Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Press Here: Breaking the Fourth Wall in Children's Books... and Museums?

You open a children's book. You see a yellow dot. The text says "Press the yellow dot and turn the page."

Suddenly there are two yellow dots. You follow the text. You press some more. You turn the page. More dots appear. You rub the dots. They change color. You shake the book. The dots move around. You clap. The dots get bigger.

Either I'm really sleep-deprived, or Press Here is the most brilliant interactive children's book ever. Let's be clear: there are no pushbuttons or popups or electronics built into this book. Author Herve Tullet uses the most basic children's book materials (pages, words, and images) to create a responsive, dynamic adventure. Press Here is a "normal" book that uses book-ish tools--pacing, spatial arrangement of images on the page, text as instruction--to break the fourth wall and create an interactive experience.

I was thinking of Press Here when I heard about the new children's book This is a Book Without Pictures. B.J. Novak's book uses the basic structure of reading aloud to subject the reader (presumably an adult) to proclaim ridiculous things about him/herself. The text points out that, "Everything the book says, the person reading the book has to say." Said person goes on read every absurd word aloud, fighting with the book, pleading to stop reading the book, casting asides to the audience that he is NOT actually a robot monkey even though the book says he is. Hilarity ensues.

Press Here and This is a Book Without Pictures each break the fourth wall of book-reading in ingenious ways. They recall other artistic work that breaks fourth walls--classically in theater, and more recently in new media projects. (For an adult version of Press Here, enjoy Ze Frank's classic optical illusion.)

This makes me wonder: how do we break the fourth wall in museums? How do we use the essential tools of museum-ness to disrupt, surprise, and delight people?

One part of me thinks this is an impossible question. Museums already engage people with multiple senses, in multiple dimensions. Visitors are already immersed in the experience because of its engaging nature. Maybe there is no fourth wall at all.

But then I think about institutions like the Museum of Jurassic Technology, which uses the essential tools of museum presentation to subvert expectations about expertise and content. I think about all the dioramas that we are stuck outside of--and all the clunky add-ons we offer to distract people from the existence of those glass panes. I think of overbuilt animatronics, intended to suggest the vitality of artifacts but instead reminding us how deep the uncanny valley is between life and death. And I think of brilliant people in other mediums--authors like Herve Tullet, artists like Ze Frank--who are breaking walls we didn't even know existed.

So I wonder: where is our fourth wall?
Who will break it in some beautiful, simple way?

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