Monday, January 19, 2009

Diamond-Encrusted Skull Spawns Video Feedback Interactive: News at 11

In December, I saw Damien Hirst’s piece For the Love of God while it was exhibited at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It’s a platinum-cast skull encrusted with over 1100 carats of diamonds: a hype machine in death’s clothing. Advertisements for the skull blanketed Amsterdam, and other museums even tried to get in on the buzz generated by its presentation. Entering the exhibit involved standing in line in galleries full of Dutch masterpieces (mostly ignored) and then emerging into a dark room with guards and the skull terrifically lit in the center. You weren’t sure how much time you were supposed to spend with the object or what to get out of it. There was no interpretative content in the room, and you were not allowed to take pictures. I walked in, self-consciously watched myself watching other people watching the skull, then walked out.

The reason I’m writing about For the Love Of God is not the skull but the post-visit feedback interactive that accompanied it. At the physical museum, visitors who wished to provide feedback on the skull were instructed to leave the building and walk into a temporary structure that served as both a For the Love of God gift shop and feedback environment. The feedback stations themselves were little closed booths where you could record a video with your opinion about the skull.

By positioning the feedback stations outside the flow of the museum (and within a solely skull-branded structure), the resultant videos were more topical and focused than museum standard. But the thing that makes this project stand out is the way these videos are shared on the Web. They are displayed on the For the Love of God website, which was created for the museum by an outside vendor, skipintro. The format is reminiscent of Jonathan Harris’ We Feel Fine project, allowing users to view the videos by country of origin, gender, age, and some key concepts (love it/hate it, think it’s art/think it's hype). The videos were automatically chromakeyed (i.e. masked or cropped) so that each person appears as a floating head, which creates an eerie, appealing visual consistency. The browsing experience is somewhat clunky and the filters are not always accurate, but the overall website is impressive in its display and aggregation of videos. Note that not all of the recorded videos were used on the website; videos were culled for volume, and "harsh and insulting" ones were removed.

This is the first attempt I’ve seen to meaningfully aggregate visitor feedback videos and present them in a way that is consistent with the rest of the exhibit experience. It’s no coincidence that Hirst is known for art that aggressively courts and plays with hype. The visitors' videos on the website are couched in self-conciousness buzz, with a welcome screen informing you that, “never before has a work of art provoked as much dialogue as Damien Hirst’s ‘For the Love of God.’” Oh really? Never?

Whether true or not, the website implies that the visitors’ videos are a justification for this claim, a demonstration of the rich dialogue supposedly surrounding this skull. In this way, the visitors’ videos are integrated into the larger art piece and are arguably as much a part of the skull experience as the posters, the lines, and the guards. The existence of controversy is part of the intentional setting of the skull, and so visitors are encouraged to talk.

Are visitors’ reactions really proof of dialogue or controversy? No. But I'm enthused by the suggestion that feedback stations needn't be just an add-on to pander to visitors, but instead, a supporting framework for the overall goals of the exhibit. If you are creating an exhibition about controversy, how are you promoting controversial actions and reactions by visitors? If you are creating an exhibition about democracy, how do you encourage visitors to behave democratically during their visit? How can you create participatory elements that support your overall exhibit goals?

Unfortunately, you can't look to the For the Love of God website for a perfect answer. The interface is lovely and portrays the videos in an artistic way, but the content doesn't convey dialogue or controversy. The visitor videos are interesting for several reasons—the range of languages spoken, the presentation of the floating heads, opinions expressed about one singular piece of art rather than general commentary on the museum visit--but they are fundamentally individual, discontinuous sound bites. They are grouped, but they aren't threaded or placed head-to-head in a way that would convey dialogue. From the perspective of the hierarchy of participation, For the Love of God, like Free2Choose, straddles the barrier between level 3 and level 4. It has some "me-to-we" elements, since each person's video ("me") is aggregated into various filtered "we" groups, but there is no way for an individual to connect with anyone else, to comment on their video, see what else they've said, or express their support or lack thereof for the opinion expressed.

The result is an overall viewer experience of dislocated, strange beauty, not discussion about art. If the designers had really wanted to promote the dialogue around the skull, they might have created feedback stations that required visitors to interview each other, or answer questions posed by other visitor videos. Instead, they created a prettier visualization of the same old system.

I'm still waiting for the video feedback system that truly encourages visitors to engage with each other by curating and commenting on each other's videos, let alone recording videos in reference to each other. For the Love of God is an attractive website that values visitor feedback as part of the meaning-making around a piece of art. But provoking dialogue? We’ve still got a long way to go.

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