Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lessons in Participatory Design from SFMOMA's Exhibition on (you guessed) The Art of Participation

Here are two pictures. The first one is me. The second one is George. George is a stranger I met last week at SFMOMA’s new show, The Art of Participation:1950 to Now. We didn’t need a staff member or a program to meet each other. We weren’t trying to pick each other up. We engaged in an exhibit together, making "one minute sculptures" and taking photos of each other. We talked afterwards. We connected virtually later. We were strangers, and now we are not, and we have SFMOMA to thank for it.

The Art of Participation provides a retrospective on participatory art as well as presenting opportunities for visitors to engage in contemporary (“now”) works. As the museum's website puts it, "this exhibition examines how artists have engaged members of the public as essential collaborators in the art-making process." While many of the artifacts of historical art pieces are arresting, the pieces of “now” form an exciting testbed for gallery-based participatory engagement, albeit in a meta way around the topic of participation. The participatory art pieces are physical, social objects that mediate visitor-to-visitor engagement, and the exhibition suggests a set of dos and don’ts that are transferable to any museum or institution seeking to support visitor-to-visitor social experiences.

DO message clearly. SFMOMA uses a variety of methods to make visitors aware of the opportunity to engage physically with the art. At the front of the exhibition is this simple sign (shown at right) explaining that labels written in orange are opportunities to “do, take, or touch something.” This label set up a casual game for me: look for orange, do the thing. Even if you don’t see this label on the way in, the use of a different color allows visitors to become familiar with the use of the color orange as they see it across many labels in the gallery. If the participatory instructions were integrated into the standard black labels, visitors would not be as aware of the commonalities across the interactive art pieces. The repetition of the orange may also encourage some reluctant visitors to engage, as it suggests multiple opportunities for participation.

DO train your floor staff.
Staff play a major role in setting expectations about what visitors can and can not do-especially in art museums. There were several guards and gallery guides in the museum when I attended, and they seemed to serve contradictory roles. The guards interpreted the labels in strict ways and intervened anytime visitors deviated from the prescribed activities. The guides had a much more open approach, encouraging visitors to play. I was involved in one situation where a guide and a guard argued about whether a plastic orange could be placed inside a prop fridge. This kind of confusion among staff translates negatively to visitors, who lose confidence in participating for fear of being chastised.

DON’T make the participatory activity too narrow or difficult. There were a couple of exhibits that had complicated instruction sets, and participating felt more like an unpleasant IKEA flashback than an opportunity to explore art. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a place for challenging exhibits, but the starting point for entry into a participatory experience should always be gentle and friendly. Also, the more open-ended pieces, in which visitors could express some of our own creativity, allowed me to feel more like a participant and less like an unpaid art lackey.

DO think about visitor flow when situating participatory experiences. The Art of Participation has elements throughout the SFMOMA building, and while some are well-placed, others feel ill-suited to their environment. The quiet, less-trafficked education center is a perfect place for contemplative, individual exhibits like the 1000 Journals project, in which visitors can flip through and contribute to a set of journals launched into the world by artist Brian Singer. But a set of DIY foldable furniture, which is performative, social, and challenging to use, felt out of place in the otherwise empty education space. Similarly, the one minute sculptures, where I spent the most time and interacted with many strangers, was successful because it was positioned in an open part of the gallery that generated lots of traffic and sightlines—two key elements for drawing people in.

DON’T make the social ask too uncomfortable. There was a set of eyeglasses in the exhibition meant for two people to wear (see left, the glasses are linked so the viewers face each other). While some people traveling in groups may feel comfortable using a device to stand inches from each other, many strangers (and familiars) do not. In contrast, the exhibit in which I met George—one minute sculptures—requires a simple and non-threatening social action: taking a photo of someone else. It’s minimal enough to feel safe asking a stranger for help but leads easily to deeper interaction.

DO delineate the space, but design easy ways to disengage.
George and my experience in the one-minute sculpture activity was also facilitated by the space provided. We were standing on a low platform in the middle of a large gallery. It was clear where to participate (on the platform), which enhanced the performative quality of the experience. People could watch what was happening and join in. People on the platform could turn in multiple directions to entice newcomers into the action. But it was also easy to step off the platform and out of the activity. Too often, we design participatory experiences into their own rooms, thinking we should create a dedicated space for the noise and activity. But openness is safe. I would feel less comfortable playing with strangers in a room shut off from the rest of the museum.

DO provide examples and create a valued context.
This is the most obvious way that The Art of Participation succeeds. For every opportunity to engage creatively, there are many examples of how other artists have interpreted participation. This happens on a small scale (for example, the one minute sculpture platform was flanked by photos documenting sculptures created by artist Lygia Clark) as well as throughout the gallery. There is no question in my mind that the art around us encouraged me and other participants to take more risks, and to think of ourselves as making art. We were on display at a huge and powerful museum, a part of the exhibition rather than consumers of an interactive element. And that felt important. It was a feeling that was harder to access in the education center, where participation felt less transgressive and more like a “designed learning moment.”

Some of these dos and don'ts may seem generic. But without all of them, the participatory experience is diminished—and that was readily apparent as I wandered the highly active to not-at-all active exhibits. Context and framing are unbelievably important. Think of what happened to George and me: we had an opportunity to take pictures of people doing silly things with broom handles, plastic fruit, and a dorm fridge with a hole in it. That description does not scream "amazing participatory experience." And yet the setup—the platform, the gallery location, the examples, the encouragement, the low barrier to entry—made it extraordinary. It created a situation where a perfect stranger paused, looked at me, and said, “I think I’m going to take off my shirt.” It created an opportunity for each of us to do things that were individually comfortable but socially extraordinary.

It didn’t take exhaustive resources to create the one minute sculpture platform. I'd argue that it didn't even take unprecedented genius on the part of the artist and curators. But it did take a serious interest in connecting with visitors, valuing their participation, and putting their work front and center in a contextualized museum experience.

11 comments, add yours!:

irasocol said...

One more great post Nina. I guess, "consider your audiences when designing social tasks" might be my way of putting that one thing - it is ok to design for certain discomforts, right?

Anyway, my favorite guard story is from the Grand Rapids Art Museum. A guard rushed over to where I was pointing toward a detail in a Chris VanAllsburg drawing. "Don't do that!" she yelled, "Someone will see you on the security cameras and think that you are about to touch the glass!" How comforting, apparently I'd stumbled into the George Orwell Museum. Anyway, I haven't been back.

-Ira Socol

Jeff Stern said...

Hi Nina,

For the one-minute sculpture, I'm curious as to the amount of mediation and type of tools offered. Did you use your own cameras or were given cameras? Were you given tools to share your pictures, or did that come from connecting virtually later? Could you see sculptures created by earlier visitors, or were you limited to who/what was in the space when you were there? And with each of these, do you think it would have been a better experience if the answer was different? What would the experience have been like if you were actually alone, with no other visitors around (or is that just not going to happen at SFMOMA)?


Nina Simon said...

Good questions. There was very little mediation. We used our own cameras; cameras were not supplied. We were not given tools to share our photos, though the wall label said you could upload them to the blog at blog.sfmoma.org (which was a bit inaccurate--when you go to the blog, they ask you to upload your photos to Flickr and tag them SFMOMA and then they get picked up in the stream). We could not see sculptures created by prior visitors, though I did attend on day 2 of the exhibition being open.

There is another part of the exhibition with a photo studio component where someone else takes your portrait--much easier to engage in, but much more constrained creatively and socially. I do think it would have been useful to have an easier way once you get to the blog to upload photos directly (for those who don't already have Flickr accounts), but I also appreciate the non-walled gardenness of spreading the photos to Flickr. I think it is a reasonable assumption in an art museum that many visitors will have cameras, if only on their phones (my pics were taken with my phone). It also would have been better if the label in orange explicitly encouraged you to find someone else and take their picture/have your picture taken. It would have removed some of the awkwardness of asking, but again, I think most people travel in groups and probably weren't having the stranger to stranger experience George and I shared. Other visitors also seemed happy to have their pictures taken and never get to see them; I posted a couple on Flickr of other strangers who we directed into positions. They didn't care to take their own photos but were happy to pose for mine.

Alone? I probably wouldn't have done it. The props were so basic (with the exception of the fridge with holes cut in it) that they were only evocative in the white box gallery context. I guess I was drawn to the performative nature of the experience as well as the challenge presented by some of the example photos on the wall, which showed people in some unlikely positions. I might have tried to do the stick thing, but without other people (and a camera) involved, I wouldn't have spent much time nor had the powerful experience I did. If it was a more private space, I might have felt like I was intruding if I came in and someone else was sculpturing--like maybe this was a station made for one. I often feel that way in science centers, where most exhibits have a "one person, one interaction" design.

Linda said...

This post reminded me of a funny little exhibit I saw at the Tate Modern several years ago. It was a mostly archival exhibit about an exhibit--one mounted by Robert Morris in 1971 that encouraged audience interaction--but in fact, the audience interaction so horrified the museum that the exhibit was rapidly closed. There's a great group of photos at http://www.tate.org.uk/research/researchservices/archive/showcase/item.jsp?theme=3&page=16&parent=4923&item=4926 (hope that link works) that show some very '70s audience members making their own use of the space and materials. As I recall the archival exhibit, I remember a series of horrified back and forth letters, in that now vanished form of a carbon copy. So on the one hand, we've come a long way, on another, as one of your other commenters remarks, not so much.

Nina Simon said...

What was so horrific? Looking at the photos, I couldn't tell. Were visitors being destructive or harming themselves?

Linda said...

I think, from my somewhat vague memory, that the museum was horrified about visitors being active, although my recollection was that it was framed in terms of visitors harming themselves. It was really the sense that the sort of play and activity you experienced was, in the 1970s, something that should not be happening in art museum. I guess it was scary to let those visitors do what they will. On the Tate's website, they describe the reaction:

Though in its first five days the exhibition attracted 2,500 visitors, it had to be closed after just five days as members of the public were injured when engaging with the interactive work. The press had a field day, with some reviewers claiming the exhibition encouraged over-enthusiastic visitors who went 'mad', 'jumping and screaming' through the exhibit, suggesting it was inappropriate for a gallery to encourage such behaviour and accusing the Tate of a deterioration of standards. Others, though acknowledging its value as an attempt to break down the elitism of the art world, dismissed it as a novelty exhibition:

"the entire exercise remains disconcertingly superficial. A lightweight affair that leaves no lasting impression even on the person who has undergone the complete sequence of tests."
Richard Cork

I particularly like that they described it as "interactive work."

george said...

You couldn't have said it better, Nina. I went back again on Monday and engaged more strangers to pose for me, with a proper camera this time. I also tried to make a participatory experience out of the bird poster but that didn't go over so well with the staff.

S. Mann said...

Great post & v. insightful comments. pity i won't be able to see the installation but it's great fodder for the mill.

-Stacey Mann

Tikka said...

Great post ... my first thought was that your sculpture was well and truly outside the square!

My second thought was around liability - your sculpture was just a little, tiny bit dangerous. Many of our great interactive ideas get quashed in the 'what ifs' of risk analysis land. Did sfmoma have 'participate at your own risk' signage around the exhibition? Or do you have the sense that the curators believed that props they provided would only facilitate completely safe sculptures?

Nina Simon said...

Good question about safety. There were no signs about liability, and the guard was not very happy about my somewhat precarious position on the fridge. But I was taking my cues from the photo examples on the wall (by artists), many involving comparable positions. The idea was to create sculptures that were necessarily non-permanent (i.e. a tipping bucket on someone's head), so I wanted to fit into the spirit of that. But I agree that it could have made people uncomfortable. I could have fallen, but not that far, and not that disastrously.

Should I have avoided taking a precarious position? Should George have kept his shirt on? It would have been less exciting on both accounts. How do you message what visitors can do when the art around them is deliberately unsafe?

Tikka said...

Hi Nina,

It's reassuring that there weren't any signs up about what you shouldn't do - what a creativity killer that would have been! And no, I think it's great that you and George pushed the boundaries and that the guard didn't interfere.

It's an issue that we struggle with when planning exhibitions - how do you create challenging, engaging experience that's also 'safe'? Almost by definition you have to get outside your comfort/safety zone.

Thanks for ideas ...