Here are two pictures. The first one is me. The second one is George. George is a stranger I met last week at SFMOMA’s new show, The Art of Participation:1950 to Now. We didn’t need a staff member or a program to meet each other. We weren’t trying to pick each other up. We engaged in an exhibit together, making "one minute sculptures" and taking photos of each other. We talked afterwards. We connected virtually later. We were strangers, and now we are not, and we have SFMOMA to thank for it.
The Art of Participation provides a retrospective on participatory art as well as presenting opportunities for visitors to engage in contemporary (“now”) works. As the museum's website puts it, "this exhibition examines how artists have engaged members of the public as essential collaborators in the art-making process." While many of the artifacts of historical art pieces are arresting, the pieces of “now” form an exciting testbed for gallery-based participatory engagement, albeit in a meta way around the topic of participation. The participatory art pieces are physical, social objects that mediate visitor-to-visitor engagement, and the exhibition suggests a set of dos and don’ts that are transferable to any museum or institution seeking to support visitor-to-visitor social experiences.
DO message clearly. SFMOMA uses a variety of methods to make visitors aware of the opportunity to engage physically with the art. At the front of the exhibition is this simple sign (shown at right) explaining that labels written in orange are opportunities to “do, take, or touch something.” This label set up a casual game for me: look for orange, do the thing. Even if you don’t see this label on the way in, the use of a different color allows visitors to become familiar with the use of the color orange as they see it across many labels in the gallery. If the participatory instructions were integrated into the standard black labels, visitors would not be as aware of the commonalities across the interactive art pieces. The repetition of the orange may also encourage some reluctant visitors to engage, as it suggests multiple opportunities for participation.
DO train your floor staff. Staff play a major role in setting expectations about what visitors can and can not do-especially in art museums. There were several guards and gallery guides in the museum when I attended, and they seemed to serve contradictory roles. The guards interpreted the labels in strict ways and intervened anytime visitors deviated from the prescribed activities. The guides had a much more open approach, encouraging visitors to play. I was involved in one situation where a guide and a guard argued about whether a plastic orange could be placed inside a prop fridge. This kind of confusion among staff translates negatively to visitors, who lose confidence in participating for fear of being chastised.
DON’T make the participatory activity too narrow or difficult. There were a couple of exhibits that had complicated instruction sets, and participating felt more like an unpleasant IKEA flashback than an opportunity to explore art. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for challenging exhibits, but the starting point for entry into a participatory experience should always be gentle and friendly. Also, the more open-ended pieces, in which visitors could express some of our own creativity, allowed me to feel more like a participant and less like an unpaid art lackey.
DO think about visitor flow when situating participatory experiences. The Art of Participation has elements throughout the SFMOMA building, and while some are well-placed, others feel ill-suited to their environment. The quiet, less-trafficked education center is a perfect place for contemplative, individual exhibits like the 1000 Journals project, in which visitors can flip through and contribute to a set of journals launched into the world by artist Brian Singer. But a set of DIY foldable furniture, which is performative, social, and challenging to use, felt out of place in the otherwise empty education space. Similarly, the one minute sculptures, where I spent the most time and interacted with many strangers, was successful because it was positioned in an open part of the gallery that generated lots of traffic and sightlines—two key elements for drawing people in.
DON’T make the social ask too uncomfortable. There was a set of eyeglasses in the exhibition meant for two people to wear (see left, the glasses are linked so the viewers face each other). While some people traveling in groups may feel comfortable using a device to stand inches from each other, many strangers (and familiars) do not. In contrast, the exhibit in which I met George—one minute sculptures—requires a simple and non-threatening social action: taking a photo of someone else. It’s minimal enough to feel safe asking a stranger for help but leads easily to deeper interaction.
DO delineate the space, but design easy ways to disengage. George and my experience in the one-minute sculpture activity was also facilitated by the space provided. We were standing on a low platform in the middle of a large gallery. It was clear where to participate (on the platform), which enhanced the performative quality of the experience. People could watch what was happening and join in. People on the platform could turn in multiple directions to entice newcomers into the action. But it was also easy to step off the platform and out of the activity. Too often, we design participatory experiences into their own rooms, thinking we should create a dedicated space for the noise and activity. But openness is safe. I would feel less comfortable playing with strangers in a room shut off from the rest of the museum.
DO provide examples and create a valued context. This is the most obvious way that The Art of Participation succeeds. For every opportunity to engage creatively, there are many examples of how other artists have interpreted participation. This happens on a small scale (for example, the one minute sculpture platform was flanked by photos documenting sculptures created by artist Lygia Clark) as well as throughout the gallery. There is no question in my mind that the art around us encouraged me and other participants to take more risks, and to think of ourselves as making art. We were on display at a huge and powerful museum, a part of the exhibition rather than consumers of an interactive element. And that felt important. It was a feeling that was harder to access in the education center, where participation felt less transgressive and more like a “designed learning moment.”
Some of these dos and don'ts may seem generic. But without all of them, the participatory experience is diminished—and that was readily apparent as I wandered the highly active to not-at-all active exhibits. Context and framing are unbelievably important. Think of what happened to George and me: we had an opportunity to take pictures of people doing silly things with broom handles, plastic fruit, and a dorm fridge with a hole in it. That description does not scream "amazing participatory experience." And yet the setup—the platform, the gallery location, the examples, the encouragement, the low barrier to entry—made it extraordinary. It created a situation where a perfect stranger paused, looked at me, and said, “I think I’m going to take off my shirt.” It created an opportunity for each of us to do things that were individually comfortable but socially extraordinary.
It didn’t take exhaustive resources to create the one minute sculpture platform. I'd argue that it didn't even take unprecedented genius on the part of the artist and curators. But it did take a serious interest in connecting with visitors, valuing their participation, and putting their work front and center in a contextualized museum experience.