Culture Clash | Experiential expectations | What the visitor expects

What the visitor expects

Each cultural form has rules of engagement that they honour and that we mostly take for granted. Because we can expect a certain amount of fundamentals, we tend not to question the environment when engaging with these forms; it exists to accommodate the actual experience, which may be a film, a play, or a band. Of course, this isn’t a hard and fast rule; we may prefer certain cinemas to others, and certain music venues may annoy us because of their acoustics, or architecture. But generally we accept these things because they play by the rules - they fit into our expectations.

When we visit the cinema, for example, we are confident that we will be seated, and that the room in which we watch the film will be dark. We can also expect the film to be projected onto a large screen, and for the sound to be relatively loud. These are all things that we can confidently take for granted prior to arriving at the cinema. If any of these conditions were to be different – if, for example, we were asked to stand for the duration of the film – then we would probably feel unsettled and may come to view the experience as an unsatisfying one. Our lack of satisfaction arises from how far the experience has differed from our expectations, expectations that are built upon previous experience or knowledge. If we’d come from a culture in which viewers are expected to stand whilst at the cinema, then we may feel uncomfortable being asked to sit. Expectations are adaptive, in that they allow us to go through life without fearing what each experience will bring; they allow a fluidity of experience, and give us confidence in our environment.

This isn’t to say that to have expectations, or to have them fulfilled, is always preferable – there are of course many benefits to not knowing what to expect – rather, expectations in themselves are largely unavoidable; you can, after all, expect to not know what to expect. It is this not-knowing – what Keats termed ‘Negative Capability’, the ability to tolerate uncertainties - that is a potential site of tension within a person, and, as we shall see, how they deal with this can determine how they interpret their experience.

When it comes to expectations, the contemporary art gallery can often be a site of not-knowing, and by extension a site of tension. On one visit we may have seen a film in a dark room, and may have been seated much like in a cinema. On another we may have seen a film, yet this time we may have been asked to sit on the floor, or to stand. The room may not have been dark, or the sound may have been too quiet, or too loud. Perhaps we saw a sculpture and were allowed to walk through it, or beneath it; maybe we were even allowed to touch it. Yet, on our next visit there was a barrier erected to prevent us from touching the work.

Contemporary art galleries are constantly confounding our expectations, and often the most we can expect is to not know what to expect. This lack of surety creates tension because it doesn’t allow the adaptive comfort of prior knowledge.

When we know what to expect, what the rules of engagement are, then we know how to form an approach to it. When we go to a cinema we unconsciously prepare ourselves for the experience; whilst we may not know what the film will be like, we know that it will be a film, and it is this basic assumption that allows us to tolerate the unsurety of not knowing the content of the film. Whether the film itself plays by the rules is another matter, but we can be sure the experience will; something will be shown, its duration is fixed; it will start, and it will end. We will use our eyes and our ears to apprehend it. These are all things that we are allowed to take for granted and that ease the tension of not-knowing.

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