Image by Amy Withnall
We’re prostrate under a table, undignified: legs sprawling, precariously close to each other’s faces. Inching closer to the artwork gloriously perched on a plastic chair, fingers lightly brushing the canvas – we’ve triggered an alarm. Retreating under the tablecloth with a stifled giggle, we plan our next gambit to steal the painting.
Sure, theft is a criminal offence. But law has no place in Stirrup Gallery’s Art Heist, the love child of four part-time artists: Amy Withnall, Rona Barugahare, Tom Dicker, and Paul Sztajer. Conceived from Amy’s boredom with mind numbing fine art galleries, the quartet transformed a humble art exhibition into an interactive and immersive game environment.
Here’s the objective. You, plus one or two accomplices, equipped with a single UV torchlight, have thirty minutes to replace a booby-trapped artwork with a worthless counterfeit, stealing the original in a feat of daring, triumph, and bruises from one-too-many ambitious somersaults. Puzzles to decode and omniscient guards on the nightshift further complicate an otherwise simple brief.
Our cavalier approach, hiding under the first table in sight, coupled with a shortage of visible clues, meant skipping some crucial objectives and puzzles over the course of the game. In any case, a seasoned gamer would probably fare better – the most valuable toolset here is puzzle-solving finesse, not an appetite for Old Masters. Though we were particularly maladroit thieves, the corollary is that participants, informed by their personality as well as popular culture, will have unique ways of navigating the gallery space. Since we all behave differently under pressure, Art Heist is refreshingly replete with possibility.
An art gallery audience is passive – they stand in front of a work, or circle a sculpture, and look. But what distinguishes Art Heist from a traditional gallery is its transition from permanence and passivity to transience and activity. Paul adds that the game’s development involved “getting into the heads of the players” by visualising himself within a heist scenario. Time constraints bolster the urgency of the heist, while CCTV cameras effectively eliminate any sense of complacency. The result is startlingly immersive, affirming Rona’s insightful conclusion that “art is just an experience.” This challenges the notion that art is necessarily a form of political or social commentary.
Admittedly, we entered the game with the preconception that art is inherently philosophical. However, after thirty minutes of scurrying under tables evading “security guards” Amy and Rona, we were left pondering whether art needs to be critical, the nature of the relationship between artist and audience, and whether this was an exercise in performance art or sport. Amy’s answer was simple and painfully reminiscent of both our (currently non-existent) love lives: “Why label things?”
Indeed, there’s no need to contrive life-affirming metaphor or psychoanalytical commentary in order to appreciate art. Rather, the success of the event rests on its capacity to engage participants through action, deviating from passive inspection in clinical, historic galleries. As Paul puts it, “[art] can be whatever it wants.”
Regardless of whether Art Heist challenges the highbrow by entertaining other modes of appreciating art, we ended up having fun. After all, there’s something about imagining yourself all-black in an Ocean’s Eleven vault sequence, George Clooney style.
Art Heist runs from the 17th to 21st February. Find out more here.