“Animated Spaces: Experience and Context in Interaction and Architectural Design Exhibitions,” Senses & Society 9:2 (Spring 2014): 131-150
on designing exhibitions for multisensorial experience
“Animated Spaces: Experience and Context in Interaction and Architectural Design Exhibitions,” Senses & Society 9:2 (Spring 2014): 131-150
on designing exhibitions for multisensorial experience
I was invited to chair a panel — with critic/curator/scholar Jim Drobnick; Johannas Goebel, founding director of RPI’s EMPAC and of the Music + Acoustics Center at the ZKM Karlsruhe; Siegfried Saerberg, sociologist and disability studies scholar; and John S. Weber, Director of the Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery at Skidmore College — on “Designing Multisensory Exhibitions” at the Multimodal Approaches to Learning conference at the Metropolitan Museum on October 26, 2012.
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.
In a few hours I’m off to the first of two month-long summer fellowships. First stop: Montreal. Second: Seoul. I’m looking forward not only to having (relatively uninterrupted) time to get some serious research and writing done, but also to exploring these cities. I’ve been to Montreal a few times before, but never for more than a couple days. I look forward to seeing some art; finally stopping by the Montreal Biosphère (which I’ve missed on all my previous visits); and maybe catching the tail-end of Mutek and, I hope, a few other shows. I have tickets to see Japandroids near the end of the month, and if I weren’t giving a talk on the 14th, I’d be seeing Diiv the night before. Seoul will be entirely new to me. The city has so much great art I’ll have no idea where to begin!
Because I’ll be away from New York until roughly mid-August, I took some time over the past few days to catch some exhibitions that’ll be closed by the time I return. I revisited Tom Sachs’s Space Program: Mars at the Park Avenue Armory and stopped by the Newspaper Spires show, on late-19th / early-20th-century newspaper headquarters, at the Skyscraper Museum. And I made a quick trip to Chelsea.
First: Anish Kapoor @ Gladstone on 24th Street:
There’s a very different materiality here than one typically associates with poured concrete. As the press release explains: “…these heaping sculptures evoke the sensorial nature of materiality and mass… These works linger in a state between coalescence and collapse, a relationship that speaks to Kapoor’s ongoing interest in the idea of ‘objectness’ and the incomplete nature of the sculptural form.” Continuing that thought:
Then at Andrea Rosen: Josiah McElheny, whose glass works explore a different materiality. I’ve always been taken by not only his craftsmanship, but also his eye for display: glass things in glass vitrines. There’s something anthropomorphic and organic about these shapes, which, in a weird way, connected them in my mind to Kapoor’s concrete towers.
Then I was off to Galerie Lelong for Hélio Oiticica‘s Penetrables, which weren’t quite as containing or immersive as I had hoped they would be — I didn’t feel as if I was penetrating anything — but considering that this work, created in the 60s and 70s, is thought to be among the first art installations, I have to give him props — particularly for the orange juice dispenser at the exit! It was only afterward, when reading through the press release, that it became apparent that, in drinking the juice, I was “drinking the final color” of the color-space. Rather than my penetrating the space, its color fields penetrated me!
I also saw Lesley Dill’s “Faith and the Devil” at George Adams. As a sucker for all word art, I loved this — but because I’m running short on time, I’ll quote from the press release rather than trying to articulate my own thoughts about what’s going on here:
Faith & the Devil is a large-scale installation which investigates the philosophical and existential conundrums of evil and underlying faith in the world…. The mural-size drawings behind Big Gal Faith and Lucifer, a dense forest of interlocking words and images stenciled on fabric, function as a theater backdrop… I use the words of poets (Dickinson, Dante, Kafka, Milton, Neruda, Sleigh, Kner, Harwell, Donne, Espriu); the vernacular stories as told to me of visionary experience in North Carolina; the words of folk artist and preacher Sister Gertrude Morgan; my own experiences from years of living in India as well as my childhood visionary experience; and as-told-to me stories from Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Liberia. The language for this installation is collected from poets both historic and current and from transcripts given to me by a video journalist of his recent work in Liberia and South Sudan.
And finally, a personal favorite: Thomas Demand. His Control Room photo is a recreation of the interior of the Fukushima Daichi power plant; and Pacific Sun is an awesome stop-motion animation based on a video of a cruise ship caught in a storm.
In our Media + Materiality seminar this semester we started off by learning about our foil: theories of immateriality. We looked at work from physics, mathematics and economics to architecture, art history and media studies. We then looked at theories addressing the persistence of materiality despite predictions of its demise; we read some Bill Brown, Katherine Hayles, Vilém Flusser, and Rosalind Krauss. After that, we spent a few weeks exploring various theories of, and approaches to studying, materiality, including material culture studies, the social lives of things, “thing theory,” actor-network theory, object-oriented philosophy, Bennett’s “vibrant matter,” infrastructure studies, and media archaeology.
Because the students’ task for the semester was to design exhibitions of media objects or systems, we took some time early in the semester to read about the distinctive challenges of on-site and online exhibition design, and to meet with experts in the field: my colleague and Whitney curator Christiane Paul, and Tim Ventimiglia, Sr. Associate at exhibition design firm Ralph Appelbaum Associates. In late March, we used Thomas Edison’s various material practices and developments — and their exhibition — as a case study, and we took a field trip to the Thomas Edison National Historical Park. We also set aside a few weeks for “plug-in” lessons that we designed on the fly, to respond to students’ interests: at their request, we dedicated one lesson to handwriting, another to evolving material forms of the book, and a third week to the Internet of Things. As the semester drew to a close, we set aside two weeks to focus on students’ projects: we held a pecha kucha, where students presented their works-in-progress, one week, and a tech lab the other. And our final two weeks were dedicated to presentations of final projects, which I’ll summarize here in no particular order:
O.a-M.’s “Media + Chemical Basis” examines the chemistry — all the way down to the the Carbon and Silicon and Iron atoms — that comprise our most commonly used media, both analog and digital.
A.B. wonders what we might learn by studying the objects on people’s desktops, both physical and virtual.
A.S., an accomplished digital strategist, explores historical transformations in the materiality of money. Her exhibited objects all live on Pinterest, while the substantive discussion resides on the exhibition blog.
J.L., a professional journalist in Colombia, created the “The Material Journalist,” which examines how changes in journalists’ reporting tools and the material forms of their news outlets have altered the ways news is reported, produced, and disseminated.
A.K.’s “Thing Power of the Pawned Object” explores the material culture of five New York-based pawnshops through the words of their brokers and the biographies of objects in their inventories.
D.L. studies how downtown New York of the 80s gave rise to materially-specific filmmaking practices — specifically No Wave Cinema (password: “nowavelong”).
J.R. invited contributors to submit meaningful objects and “discuss their provenance and significance.” She hopes that by “unpacking the complex social relationships between objects, their possessors, and the circumstances of their possession,” “This Old Thing” will “reveal something about the intersections of materiality, embodiment, memory and self-identity across space and time.”
J.S., in “Reading Words, Screening Text,” looks at the changing forms of books and reading, and the politics of digitization.
M.F.’s “Restart Slideshow” follows the “Birth, Life, Death, Autopsy, and Afterlife of the slide projector.”
In “Nomad of Noise,” A.V. examines the material bases of “glitch,” offers a typology of glitch aesthetics, and identifies a few of “glitch’s” historical precedents.
In “Weave as Metaphor,” V.P. explores parallels between tactile, textural forms of communication — weaving, quilts, quipu, etc. — and computer code.
M.O. created “Digital Shot Celluloid Thought” to examine the relationships between digital and celluloid technology in filmmaking.
T.G.’s “GeoType” maps connections between typography and place.
E.K.’s “Blue Filtered Light” offers nine channels that examine the television as an object; various channels look at the history of tv, static, digital distortion, test patterns, etc.
A.M.’s “Afterlife” looks at e-waste and the afterlife of our technological gadgets.
L.S. created an “anti-archive” to “materially document the contradictions and hypocrisies of Big Government’s take on the OWS Movement.”
And L.G. created “Some Direxion,” a digital zine that explores the cut-and-paste aesthetic of punk zines and magazines.
I was invited to write a review of Storefront’s Archizines exhibition for Arquine‘s 60th-anniversary “Representation in Architecture” issue. I can’t post the entire text because, well, I’m actually getting paid for this article (imagine that!), but I will share a few bits and pieces of the unedited text:
On a glorious spring day, when New York’s Storefront for Art and Architecture folded open its gallery walls onto Kenmare Street, a breeze rustled thousands of bound, clipped, and stapled pages inside. Perched on metal rods rising from the floor were 80 alternative and independent architectural publications representing a wide variety of formal and editorial formats, countries of origin, topical content, and graphic styles. Some specimens were so slight that a small gust of wind would’ve sent them airborne, so they had to be fastened to their stands. Yet all throughout the gallery, all species of periodicals – magazines, zines, journals, broadsheets – exhibited an animation and restlessness; they flapped their pages in the breeze, hinting that at any second they could take flight….
…The Archizines exhibition is only the latest in a flurry of recent exhibitions, events, and publications exploring the past, present, and future of architectural periodicals. As the materiality of architectural practice itself has shifted dramatically over the past 20+ years, we’ve witnessed a growth of interest in the materiality and politics of architectural discourse. Much design discussion has moved online, but Archizines, as the exhibition’s organizers suggest, reflects our “residual love of the printed and paper page.” Love, yes – but our interest in these objects isn’t merely about vestigial affection or nostalgia; it’s rooted in the conviction that “printed matter matters.” These objects, waving in the wind and then surrendering in readers’ hands, are vibrant matter; they have the capacity to give rise to public spheres and imagined communities. They’re vital elements of a whole ecosystem of material architectural discourse and mediated representation….
This past weekend we attempted to see the Doug Wheeler show at David Zwirner, but were discouraged by the insanely long line. We did, however, manage to catch Christophe Laudamiel’s Phantosmia show at Dillon Gallery. There really wasn’t much to see here, but that’s the point. It’s not about seeing; it’s about smelling. Laudamiel makes scent sculptures.
The gallery looked a bit like a sad bazaar, with red and white plastic tents set up around the periphery and in the center of the room. Each tent enclosed a scent-space, and posted outside each was a lengthy wall text that described, in remarkably evocative language, what awaited us inside (below images via Dillon Gallery).
I don’t have any strong personal associations with Marlene Dietrich, and I really don’t know what strawberry, cucumber, and linden blossom would smell like all mixed together, so while I found Remembrance of Things Lost pleasant, it wasn’t particularly, uh, shall we say redolent for me. With Fear, however, I really came to appreciate the dimensional, sculptural qualities of these scents. Unlike tastes, whose multiple layers are often sequential, or temporally unfolding, the complexity of the fragrances unfolded themselves into multiple spatial dimensions. I was so aware of my existence in an olfactory…uh… — I don’t even know what to call it — any-space-whatever?, heterotopia?, non-space? that I momentarily forgot I was standing in a plastic tent inside a gallery in Chelsea. The only sense-of-place that mattered to me at that moment was the one whose identity, whose boundaries, were defined by my nose.
My favorite scent, for its spot-on realization of the promise on its wall text, was the Banana and the Monkey. it was just that: sweet banana with an undertone of simian rankness. It ruined my appetite. Perfect.
I’m all the more excited to see what comes of the Museum of Art & Design’s Center for Olfactory Art.
And now, in a complete non-sequitur, I’ll summarize Aaron Betsky’s “Architecture Beyond Building” lecture at SVA last night. I forgot my notebook, so I had to type notes on my iPhone — which means this synopsis is bound to be sloppy and impartial.
I’ll leave it there, without comment.
We just returned from a week in Chicago. Most of our time was dedicated to family (my husband’s family lives there), but we managed to spend a few afternoons downtown. I had never visited the Robie House, so we did that. And I finally found a Chicago pizza I like, although it’s more New Haven than Chicago style (I’m in Wicker Park so often — how come I’d never been to Piece before?!). I also tried to visit the Read/Write Library, the former Underground Library, in their new home in Humboldt Park — but unless I was confused, they seem to have gone back underground; the place looked vacant.
I did manage to visit one of the other libraries on my list: the library at the Poetry Foundation’s new home. I’ve studied a few other poetry places — the Alvar Aalto-designed Woodberry Poetry Room among them — and I was eager to see how the Foundation would translate Harriet Monroe’s mission “to give to poetry her own place,” into architectural form.
The building, designed by local architect John Ronan, sits on the corner of West Superior and Dearborn. It’s a glass box within a box — a little Beinecke-esque, I suppose, in that the inner box displays the books — but here the interstitial space, in-between the outside and inside boxes, is still exterior. The outer black zinc screen wall surrounds a garden (which looks a little barren in these winter months, and whose pavers can get mighty icy), with a cut out on the corner to invite passage through to the building’s entrance.
In all the press coverage I’ve read of the new building (there doesn’t seem to be much), and in the Foundation’s own promotional material, Ronan is quoted as describing the garden as an “urban sanctuary, a space that could mediate between the street and the building, blurring the distinction between public and private.” Ah, the old “blurring the boundaries” schtick! I’ve heard that one before! I was hoping for a slightly more poetic, and original, articulation of the design concept. Nevertheless, the “sanctuary” description does seem apt; it is remarkably peaceful inside the garden — thanks, no doubt, to the fact that this stretch of Superior seems relatively calm.
In the lobby is a reception desk and an exhibition space, where the work of Black Sparrow, Burning Deck, and Fulcrum presses, each noted for its identifiable visual aesthetic, was on display. I admired not only the striking cover designs, but also the clever clips used to mount the books on the wall.
All the building’s public functions — in addition to the exhibition space, a performance hall and the library — are on the ground floor, off the lobby. But leading up the stairs, toward the private spaces where the Poetry magazine and foundation staff work, we see Harriet Moore’s declaration that Poetry should be an “open door” — a convenient metaphor for this new glass building that puts the poetic object on display.
The Open Door will be the policy of this magazine — may the great poet we are looking for never find it shut, or half-shut, against his ample genius! To this end the editors hope to keep free from entangling alliances with any single class or school. They desire to print the best English verse which is being written today, regardless of where, by whom, or under what theory of art it is written. (Moore, 1912)
The library itself, with its 30,000 non-circulating volumes, is clean and bright, but a bit sterile (to be expected of a building funded by pharmaceutical money?; those critical of the gift might say so). There’s a palpable tension between rarefaction and accessibility, which perhaps echoes early Poetry‘s negotiation of the values of high modernism with Moore’s “open door.”
In my quick visit I did discover a few fantastic books I’ll look for back in New York — but aside from the books themselves, the warmest, most charming things in the room were these lovely reminders that poetry — both in an abstract sense, and concretely, as it takes form in Poetry magazine — is a sensory, dimensional thing:
We ended the day with a trip to the Museum of Contemporary Art, where I was happy to revisit the book art of Dieter Roth and learn more about Gordon Matta-Clark’s history of site-specific work at the MCA (Lawrence Weiner fell into one of M-C’s cut-outs on an upper floor and landed down on Floor 2!). I was also grateful to have discovered the work of Ron Terada (creator of the “Being there” sign at the top of this post), David Hartt, and, especially, Iain Baxter&. Baxter’s reinvention as N.E. Thing Company, which doled out aesthetic judgments, and his detourned landscape art — particularly the impressionist landscapes on TV screens — were totally brilliant.
To close on a completely random note: my dogs, with whom I was able to spend some time over the holidays, and whom I now miss terribly:
If I were an artist, I’d want to make work like Sarah Sze’s. Or, now that I think about it, I’d be happy to model myself after Ann Hamilton, too. As I see it, both play with techniques and structures of display, modes of communication and representation, objects’ physical properties, and dimensions and textures of the line. In short: all the stuff I nerd out on.
I’ve been following Sze’s work for the past decade or so, I guess, and last weekend I saw her lovely little show, “Infinite Line,” at the Asia Society. I say “little” not to trivialize the work, but to point out that the exhibition is significantly smaller than others I’ve seen — particularly her fantastic and sprawling show at Tanya Bonakdar gallery in Fall 2010 (see the two images below).
“Infinite Line” focuses ostensibly on the relationship between drawing and sculpture (although the Times didn’t seem to find this theme particularly engaging), and consists of eight “closet-sized” (my term) installations (which Sze reportedly calls “Random Walk Drawings”) and, in a separate gallery, several rarely-exhibited drawings, some of which look an awful lot like Julie Mehretu’s work. Photography isn’t allowed in the museum, and there was a particularly vigilant guard in the south gallery, where the drawings were hung, so I managed to surreptitiously snap some photos of only a few of the installations in the north gallery.
Many of Sze’s sculptures involve slight movement; in some pieces, pages are designed to flutter in ambient drafts, and in others, small fans create breezes that subtly sway strings or ruffle feathers. A similarly subtle kinetics characterizes another show that I was delighted to encounter on the Asia Society’s third floor: U-Ram Choe’s In Focus project. Choe has created an animatronic seal-like creature, the mythical Custos Cavum, which guards the channels between two worlds. As Choe explains it:
Whenever a Custos Cavum felt the generation of a new hole somewhere, it fell into a deep sleep. From the body of the quietly sleeping Custos Cavum grew winged spores called “Unicuses.” These spores took flight and each flew to a new hole, where it gave rise to a new Custos Cavum.
As the skeletal creature breathes, its unicuses sway, dispersing spores, and we marvel at the intricate, polished gears that make this organo-mechanical movement possible.
While home with my family for Christmas, I read and thoroughly enjoyed John Harwood’s The Interface: IBM and the Transformation of Corporate Design, 1945 – 1976 (I also finished Rebecca Solnit’s Infinite City, Richard John’s Network Nation, and the new “Digital Art” special issue of October, none of which matched Harwood). As I was reading The Interface, I heard Reinhold Martin echoing all over the place — as he should’ve been; he was Harwood’s advisor. Harwood’s project focuses on IBM as a new kind of corporation — one that calls for a new kind of management — one for which design, in all varieties, is a critical management tool. In 1956 IBM’s president Thomas Watson, Jr., hired Eliot Noyes to serve as “consultant director of design,” and Noyes brought in a crack team of fellow designers — Edgar Kaufmann, Paul Rand, George Nelson, Mies, and Eero Saarinen among them — to design not only a multi-channelled “interface” between IBM and its markets, but also, perhaps more lastingly, an “organic,” “modular” interface between computers and people and architecture.
There’s lots of great stuff in the book — about logistics, ergonomics, the connections between management theory and cybernetics, the difficulties of enforcing consistent design throughout a far-flung multinational corporation, etc. — but I most enjoyed Harwood’s fourth chapter, where he talks about IBM’s use of exhibitions and films to “naturalize the computer” — to help a wary public become more comfortable with the machine’s inevitable integration into their workplaces, their schools, their everyday lives. And what struck me most within this chapter (perhaps it shouldn’t have been surprising) were the parallels between the Eames’s IBM exhibition designs and the THINK exhibition my students and I saw, and I wrote about, a couple months ago. After seeing the modern-day THINK at Lincoln Center, we immediately noted the similarities between the zooms and scalar variety in the multimedia presentations, and the Eameses’ Powers of Ten.
But what I didn’t know back in October was that the Eameses’ multiscreen projection inside the IBM Pavilion at the 1964 World’s Fair was also called “Think” (of course the “Think” slogan had been in use within IBM since the 20s). Nor did I realize, from simply looking at photos of the 1964 exhibition, just how similar its design and rhetorical strategies were to those employed in THINK 47 years later.
1964 had the People Wall, which required visitors to prop themselves up awkwardly “in a pose of heightened attention and readiness” (Harwood 190), while 2011’s gallery required us to stand amidst pods of monolithic screens, wondering which of their many faces we should strive to see. The People Wall rose 53 feet into the interior of the “Information Machine,” whereas at THINK we descended a ramp, gathered in a foyer then were led into a pitch-black room; both were altitude-altering “rites of passage” leading to a disorienting space. And both offered multi-screen extravaganzas: The Information Machine featured 15 screens of various shapes and sizes mounted on the curved wall, while the 2011 gallery contained 40 seven-foot screens rising from the floor.
Harwood says that the Information Machine…
…displaced the spectator, several times over. First, deprived of any sense of direction by the labyrinth stairs, then set in bleachers without a point of reference, then lifted into the ovoid, and at last fragmenting and multiplying her points of view in a rapid succession of film segments and slides, the spectator has embarked on a kind of pilgrimage. She has quite clearly transcended three-dimensional (or even four-dimensional) space and has come to inhabit, however briefly, an entirely new medium (191).
One experienced a similar disorientation, as I described in my earlier post, in the Lincoln Center exhibition; we walked into a dark, subterranean space; found ourselves lost in a field of infinite regress; and divided our attention among the myriad screens and their reflections in the mirrored walls.
And in both exhibitions, visitors were (likely) simultaneously wowed and horrified by what they were seeing and hearing. At Lincoln Center, we couldn’t help but marvel at technology’s role in revolutionizing health care, finance, agriculture, etc., yet we couldn’t forget the promise, or threat, that these “systems are alive” — that there is potential danger in placing our basic needs for survival in the hands of sentient technologies. Similarly, the 1964 exhibition presented the computer as “wholly new and shocking, and [at the same time,] as a completely natural extension of everyday life” (194); “no effort was made to resolve this contradiction… The task of naturalizing the computer did not involve a true effort at ontology, of either human being or computer; rather, it involved a design logic of displacement and enclosure” (195).
Finally, the 1964 Pavilion and other Eames exhibitions sought to “posit [IBM’s] activities as the culmination of scientific and technological history” (196). The Eameses incorporated a History Wall into many of their exhibitions, showing the great traditions from which IBM’s work arises, and to which it represents a culmination, an apotheosis. Similarly, at Lincoln Center, we emerged from the multimedia gallery into an exit hallway featuring 100 iconic moments from IBM’s 100-year history. Once again, IBM finds itself “as the end of a great narrative of scientific and artistic achievement” (196).