Reviewed: The Maybe by Tilda Swinton

A fabulous send-up of our obsession with celebrity

Tilda Swinton first performed The Maybe in 1995 in collaboration with artist Cornelia Parker. For seven consecutive days, the actress slept on a white mattress inside a raised glass box at London’s Serpentine Gallery. Visitors were forced into a situation of involuntary voyeurism, as the artists issued no press release and the gallery withheld information about the installation. Unsuspecting members of the public happened upon the slumbering actress purely by chance. It was a startling installation that garnered a mixed reaction, but its impact remained firmly within the parameters of the art world.

Almost thirteen years later, Swinton has decided to revive it. The actress set-up in the lobby of New York’s Museum of Modern Art on Saturday 23rd March, forcing unsuspecting visitors to enact a kind of voyeurism as she lay there seemingly unaware of their presence. But unlike 1995, this wave of surprised visitors had Twitter. After a barrage of photos and messages were posted onto the site, blogger website The Gothamist quickly published a post on the sleeping actress, in turn sparking a wave of both national and international press coverage.

In a statement given to the Guardian, the MoMA explains that Swinton will be “popping up” in the museum at random times throughout the year. “An integral part of The Maybe's incarnation at MoMA in 2013 is that there is no published schedule for its appearance, no artist's statement released, no museum statement beyond this brief context, no public profile or image issued. Those who find it chance upon it for themselves, live and in real – shared – time: now we see it, now we don't.”

The skeptic in me applauds Swinton’s sense of timing. On 20th March, the actress gave a speech at the ferociously popular opening of the V&A’s David Bowie exhibition, and now she’s starring in an installation at a world-renowned gallery. It can only serve to benefit her reputation as an eccentric actress-come-artist. Meanwhile, The Maybe became a trending topic on Twitter, initiated a surge in visitors to the gallery and a huge amount of press coverage on both sides of the Atlantic – the MoMA must be pleased.

However, move beyond initial skepticism and Swinton’s installation reveals a deeper resonance. The Maybe dissects our obsession with celebrity. It constructs a scenario that encourages the public to gawk, to gossip, to scrutinise a famous actress as she sleeps.

One of the major components of the piece is that no one knows when or where it will be shown. When the installation was originally performed in 1995, all reactions were published posthumously. But thirteen years on, Twitter has facilitated a kind of real-time man-hunt. Buzzfeed, the famous social-network amalgamator, is live-tweeting from the museum. And every art blog and website has posted a Swinton-related story, eager to show how up-to-date they are.

The Maybe’s genius lies in its timing. Staging a revival of the installation after the advent of Twitter reveals the extent of our obsession with celebrity, as the social-network has undoubtedly contributed to global conversations, allowing and encouraging debate on art and celebrity. In this case, it has offered a steady stream of opportunities for people across the world to catch a glimpse of a real-life sleeping beauty.

When asleep, the body is at its most relaxed. We are at our most vulnerable. Under any other circumstances, it would be socially unacceptable to stare and discuss a sleeping woman. But in constructing the scenario inside a gallery, The Maybe not only allows, but encourages the public to enact that desire; only this time you must do it openly, collectively.

Photos of the installation show Swinton surrounded by people willing her to open her eyes. Standing in front of the glass, smartphone in hand, they document her slumber as if she were a rare species of bird. Like a specimen displayed in an anatomical exhibition, Swinton offers herself up for scrutiny. And we took the bait and ran with it.

Initiating voyeurism is at the heart of The Maybe. Its entire construct relies on Swinton as a recognisable face, but its resonance moves beyond this initial reaction, to one of obsession, of fascination and curiosity. She does nothing but sleep. She gives away nothing of herself, other than her physical appearance. But we're lapping it up. Search Twitter and you’ll find comments on anything from her hair to the position of her body. If it had been another, non-famous, woman lying in the MoMa it wouldn’t have caused such a furor. But The Maybe is all about creating a reaction – the installation is merely the initiator, the instigator, of a wider chain of events that ultimately reveal the vacuity of our obsession with celebrity.

Tilda Swinton sleeps in a glass box as part of an exhibition called 'The Maybe' at the Serpentine Gallery 04 September 1995 in London. Photo: Andrew Winning/AFP/Getty Images
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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