museum photography vs public participation
The point of this article is a bit obvious. But it will also take time to construct, and elaborate on. Bear with me here.
Two days ago I was discussing certain preconditions of the contemporary gallery space with Cinzia Cremona and Chris Meigh-Andrews from England; they were in town to present the Analogue Film Series which I mentioned a few days ago. We were talking while standing in the Flux Factory gallery space; I was giving them a tour, and showing them the then-closed-but-still-installed (taken down yesterday, the day after our conversation! whew!) Tatlin-inspired exhibition, and how certain elements of this exhibition encouraged viewer participation. We all highlighted how the normative functions of the gallery are still yet to distance the viewer from participatory activity. Unfortunate but true, most places still tell you don’t touch, don’t lean too close, and definitely don’t ‘interact’. We all sort of questioned and defended both sides of the issue; Cinzia in particular pointed to a 1971 exhibition by Robert Morris held at the Tate Gallery in which viewer participation actually led to the closure of the exhibition, and noted that viewers can also be responsible for running amok, and damaging exhibitions, and that even though we would all love to include them we ultimately have to make certain decisions about inclusion – it is a variable of the exhibition space today.
So here I am with all of this discussion still filtering in through my head when the next day I made way to the Cooper Hewitt National Design Museum to see the Design Life Now triennial (2006). I didn’t even get ten feet deep into the three-story exhibition when I come across a rack of magazines. Magazines. The kind you flip through at the bodega or off-license. The kind all New Yorkers horde and when we throw them out wrap up in a bundle not only because it’s probably some sort of law but because it makes it easier for the trash man to handle. Most importantly, the kind of magazines that you touch with your hands. I naturally go to open the cover of the issue I’m most-attracted to, the Sept/Oct issue of FRAME with Yayoi Kusama on the cover. In fact, all the magazines in this rack were FRAME, from 2003-05. Within about 1.86 seconds of touching the pages a guard came up to me and instructed me,
You’re not supposed to touch those.
I didn’t see a ‘no touch’ sign, but that is also not my concern; I find it extremely counter-productive to tell people not to touch books and magazines, which are by their very nature meant to be handled and flipped. Especially when the text on the wall tells of how for three years
the magazine’s design changed from issue to issue, a move that defied standard publishing practice to adapt the strategy of a good architect: to treat each space as a new problem demanding a customized solution.
Was the viewer able to investigate these changes and ‘demands’ on-site, with the magazines on display? No. Could you at least find all of these issues in the museum shop for purchase and then investigation? No.
Subsequently I was more or less followed by the security guard who initially uttered the ‘no touchy feely’ words through several installations, with her even peering at me through a window cut in one of the exhibition’s partition walls; I outlasted her by simply standing still for a good four or five minutes without movement, while studying an architectural model.
At the end of the corridor one was attracted, like a moth to a flame, to the work of J. Meejin Yoon. ‘Low Rez HI FI’ is described as a series
of LEDs and interactive pin lights installed on both vertical and horizontal planes to register movement through light and sound and to transmit information, engaging passersby in a dynamic sensory and spatial experience.
Again, here we have interactive design. As you moved around the glass panels encasing the LEDs, a camera sensed your movements and relayed a blinking LED reflection of your person. Super! I wanted to take a few photos. I got off only this one before a guard instructed me ‘There is no photography in the galleries.’ I responded that I would not be able to show anybody what I saw (as in this blog, and you the reader) – most people in the room laughed in response to my comment, while the guard simply left the room.
From here on out things get really drab. Because at this point I can really only write things down and research them later, without any visual relationship; speaking of writing things down, twice throughout the rest of my visit, guards actually came up to me and glanced over my shoulder, not acknowledging me, to see what I was writing – this, I think, is highly unprofessional! As soon as I glanced their way they walked away, not even a joke or comment to my credit.
A shame I couldn’t get more photos since the exhibition – it’s a Triennial remember! – is filled with some pretty interesting works: there was a LCD monitor for SpeakUp by Under Consideration which displayed that website’s article and comment feeds, so you were reading comment feeds in real-time, or articles like this one about big museum displays scrolled by – interesting; I finally got to see in person one of those LifePort(TM) kidney transporters – so cool!!; there was a collection of animations by Psyop including that “Happy Factory” commercial for Coca-Cola (available on YouTube); there was a really great interactive game by Hunter Hoffman which was essentially a virtual environment for exposure (burn) therapy – very intriguing, it claimed ‘pain related brain activity’ is reduced during virtual reality sessions.
However, I was able to get off one other photo, and of perhaps the most-relevant work to this post tinging with notions of interactivity, tactility and viewer participation. On the second floor was a great collection of toys by Kidrobot, a well-known NY-based design firm. The toys, yes, were interesting, but what I was really pleased to see was their ‘Munny Toy, 6-Foot Chalk Edition’, a large version of their ‘do-it-yourself Munny‘, covered in chalkboard paint, with available chalk sticks at hand! People actually were encouraged, via a scruffy sign on the base of the sculpture, to ‘use chalk to decorate’ (not exact quote, but something like that). And people were doing it, live, there! It seemed like such a blessing! I had to linger in the room for a good quarter-hour to not only avoid the lady-guard whose vocabulary was limited to ‘No Pictures!’ while shouting at 70dB (she had her routine down, so much so that sometimes I thought she was just shouting it not because someone was taking photos, but to get into peoples’ subconscious!), but to get a photo of the work in action, of someone scribbling on the sculpture!
Thus the photo is a little blurry since it was rushed! A bloke near me saw my success with the photo-op and took out his own camera, and just as he was powering it on, the guard walked back in, “NO PICTURES”. I just made it!
And the work suggests that not only are viewers allowed to partake in the design, but that at the firm this is likely how they come up with ideas sometimes, by simply drawing or scribbling on these life-size sculptures. I wish there was more of this activity in the world.
On the Munny were lots of scribbles and gestural drawings, and bits of text such as ‘BECOME YOUR DREAM’, ‘Soccer Freak’, ‘A Flower Blooms’, and of course declarations of love ‘Heather ♥s Andy’.
The whoooooooole point of this post is to raise this issue: that museums need to adjust their rules and regulations to allow for viewer participation and especially flash-less photography. Communication-exchange models – blogs, rss feeds, flickr accounts, youtube videos, and so much more – are becoming extensions of viewer participation. Do a search on Flickr for the Museum of Modern Art and you are returned today with 44,283 images (not all of NY MoMA, but at least 80%, or 35,000); do another search for the Cooper-Hewitt and you are returned with 542, and a good percentage being of the exterior of the building!
Within national museums there is always the concern of staying abreast with the public. I implore you, the Smithsonian, and the Cooper-Hewitt, ALLOW FLASHLESS PHOTOGRAPHY! Allow viewers, the public, your supporters, to further-exchange and document your activities! It can only help, to increase awareness of your programs and exhibitions! It is where we are, today!