By Tom Sutcliffe
I think the best thing I've seen recently was a label. It read "Please Play" and it was painted in yellow letters on the scuffed concrete of the Roundhouse in London.
It wasn't exactly an assertive element of the installation I'd gone to see, which was fitting really since this art work had been designed by David Byrne – a name that I doubt has ever occupied the same sentence as the word "assertive" without some kind of negative interposing its body between the two. Byrne had turned up for the press opening of Playing the Building, an installation which converts the old engine shed into a giant musical instrument, controlled from an old chapel organ – and his introductory speech was a charming exercise in awkwardness, full of hesitant (but rather good) jokes and yawning oratorical gaps.
Playing the Building is a similarly retiring kind of art work. You can't miss some elements of it, obviously. The chapel organ, for example, is spotlit from above and sits squarely at the very centre of the space. From its rear, an orderly spaghetti of cables rise up and then out to the circumference of the space, connecting the organ's keyboard with the hammers and blowers and motors which stir the structure into resonance. Press on the keys and you'll hear a clang as a solenoid whacks one of the iron pillars, or an eerie architectural hoot as compressed air is blown across one of the building's pipes. But the sounds aren't amplified – and if no one dares to approach the keyboard you may get the sense of a largely empty and silent space. Of something waiting to happen.
Hence that yellow instruction. It's intended to reassure the nervous – and, to a degree, pretty much everybody over the age of eleven is nervous when sharing space with a work of conceptual art. We're aware that something is expected of us and we assume that certain rules are in place, "Don't Touch" being the obvious one. I remember a while ago a Hayward show included an exhibit which positively required members of the public to get hands on, and they'd had to station an attendant there to nudge visitors into action. Without the "Please Play" on the floor it's possible that the sophisticated art lover would inspect the organ in silence and construct a mute sculptural work which was only meant to make you think about sounds rather than produce them.
What's lovely about the instruction, though, is its ambiguity. "Play" obviously means "perform" in this context, but it also invites you more generally to frolic, and that instruction seems to reach out beyond this particular work to anything else in life. During the question session, Byrne was asked what I took to be a hopelessly amorphous question which actually provoked a crisply defined answer. Was there a single theme he could identify running through all the work in his career, he was asked. That nobody should be intimidated by art, or put off by the belief that it wasn't intended for them, he answered. He didn't want people thinking they didn't know enough or weren't smart enough to get something out of what he did. It wasn't an exam you could fail. It's an important truth about conceptual and modern art that often gets overlooked. It isn't work, and you're not going to get sacked if you don't come up to scratch. Please Play.