Mary O’Shea and The Grange
Date: Fri, Jan 23, 2009 at 12:07 PM
Subject: Mary O’Shea and The Grange
Dear Iris Haussler,
I would like to explain to you what I felt was fundamentally wrong about your art piece constructed through the fictional archaeological narrative of The Grange and Mary O’Shea, but first, and most importantly, I need to tell you that, like the other members of my family and the tour group we were with, I was completely taken in by the narrative and tour. The fact that I was taken in, and so willingly participated in the exploration of ideas and notions around the fiction, is at the centre of what I think was wrong. I have been scammed before, perhaps most effectively by a scam artist near the train station in Rome, and it was not at all pleasant to learn, as I very quickly learned on that occasion, that I had been duped. In fact, I was able on reflection to analyze very quickly what aspects of my own personality and of the scam conversation I had engaged in had led me to hand over money to someone I didn’t know. I ended up feeling angry, but mostly at myself for being duped so easily, and stupid. Although I might also have felt some anger toward the scam artist, that was not the predominant emotion, because after all he was doing what he does, and I was dumb enough to let myself be one of his victims.
At The Grange archaeological tour, which we had been informed about by the ticket seller and encouraged to join by one of The Grange personnel, it was a different experience. There was nothing in the occasion or context to suggest I should have my guard up because I might be scammed. When we joined the tour, which had just started, I was, like all the other members of our group, quite charmed by the presence and commentary of our very personable guide. We proceeded through the tour without skepticism and built on each other’s comments in a collaborative and enthusiastic exploration of the “mystery” of Mary O’Shea. No one said, Wait a minute. No one said, Hey, that’s not really possible. We all thanked our guide at the end for an interesting and engaging experience, and my family members and I discussed it over lunch immediately afterward.
You might ask what was wrong with that. After all, your fictional narrative had provided us with an interesting diversion and some spirited conversation. However, this conversation was much less spirited and less acrimonious than the ones we had the following day when we mutually discovered that we had all been scammed. The anger we felt then was not at ourselves for being duped, though I suppose you could argue that we should have known, should have figured out the implausibility of the narrative elements and artifacts. What we were all angry about was the fact that a scam artist had been permitted to create a narrative based in archaeological discourse that utilized the historical context of The Grange, that we had all been taken in by it, and that at no point was there any caveat or disclosure. I can understand that as an artist you may not have wished to state or imply any caveat, though when we go to a magic show or theatrical performance or when we open a novel, we are always aware if we stop to think about it that we are suspending our disbelief for the pleasure of the artful, or art, experience; that is, the caveat is implied by the context of the act we engage in. Your piece utilized the physical context of The Grange, a series of artifacts, the trappings of archaeological research, and a personable guide to scam us, and we didn’t like being scammed.
You may argue that you got us to pay close attention to aspects of life in The Grange and to the probabilities and plausibilities of the artifacts you created. You may also argue that you got us to consider more carefully the nature of an “art experience”, though for that to happen we needed to uncover on our own the fact that we had been scammed. However, what we all ended up with, besides the considerable bad taste in our mouths over time wasted and the duplicity of the event, was an extended discourse of the ethics of the event. Some of our concerns might have been dispelled had there been any kind of disclosure at the end of the experience. Perhaps you feel you are above the educative aspects of such a thing, but the tour could well have given people the opportunity to collectively reflect on what an artwork is and what understandings they might have gained from this experience. However, there was no disclosure, and we all ended up feeling burned by the experience. Central to this was the duplicitous nature of the relationship that developed between our group and our guide. She knew and understood the deception she was perpetrating on your behalf, and the relationship that was uniformly positive throughout our tour became the next day a source of frustration and anger because someone had intentionally led us to believe something that was not true and had allowed us to leave without ever disclosing the true nature of the event. We all felt a sense of betrayal at this, betrayal by you, the maker of the piece, and betrayal by our guide who deliberately led us through the tour. We were outraged by the fact that we had been made part of some human subject research event without our knowledge. You might want to check with any research social scientist about the ethics of human subject research and the responsibility for both caveat and disclosure.
Your playing with our belief or credulity is no different from the scam artist in Rome. However, the difference for us is that in Rome all we lost was some money; in the scam experience you devised in The Grange we lost our time, our faith in human interaction, our attention to worthier aspects of the AGO, and our experience, pleasure, and education through engagement with the building and the works in it.
I hope that, like us, you give some thought to what you did with The Grange and that it helps you avoid further activities/projects that intentionally build a sour and cynical relationship with your viewers/participants.