Friday, March 27, 2009

Take a Side Trip to the Denver Art Museum

This blog post is a love letter to an exhibit, written in patchouli ink across the back of an old Janis Joplin record. This week, the Denver Art Museum (DAM) opened a new temporary exhibition called The Psychedelic Experience, featuring rock posters from San Francisco in the heyday of Bill Graham and electric kool-aid. I happened to be at DAM for work and got to experience this amazing exhibit.

More precisely, the amazing part was a second, smaller room called Side Trip, just off the entrance to the poster show. Side Trip is an immersive environment full of interactive experiences that let visitors share their own stories of the 1960s, make their own rock posters, and explore the music and vibe of the time. It is an incredible museum experience. It wasn’t expensive to construct, it doesn’t rely on artifacts, and the interactives integrate technology in a low-key, magical way. It’s a thrilling challenge to the traditional form of art museum exhibit design, and better yet, visitors like it.

There are two aspects of Side Trip that really stand out: the immersive environment and the design of the interactives. They function together to make the space special (and to support incredibly long dwell time in Side Trip), but I’ll examine them separately.

First, the environment. The most striking thing about the space is the low light (which accounts for the poor quality of my photos). You feel like you are in a friendly, almost clandestine space, which is no small feat in DAM’s austere white boxes. The space is full of funky, period-ish furniture, everything touchable, everything open to sprawl on or hang out. They bought the furniture on Ebay and are planning to sell it at the end of the show per Sarah Palin’s specifications. There’s music playing, and the space includes both open and intimate areas so you slide from living room to concert hall to record store to telephone booth without getting disoriented or feeling confined.

The signage in the exhibit is deliciously informal. The glass door at the front has a ripped piece of lined paper taped to it that says, “hey man, the posters are next door.” But why spend time in the harsh light of a gallery when you could hang in this hand-scrawled den? All of the instructions are handwritten on paper or cardboard. The story-sharing stations, which are rolodexes filled with cards on which you can share your first acid trip or your experience as a goody-two-shoes who didn’t tune in, feel naturally integrated into the overall feel and expectations of the space. There is no dissonance between the museum’s formal voice and laminate and the visitors’ pens and paper. We’re all together, man.

While the immersive space’s extreme departure from standard art gallery design may be its most radical feature, the gem for me is the interactives. The interactive experiences in Side Trip are superlative. They are intelligently thought out and offer experiences at various levels of depth and creative participation.

The primary interactive activity is one in which visitors can make their own rock posters. Rather than giving people blank sheets of paper and markers, the DAM educators devised a brilliant scheme that gives people a low barrier to entry into the daunting world of art-making. Tables are set up with clipboards that have transparencies on them. There are stacks of graphics, cut-out reproductions from the real rock posters on display next door, which visitors can place under the transparencies to arrange and remix into poster designs of their own choosing. Visitors can also use dry erase markers to trace over the graphics, augment them, and add their own flair. When someone is satisfied with her recombined poster, she hands it to a staff member, who puts it in a color copier. The visitor is given a copy of her poster and the museum keeps a copy as well. The results of this physical “remix” activity are beautiful, intricate posters. You can’t easily tell where the remixed artifacts end and the visitors’ additions begin. I saw teens and adults who sat and did this activity for 45 minutes and wasn’t surprised to hear that some people spend over an hour on it. But you don’t have to start with a blank slate – you’re given a starting point via the graphics that also tied the activity tightly to the artifacts in the show. Brilliant.

There were several comparably ingenious interactive experiences. One of my favorites (given my pet love of using technology to mediate social experiences among strangers) was a piece called Light Show. A large wall featured a slowly undulating, multi-colored projection passing by, like the visual aftermath of an accident in a lava lamp factory. There were two slide projectors set up facing the wall, and a staff member invited me to make my own additions to the light show by pouring colored water and oil together on a plastic tray and then pressing another piece of plastic against the liquid to smoosh it. This was fun, though a little goofy, and I saw lots of people watching who were not comfortable enough to put themselves on display publicly. But it got really interesting when another visitor approached the second slide projector. He did the same thing as me, with different colors, and the staff member adjusted the throw of both of our projectors to overlap. Our art was intertwining on the wall without us having to compete for the same tray of colored water. We started working together and talking about it, standing a few feet apart at our separate projectors. It’s a low-tech example of the way people feel comfortable engaging with strangers when the interpersonal element is somewhat removed from your physical person.

There are also some clever high-tech interactives coupled with familiar low-tech technologies to create a magical experience. There are listening stations that look like stacks of records in crates (which they are). You put on headphones and flip through the records just as you would in a store. As your hands move through the records, the music changes to whatever record you are currently checking out. Magical, simple, surprising.

There are also two telephone booths featuring the “Youtubeaphone,” a rotary dial payphone with small embedded screens. You can dial into old rock videos from the era, leave your own video, or watch other memories recorded by visitors. This was a little less intuitively magical than the records, but still a delightful play on how we think about connecting with the past through period objects and media.

It’s not surprising, given the exhibition’s topic, that many visitors come into the Psychedelic Experience with a story to share or a connection to the era. In the more formal poster gallery, I saw many pierced teens listening unironically as their parents enthused about Jefferson Airplane. But the design of Side Trip really allows those stories to flourish, both through creative acts like the poster-making and light show and through participatory expression on the rolodexes and the Youtube-a-phone. The content-producing experiences were engrossing for creators, but more importantly, the spectator experience of these visitor-generated stories, posters, and light shows was really excellent. I spent a long time reading the stories of first concerts and ogling the posters made by visitors, and I saw lots of other people doing the same. The experience was comfortable, diverse, authentic, content-oriented, and deep. I don’t often leave museum galleries regretful that I have to go.

Would Side Trip have been better if it had been fully integrated with the Psychedelic posters show? Probably. The lounge-y spaces could have punctuated the exploration of the artifacts, encouraging visitors to alternate between examination of objects and personal histories. It would have provided more varied context for the artifacts, and I know it would have increased my dwell time with the posters. Relegating Side Trip to a separate room allows traditionalists to avoid the dialogue about how participatory experiences might positively enhance the overall exhibit experience. It may also give visitors the perception of a segregated world of (square) galleries and (hip) side trips.

But there’s also something special about creating a singular place for this kind of experience, and the overall feel--the lighting, the signage—would have been somewhat compromised in a mixed gallery. Side Trip is an inviting art-oriented place for visitors. It is not made to show art or protect objects or display the brilliance of a curator. It is made for visitors to be creators, explorers, and participants. And there’s something really groovy about that.

7 comments, add yours!:

Amanda French said...

Wow, that sounds great. Wish I were in Denver -- I'd go!

Jax said...

That was a joy to read on a Sunday morning. I also wish I was in Denver - or even knew someone in Denver I could recommend this exhibit to!

Anonymous said...

If you get a chance to engage the Denver Art Museum Employees they bring a lot of knowledge of the exhibit to the whole experience. I really enjoyed the Posters and the "side trip."

Nickerson Woo said...

that is great~thanks for

JC-Artist Ads said...

Really nice..totally great I wish I was there:-)

Anonymous said...

this sounds great! thanks! i'm going there today and i'll have to check that out for sure

James said...

Hi – Will you please post a link to your Blog at The Denver Art Community at Our members will really love it.
Members include: Denver Art Galleries, Art Enthusiasts, Artists, Art Collectors, etc.
It's easy to do, just cut and paste the link and it automatically links back to your website. You can also add Articles, News, Photos, and Videos if you like.
Email me if you need any help or would like me to do it for you. I hope you consider sharing with us.
Please feel free to share as often and as much as you like.
The Denver Art Community:
James Kaufman, Editor