble starts when the experience concept is applied to displays of traditional art. The National Gallery has ventured down this path with its immersive extravaganza Leonardo: Experience a Masterpiece, entered through a sort of Alpine pass constructed of mirror blocks prompting visitors to “explore a landscape populated by the ideas of Leonardo as he set about painting the Virgin of the Rocks”. The pass gives access to a mock-up of a conservator’s workshop with a projected image of the painting’s underdrawing; a chiaroscuro room where you can fiddle with dimmer switches to ‘relight’ a photographic tableau of a seated model dressed as the Virgin; and an ‘imagined chapel’ where you can view the actual panel in a variety of different projected settings.

All of this for £18 standard admission. If the show was almost empty on a Tuesday afternoon, it’s because it breaks Pine and Gilmore’s cardinal rule: “Before a company can charge admission, it must design an experience that customers judge to be worth the price.” A cocktail infusion might have helped. As it was, the best bits were the quotes from Leonardo’s notebooks reflected in the mirror blocks of the mountain pass: “So we can say the earth has a vegetative spirit, and that its flesh is the soil, its bones are the arrangement and connections between stones which form mountains, its cartilage is the tufa rock, its blood the veins of water.” Match that for eco-sentiment, Olafur.

How memorable are these experiences? I had to go through my photographs before writing this to remind myself. True, no damage was done by the Leonardo experience if you discount the hit to the wallet of having to pay for what is normally free – visitors do eventually get to see the painting. That’s not always the case with Dulwich Picture Gallery’s old master experience Rembrandt’s Light, for which – to highlight the theatricality of Rembrandt’s art – cinematographer Peter Suschitzky (of Star Wars and Mars Attacks! fame) has been commissioned to design atmospheric lighting. For the night paintings, his lighting notes prescribe “darkness contrasted with a soft, warm light, recreating the feeling of Rembrandt’s candlelit studio” – with a consequent reduction in visibility. Meanwhile the spotlight on Christ and St Mary Magdalene at the Tomb is programmed to fade and brighten “emulating the dawn breaking over Jerusalem”. Oy vey! Gilding and lilies come to mind.

“Experiences, like goods and services, have to meet a customer need,” suggest Pine and Gilmore. Does Rembrandt really need help with his chiaroscuro? In one of his few recorded remarks, he advised a patron: “Hang this piece in a strong light”. No, there’s only one way to experience paintings, and that’s by looking.