Thursday, August 13, 2009

"It Is What It Is," and the Challenges of Dialogue-Focused Exhibits

I sat down this morning to write a negative review of an exhibit. Now, two hours of YouTube exploration later, I'm not sure what I think.

Earlier this year, the New Museum and Creative Time commissioned a traveling piece by artist Jeremy Deller called "It Is What It Is: Conversations About Iraq." The piece features two guests, an Iraqi translator and a US Army reservists, who hang out in a conversational space, flanked by maps of the US and Iraq and a powerful artifact--a car that was destroyed in a suicide bomb attack in Baghdad. The goal is to support "messy, open-ended discussion," and the draw is the idea that you can go to the museum and talk about Iraq with someone who has actually been there during the war. It Is What It Is was first shown in NYC at the New Museum and has traveled across the country, stopping at various public sites on its way to a longer engagement at the Hammer Museum in LA.

I saw It Is What It Is twice at the Hammer Museum. Both times, the central square in which it was situated was well-trafficked with people enjoying art, hanging out with friends, and working. I saw many people check out the car, but I never saw anyone engage in dialogue with the program participants. Even with a couple of comfortable couches, a provocative object, and a sign that said, "Talk to Esam from 3-5," the barriers to participation were high. Even for me, the barriers were too high. Why would I want to talk about Iraq on a visit to an art museum? Why would I want to talk about it with a stranger? Why would I want to sit on a couch and engage in an open-ended, messy conversation with a stranger?

It Is What It Is
highlights how difficult it is to invite people into dialogue--not just on tough topics like the Iraq War, but any topic. From my perspective, It Is What It Is was not designed with sufficient structure to robustly and consistently support dialogue. It doesn't clearly welcome people in or bridge the social barriers that keep us from naturally talking to strangers. It doesn't set expectations for what will happen (which was intentional) and that makes people wary and also less interested, since they can't look forward to a "successful" outcome.

I know it may sound like I'm asking for something overly structured, but compare It Is What It Is with another dialogue project, the Living Library. In the Living Library, there is a concrete entrypoint to challenging discussions. Visitors check out "books," which are people who embody certain stereotypes, for forty-minute one-on-one conversations. The Living Library has guest experts (the books), but it also has facilitators in the form of the "librarians" who help you sign up for a library card, browse the catalog, and select a book for discussion. I'm not suggesting that the Living Library is the only way to have dialogue about tough issues (far from it!) but that it is a much more structured platform than that provided by It Is What It Is. Living Library events consistently draw visitors and are packed with people having intense, messy conversations about culture, politics, and human relations.

Deller says the "conversation is the most important part" of It Is What It Is but I believe he over-estimated the ability of simple objects and live "guest experts" to get people talking. It Is What It Is and other unstructured platforms just plunk down the people and hope for dialogue. Occasionally, some really interesting and surprising things may happen. But they are a lot less likely than in designed settings like the Living Library.

A volunteer manager at a major US history museum once told me about a failed dialogue program in which older volunteers would sit in rocking chairs on an exhibit component themed to look like a front porch. The idea was that visitors would come up and hang out on the front porch, listening to the elders' stories of the past. This is a nice conceptual structure that had some visual reinforcement in the physical space, but it failed miserably. No one approached the volunteers. They had stories to tell and were happy to talk, but the social barriers to participation were too great to make it happen.

Unlike the front porch program, which was silently discontinued,
It Is What It Is received a lot of press as a revolutionary art piece indicative of artists moving towards focusing on social experiences rather than objects. But I haven't found any press or blogs from people who actually went to the exhibit and had a discussion; the press seems to focus on the interestingness of the idea rather than the impact of its implementation. If you experienced the exhibit (or find someone who did) and engaged in dialogue, please share your story--I don't want to unfairly castigate this exhibit based on two personal experiences.

And there's another reason I don't want to criticize it. When I dug deeper into the exhibit's website, I found a series of lovely, short videos recorded along the exhibit's across the country. Watch this amazing video of an older Sioux man reacting to the blown-out car and recalling Vietnam. Or this one of the team touring a farm in Tennessee and discussing the differences between American and Iraqi burial rituals. I got lost in these videos, and I started to question my expectations about what makes an exhibit like this successful. Is it about the number of conversations had or the quality of those discussions? Is it about drawing people in who may not have walked up with an interest in the topic, or is it about engaging those who have a deep and immediate desire to talk without prompting? Is it about what happens in the museums or on the streets in-between?

Considering these questions, I come to three uncertain conclusions.

First, it appears from the project documentation that It Is What It Is was more powerful when dropped into everyday street scenes and college campuses than when situated in contemporary art museums. Maybe there was less pretension, maybe the space felt more owned by the individuals approaching (and therefore, maybe the visitors felt more comfortable engaging). I say "maybe" because I'm only seeing curated clips, and for all I know there were just as many wild interactions in the New Museum and the Hammer as there were on the streets of New Mexico. But if this observation is valid, then it speaks to the additional social barriers museums introduce that we have to be aware of when designing for dialogue.

Second, because this was an art project, I doubt that Jeremy had explicit goals for how many people would engage and in what ways. He said as much in his introduction, commenting that he "hopes" there will be dialogue but he really isn't sure what will happen. When working on dialogue projects, I try to get beyond guessing and hoping and really consider--who do we want to engage with this? How will we design the experience to encourage participation by those people? What are the evaluative measures by which we will consider the dialogue experience successful? I'm not sure It Is What It Is had such measures, and members of their team shared their tension about this issue. Along the drive west, It Is What It Is team member Nato Thompson commented in the road diary:

What can be gained by ephemeral interactions in public space that briefly exist in YouTube videos and on a blog? With such an ambivalent, open-ended tone, what prevents people from leaving these conversations without a single view challenged or sense of self altered?
There are good questions, and in an art project, it's often acceptable to use the piece as a vehicle to expose and explore the questions rather than answer them. But museum staff rarely have this luxury. They are always accountable for the impact of their work, and it's important (and doable!) to design dialogue platforms to specific impact goals just as you would a didactic content experience.

And so finally, with regard to impact, I believe It Is What It Is is more valuable to a broad audience as a cultural multimedia story than as an exhibit. Seeing the exhibit, I was ready to cast this off with a joke about two guys and a car walking into a museum. It was not made "for me," a visitor who didn't know what to expect. It wasn't designed to bring mass audiences into an uncomfortable experience, or if it was, it failed to do so. Jeremy Deller admitted in his artist statement that this piece was motivated by his own very personal interest in Iraq. As he put it:

In a sense I am selfishly doing this for my own benefit simply to plug the many gaps that exist in my knowledge and to satisfy the arguments that have been going on in my head for the best part of this century.
So in a sense, this piece is a performance in which Jeremy spends time with his guests, learning and traveling together. And it was the representation of this performance, not the opportunity for dialogue, that captivated me. I both enjoyed and learned from the road videos, the diaries, and the interactions among the travelers.

Watching the videos, I reconceived the exhibit as a transparent "making of" for an unstructured documentary rather than an end into itself. And this challenges my long-held passion for involving visitors in the behind-the-scenes and the process. Visiting It Is What It Is, the exhibit, was dull and off-putting. I had a bad experience. But I loved watching the curated cultural products of the exhibit. Does this mean that I didn't want to see the process and only the product? Or am I just frustrated that they sold the exhibit as a dialogue product, an experience unto itself, when the real product was a performance?

8 comments, add yours!:

Hanan Cohen said...

This reminds me of a story from my past.

Kites were my Art.

I got a permission from the Israel Museum in Jerusalem to fly my art at their garden.

When I flew my kites at the museum, non of the visitors talked to me about my kites.

On the other hand, when I flew them at the beach, I always had interesting conversations.

Here is a story about one of those conversations.

Jessica Bicknell said...

I saw the exhibit in New York. I remember thinking that the car was incredibly powerful (and upsetting) as well as the map in the same room where names of places in the Middle East were transposed with those in the US (although it's unclear to me now whether this was part of the same exhibit). I did see several people sitting at couches, talking, in the middle of the room, and I recall thinking it looked like group therapy of some kind (I guess it seemed like people were upset and being comforted?)--at any rate, it was unclear to me what it was or that I could join in, I assumed it was a special program of some sort, and without reading your post I would have gone on believing that this part of it was meant to be secondary to the art objects themselves (or not part of the exhibit at all). Very moving "art piece" though, and it seems that some people did take advantage of the conversational aspect.

Andrea Bandelli said...

Hi Nina,
excellent post! Your critique is very frank, honest, and articulated. I wish there were more open discussions like this in our field about the exhibitions we don't like or don't agree with.

Two of your three "uncertain conclusions" raised a couple of questions in me, and I want to share them with you.
I haven't seen It Is What It Is (at least not the installation - I spent quite some time on the online material), so the following are general observations (or maybe provocations) and not comments on the specific piece by J. Deller.

1) You write: "I say "maybe" because I'm only seeing curated clips, and for all I know there were just as many wild interactions in the New Museum and the Hammer as there were on the streets of New Mexico."

I couldn't resist thinking that these videos can be a sort of "reality tv" - a representation of a constructed (therefore curated) but likely reality; and like with tv, once they are broadcasted on YouTube (or other media) they become part of the collective imaginary and claim to be the actual reality.

I was surprised to notice that none of the YouTube videos about It Is What It Is had any comments; could it be that rather than seeking dialogue, their function was to broadcast a certain view of what the artwork is - regardless of its correspondence with the actual reality of the installation? Or maybe it is a question of critical mass - too few people watched the videos to engender a dialogue online.

2) My other observation is about your statement: "When working on dialogue projects, I try to get beyond guessing and hoping and really consider--who do we want to engage with this? How will we design the experience to encourage participation by those people?"

I cannot avoid noticing a tension between this approach - analyzing the potential audience, and targeting activities and experiences for specific groups - and an inclusive approach which is not steered by the museum, but open to uninvited and unpredictable participation.

I know, it's not that you shut the doors if someone outside of the intended audience shows up. But in the process to design museums experiences for specific audiences it's impossible to avoid cultural, social and civic values that while we think will attract some audiences, will also create barriers for others. And I would argue that until the choice of who these audiences are rest with us, it won't be true inclusion, even if we try to keep that choice as broad as possible.

Keep up the good work, and thank you for your stimulating posts.


Nina Simon said...

Hanan and Jessica, thank you for your stories.

Andrea, thanks for the great thoughts. A couple responses:

1. Against the standards of YouTube, these viewcounts are too low for many comments. It's strange how the exhibition's website was not very well-optimized to allow people to follow along -- there's no RSS feed or email option for the road diary, and they don't clearly explain that there's a YouTube channel. It seems more like personal documentation than part of the exposition, and my assumption is that they were not intending these items to be launchpoints for dialogue, though they certainly could be (did you see the one with the joke about Saddam killing families?).

2. I absolutely agree with you about the tension with regard to target audiences. It would have been more appropriate for me to say that I try (and encourage others to) scaffold the participatory experience with a design approach that helps people get "into" what is otherwise an uncomfortable social experience. This design process naturally has some target audience and venue/content distinctions; I would scaffold a dialogue experience differently in a family-focused science center than in an senior center.

I'm hyper-conscious of how some design choices leave others out. I'm a frequent adult visitor to science centers (for pleasure) and am often dismayed at how clearly the design is geared towards someone smaller and less nuanced than me. There is no neutral design when it comes to physical environments, and to me, "open-ended" design of dialogue experiences just means that you are targeting a very small and self-motivated audience for whom "no design" is enough.

Hope to continue the discussion virtually, in person, in whatever designed environments suit us best!

tina blaine said...


Many thanks for your provocative posts and insights. I haven't seen the exhibit, but it appears that this was an art project originally intended to be a traveling exhibit that ended up in a museum. The artists’ interactions and experiences would be revealed through each successive contact to generate a “road diary” by using the car as a catalyst for dialogue. To that end, after viewing some of the YouTube clips, it seems that the car did trigger some difficult conversations that took people out of their comfort zones, albeit in video form. It could be that your reactions are based on the failure of this artwork to engage visitors after landing in a more static museum environment. It may also be that whatever modifications were made after the roadtrip to make it interactive in a stationary setting were more of an afterthought following what do we do when the road trip ends? On the otherhand, perhaps simply showing video artifacts of the journey could have engaged visitors more successfully and presented as such, would have changed your expectations because it was not intended to be “interactive”. An important aspect of the artists’ journey and ensuing dialog created was that the road diary was facilitated by questioning and responding to people’s initial reactions to the car captured in the moment. Perhaps the real value of an art project like this is the reflection and conversation that comes after the fact, once people have had a chance to further ponder our presence in Iraq and the implications it would have if the situation were reversed...

Unknown said...

I work for an audio tour company and lately we have had many requests from our museum clients to produce audio tour content that is "dialogue" based. When we do this, we try to record various conversations between people and aim to make them as interesting as possible - various points of view, specialties, etc discussing artwork or history.

Perhaps this is the type of dialogue more people are willing to engage in - listening to others ponder what they might ask. Just as you mentioned, so many are not willing to participate or ask questions...but we don't mind listening to others debate and discuss the same topics.

Jessica Lagala

Nina Simon said...

In the Science Museum of Minnesota's exhibition on Race, they initially felt that the volume level on all of the videos (mostly of "talking heads") was too loud. Later, they discovered that the audial backdrop of many voices talking about race emboldened visitors to do the same. Environments that are conversational--even via recorded voice--can definitely breed conversation.

I'm curious if your clients want dialogue-based tours because they think it will improve the enjoyability of the tour, or if they think it will spark dialogue among tour listeners. The first is often true (Beth of smART History could tell you lots about that) but I know less about the second.

Kelly Brisbois said...

Your questions about facilitating dialogue are important for us to think about, and point to the need for understanding this further in museum settings. As you explained, this is a hybrid exhibit of art, current events, and is interactive with the exhibit creator. He took a risk, and I admire that, and also agree with your challenge to understanding how we can create meaningful dialogue.