Earlier this year, the New Museum and Creative Time commissioned a traveling piece by artist Jeremy Deller called "It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq." The piece features two guests, an Iraqi translator and a US Army reservists, who hang out in a conversational space, flanked by maps of the US and Iraq and a powerful artifact--a car that was destroyed in a suicide bomb attack in Baghdad. The goal is to support "messy, open-ended discussion," and the draw is the idea that you can go to the museum and talk about Iraq with someone who has actually been there during the war. It Is What It Is was first shown in NYC at the New Museum and has traveled across the country, stopping at various public sites on its way to a longer engagement at the Hammer Museum in LA.
I saw It Is What It Is twice at the Hammer Museum. Both times, the central square in which it was situated was well-trafficked with people enjoying art, hanging out with friends, and working. I saw many people check out the car, but I never saw anyone engage in dialogue with the program participants. Even with a couple of comfortable couches, a provocative object, and a sign that said, "Talk to Esam from 3-5," the barriers to participation were high. Even for me, the barriers were too high. Why would I want to talk about Iraq on a visit to an art museum? Why would I want to talk about it with a stranger? Why would I want to sit on a couch and engage in an open-ended, messy conversation with a stranger?
It Is What It Is highlights how difficult it is to invite people into dialogue--not just on tough topics like the Iraq War, but any topic. From my perspective, It Is What It Is was not designed with sufficient structure to robustly and consistently support dialogue. It doesn't clearly welcome people in or bridge the social barriers that keep us from naturally talking to strangers. It doesn't set expectations for what will happen (which was intentional) and that makes people wary and also less interested, since they can't look forward to a "successful" outcome.
I know it may sound like I'm asking for something overly structured, but compare It Is What It Is with another dialogue project, the Living Library. In the Living Library, there is a concrete entrypoint to challenging discussions. Visitors check out "books," which are people who embody certain stereotypes, for forty-minute one-on-one conversations. The Living Library has guest experts (the books), but it also has facilitators in the form of the "librarians" who help you sign up for a library card, browse the catalog, and select a book for discussion. I'm not suggesting that the Living Library is the only way to have dialogue about tough issues (far from it!) but that it is a much more structured platform than that provided by It Is What It Is. Living Library events consistently draw visitors and are packed with people having intense, messy conversations about culture, politics, and human relations.
Deller says the "conversation is the most important part" of It Is What It Is but I believe he over-estimated the ability of simple objects and live "guest experts" to get people talking. It Is What It Is and other unstructured platforms just plunk down the people and hope for dialogue. Occasionally, some really interesting and surprising things may happen. But they are a lot less likely than in designed settings like the Living Library.
A volunteer manager at a major US history museum once told me about a failed dialogue program in which older volunteers would sit in rocking chairs on an exhibit component themed to look like a front porch. The idea was that visitors would come up and hang out on the front porch, listening to the elders' stories of the past. This is a nice conceptual structure that had some visual reinforcement in the physical space, but it failed miserably. No one approached the volunteers. They had stories to tell and were happy to talk, but the social barriers to participation were too great to make it happen.
Unlike the front porch program, which was silently discontinued, It Is What It Is received a lot of press as a revolutionary art piece indicative of artists moving towards focusing on social experiences rather than objects. But I haven't found any press or blogs from people who actually went to the exhibit and had a discussion; the press seems to focus on the interestingness of the idea rather than the impact of its implementation. If you experienced the exhibit (or find someone who did) and engaged in dialogue, please share your story--I don't want to unfairly castigate this exhibit based on two personal experiences.
And there's another reason I don't want to criticize it. When I dug deeper into the exhibit's website, I found a series of lovely, short videos recorded along the exhibit's across the country. Watch this amazing video of an older Sioux man reacting to the blown-out car and recalling Vietnam. Or this one of the team touring a farm in Tennessee and discussing the differences between American and Iraqi burial rituals. I got lost in these videos, and I started to question my expectations about what makes an exhibit like this successful. Is it about the number of conversations had or the quality of those discussions? Is it about drawing people in who may not have walked up with an interest in the topic, or is it about engaging those who have a deep and immediate desire to talk without prompting? Is it about what happens in the museums or on the streets in-between?
Considering these questions, I come to three uncertain conclusions.
First, it appears from the project documentation that It Is What It Is was more powerful when dropped into everyday street scenes and college campuses than when situated in contemporary art museums. Maybe there was less pretension, maybe the space felt more owned by the individuals approaching (and therefore, maybe the visitors felt more comfortable engaging). I say "maybe" because I'm only seeing curated clips, and for all I know there were just as many wild interactions in the New Museum and the Hammer as there were on the streets of New Mexico. But if this observation is valid, then it speaks to the additional social barriers museums introduce that we have to be aware of when designing for dialogue.
Second, because this was an art project, I doubt that Jeremy had explicit goals for how many people would engage and in what ways. He said as much in his introduction, commenting that he "hopes" there will be dialogue but he really isn't sure what will happen. When working on dialogue projects, I try to get beyond guessing and hoping and really consider--who do we want to engage with this? How will we design the experience to encourage participation by those people? What are the evaluative measures by which we will consider the dialogue experience successful? I'm not sure It Is What It Is had such measures, and members of their team shared their tension about this issue. Along the drive west, It Is What It Is team member Nato Thompson commented in the road diary:
What can be gained by ephemeral interactions in public space that briefly exist in YouTube videos and on a blog? With such an ambivalent, open-ended tone, what prevents people from leaving these conversations without a single view challenged or sense of self altered?There are good questions, and in an art project, it's often acceptable to use the piece as a vehicle to expose and explore the questions rather than answer them. But museum staff rarely have this luxury. They are always accountable for the impact of their work, and it's important (and doable!) to design dialogue platforms to specific impact goals just as you would a didactic content experience.
And so finally, with regard to impact, I believe It Is What It Is is more valuable to a broad audience as a cultural multimedia story than as an exhibit. Seeing the exhibit, I was ready to cast this off with a joke about two guys and a car walking into a museum. It was not made "for me," a visitor who didn't know what to expect. It wasn't designed to bring mass audiences into an uncomfortable experience, or if it was, it failed to do so. Jeremy Deller admitted in his artist statement that this piece was motivated by his own very personal interest in Iraq. As he put it:
In a sense I am selfishly doing this for my own benefit simply to plug the many gaps that exist in my knowledge and to satisfy the arguments that have been going on in my head for the best part of this century.So in a sense, this piece is a performance in which Jeremy spends time with his guests, learning and traveling together. And it was the representation of this performance, not the opportunity for dialogue, that captivated me. I both enjoyed and learned from the road videos, the diaries, and the interactions among the travelers.
Watching the videos, I reconceived the exhibit as a transparent "making of" for an unstructured documentary rather than an end into itself. And this challenges my long-held passion for involving visitors in the behind-the-scenes and the process. Visiting It Is What It Is, the exhibit, was dull and off-putting. I had a bad experience. But I loved watching the curated cultural products of the exhibit. Does this mean that I didn't want to see the process and only the product? Or am I just frustrated that they sold the exhibit as a dialogue product, an experience unto itself, when the real product was a performance?