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This article was written on 03 Apr 2013, and is filled under Engaging With Contemporary Art, interactive art exhibits, interpreting art.

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Engaging With Contemporary Art: Part 1, The Space

Last year I worked on a project with the Baltimore Museum of Art. The challenge was to take two small spaces in the newly refurbished Contemporary Wing and create interactive galleries related to contemporary art. We had about 6 months, a small budget, and hit the ground running.

The gallery, before

The gallery, before

This was somewhat of a first step for the BMA in this area. We were working in parallel for a time on developing a large center devoted to this notion of interactive and multifaceted engagement with art. This smaller effort, while it wasn’t going to  be able to benefit from the lager planning efforts, was going to give everyone a chance to get their feet wet. That said, this project was born out of brilliant thinking, research, and assessment by Anne Manning, the Deputy Director of Education.

I’m going to focus on one gallery for now. It was a room that was adjacent to the atrium, and the Museum called it The Big Table, because, it ended up having a, well, you guessed it.

Big Table gallery from atrium

Big Table gallery from atrium

We started by evaluating the physical space and determining what areas of the room were best suited for activity. Given that the space had a unique architecture and a access on three sides (one an emergency exit) meant that after ADA access was sorted out, the footprint was clear where primary activity would ideally happen.

Floor plan schematic

Determining the ideal functionality of the space

The next challenge was to figure out what we wanted to explore. “Engaging With Contemporary Art” is a big umbrella, and first we focused on a painting by one artist. We explored hands-on interactives that could allow visitors to tinker with an aspect of what the artist was getting at in their work. While there were some clear successes in terms of testing what worked with visitors, in the long run the artist didn’t want their work interpreted in this manner.

Prototype iterations, testing

Prototype iterations, testing

There are a lot of problems with an interpretive AND hands-on approach to art that run the gamut.  While it didn’t work for this project -and I made be wildly wrong- it seems like an area that is both problematic and promising. All for a future project. In any case, having a work of art in a relatively small gallery with hands-on activity is a logistical and contextual …challenge.

So we decided to explore an idea across the collection. Contemporary art is largely conceptual, and as this was a new endeavor we were looking for a fairly low-hanging fruit. We explored the notion of “appropriation in art”, but it was too hard to convey in the remaining time frame. We ended up choosing “text in art” instead.

First, we selected the works that embodied this concept. Now that we weren’t contending with the actual works in the space, we were free-er to play around. We put the reference images on a loop in a large, flat screen display with related copy that connected it to the theme.

Video looping through related works.

Video looping through related works.

Graphic designers are natural content partners to “text in art.” So we began to explore the idea of realizing the concept with such a partner. While we briefly looked natinoally, it was preferable that the Museum build relationships with local talent (as determined in the larger work referred to above). We found that in the work of Post Typography in Baltimore. They are an off-the-charts smart and creative firm run by Bruce Willen and Nolen Strals. Post Typography took the theme and ran with it. They translated it into something that could be explored iteratively, applying the ideas and techniques used by contemporary artists played out in the phrase “Words Are Pictures Pictures Are Words.”

Explorations of the theme

Final explorations of the theme by Post Typography

At this time I’d been to a meeting at the Walker, and had seen Takashi Murakami’s “Jelly Fish Eyes” wallpaper. It created a striking sense of immersion. I felt that our space needed to signal that it was different somehow from the rest of the galleries, and such an approach could be a way to go about fostering this differentiation.

Takashi Murakami wallpaper at the Walker

Takashi Murakami at the Walker

We also needed to differentiate the interpretive work of the graphic designers from the work of the artists in the collection. This was handled by the the above: giving the entire space to the graphic designers, a large-scale video showing the art vs. the actual works, and the table and subsequent signage further indicating the nature of the space- without hitting visitors over the head about it.

While we wanted anything interpretive to be a part of the overall immersion, there was careful direction around the nuances of wall text, descriptive text and images in terms of what Post Typography was putting together. This was suggested because if they used traditional wall labels next to something they created, their work could read as artwork and not exhibit. So I suggested some type of callout instead.

They really got it and were able to interpret the challenge visually and make it work. They created a wallpaper effect by painting the phrase “Words Are Pictures Pictures Are Words” repeated around the room in large, yellow on yellow type, then “callouts” were used to notate the examples (instead of labels), and the front layer represented the idea that they were iterating. This was how the three layers worked:

Layering of background "wallpaper effect" with callouts and content.

Layering of background “wallpaper effect” with callouts and content.

My photos don’t do it justice, but the yellow on yellow was a brilliant move by Post Typography. It created a space that is convivial and contemporary, while letting the concepts pop.

Having a small space embedded in the wing, signaling what it was about needed to happen through design vs. didactics. Ultimately determining thresholds between this space and an adjacent work by the artist Gaia meant some nuanced considerations of the edges of our immersion with his:

Gaia's piece and wall label at the threshold

Gaia’s piece and wall label at the threshold

By finding a well-suited content partner and being able to provide strategic exhibit direction, this project has proven that it’s possible to expand the capabilities of the museum (and a professional goal of mine). The BMA now knows a lot more about what it takes, as well as how to partner in producing such a project. This gallery concept will be up for two years, and the BMA is already brainstorming about what the next iteration will be.

BMA big table lots of people

The gallery, with all levels of engagement at play

Oh yes, there was a “big table” and of course, hands-on activities developed in tandem with the above. That’s for part 2.

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