June 28, 2010

Participatory art vs. the other kind: Are curators at a fork in the road?

Artists are allowed to make a museum experience anything they want, and many of them are giving visitors an active role. Which leaves me wondering why curators don’t grant themselves the same license to play with visitors and art, and what’s going to happen to the traditional kind of installation, in which audiences are supposed to just…look.

The art museum world is still buzzing about Robin Pogrebin’s piece in the Times criticizing “populist” exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum, about which I hope to have a guest post later this week.

But the article that caught my eye this weekend was a review of the Rivane Neuenschwander retrospective at the New Museum. I haven’t seen the show, but from the review it sounds like the works could be divided into two categories: one in which visitors are asked to look (and maybe think, feel, chuckle, frown, whatever), and one in which they’re asked to do something — to become part of the artwork and complete it, or at least further it, by their actions.

At the Neuenschwander show, that can mean sitting down with a police sketch artist to try to recreate the face of your first love, or writing a wish on a slip of paper and exchanging it with someone else’s wish printed on a ribbon and hanging on a wall (photo).

Of course, Neuenschwander is hardly the first artist to give the audience these kinds of roles (although it’s fun to realize that her German last name means someone who farms or occupies newly cleared land). The recently-concluded Marina Abramović exhibition at MoMA, which got such attention in part because of the nudity in some of the works, included a performance in which visitors waited in line, sometimes for hours, for a chance to sit in a chair across from Abramović (who was clothed, by the way, in white robes) and gaze at, and be gazed at by, the artist. For a glimpse of how intense this experience was for many participants, check out the remarkable website Marina Abramović Made Me Cry. (Photo left. The site, a reposting from MoMA's Flickr page, is itself a demonstration of how social and interactive the whole experience was.)

And the Indianapolis Museum of Art just opened the 100-acre Virginia B. Fairbanks Art & Nature Park in which the eight commissioned installations that inaugurate the park all sound (according to yet another NY Times piece) either casually or profoundly participatory (photos below).


We’re dealing with a deep distinction here. The works that I’m calling participatory require an audience in a different way than traditional “behold me” art does. They’re simply incomplete without the visitor. Think of an empty chair across from Marina Abramović, or Neuenschwander’s array of wish-imprinted ribbons hanging on a wall to be looked at and read. ...

By contrast, non-participatory artworks are complete, self-fulfilling. Sure, they’re intended to be seen, but they are what they are with or without my eyes on them. Many of them — Old Masters as much as contemporary conceptual pieces — feel indifferent to my presence, content whether I’m there to behold them or not.

I’m borrowing a distinction the Modernist art historian Michael Fried once made between “absorption” and “theatricality” (in a book by that title). In absorptive artworks, the subjects depicted in the painting seem unaware of the beholder, while in theatrical ones they’re looking back at us or otherwise betraying a consciousness of being observed. Abramović’s face-the-visitor performance may be the perfect literalization of the latter category.

So contemporary art curators face a forked path. Do I exhibit art that needs an audience to complete it, that gives visitors a role to play? Or do I exhibit art that’s meant to be looked at? (I almost wrote “merely to be looked at,” but we don’t need to diss the traditional experience of seeing art in order to endorse the very different experience of participating in it.)

Of course, there will always be wonderful artists working in both modes, and it’s not as if curators need to make a policy decision to favor one or the other. But I think art museums will have to acknowledge the different kinds of experience that the two modes offer — experiences that may appeal to very different audiences.

I, for one, have become acutely aware of how a museum exhibition construes me as a visitor: what role it assigns me, how it supports or limits my ability to play that role, how it thinks I want to engage with the art (or, in other kinds of museums, the history or science), and what kind of vibe it expects me to enjoy.

Increasingly, I find the presentational, “behold and learn” mode restrictive and unsatisfying, sometimes even frustrating. Such exhibits seem to give me the cold shoulder: they don’t make room for me.

And although I don’t have the data, I’m sure there are others like me, just as there are clearly art lovers who prefer the presentational mode. (The art museum community needs to commission a serious study on this.)

The question is what proportion of visitors prefers each mode, and how that proportion is changing over time. After all, participatory and active experiences are becoming more familiar sights in museums of all kinds, not just art museums, and that may shift the expectations of regular visitors or even draw people who didn’t used to visit. And since participatory experiences seem to be especially congenial to younger audiences, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them become more widespread as today’s young visitors become tomorrow’s members, donors, and trustees.

*  *  *

Which raises two big questions. First, what is the fate of the traditional come-look-at-the-great-art approach now that an alternative strategy is available? Will the participatory mode cast presentational artworks and installations exhibition in a new light, revealing them as passive, static, or formal?

Second, why is it only artists who get to create these participatory experiences in an art museum, who get to reimagine and play with the relationships between art, space, and audience? Why don’t museum curators give themselves the same freedom to experiment artfully and intuitively?

In other kinds of museums, such as science centers and history museums, it’s usually the museum’s own exhibition team (curators, but also exhibit developers and designers, educators, and others) that envisions whatever interactivity or theatricality the exhibition will involve. Yet in art museums, just where you might expect the most visual and conceptual creativity, most curators strive to be neutral presenters: to get out of the way of the art and be as “sensitive” to the needs of the objects as the gallery spaces will allow.

The result is predictability and stasis. As art historian Charlotte Klonk notes in a recent book, the outsides of art museums (their architecture) have changed dramatically since the 1930s, but their interior spaces and installations have hardly changed at all. What goes in is different these days, but how it goes in is more or less the same.

Except when the artist herself plays with museum conventions or visitor interactions. Contemporary art curators have no problem letting the artists they exhibit transform both the spaces of the museum and the rules of engagement with audiences. What if those curators — heck, what if all kinds of art museum curators — took a lesson from those artists about what a museum gallery can look and feel like and what it means to engage with art in the 21st century? The result might be a fresh set of possibilities with artworks not just of our time but also of the past.

Nina Simon — July 04, 2010

Two thoughts.

1. "Which leaves me wondering why curators don’t grant themselves the same license to play with visitors and art"

Don't stop at curators (or rather, perhaps don't start with them). Educators are ready to go on this stuff, to be granted space in the "real" galleries and not just in the education wing ghetto.

2. "what’s going to happen to the traditional kind of installation"

It will continue to predominate, especially as many donors and traditional members come from a more conservative perspective in this regard. The need now is to demonstrate that there is a viable, assertive, smart audience for the participatory work--an audience that makes tradeoffs less painful and more desirable.

oh, and great post.

James Aldridge — July 07, 2010

I also think there's a third area which to me is quite distinct from these, where the artist works in a truly collaborative way with the participants in a socially engaged piece of work, rather than providing an artwork to be viewed or interacted with. Often in these cases, the process and the dialogue is what is key, and its how to share or document that process that then presents issues for the artist or curator.

Really interesting post...

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