Wednesday, August 25, 2010

How Useful is the "Audience vs. Expert" Dichotomy?

When it comes to user participation in cultural institutions and the arts, it's popular to launch projects that pit visitors against experts. There was Click! at the Brooklyn Museum, where you could track how people of various levels of art expertise rated crowd-contributed photographs. And now, at the Walker Art Center, there's 50/50, an upcoming print show in which half the prints will be chosen by the public, half by curators. Even ArtPrize, the "radically open" art festival that was judged last year by public vote alone, will incorporate a juried contest as well this year.

There's a sexiness to the perception of divergence between expert and public opinion. It's what keeps curators curators and the public public. But I'm not sure how much value there is to that difference. Instead, I'd like to see us asking broader questions about process, like:
  • How do different people arbitrate the value of a piece of art, a historical artifact, or a piece of scientific evidence?
  • What tools do we use? What expectations and biases and experience and expertise come into play?
  • How do we know what we know, and how do we make judgments of preference?
I've been thinking about this as I prep some interactive prototypes for the Experience Music Project and Science Fiction Museum, a Seattle-based museum of pop culture. One prototype is based on the Billboard Top 10 charts for pop music. Every week, Billboard publishes charts based on airplay, record sales, and now, digital downloads and streaming.

For the interactive prototype, we're letting visitors construct their own "Top 10" and compare it to the Billboard charts. After some research, I decided it would be interesting for people to compare their favorites to the Top 10 over all time rather than focusing solely on the current stats. I recalled that Rolling Stone magazine had put out a list of "the 500 greatest songs of all time" a few years ago, and decided to pull it up to see how it compared to Billboard's top songs. The Billboard list was determined by normalized sales and airplay from 1958-2009, whereas the Rolling Stone list was selected by 172 musicians, critics, and industry professionals.

Here are the two lists' top ten songs:
I was pretty amazed to notice two things:
  1. These lists share only one song in common, "Hey Jude" at position number 8.
  2. The Billboard list is more diverse than the Rolling Stone list in many ways. It features more musical genres, more women, and more chronological spread.
Going further down the lists, the divergence between them continues. While The Beatles top both lists when it comes to artist representation, none of the top twenty artists on the Rolling Stone list are women, whereas Billboard has seven. Bob Dylan, the third most represented artist on the Rolling Stone list, doesn't even place in Billboard's top one hundred.

This isn't a direct "audience versus expert" comparison. Billboard charts are far from egalitarian--particularly when it comes to the radio, money plays a big role in determining who hits the airwaves. And I wouldn't be surprised if the music industry insiders who contributed to the Rolling Stone list are the same people who helped launch LeAnn Rimes and Toni Braxton to fame.

This is not a post about power and diversity in the music industry. It is, however, a suggestion that perhaps critics and tastemakers are biased in their preferences in a somewhat homogenous way. Is the Rolling Stone list better or worse than the Billboard list? It depends who you ask. But it's definitely less broad and more reflective of a particular perspective on what makes good music.

There are really interesting questions inherent in the difference between these two lists and how we arbitrate taste in pop culture as consumers, as artists, as industry professionals, and as critics. I'm hopeful that our little prototype can help us discuss these questions with visitors at the Experience Music Project.

Ultimately, "audience versus expert" may be a red herring that distracts from a larger discussion about personal preference and cultural bias. One of the surprises of Click! was the outcome that the top 10 photographs did not diverge widely based on evaluator expertise. Five of the top ten photographs were top picks for people from at least four different levels of expertise, and all the top ten were selected by people with at least two different levels of expertise. As Wisdom of the Crowds author James Surowieckinoted, "it suggests (though it doesn’t prove) that at least in some mediums, the gap between popular and elite taste may be smaller than we think."

And maybe there are other gaps that are worth exploring.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Take a Seat: Beautiful, Casual Areas at the Taiwan National Museum of Fine Arts

When I was in Taiwan, I heard again and again from museum professionals: "We are very conservative in Taiwanese museums. We're not doing innovative things with visitor participation or Web 2.0. Everyone is so focused on everything looking perfect and the curator's voice only."

This may be true. I didn't see a single comment book on my trip. But I did see something that inspired me quite a lot: a gorgeous, innovative setting for visitors to sit, chat, explore art, and rest.

This post is a photo essay focusing on an area at the Taiwan National Museum of Fine Arts called the Digiark. The Digiark is a connected but separate building that showcases media art.

The Digiark is big--about 4000 square feet--and designed with a meandering, casual experience in mind. I was told that media-based art is fairly new to Taiwanese people and that the museum wanted to introduce visitors to it in a relaxed, friendly setting. The space was sparsely attended during the couple of days when I visited, and primarily by teenagers and families. I think its distance from the main building affected its attendance; a shame considering everything it had to offer.

Walking in, you are not bombarded with art. The current show was about "hyper perception," but the five (quite good) new media pieces were dwarfed by the space itself. Instead of a traditional gallery, you see plywood benches, recycled water jugs, whimsical light fixtures, and lots of nooks where you can explore books, computers, and projection-based artworks. The look blends funkiness with clean lines, industrial space with natural light.

The nooks have lovely seating areas with views out the window to the beautiful garden plaza that separates the main building from the Digiark. In this image, you can see part of a sound installation that winds throughout the whole space. Put your ears to an orange tube and you will hear the sounds of people throughout the gallery, echoed and time-delayed. It's a form of "hyper perception"--the theme of the current exhibition.

It's not all perfect-looking, intentionally. While the nooks were designed to showcase clean lines and natural materials, they don't hide the parts that make the technology work. I liked being able to sit on a couch and "spy" on the kids using the computer on the other side of the wall. Overall, the low walls, slatted wood, and open nooks invited intimacy with the work without closing people off from each other--good for socializing and chaperoning.

The Digiark was also designed cleverly for flexible use. Most of the walls have a swinging apparatus that allows them to lock into at least two different positions. This is especially useful given that many times they have to enclose projection works of different sizes into darker nooks. It also has a nice aesthetic, contributing both to the industrial feel and creating a sense that the walls are floating.

There were signs telling people not to sleep, but some still found the time to kick back and enjoy a restful break between exhibitions.

And with a view like this, who can blame them?

The whole Digiark experience was permeated by a sense of leisure, of slowing down. It reminded me of the restorative feeling of being at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art north of Copenhagen, and it made me wonder: how many kinds of artwork would be more fruitfully enjoyed in a relaxed setting with couches and natural light? I find it fascinating that the Digiark is focused on media art--work that is often placed in the blackest of black boxes, and is often more full of multi-sensory, active stimulation than works produced with more traditional media. I would love to explore traditional artworks in this kind of environment as well. Relax, enjoy, learn, think, talk, relax. Leave refreshed instead of wiped out. Maybe this is why people love sculpture gardens so much.

What do you think?

Monday, August 16, 2010

Techniques for Identifying and Amplifying Social Objects in Museums

I spent last week in the glorious country of Taiwan, hiking, eating, and working with museum professionals and graduate students at a conference hosted at the Taiwan National Museum of Fine Arts.

Among other things, I led a workshop on "social objects"--artifacts and exhibits that inspire people to point, discuss, snap photos, and generally share their experience both with friends and strangers. I've been offering this workshop at lots of institutions in the past year, and I thought I'd share with you how it works so you can do it on your own if you like. It's not topic-specific; I've done these exercises with art, history, science, and children's museums to useful effect.

There are two parts to the workshop:
  1. Social Object Hunt. Go through the institution and identify places, artifacts, or exhibits that are highly conducive to social sharing. You should also look for places that are explicitly not social and should stay that way (i.e. exhibits that are best experienced in a more personal, quiet, or reverential manner). Discuss your findings with colleagues.
  2. Make it (More) Social. Pick an exhibit that you think could be enhanced by more social use. Come up with ideas, both crazy and practical, for how you might redesign the exhibit to improve its shareability. Make sure you DON'T try to make the exhibit broadly better--just focus on how you can make it easier for visitors to share their experience around it. When you're done, go on a tour of the "redesigned" vision for the museum with your colleagues, sharing your new creative ideas.
What's the value of this activity? At the Taiwan National Museum of Fine Arts, here were some of the things I learned from the social object hunt:
  • Social behavior is highly object-specific. This isn't surprising: when the term "social object" was coined in the online environment, the whole point was that people socialize around specific objects, images, or ideas, not general topics or interests. When I tell people this in a presentation, it can sound vague or dubious. But watch visitors move around a museum, and you'll quickly see the activity flare up around specific exhibits and not others. This museum was unusual in that the lobby area had a high concentration of pop art meant to appeal to a wide audience. It was shocking and a bit depressing to see how quickly the noise and energy of the lobby exhibits cut off when the artwork became more formal or complex just a few steps away. There were exhibits that were literally invisible from a social perspective, deserts between highly social oases.
  • If an artwork or exhibit is easily emulatable, people will pose like the subjects of the piece and take photos with it. See for example the photo at the top of this post. It's a print of the Mona Lisa in a cheeky pose, aped by the visitor standing in front of it. This same pair of visitors took other photos in the museum but I only saw them pose twice--when it was easy to emulate the art. To me, emulation is a kind of learning activity. Visitors not only personalize the artwork by choosing to be photographed with it; they have to look more carefully at the picture if they plan to pose like it.
  • People prefer to be photographed with things that are sized comparable to their height. There was a very popular exhibit in the lobby of large-scale versions of a famous toy mouse named Mousy. I watched hundreds of people take photos with the mice, and I wondered how people chose which mouse to stand with. I noticed a trend: children posed with the smaller mice, whereas adults stood with the largest one. They weren't picking favorite mice as much as they were picking the most comfortable place to stand. I think this was a simple expression of preference both for the poser, who could comfortably stand up next to a sculpture of comparable size, and the photographer, who could get a nicer shot in the frame. This isn't earth-shattering, but it does suggest that people care more about personal comfort and ease of taking a photo than picking a favorite object with which to stand.

Discussing the "results" from a social object hunt often leads to an interesting conversation about the difference between exhibits that are popular and those that are social. There's some obvious overlap--popular exhibits tend to buzz with more talk and camera shutters. But an exhibit doesn't have to be popular to encourage social sharing. There was a wonderful quiet exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts of photographs of Taiwanese people taken in the 1910s and 20s using a Japanese studio process. While the exhibition was rather empty, the people who were in there did a lot of pointing and discussing the photos. When I asked a few women about their conversations, they explained that some of the people in the photos looked like their grandparents, or were famous people they'd heard about. Besides perhaps a kitchen scene, I can't think of an exhibit more conducive to sharing than one showing personal family portraits. There was even a small interactive space outside the exhibition set up to look like a traditional photo studio, with backgrounds and props, so you could make your own 1920s-style portrait.

When it came to the second part of the workshop, the small groups set out and came back with some very clever ideas for making some of their favorite exhibitions more shareable. They suggested:
  • For an exhibition of religious art, inviting monks or representatives of different religions to serve as a kind of "Human Library," offering their differing perspectives on the artworks. (Read about the Human Library in chapter 3 of The Participatory Museum by searching that term here.)
  • For an exhibition of portraits in a very empty space, offering visitors string to make connections on the walls or floor between photos they felt were connected, with a tag on the string indicating how or why the two images were strung together. The result would be a web of connections or pathways to follow through the gallery.
  • For an exhibition of art related to death, inviting a psychic to come give readings in the gallery during the month of the year related to ghosts.
  • For the exhibition of Japanese studio portraits, setting up a station inside the gallery to help visitors digitize their own historic family portraits, some of which would also be displayed alongside the curatorial selections.
  • For the interactive photo studio room mentioned above, mounting flatscreen monitors on the walls outside showing photos taken by visitors inside, to help people understand what the room is for and to advertise its use.
  • Generally, offering people balloons shaped like question marks to carry if they would like to talk about questions about the art. There was some related discussion about training guards to be able to have some art-related conversations in addition to their security duties.
Where are the social hotspots in your institution? Where would you like them to be? How can you make it possible?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Quick Hit: Help Me Name My Next Project

Dear Museum 2.0 readers,

I need your help. As some of you know, I'm working on a project to open an experimental cafe in Santa Cruz that serves craft beer, Belgian frites, and intriguing encounters with strangers. The concept is to combine the work I've been doing developing interactive settings for participation with a venue that people naturally visit seeking an exciting social experience.

The cafe will also be an R&D innovation lab for the cultural sector. The team will work on risky experiments and share what we learn with the field, through publications, workshops, and hopefully, some more contract work. We'll be working on experiments in customer loyalty, levels of creative and civic participation, and promoting new connections among people from different backgrounds.

To be more specific, here are a few of the kinds of things we're thinking of trying:
  • Object of My Affection – an exhibit of customers’ favorite things and the stories behind them. This exhibit may feature monthly object swaps in which the artifacts are redistributed to the lenders.
  • Stranger Encounters – an exhibit of stories of surprising encounters customers have had with strangers. The best of these will be illustrated and hung permanently throughout the cafĂ©.
  • Fort City – a set of reconfigurable materials and simple tools for people to build, tear down, and rebuild forts. There may be occasional “storm the fort” raids or fort tea parties (featuring beer).
  • Repair – a staffed space in which customers can bring in broken things and help each other fix them. Broken items may range from clothes that need mending to toys that can be modified and improved.
  • People Watching Portraits – customers can choose to either be drawers or models (models will wear a button or badge on the bracelet to indicate interest). Drawers receive clipboards or easels and are encouraged to people watch and draw others. They may ask models directly to pose for the in more structured encounters.
  • Potato Claw – a pay-to-play arcade-style claw pickup game in which people try to pick up a potato with the metal claw. If they succeed, they get free fries made out of that potato.

Here's the challenge: I need to settle on a final name for the cafe. I'm close to the point where I'll start seeking investment, and I need to have a name for the business plan, the bank, and the IRS. Got a great idea? Share it here.

For the past few months, I've had a name for the project: The Stranger Cafe. I like it. It's descriptive, a bit subversive, and it can lend to some fun programs that play on the dual meaning of stranger as an adjective and a noun (i.e. Stranger Science Fair, Dancing with Strangers).

But some people don't like it, and there's at least one strong argument against it: it emphasizes the negative instead of the positive. The basic idea of the cafe is "you enter as a stranger but leave as a friend or at least a friendly acquaintance." From that perspective, we should be calling it The Friendly Cafe, but that's REALLY dorky. Other names that emphasize interactivity are, to my mind, equally goofy.

Avoiding the dork factor is important, because the cafe will tread a very thin line between awesomeness and gimmick depending on how we design, brand, and staff it. Manufactured community doesn't work. I'm designing the cafe as self-consciously as possible to make sure that the overall feel is casual, welcoming, and open to genuine customer involvement.

A couple other naming notes:
  • I'm leaning towards "cafe" instead of "bar" because this will be a family-friendly place at least some of the time.
  • While making, crafting, experimenting, and exhibiting will all be part of the experience, the thread that ties it all together is the idea of promoting social engagement with new people.
  • The social experience is more important than the menu - so a name that focuses exclusively on the beer + fries combo is not as appealing.

So what do you think? If you'd like to weigh in on the name game, please do so here. You can also just check out the names so far and vote or comment on them. If you come up with THE name I go with, I'll find some delightful way to honor you in the cafe itself when it opens (and the beer and fries are on me!).

And if you have any other ideas or want to know more about the project, please leave a comment. There are lots of potential ways to get involved, especially if you have some experience in restaurant design, raising capital for experimental cultural projects, or beer.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Guest Post: Nell Taylor on the Chicago Underground Library

Last month, I got a chance to talk with Nell Taylor, founder of the Chicago Underground Library. I was fascinated by the project’s innovative approach to collecting, sharing, and connecting people through locally-produced media. Nell will be responding to comments on this blog and can also be reached here.

A typical Chicago Underground Library (CUL) volunteer meeting starts something like this: New volunteers arrive for orientation at 6:30pm, some a little late because they got lost in the 100-year old parish house where we occupy the lobby of a fringe theater company on the second floor. When we have a critical mass of new people, anywhere from 3-7 a month, I try to explain the project as briefly as possible.

A Community-Based Approach to Collecting and Cataloging

CUL is a replicable model for community archives that accepts every piece of print media from a certain area without making quality or importance judgments, going back as far in history as possible. That means we collect university press, handmade artist books, zines made by sixth graders, poetry chapbooks from big names published in tiny local presses, and self-published poetry chapbooks sold for a dollar on the street. We have neighborhood newspapers, internationally-renowned magazines of political commentary, and three View-Master reels of Chicago hot dog stands, neon signs, and motor inns, respectively.

We catalog items by everyone who contributed—writers, editors, typesetters, photographers, interns—and link those people together in our catalog so that users can trace the connections between contributors as they move from one publication to the next. We’re building new cataloging software that we eventually hope to provide free of charge to jumpstart other collections. When other cities replicate the model, we’ll be able to track the origin and migration of these ideas from city to city through individuals. Our new catalog and website will be up within the next two months.

We’ve been doing this for close to five years and have accumulated over 2,000 publications. We consider anything intended for public consumption to be “published,” so while our collection is very broad, we draw the line at correspondence or personal journals. Geography is fluid, though. Connections between the publications are more important than strict regional boundaries. Someday we want to collect audio and video, too, but we’d need a pretty serious operating budget to do that and at least one full-time employee. Having only been incorporated for a year and receiving just last week an anonymous donation to cover our 501c3 filing, we still have a little way to go before we get there. Our volunteers are the heart and soul and brains and heavy lifters (figuratively and-- when you have boxes of books involved-- literally) of our organization.

Growing a Strong Volunteer Culture

Every year, thousands of new librarians and archivists graduate from MLS programs. That’s a lot of people who possess a rare set of skills like the ability to conceptually organize complex information, build and maintain databases and web applications, and passionately defend and promote universal access to knowledge (including knowledge that’s controversial or that they themselves may not believe in). This combination of technical ability, neutrality, and fierce belief in freedom of expression is undervalued in society and by many existing library systems. We’re not even talking about “radical librarians.” These are the baseline characteristics of most new grads. Many come work with us because they can’t find work in the field or they’re underemployed in library systems where it will literally take years before they’re allowed to apply their skills toward any innovation.

I’ve been repeatedly told that we’re the only library in Chicago that provides volunteers hands-on experience in collection development, cataloging, community outreach and creating public programs, let alone trusting volunteers to take the lead in these areas. While this is partly a matter of need given our relative youth as an organization and present lack of paid positions, we intend to maintain a strong culture of supporting volunteers (not just volunteers supporting us) no matter how much infrastructure we build. Our volunteers use our 90-person public discussion group for sharing job listings, networking events, and other professional development resources in addition to CUL-related topics. Only about half of our volunteers have direct experience in libraries, but all are enthusiastic about experimenting with what a library could be. The more we ask of them, the more committed they are because they have a stake in seeing their initiatives through and bringing up new folks to help them.

Four years ago while meeting on my living room floor, a group of volunteers devised our cataloging system. It’s based on non-hierarchical keywords instead of nested subject headings and it’s designed to interface with search engines rather than other library databases (for now—some of our librarians are working on making it do both). It’s so intuitive that anyone can learn it, and I encourage the new volunteers, whether or not they have a background in library science (I don’t), to come to our Cataloging Socials that meet every Tuesday ‘til 10pm. This week, they’re only cataloging until 9pm because that’s when the sun goes down and all of our lights have mysteriously stopped working. These evenings are also known as “Worklucks” for anyone to drop in and use the library as an open, communal workspace, a free coffeeshop, complete with free coffee and Wi-Fi. Because he has impeccable timing, our cataloging manager (who does have his MLS) might wander in for the regular meeting. Before he walks the new folks through the catalog, though, he’ll probably recount the boxing match he just finished and show off the halfway-melted outline of a future tattoo drawn in ballpoint pen on his arm.

We start each official meeting with introductions. Never mind your work experience, what do you really want to be doing that the library can help you accomplish?

Some of the new volunteers are high school students, others are college professors. A lot of them are new to the city and looking to make friends. Our inexhaustible assistant director, the web services librarian at a local university who is also spearheading the rebuild of our website and online catalog, managing our interns and keeping track of our paperwork and minutes, arrives with her husband, CUL’s podcast manager and an aspiring comedian who we refer to as The Castmaster. Our programming director will arrive at 7pm on the dot from a six-hour rehearsal of a collaborative devised theater piece seven months in development and will leave early to go to an experimental movement workshop. There will always be volunteers who consistently show up, work hard, and never say a word, let alone about their outside lives, and we’re happy to have them, too.

This week, some of the regular catalogers are re-shelving material from this weekend’s Pop Up Library, our temporary reading room that travels around town providing supplemental local perspective for cultural events and classes. This Pop Up Library just returned from a folk music festival. Participating in events that have little to do directly with books helps develop CUL’s audience, but it also increases the visibility and relevance of the materials in our collection by placing the publications themselves in new contexts.

The shelvers tonight come from the ranks of the Chicago Public Library and the Chicago Public Schools’ libraries. One lives a double life as a soul music collector and DJ. An editor of science journals at one of Chicago’s top universities developed our regular writing workshop, an “alternative MFA” that puts an emphasis on the importance of being a good reader, not just a good writer, and is called Pan Dulces because she supplies the workshop with sweets from her neighborhood bakery.

Why This Matters (to the Public, and hopefully, to You)

A public library can grant you access to all kinds of knowledge, but where do you go to add to that knowledge base and stake your claim as an expert? You go online, and that’s why physical culture is at risk. While more and more people are creating their own media thanks to the internet, there’s an unfortunate paradox in media creation in the physical, local world. I hear writers bemoan the fact that no one but other writers come to their readings. They blame it on the general public reading less. But people who don’t go to readings believe that the readings are only for other writers and that they wouldn’t be welcome. From CUL’s perspective, if you’re reading to other writers, that’s not a problem, it’s a community. If that community is too small for comfort, the trick is not to stress about the lack of passive listeners, but to create and recruit more writers. CUL strives to preserve media, but it’s equally important to us that we encourage existing media cultures and create new access points.

In order for physical media to remain relevant, institutions like libraries and museums have to start looking at the inclusive and collaborative community-building models present in digital media culture. Our collection has a home that people can visit, but we’ll also bring it to them and share it on their platforms: their classrooms, performance spaces, galleries. The collection is history, but it’s also inspiration, example, and a guide to what’s out there for people who want to be actively involved. It’s open to reinterpretation, which we encourage through a series called Orphan Works that asks non-writers to create a derivative work based on our assortment of anonymous publications. CUL helps people who are just starting out or who may have assumed their words didn’t count to get a foothold and not only places them in a collection that values their work, but through our catalog instantly locates them within an interconnected map of the city’s history. Fostering new connections is also why we prefer collaborative programming with other arts and education groups as opposed to developing everything internally.

The Underground Library isn’t just a community archive of things past. We are constantly reaching out, connecting with new people and their work, and providing a home for what they do.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

How Do You Feel When You're a Fan?

Ruff Riders
Today, a pause button on standard Museum 2.0 posts and a musing on the particular thrills and perils of fandom. I've thinking about veneration, the private delicious feeling when you bear witness to something glorious--a guitar solo, a mathematical proof, a perfect painting, a jump shot. This blog doesn't often acknowledge the pleasure of being an anonymous audience to greatness.

And that's because it's so fraught. The greatness makes you feel small at the same time as you feel part of it. The anonymity lets you set aside propriety but also requires you give up a bit of yourself.

The person who best described this feeling is one of my favorite poets, William Matthews, in a poem about watching basketball as a teenager.
Cheap Seats, the Cincinnati Gardens, Professional Basketball, 1959
The less we paid, the more we climbed. Tendrils
of smoke lazed just as high and hung there, blue,
particulate, the opposite of dew.
We saw the whole court from up there. Few girls
had come, few wives, numerous boys in molt
like me. Our heroes leapt and surged and looped
and two nights out of three, like us, they'd lose.
But "like us" is wrong: we had no result
three nights out of three: so we had heroes.
And "we" is wrong, for I knew none by name
among that hazy company unless
I brought her with me. This was loneliness
with noise, unlike the kind I had at home
with no clock running down, and mirrors.

I wonder what design elements best allow us to abandon ourselves to adoration and self-denial. The smell. The noise. The refusal of real-life distraction.

Where do you feel most like a fan? Is it in a concert hall, surrounded by screaming fellows, your communal chanting still not as loud as the singer onstage? Is it at the movies, in the dark secret of the soft seats? Is it in a museum, that quiet compression in your heart when you see something too old to imagine?

What makes a place right for this kind of experience?