Monday, November 20, 2006

Why I (heart) Installation Art

Image courtesy of Luke Tan

What you are looking at is a raining tree in front of the Asian Civilisations Museum, created by Dutch-born artist Iepe B. T. Rubingh in conjunction with the first annual Singapore Biennale. Sporadically, bursts of misty rain come down magically from the tree; in fact, Iepe has stated that he uncovered the tree's supernatural powers after talking to it for three weeks.

This tree/sprite/installation is a perfect example of what is, in my mind, the optimal tension between awesome content creation and visitor involvement. This is an installation that causes people to stop, drop, and nudge total strangers to encourage them to get in on the act. It is so extraordinary and unusual that the social barrier that prevents us from whooping aloud breaks down.

I'm a content snob. I want museums to give me, the visitor, the most beautiful, awesome experiences possible. And when those experiences are unusual enough, I feel compelled to share it with strangers because it's just THAT good. I become an evangelist for that experience--which is a golden egg for the marketing and development folks.

This is the way that I can justify my interest (in a 2.0 sense) in content that is not explicitly geared towards social involvment. There are places like the Museum of Jurassic Technology that seem antithetical to visitor involvement--spooky, hard to navigate--and yet the high and wonderful weird factor of the place invites reaction and discussion. These are artists and exhibit developers who are comfortable taking a risk to put something challenging and provocative out there--and when that thing is something as delightful as a raining tree or as bizarre as "failed" dice--people rise to the challenge and respond.

A lot of 2.0 ideas are about creating a vanilla, flexible platform so the users can make it their own. But this is another option--to create experiences that are so immersive and wowing that people can't help but respond. I think one of the challenges in museums is that we want it both ways--experiences that are inviting, but not too inviting; provocative, but not too provocative. The shared value of user platforms and challenging installations is respect for the visitor/user. The common museum compromise belies a lack of respect on our part that visitors can handle wild experiences... or create them on their own.

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