Sensing Awry: Designing Multimedia Exhibitions

Edwin van der Heide, BIAS Sound Art Exhibition Taipei 2005  

This past Saturday I had the pleasure of chairing a panel at the Mulimodal Approaches to Learning conference at the Metropolitan Museum. The panelists included Jim Drobnick, Associate Professor of Contemporary Art and Theory, Ontario College of Art and Design; Johannes Goebel, Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC); Siegfried Saerberg, Curator and Professor of Sociology and Disability Studies, Germany; and John Weber, Dayton Director, Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery. I attempted to take notes, although I wasn’t always fast enough to record who said what.

Johannes Goebel, who has extensive experience with sound installations, began by addressing the challenges particular to sound exhibitions: sound goes everywhere; it leaks into adjacent installations. Yet one common technological solution to this “problem” — encouraging visitors to use headphones — is socially awkward.

Goebel also pointed out that designing exhibitions to be multisensory — to engage as many senses as possible — isn’t always advantageous, because it runs the risk of Disney-fying the experience.

He picked up on the theme of temporality that was woven throughout the preceding panel on Sound Art. Goebel noted that different media have different time scales; visitors’ average “dwell time” for a painting is estimated to be anywhere between 8 and 15 seconds, while their engagement with sound art tends to last longer. How to integrate these different time scales into a multimedia exhibition?

When we think of “multisensory” experiences, we typically think of those that engage the five senses — but Jim Drobnick pointed out that some theorists and scientists have counted up to 17 senses. Our temporal sense is one that isn’t commonly accounted for in exhibition design. He says that exhibition designers and curators face myriad challenges in their attempts to appeal to these various senses. One set of challenges resides in the institution: the museum or gallery. We have to contend with HVAC systems, with ubiquitous deodorization, with the fact that open plans and permeable walls promote the intermixing of senses. Exhibition designers are commonly left to convey different senses through different technologies. The ephemeral senses present additional challenges of documentation: how does one record — for historical and teaching purposes — an exhibition of smell or sound? Weber shared Drobnick’s concern with documentation, yet Goebel suggested that “it’s fine that [some] works go away,” that they resist archiving. Any attempt to record, say, a Wooster Group performance, would necessarily pale in comparison to the live event.

The audience presents challenges, too. Drobnick wonders about how to compel people to participate in interactive, multisensory exhibitions; how to pull them out of their uncritical (and often unconscious) adoption of ocularcentric ways of encountering the world; and how to get them to recalibrate their senses, or to use them in different ratios, particularly when they aren’t likely to have either training in “controlled” sensation or a discourse to talk about it. Drobnick advocated, too, that we consider the critical possibilities of designing unpleasant sensation — bad smells, rough textures, etc., — that compel us to question our values and ideologies, including those embodied in our ocularcentrism. Drobnick also said that exhibition designers have to be conscious of visitors’ potential for “smell fatigue” or “smell blindness” — and of the ethical implications of sensory engagement; visitors usually come to a museum or gallery, he said, with particular expectations regarding how they’ll interact with the work on display, and with one another.

Weber and Saerberg both emphasized that it’s not one’s eyes or ears that walk through an exhibition; it’s the entire body. Saerberg, who is blind, noted that blind people, whom we might imagine to engage exhibitions through senses other than sight, are often making mental images of the objects on display through touch. “The eyes are not alone” in sight — neither for the blind nor the sighted; we frequently move around a sculpture in order to size it up, to touch it — with our hands and our eyes. While some museums make special accommodations for disabled visitors — by allowing blind visitors to touch various sculptures, for example, and providing specially trained docents — the sighted, too, Saerberg said, often “long to touch.” This multisensory, kinesthetic engagement with an exhibition, Saerberg said, demonstrates how the exhibition-going subject is necessarily wrapped up in the exhibited object.

Lights for the Blind exhibition, Sydney, 2010

Goebel then noted the difference between two primary ways of thinking about mulitmodality or the multisensory. We can take a museum exhibition and add senses to it; or we can consider an exhibition that is innately multimodal, like an exhibition of interaction design. These two models, he said, require very different exhibitionary infrastructures. Regardless, nearly all of the panelists agreed, that in order to most effectively accommodate exhibitions that engage a variety of senses, the senses should be addressed at the stage of designing the museum or gallery. Acoustics, in particular, Goebel said, has to be addressed up front; it can’t be fixed later.

The panelists closed by considering other challenges and opportunities: Drobnick noted the challenges of exhibiting smell and taste when the entire fragrance and flavoring company is controlled by a handful of major companies who jealously protect their recipes. The proprietary nature of this “raw material” complicates any attempts to integrate smell and taste into the gallery. Finally, Saerberg encouraged all galleries and museums to commission work that is made to be touched and sniffed; heard through an ear pressed up against its surface; interacted with “up-close and personal.”


Designing Multisensory Exhibitions

“How Wine Became Modern,” via SFMoMA

This weekend I’ll be taking part in the Multimodal Approaches to Learning conference at the Metropolitan Museum. I was asked by the conference organizers to chair a panel on “Designing Multisensory Exhibitions,” and they helped to recruit a great set of panelists, with a wide range of experience, to address this exciting topic. I’m very much looking forward meeting everyone — and to the conversation! And afterward, I’ll be writing up a chapter, for an edited collection, on multisensoriality in architecture and interaction design exhibitions.

Here’s a preview of what we’ll discuss on Saturday:

The conventions of the gallery and commonly used exhibition media and technology tend to privilege representation of the visual and occasionally, although with increasing frequency, the sonic. This panel will explore the challenges and opportunities in designing exhibitions that allow for a more encompassing multisensory experience. Given our panel’s focus on design, we’ll explore new potentials for how various design practices or sensibilities — of course the specialized field of exhibition design, but also interaction design, sound design, graphic design, architectural design, etc. — can work together to promote the engagement of the “whole body” in the exhibition.

And here are the panelists:

Jim Drobnick is a critic, curator, and Associate Professor of Contemporary Art and Theory at OCAD University, Toronto. He has published on the visual arts, performance, the senses, and post-media practices in recent anthologies such as Art, History and the Senses (2010) and Senses and the City (2011), and the journals Angelaki, High Performance, Parachute, Performance Research, and The Senses & Society. He edited the anthologies Aural Cultures (2004) and The Smell Culture Reader (2006), and recently co-founded the Journal of Curatorial Studies. He is a co-founder of DisplayCult, a curatorial collaborative that recently produced Odor Limits (2008), MetroSonics (2009) and NIGHTSENSE (2009) ( He is working on an upcoming book on smell in contemporary art.

Johannes Goebel is the founding director of EMPAC (the Curtis R.Priem Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center) at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Troy, NY, since 2002. Between 1990 and 2002 he was the founding director of the Institute for Music and Acoustics at the Center for Art and Media ZKM Karlsruhe in Germany where he was also involved with exhibits in the Media Museum of ZKM. At both institutions he created platforms and initialized artistic and research work between the digital domain and our domain of experience. Earlier in his life he was a composer who built his own instruments out of wood and metal or digital code, or an educator who played with or taught children and adults with varying degrees of challenges in the continuum of the physical and the mental realms.

Siegfried Saerberg teaches Sociology and Disability Studies at several universities in Germany. Besides having written many articles, Dr. Saerberg is the author of the books titled Blinde auf Reisen (Travelling Blind People) and Geradeaus ist einfach immer Geradeaus(Always Straight Ahead: Spatial Orientation of Blind and Sighted People). Furthermore, he works as an artist (acoustic installations) and is curator of exhibitions together with the association Blinde und Kunst (Blind People and the Arts). His last projects in this realm were “Blinde Flecken” (Blind Spots), “Ohrenblicke” (Earglances) and Blackout.

John S. Weber is the Dayton Director of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, an interdisciplinary museum opened in 2000 to create links between contemporary art and other disciplines.  He supervises the Tang staff and oversees exhibitions, programs, collections, and the Tang website, as well as curating exhibitions and writing for museum publications. At the Tang he has organized And Therefore I Am, a group show on consciousness and the mind; Joachim Schmid Photoworks 1982-2007; Molecules That Matter, an interdisciplinary exhibition on chemistry, art, and history, conceived and co-curated by Ray Giguere, Skidmore Chemistry Department; and Environment and Object – Recent African Art, co-curated with Lisa Aronson, Skidmore Art History Department.  As part of his Tang duties, Mr. Weber teaches in the Skidmore art history program.


Bookcity Slides


This afternoon I gave a talk, hosted by the New School Provost’s Office, about my summer research in Korea. I can’t post the paper itself because I’ve committed to publishing it in a journal — but I can post my slides. See above.


THATCamp Theory Presentation

This past weekend I led a workshop at THATCamp Theory, at Rutgers, on evaluating and critiquing multimodal projects.I must admit, my talk was kind-of a mash-up of two older projects: my CUNY DHI talk from last October (video here) and this post. Above are my slides, and below are my notes.

I unfortunately was able to attend only Day One of the two-day conference (Rory said Day Two was quite the brain-bender). Yet I thoroughly enjoyed the sessions I was able to take part in!


This workshop will focus on developing a critical vocabulary for responding to DH and systems for providing meaningful evaluative feedback, including 1) developing critical evaluative criteria for various formats of multimodal work and 2) identifying theoretical frameworks that inform those criteria. We’ll consider both professional and student projects and spend some time considering how to make project evaluation an integral part of the DH classroom. Depending on the interests of the group, our case studies might include data visualizations, map-based projects, crowdsourced archival projects, and other interactive publications.

  • Recognize that there’s a history of considering “multimodal evaluation” in composition

[SLIDE 2] I’m not fully ensconced in the DH community – sympathetic to their interest in different forms, practices, praxes, of scholarship.

  • Craft as a useful model for considering how similar intellectual values and practices span domains – reading, writing, making in various modalities
  • But not all making is scholarship

[SLIDES 3-4] McPherson article: Multimodal Humanist – this term, still a mouthful, resonated more with me

[SLIDE 5] Scrivener on when production is research

[SLIDE 6] Question about Feedback & Evaluation — not simply so I could assign a grade, but so we could provide meaningful feedback

  • Work – particularly technical skills – were sometimes outside my area of expertise
  • How to balance weighting of form and content – “rigor” in concept or execution?
  • Individual vs. Group Accountability

[SLIDE 7] Revisited the list of criteria two years later

[SLIDES 8-10] Fall 2010 / 2011 / 2012 : Urban Media Archaeology

  • [SLIDE 11] Semester Schedule – discuss theories representing each unit
  • [SLIDE 12] PROJECT PROPOSALS – not different from trendy “contracts”
    • Justify choice of “genre” and format – use of media tools as method
  • [SLIDES 13-14] Student Proposed Projects
    • Carrier pigeons, electrification of lower Manhattan, video game arcades, newspaper company headquarters, “media actors” in Atlantic Yards using actor-network theory, etc.
    • I provide individual feedback; students post to blogs and classmates comment
    • This semester’s class hasn’t yet posted their proposals online
  • [SLIDE 15] Learn Data Modeling (interface now looks a bit different)
  • [SLIDE 16] User Scenarios
  • [SLIDE 17] Look inside Black Box – Software Development
  • [SLIDE 18] Pecha Kucha
    • DH projects inherently collaborative – need experts from multiple fields
  • [SLIDE 19] All the while, we’re collectively developing criteria for evaluation:
    • [SLIDE 20] By working in small groups and as a class to evaluate other “multimodal projects” + Hypercities
    • [SLIDE 21] Through individual map critiques
    • Thru Peer Review of one another’s projects
  • [SLIDE 22] Process Blogs – Self-Evaluation
    • Make public their process
      • [SLIDE 23] Discuss work w/ other public/cultural institutions – e.g., archives
    • [SLIDES 24-26] Practice “critical self-consciousness” – about their work processes, choice of methods, media formats, etc.
    • Hold themselves accountable for their choices
  • [SLIDE 27] Peer Evaluation: Paper Prototypes
  • Final Presentation: [SLIDE 28] My Feedback + [SLIDE 29] Students’ Peer Reviews

[SLIDE 30] Where was theory throughout?

  • Underlying the entire project, informing their understanding of the way cities work, informing their understanding of how maps work as media, informing how they design their data models, which are in shaped by how they want their projects to look for users – thus, theories about the visualization of data mix in with their theories about how databases work
  • And in order for students to know how we were going to evaluate success, these theories had to be made an integral part of our development process

[SLIDE 31] Through critique, we’ll reverse-engineer student and professional projects and find the theory that informed it

  • [SLIDE 32] From my list of evaluative criteria – Concept + Content; Concept-/Content-Driven Design + Technique; Documentation and Transparent, Collaborative Development; Academic Integrity and Openness; Review and Critique – are backed by theories: theories central to the project’s content, theories of design, theories of knowledge production, theories of labor, etc.
  • [CLICK] But we’ll focus on the few dimensions that are overtly theoretical, and that we can potentially discern in a quick review, in the short time we have here
  • [SLIDE 33] Break up into groups and assess the Concept + Content and Concept-Content-Driven Design + Technique of a few sample DH project and reverse-engineer that theories that might’ve informed their creation

[SLIDE 34] Case Studies:

  • These are the cases we choose from in my UMA class.
  • Solicit ideas for classes of projects to critique (e.g., data visualizations, map-based projects, crowd-sourced archival project, interactive publications)
  • Solicit ideas for specific projects groups can collaborative assess






Through the Bathtub, Into Another World…

I keep a running list of exhibitions I read about in the paper, magazines, and blogs, and about once a month we dedicate a Saturday afternoon to galleries. Sometimes the in-person experience doesn’t quite live up to the reviews or the exhibition photos I’ve seen in print or online — but yesterday afternoon’s Chelsea excursion offered one of those “oh-my-God-I-am-so-lucky-to-live-in-this-city-and-have-access-to-all-this-amazing-art-for-free” kind of experiences. So much skill on display. So many transportive experiences. So much wonder.

Days like this are rare.

We started off with Walid Raad‘s “Scratching on Things I Could Disavow: A History of Art in the Arab World” at Paulo Cooper Gallery. According to the press release, “‘Scratching…’ takes as its point of departure the vertiginous expansion of the infrastructure for the arts in the Arab world to produce works that register, in their very fabric, the effect of material and immaterial pressures.” I’m inclined to like all of Raad’s work, so while this show didn’t blow me away, it was a good warm-up for the afternoon.

Walid Raad

I must’ve read somewhere about Leonardo Drew‘s show, but when we arrived at Sikkema Jenkins, I didn’t recall anything about his work. We were in for quite a surprise. Drew apparently worked on-site for an entire month to construct this multi-room installation. From the press release:

Rooted in historical evidence, Leonardo Drew’s abstract sculptural compositions are emotionally charged reflections on the cyclical nature of existence. From the eroded fibers of human industry and the tide of urban development to the awareness of ourselves as part of the fabric of a larger universe and a connection to all things, Drew exhumes the visions of the past in a mirror of organic reality that reveals the resonance of life – the nature of nature.

Leonardo Drew

We left Drew’s “fiber archive” — a visual, tangible, olfactory collection of wood in its various conditions of existence – and found right across the street a collection of another sort. Petzel drew inspiration from Borges’s description of a “feverish Library whose chance volumes are constantly in danger of changing into others and affirm, negate and confuse everything like a delirious divinity.” According to the press release, the Feverish Library “brings together a number of artworks whose premises are predicated on the book as a conceptual, psychological, and cultural form. In some pieces, the actual physicality of the book is addressed. The works collectively constitute a meditation on the page, book jackets, design, and content.”

Feverish Library

We then wandered into a library of another sort: Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s STRAY LIGHT GREY at Marlborough Chelsea, which I had visited three weeks ago without noticing that the exhibition extends far beyond the small room of paintings right inside the lobby off 25th Street. This time we used a back entrance and found ourselves in wood-patchworked library, shelves lined with books sporting canonical cover art, yet unrecognizable titles.

Freeman + Lowe, Stray Light Grey

In the back-left corner we found a hole in the wall, which led to an oddly familiar — these kinds of dingy shops are all over Brooklyn — yet uncanny retail environment, featuring wares ranging from oddly decorated cakes to artist-branded chemical products. From the press release,

Articulated through the construction of multiple architectural settings, Stray Light Grey marks a unification of many of the thematic threads from previous projects into a sprawling sequence of interiors. Through a series of fictional and historical narratives the artists have composed an expansive, alternate world that reimagines culture through subjects such as rogue science, psychedelic drugs, mega-conventions and hypertrophic urbanism. A warren of corridors, chambers and passageways is configured into a spatial collage that gives a fragmented vision of a parallel metropolis. As if the visitor has entered a bizarro New York City simulated in a foreign country where the details have been perverted in translation. The overall conglomeration is a system of architecture that forms a sculpture in its totality, a concept of the city as a clumsy monument whose symbolic identity is never fully materialized.

Upstairs we found an abandoned plastic surgery clinic, and down a separate set of stairs we encountered an off-track betting parlor, a weird perma-frost electrical cabinet, and a bathroom whose tub served as a portal into another world.

We finished the afternoon in the miniature, mechanical other-world of Jeff Shore and Jon Fisher’s Trailer at Derek Eller. According to the press release,

…Texas-based collaborators Shore and Fisher will transform the gallery into an immersive environment comprised of sound, projection, and sculpture. A network of ten kinetic wall sculptures of wood, metal, and intricate wiring house hand-built scale models, motors, bulbs, miniature surveillance cameras, and microchips. These apparatuses work together to generate live video sequences which are shown in projection throughout the gallery as well as an accompanying real time soundtrack.

It took us a little while to catch on, but we eventually realized that the video revealed the internal mechanisms of the kinetic wall sculptures. When a particular sculpture’s “innards” were on-screen, a bright, colored light spilled out from inside the sculptural box and onto the wall around it — so we’d rush over to the box and peek through its cracks to see the miniature drama unfolding within.


Workshop on Evaluation/Critique of DH Projects @ THATCamp Theory, October 13

via pjern on Flickr 

I have yet to attend a THATCamp. I know, I should be embarrassed. Well, now’s my chance to right the wrong. Several months ago I received a kind invitation from Roger Whitson and Natalia Cecire to lead a workshop at THATCamp Theory at Rutgers University. So, on Saturday October 1, from 2:30 to 3:45, I’ll be leading a workshop on Evaluation and Critique of Digital Humanities Projects:

This workshop will focus on developing a critical vocabulary for responding to DH and systems for providing meaningful evaluative feedback, including 1) developing critical evaluative criteria for various formats of multimodal work and 2) identifying theoretical frameworks that inform those criteria. We’ll consider both professional and student projects and spend some time considering how to make project evaluation an integral part of the DH classroom. Depending on the interests of the group, our case studies might include data visualizations, map-based projects, crowd-sourced archival projects, and other interactive publications.

A few weeks ago I posted a list of evaluative criteria, and that post was itself an update of a post, on “evaluating multimodal student work,” from two years ago. Now my challenge is to identify some helpful case studies that we can explore together, and in small groups. As I said above, these examples should encompass both professional and student projects, and should include a variety of “genres”: data visualizations, maps, archival projects, interactive pubs, etc.

If anyone has any recommendations, I welcome them!