One of the surprise pleasures of my recent trip to Brisbane, Australia, was the exhibition of the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at the Queensland Art Gallery. It was the most impressive multi-artist contemporary art exhibition I've ever seen. The vast majority of the artworks were exciting, accessible, and visually stunning. I expected a quick in-and-out visit, but found myself immersed in the aesthetic and cultural world of the art for hours.
But there was one exhibit that highlighted a particular frustration of mine. It was a multi-person exhibit that fell just short of inviting strangers to work together. With one simple tweak of the label text, it could have gone from good to great.
The artwork is called I, you, we and was created by Wit Pimkanchanapong. The title is highly descriptive of the piece, which is a little booth where two people can mix photos of their faces into a new image of a face that incorporates bits from each person. You sit down with a partner, make a collaborative image, and then email the composite home to yourself or someone else.
I looked on as many visitors enjoyed this exhibit, which created silly and surprising results. But as a solo visitor, I couldn't find a way in. Here's the label:
This label suggests that the artist is particularly interested in visitors engaging with those who are different from them. And yet there is no invitation for visitors to use the booth with strangers. It's ideally set up for a stranger interaction: the booths are in a public space and are open on both sides, so it doesn't feel like you are being asked to enter an intimate space with someone unknown. The interaction is quick, discrete, and doesn't require sharing anything more personal than your face.
This exhibit is missing just one thing: a statement on the label that says, "Invite a stranger to make a portrait with you." The staff could easily append the cute label shown at the top of this post with this sentence. It would give visitors like me a way into the experience and an opportunity to perform in keeping with the artist's desires. And even for people visiting in groups, it might present the opportunity for a fun interaction with someone new.
If you want to invite people to use your space socially, you have to give them explicit permission to do so. Letting visitors know that an exhibit is a two-person activity is useful information, but it's not enough to help people overcome their fears and approach strangers to help them.