When the end justifies the means

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Most forms of new technology eventually provoke a reaction from artists - and the newer the technology, the more experimental the art is likely to be. I use the word "experimental" here not as the standard approving cliché, incidentally, but in a sense that most scientists will be familiar with; that is, an endeavour in which the ratio of failure to success is likely to be quite high. By and large, self-consciously technological art is too preoccupied with means to achieve really good ends. And those engaged in it know that they're doing the lab work for people who will come later - those who can take the means for granted.

Most forms of new technology eventually provoke a reaction from artists - and the newer the technology, the more experimental the art is likely to be. I use the word "experimental" here not as the standard approving cliché, incidentally, but in a sense that most scientists will be familiar with; that is, an endeavour in which the ratio of failure to success is likely to be quite high. By and large, self-consciously technological art is too preoccupied with means to achieve really good ends. And those engaged in it know that they're doing the lab work for people who will come later - those who can take the means for granted.

Occasionally though, you catch a eureka! moment in this process - one of those encounters where you think: "Oh yes! That's how you use it." You can catch one now, as it happens, at the Victoria and Albert Museum's sound exhibition, Shhh... The idea of the show was to commission artists and musicians to create sound pieces inspired by the museum's rooms and contents, which are then played to visitors through headphones.

The pieces are triggered not by punching in a numbered code - as with ordinary audio tours and commentaries - but by an infrared beam at the entrance to each room, the notion being, I suppose, that the works pounce on you in a slightly eerie and unexpected way.

As with many of these things, the theory doesn't quite match up to the practice. Unless you have a day to spare for pure contingency, for instance, you have to use a map to find your way to each "exhibit" - a rather fussy, flustering business which inevitably eats away at the sense of aural hallucination. And, inevitably, some of the pieces are disappointing - as you might expect, given that they've had their origins in a curator's inspiration rather than an individual artist's obsession.

Jeremy Deller, for example, gets his niece to record some thoughts about her favourite pieces in the Chinese galleries. This was probably very nice for her, but is underwhelming for anyone except her close relatives. There are some knowing clashes of tone - such as a hip-hop track in an 18th-century music room - and quite a lot of responsive ambient noodling. There's not much that makes you think of the experience as being very different from walking round with a Walkman set on random play.

Then you reach the Bromley-by-Bow room - a reconstructed Jacobean interior that is part of the museum's British galleries. Here, the artist Gillian Wearing has delivered a simple 10-minute interview with an unidentified curator from the museum, in which he talks about how the wood panelling and plasterwork remind him of his prep-school days. What you hear is funny and touching, and redefines that space in a way that I imagine will be irreversible.

The comedy comes from the unlikely yoking of abuse and nostalgia. The regime at this Sixties educational establishment would arouse furious indignation if visited on Iraqi prisoners, but it's recalled here by the curator with heartbreaking affection and respect.

If you didn't finish your dinner, he recalls, it would return cold and congealed at breakfast next day. "I would have to sit there alone, crying, pushing this down my throat. But it did me good, because when I go to dinner parties today, up to a point, no matter how bad it is, I can push it down my throat."

Similarly, what the boys knew as a "matron wash" - being scrubbed red and raw with a scrubbing brush as a punishment for poor hygiene - had, he says gratefully, taught him to wash methodically.

Even memories of beatings from the headmaster appear to restore a sense of lost content: "When you're nervous, you study things very carefully - and he had some nice plasterwork... 17th-century, I think."

This is a kind of social history in itself. And an entirely fitting addition to the British Galleries. You might label it "English Institutionalisation, late 20th-century" and supply explanatory notes for baffled foreign visitors. But the richness of Wearing's piece is that it isn't just about an accident of association - but also about the curatorial instinct and the way personal histories intersect with the official ones. She interviewed lots of people for her piece, but chose only this one. And she knew exactly what she was doing.

"I want my memories to remain happy memories, in aspic, as it were," the man replies when she asks whether he has ever revisited his prep school. "I certainly don't want them to be chipped or knocked or altered... That's why it's so nice to come to this room: it doesn't change, it stays the same."

Is this pathetic or admirable? As with any good piece of art, you couldn't say. What is true is that while you listen, the technology disappears - means altogether erased by the quality of the end.

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