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I’ve been thinking a lot about pleasure recently. The “P” word ranks fairly high on most people’s list these days and, working in the cultural sector, it sometimes feels like creating conditions for pleasure is the driver for much of our work. Many of our clients who run visitor-based or heritage sites are struggling with the tensions between visitors “having fun” and visitors “learning” as they seek to grow their audiences and compete for our valuable leisure time.

I recently blogged about whether or not we could identify such a thing as “Cultural DNA” https://8late.wordpress.com/2012/10/02/cultural-dna/ and after a recent study trip to Holland I’m beginning to think it might be possible! Of course the Dutch are well known pleasure seekers in certain respects but exploring their cultural centres and museums I was struck by the ease and simplicity with which pleasure was woven through even the most serious of cultural institutions.

Schermafbeelding 2012-09-23 om 09.20.29

Benthem Crouwel Architects‘ playful extension to the 19th century contemporary art gallery sets a playful tone in the city but even the much talked-about revamp of the Rijksmuseum delivered pleasure in the places I least expected, and disappointment where I was sure delight was in store. I had anticipated a deep and meaningful experience with the “masterpieces” inside the museum but in reality it was an alienating and unpleasant encounter as the inevitable crowds blocked my view, their hands held high trying to grab a digital souvenir of Rembrandt’s Nightwatch or Vermeer’s Milkmaid. 

Rembrandt DigitalVermeer Digital

By contrast, whiling away an hour in the green space in front of the Rijksmuseum, we watched with great delight as people young and old, from four corners of the globe, took pleasure in occupying, exploring and playing with a very clever bit of branding. 

D letteram letters

The letters spell “i-a-m-s-t-e-r-d-a-m”. They offer a ludic challenge: a range of shapes to interact with, to make a show for others and a memorable, personal moment of enjoyment. It’s a bold statement which draws people in, creates a focus and a playful half hour in our urban narrative. It’s like the third act in Shakespeare’s plays, providing basic human comedy, relief from the more complex narratives, characters and tensions. But it also provides a sense of collective enjoyment which was markedly lacking from the collective contemplation of the world famous masterpieces inside.

Letter Am letter

A similar collective and playful experience provided a great introduction to the more serious works of art in the heart of the museum. The minute hand on this contemporary and pared-back grandfather clock made its journey across the face only as the artist drew the hand and then, at one minute intervals, erased the hand and drew it again one minute further on. It was like watching stop-motion animation in slow-motion and crowds gathered around, totally intrigued, convinced the artist was actually inside the clock.

clock animation

These apparently incidental moments, the giant letters and the animated clock, at first sight appeared simply playful.  But they soon began to resonate much more deeply than a simple one-liner. They provoked a shared intrigue, an urge to discover and to delight. They stimulated my imagination to think about words and cities, about how people relate to form, about the meaning of time and about the illusory nature of the digital universe we increasingly inhabit. I’m a huge fan of Vermeer and Rembrandt, so within that historic national context it was fascinating to feel my great expectations of a deep and meaningful moment of pleasure melt away in the heat of all the other pleasure-seekers. I’m left wondering why one collective experience was so pleasurable while the other was anything but. Any ideas?

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One thought on “Pleasure Principle

  1. I couldn’t agree more about the experience in the Rjiksmuseum gallery of the masterpieces, but I suspect that people’s behaviour in there resonates in many ways with the rest of your reflections.

    I think that to find real pleasure, people want to actively participate in public spaces in some way. In the uppermost gallery with those enormously famous canvasses the only method of participation in the space is to try and capture a piece of it by holding up a mobile phone and capturing some representation of it, so that they can take away an ostensibly meaningful experience.

    When visiting there in January during one of their busiest times, we only took some ‘pleasure’ in imagining that the live crowds were somehow inhabiting, and part of those great paintings, themselves depicting great groups of people!

    Whats so fascinating is that the more pleasurable experience of the giant letters simply enables and actively invites participation. We are no longer a passive generation – simple consumers of information; we want to take part, to play an active role within it. Indeed we seem to demand it as our right………pleasure and play!

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