Monday, January 08, 2007

Getting Intimate (in Public)

Pop quiz: Which of these two fights are you most likely to remember?

a. The one you had sitting on the couch at home. She called you an emotional basketcase; you said she had the empathy of a robot. You cried, the cat ran out of the room, etc.
b. The blowout in the grocery store. Around you, people sampled grapefruit wedges, stacked cabbage, selected pears. You wheeled through the store, one can-of-soup from tears, arguing heatedly under your breath.

I have no idea when the first one happened, if it ever did. But the second one? Costco, January 2003. I could still give you the blow-by-blow.

Ahh, the private moment in a public space. I’ve always been a fan and often seek out these experiences—finishing a great book in a diner, reuniting with a lover in a crowded airport. The contrast between your immediate situation and that of the people around you highlights your immersion, makes the experience more visceral. Public spaces invite distraction… and focus becomes a precious thing.

One of the most obvious places to seek out this kind of experience—in a good way—is the museum. I’d love to find myself rapt, ogling some exhibit or artifact with no regard for the school groups and sound effects swarming around me. But it almost never happens.

Why isn’t Al Green coming over the mental stereo in the museum?

Visitors rarely have pre-existing relationships with exhibits/artifacts prior to the museum experience. This is the visitors’ fault, not the designers’—but it’s something that needs to be taken into consideration. I care a lot about seeing Bob Dylan’s first guitar, but what about the next guy? One of the best art museum experiences I’ve ever had was one in which the museum commissioned local poets to write poems to accompany the exhibit opening. We had access to the catalog beforehand and started writing. When I finally saw the exhibition live, I was overwhelmed by the art. I’m STILL overcome by emotion when I see those same pieces (now in the Smithsonian). But it's a nearly impossible feeling for me to replicate with other pieces. You could argue that I was one of the lucky few to have that opportunity. But museums could invite the public to participate before exhibitions open in all kinds of ways that could set the groundwork for relationships between visitor and exhibition. Prime me to have a crush on an artifact so I’ll fall in love when I get there.

Museum exhibition design often strives for “fairness” with regard to spacing and display of exhibits/artifacts. Who’s to say which artifact deserves a room all to itself? But when the alternative is the lull of consistency, is it worth taking some risks? Lack of differentiation or distinction makes me just stroll on by; give me some nooks to squirrel into.

Attempts to promote intimacy through individual experiences are often disconnecting rather than connecting. Ever been through an exhibition in which everyone was given a headset? It’s creepy. I think this common error is based on the idea that people come to museums for information, and it’s easier to focus with a few senses knocked out. But that focus is forced, so you don’t get the nice “private moment public place” feeling. If the headset was instructing you to move in a certain way or speak to someone—in other words, to cultivate a relationship—it would be a different story. (Janet Cardiff does this wonderfully.)

Visitors are encouraged to “see everything” rather than finding just a couple things to focus on. Again, this is partially visitor-motivated (and rising ticket prices are a factor), but the emphasis on accessible way-finding and open spaces makes me often feel like I’m in a mall. Sure, it’s great to see where everything is, but this encourages me to act like a visitor and not a user. This is the crux of the 2.0 connection here—the fact that without the opportunity for an intimate moment, you’re just a tourist. To become a user, the museum has to offer different experiences to match your varying priorities. Think of a library. Sometimes you use the Sci Fi section, sometimes Biographies. But you never feel like you are wasting your time if you get wrapped up in one special book. That’s the experience I want in a museum, to curl up with just one exhibit, always knowing there are lots more where that came from.

There’s a song in which rapper Sage Francis speaks disdainfully of emcees/poets who “don’t know how to speak to a crowd in an intimate environment.” How can we make exhibits and museum spaces intimate environments for powerful connections and experiences?

4 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

Best museum experience I ever had: discovering the MP3s on the headsets they give out at the Experience Music Project in Seattle. I was with a group of eight friends, on New Year's Eve 2002. We all quickly found the Funk files and queued up some Parliament. We never danced so happily and blithely. Up the stairs, down the stairs, through the galleries, even the occasional conga line. We attracted stares and laughter, but I tell you, that's still my favorite museum (and I read very little of the actual exhibit signage).

I still don't have an iPod, partially because I want the EMP memory to live on uncluttered.

Nina Simon said...


You might want to make an exception if Improv Everywhere ever does another one of their mp3 "experiments" (all in NYC), which sound like a massive extension of the great experience you had at EMP.

And by the way, thanks for all your comments.

Anonymous said...

Ah yes, Improv Everywhere. So much fun. I get Mission Announcements about once a month. Just received the Annual No Pants Subway Ride... now that's "Getting Intimate (in Public)."

So what's YOUR best museum experience, Simon?

Ever curious, ever Commenting,

Maybe I'm just into text-based virtual life? ;)

Nina Simon said...

Ah, that's easy. The Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh, January 2003. The Mattress Factory features single installations. At the time, the museum was taken over by James Turrell, the light artist. Each of his pieces is made of light--a blue cube of light floating in space, darkest darks, glowing rooms that seem to have no walls. To enter each installation, you walked through a pitch-black, narrow, 5-20ft corridor of black fabric. I was there with my best friend Joanna.

Each time we entered a corridor, we grabbed each other's hands--not so
much in fear, but in total ncertainty of what kind of experience we were going to emerge into. We were literally plunged into each piece. It was frightening, lovely, and very powerful.