Artist Tino Seghal outside Tate Modern
Tino Seghal outside Tate Modern, 2012

The new Unilever Series installation at Tate Modern is unlike any other I’ve seen. That’s partly because, along with more than 200 other people, I’m in the show. To be more precise, we’re not ‘in’ the show; we are the show. Until 28 October, if you come to Tate Modern, don’t expect to find anything on display in the Turbine Hall. What you’ll find is living, breathing people in one of Tino Sehgal’s ‘constructed situations’

Tino Sehgal has been producing these constructed situations for over a decade – installations that involve nothing more than people carrying out sets of basic instructions and conceits about how to interact with one another and, in some cases, with gallery visitors.  

All of the exhibits in the Turbine Hall set out to involve people. In many cases the visitors involve themselves. There is something about the size of the Turbine Hall that makes it difficult to think of as an ‘art gallery’, and that means the rules for the art and for viewers get suspended. We don’t always behave in the Turbine Hall as we do in the smaller, proper galleries upstairs.

Like thousands of other people, I remember lying on the concrete floor of the hall and gazing up at Olafur Eliasson’s hazy sun. I didn’t brave the queues for Carsten Höller’s slides, and I only got to the Ai Weiwei show after the sunflower seeds had been cordoned off – they were dusty, I noticed, which I suspect the artist would have found disappointing. The wallpaper on my iPhone is still a snapshot from last October of my children, running around the east end of the hall in the flickering lights of Tacita Dean’s film collages. I’m sure I shouldn’t have been taking pictures, but I was.  

Throughout July, Tino and his team of producers worked closely with those of us in the piece in a series of exhilarating, and sometimes exhausting, rehearsals. We’ve learned how to talk, how to move, and even how to sing – with one another and in relation to one another. During our breaks we get to sit in the Tate’s staff canteen; you’re better off with the views of St Paul’s on the 5th and 6th floors.

Tino and his team are masters in the arts of memory. They know all of our names, and often significant details about our lives. I’ve been absolutely shocked by this – by their mental discipline and interest in us. They’ve taken the time to foster relationships and connections, and it rubs off on us. As an American who has lived in London for ten years, it’s disconcerting (but also quite nice) to have near strangers not only acknowledge your existence but start talking to you for no particular reason. All of this is central not only to the enactment of the piece, but its conceptualization and production. Indeed, in many ways, the memory is the art, the sociality is the art.

The first time I met Tino, he addressed me as if we already knew each other. He started talking to me about things that I’d only ever discussed with the show’s producer, Asad Raza. Two weeks earlier, Asad and I had first spoken on the phone, for about an hour. We were put in touch by a colleague inNew York – that’s how I found out about this show. Asad asked me to participate – I’ll be doing a few four-hour shifts each week from now until the end of October.

But talking on the phone wasn’t really right for Asad. He seemed uneasy with such a hi-tech form of communication. So the next day he came to see me in my office at the London School of Economics, where I teach anthropology.  We spoke for another hour. Who has two hours to spare these days? Again, that’s the point behind this piece – letting go of time and its modern demands.    

Nothing is written down for this piece. We didn’t get instruction manuals for what to do because they don’t exist. All of the movements we’ve learned, all of the conceits, the lyrics to the songs we’ll sing: everything is passed on in person; everything comes from practice and from enacting the work. In many ways practicing this piece reminds me of my research in Africa, as an anthropologist, where I’ve studied the importance of oral traditions and embodied knowledge.

Two weeks before the opening, I participated in my first full practice sequence. We were let loose through the Turbine Hall, running betwixt and between the visitors: people queuing for Edvard Munch tickets; hip young couples over from Shoreditch; and a tour group of teenagers from Italy kitted out with bright orange rucksacks.

Teenagers being teenagers, several of them joined our human swarm, mocking our moves, as we snaked our way from one end of the hall to the other. I wondered what we should do. Luckily they had those orange rucksacks; at least I could keep concentrated on my people – the dancers, sailors, students, philosophers, stay at home dads, and Pilates instructors I’d been getting to know (aged 18 to 70, as far as I can tell, and at least one of my fellow participants is pregnant and due in September!).

Tino, observing us from the side, was unfazed.  After we stopped, and the Italians lost interest, Tino addressed us. ‘People are drawn to the group,’ he said. By ‘the group’ he didn’t mean us per se; he was thinking in larger, historical terms – of the relationships between individuals and collectives. Standing there in a monument to the modern, industrialised world, Tino was asking us to serve, through this piece, as a reminder of how those more elementary associations still matter.