They look like a zombie army, shuffling in sequence up the Tate Modern ramp. A girl approaches from the pack and says conspiratorially: “Recently I have taken control of my life by learning to say ‘no’”. Then the walkers suddenly break out into a sprint, forcing startled museum visitors to duck out of their path or be flattened.
This is the latest art installation to take over the gallery’s Turbine Hall public space, an “anarchic” series of close encounters with ordinary people, which resembles the Jeremy Kyle show relocated to the Olympic Stadium athletics track.
Previous exhibitions in the vast Tate Modern space have featured spiralling slides and millions of ceramic sunflower seeds. These Associations, by the British-born, German-based artist Tino Sehgal, is the first to replace any kind of physical object with people.
The London 2012 Festival installation, which opens tomorrow for three months, allows the public to mingle with choreographed performers and often blurs the line between museum visitors and participants.
A pool of 200 “interpreters”, chosen by the artist from a series of workshops, will walk, run, dance, sing and chant in a choreographed sequence throughout the day, every day. They sidle up to visitors and seek to prompt an emotional response by opening a conversation, often with a revelation about their lives.
Visitors are encouraged to walk and then, if the pace quickens, run alongside their conversation partner. At pre-determined movements, the group will turn into a “swarm”, zig-zagging across the cavernous space at pace, surprising the first visitors, unaware of the “flashmob” installation. The noise and movement is akin to being trapped inside a school playground at lunch break.
The “interpreters” have been selected to “hold up a mirror to London 2012”. Some are artists themselves and all are paid the living wage of £8.30 an hour to work four-hour shifts, including breaks.
The organisers admitted it was unfortunate that there were no black faces among the participants at the media launch but promised that there would be a greater ethnic diversity among the group at other sessions.
The installation aims to show that Tate Modern has not lost its cutting edge. Chris Dercon, Director of Tate Modern said: “It is one of the most radical works we have ever shown at the Tate. It is difficult, dangerous and transforms the museum into an anarchic experience.
“The participants are not actors. They are working to produce something – emotions. It is more confrontational because people are forced to talk about their own emotions.”
Sehgal’s works are renowned for their high levels of social interaction. “What can we do instead of producing objects?”, he asked. “Your attention is the material I work with.”
Sehgal said that visitors’ safety would be protected. “It is the nature of the swarm that individuals can look at what’s ahead of them and make a decision to change a prescribed route.” The Tate said it had security arrangements in place to protect performers from any visitors bent on causing harm.
Where most museums “train you into polite behaviour” , Sehgal wants to tap into the “joyful, non-restrained state” of the Turbine Hall. Whilst he will direct his “performers”, Sehgal admits that at times, the participants will be indistinguishable from members of the public.
In 2007 the Tate Modern faced a legal battle after a visitor broke her hand after sliding down a helter-skelter designed by Belgian artist Carsten Holler.
Visitors were banned from touching Chinese conceptual artist Ai Weiwei’s 100 million hand-crafted sunflower seeds two years ago because the movement of the crowds released a "greater than expected level" of ceramic dust.
Three visitors fell into the artist Doris Salcedo's "Shibboleth," a jagged crack running the length of the room, in 2007.