Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Ze Frank Takes Over (My) Museum




I get excited about a lot of things in my work at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. But every once in awhile, something extraordinary comes up, something that isn't emergent or evolving or encouraging but something that explodes into your life like a comet knocking on your door.

That's how I felt when artist Ze Frank got in touch to talk about a potential museum exhibition to explore a physical site/substantiation for his current online video project, A Show (see minute 2:20, above). And to cut to the end of the story first, yes, we are creating a project together, yes, you can participate, and yes to whatever other questions this brings up in your head.

Ze Frank is a participatory artist who creates digital projects that are explicitly about creating and enhancing authentic interpersonal connections. He is an authoritative artist of the social web with a slew of accolades and a suite of diverse projects under his belt. This 2010 TED talk is a good introduction if you haven't experienced his work before.

Ze is a skilled performer, but more importantly, he's a thoughtful ringleader for a series of intricate games, missions, and provocations that invite participants to bridge social barriers in surprising ways. He invites participants to write songs for each other about dealing with rejection. To recreate childhood photographs. To celebrate political differences. To dress up their vacuum cleaners.

Ze's work can feel silly or strange. It's often intended for an audience that I only barely understand through the ways they respond and interact with the work. In other words: I have a lot to learn from him. This winter, as part of a museumwide exhibition called Work in Progress, Ze and the virtual army of participants in A Show will take over a gallery of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. We will be displaying products created by the online community, creating a process for ongoing online and onsite collaboration, and providing a gathering space for people connected to each other through Ze's digital universe. And on a conceptual level, we'll be exploring questions of how online and onsite participation interrelate and what their babies look like.  

This project excites me for a number of reasons:
  • Our values are aligned. Ze genuinely cares about his participants, and he is driven to design interactions that inspire real moments of intimacy. His projects are rigorous, sincere, and generous. As someone with a keen interest in designing exhibits that engage strangers meaningfully with each other around objects, I'm thrilled to work with a pioneer on this in a different context.
  • Ze's work has always gone beyond the digital. Photography, video, audio, text, origami, mail art... These projects don't only "work" on a screen. We won't just be "printing out" the experience. It will be exciting to play with a gallery space because the work is multi-dimensional physically as well as conceptually. 
  • The scale and scope of participation in A Show is extraordinary. Most of the participatory projects I've been involved with are rooted in a community that is geographically-defined. Ze's community is worldwide people who self-select to engage with strangers online. This isn't a group I know a lot about, and we're all curious about how they will intersect with our local audience and with each other.
  • It offers unique opportunities for learning more about participation. How will this partnership influence the way we think about other participatory experiences in our institution? How will it change the way we see online and onsite interactions? What constraints and surprises will emerge? I'd love to find a grad student or two who are interested in creating some interesting research around this project, and of course, I'll be blogging about it.
We don't have a lot of details at this point about the specifics of the project, but here's what we do know. The exhibition will run from December 14, 2012 to March 4 of 2013. Ze will be in Santa Cruz for some but not all of that time. We will be looking for interns and volunteers who want to help facilitate the space throughout the winter--please contact me if interested. And copious thanks to Eric Siegel, who introduced Ze and me to each other.

Most importantly, I'm curious: what would you like to see us explore with this exhibition? 
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