BERYL GRAHAM: Exhibition histories and new media behaviours

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The People Speak, Talkaoke (2012), view at the Barbican Centre. Photo: Hektor P. Kowalski, courtesy of The People Speak.

 Abstract

How can a history of exhibitions inform curators on the challenges of exhibiting new media art? How can histories of exhibitions dealing with interaction and participation inform the curation of new media art involving these behaviours? Exhibitions of broadly conceptual or immaterial work such as Information (1970) and Les Immatériaux (1985) lead to an examination of exhibitions where participation is key, including Bodyspacemotionthings (1971 and 2009), Serious Games (1996), 010101 (2001), The Art of Participation (2008), and Current (2011). New media artworks including Talkaoke, www_hack, and Random Information Exchange help to establish critical categories for different kinds of participatory systems. For future critical art histories of participatory art exhibitions, I propose that an effective method would include a combination of documentary sources, such as installation images, audience data, and crowd-sourced documentation.


Exhibition Histories and New Media Behaviours

It is in the installation design of the first half of the twentieth century that the sources of such practices as viewer interactivity and site specificity, as well as multimedia, electronic and installation-based work, are to be found. (Staniszewski 1998: xxiii)

Mary Anne Staniszewski has suggested that the history of exhibition installations is one particularly badly served by art histories, to the point of being culturally ‘repressed’ (1998: xxi). If the ‘sources’ of new media practices, alongside installation and site-specific artwork, lie in exhibition installation, then the very nature of what is documented about exhibitions becomes particularly important to these practices regarding issues of historicization.

This article aims to address exhibition histories of both new media art, and as Staniszewski suggests, non-new media exhibitions including installation art, site-specific art, and with a particular emphasis on interactive and participative art. It is based on a presentation given at a conference specifically concerning histories of media art, science and technology, and underlines a common theme of that event – that certain kinds of art practice question the basic tenets of what art historians might be looking at, and the methods that they use for research. Staniszewski has suggested re-examining the taxonomies of art history in order to be able to consider ‘installation as an aesthetic medium and historical category’ (1998: xxi). Art historian Edward Shanken has also suggested that questioning the categories of art could lead to a new application of methods: ‘Along these lines, the study of technology as a hermeneutic method must be incorporated as part of the art historian’s standard methodological tool-kit’ (2007: 56). Shanken quotes curator Jack Burnham from 1968 in illuminating why new tools and methods might be necessary: ‘my lack of success with the tools of art scholarship is in part responsible for this present book. Had the tools served their purpose, I might not have sought out others less respected’ (2007: 48; 24. see also Burnham 1968: ix).

It has to be acknowledged that certain of these tools might still be regarded by art historians as ‘less respected’, more than forty years after Burnham. As explored in this article, certain ‘behaviours’ of new media art, such as participation or interaction, might be placed with a firm hand in the dark nether regions of museum ‘education’ departments, rather than in collections, archives or libraries from whence the distant gleam of the historical canon might be glimpsed. If the documentation of exhibitions and behaviours lies not only outside of the museum but also on the sublime mass of the Internet, and quite possibly in the hands of the viewers themselves, then the hierarchy of art historical respect might truly struggle to include these tools, however useful they may be.

How then can a history of exhibitions inform curators on the challenges of exhibiting new media art? In particular, how can histories of exhibitions dealing with dialogues, interaction and participation inform the curation of new media art involving these behaviours? This article addresses these questions by exploring examples of past and recent participatory exhibitions, and examining the kinds of documentation now available and understood through new media art and social systems.

Behaviours – Interaction, Participation and Histories

[A]t Information it was not the institution of the Museum of Modern Art that was staging a dialogue with its viewers: that role was now commandeered by the artist. (Staniszewski 1998: 270)

Although there is a current fascination with dialogues, viewers, audiences, the relational, participation and interaction in art, critical categories are not firmly established, to the extent that there is apparent confusion between interaction, participation, collaboration and especially who might be relating to what. The book Rethinking Curating sought to map out what some of these changes of role for artists, museums and viewers might mean for curatorial practices, and also to clarify some terminologies around viewer participation, including the debate on ‘relational’ practices involving Grant Kester, Nicolas Bourriaud and Claire Bishop. Bourriaud’s Relational Aesthetics (2002) is rather vague as to whether the relationships are between art and context, culture or space, between art and audience, or between users in a space, as is the case with Rirkrit Tiravanija’s social places projects. Bishop has criticized Tiravanija’s feel-good position by pointing out that all participatory systems, whether outside or inside an art gallery, must be able to deal with conflict if they are to be truly participative. As Bishop acknowledges, the artworld labours under a system that demands an individually authored object rather than a process, or if the system has to deal with a process, it demands that the artist (or curator) had better be an art star (2004: 65–79). Kester and others have more usefully explored the metaphor of conversation to describe different levels of dialogic structure in relationships between artworks and participants or audiences (2004: 10ff). What socially engaged and new media art have in common are languages for identifying different types of participative relationships between artwork and audience. What these languages in turn have in common is that they are generally not shared by the general world of contemporary art (Graham and Cook 2010: 116–17).

Certain new media structures have been offered as useful ways of understanding relationships between artists, artworks and audiences or participants, including Paul Baran’s network diagrams of centralised, decentralized and distributed networks. His diagrams map out the way that networks function, with many-to-many networks such as the Internet being ‘distributed’. If the ‘nodes’ are considered as people in a participative system, then the traditional artist star system might be considered as ‘centralized’ while a fully collaborative co-production might be considered as ‘distributed’, where all participants can communicate with each other rather than via an artist. The examples of artwork in this article fall variously into all of these categories, although fully distributed systems are most challenging to achieve in practice (Graham and Cook 2010: 58; Graham 2010; Graham forthcoming 3).

Interaction is just one of the ‘behaviours’ associated with new media art. To be more specific, Steve Dietz identified three characteristics of net art: connectivity, computability and interactivity. As discussed in Rethinking Curating, each behaviour when applied to new media art in general can be related to different exhibition histories, ranging from installation art or performance art to video (Graham and Cook 2010). Connectivity, for example, might be familiar to curators of live art, or 1960s conceptual art including mail art. A particularly apt documentation photograph from the event Reunion in Toronto in 1968, shows Marcel Duchamp and John Cage playing chess in order to generate an audio composition by Cage, surrounded by cables that connect hardware to hardware, while Alexina ‘Teeny’ Duchamp looks on with a handy bottle of wine to aid the social connections (Graham and Cook 2010: 91). Considering ‘computability’, the generative, evolving and alogorithmic nature of computer software is sometime difficult for art historians to differentiate from the instruction sets of conceptual art, but the art historical emphasis on understanding materials and processes from gouache to bronze casting should offer useful tools for this. It is, therefore, the third behaviour of ‘interaction’ that seems to present the most fundamental problems for documenting and historicizing exhibitions (Graham forthcoming 4). The book Rethinking Curating faced a particular challenge in both textual and visual research concerning curatorial processes for exhibitions of interactive or participatory art. The choice to use categories that were ‘medium-independent behaviours’ (Ippolito 2003: 48) rather than traditional media-specific academic or museological departments, reflects not only Staniszewski’s findings, but also the experience of curators who found that the rethinking necessary was not around digital/analogue differentiation, but around these behaviours.

Staniszewski in the opening quote refers to the Information exhibition of 1970 at MOMA in New York, curated by Kynaston McShine. The exhibition was notable not only for the way in which McShine responded to conceptual art by using new curatorial tools and methods, but by the integration of ideas of interaction and participation. Hans Haacke’s work MoMA Poll (1970) in the show, for example, was founded on active participation where the audience voted on political questions, and their votes were visible to other members of the audience in clear plastic posting boxes. As Staniszewski points out, these considerations of interaction and installation were more traditionally the responsibilities of different departments of a museum, but now brought together via artists’ practice. Unusually for the time, McShine deeply considered audience interaction in the exhibition in general as well as with individual artworks, and he planned the exhibition installation in collaboration with Charles Froom, MoMA’s production manager. Staniszewski comments that ‘The idea of an amorphous museum gallery shaped by the artists’ installations and by the spectators’ interactions with these sites was seen even in the use of the unconventional beanbag chairs whose malleable forms were shaped by those who used them’ (1998: 270). These beanbags were somewhat radical newcomers in the minimal and retentive curatorial vocabulary of hard modernist seating, and the fact that there were several of them hints dangerously at the possibility of audience members choosing where to put them, and of interacting with each other, as well as engaging in solitary contemplation of artworks, for comfortable periods of time.

Audience comfort is not, of course, always the first thing on artists’ minds. It may be the intent of the work to discomfort or provoke. In Information (1970), Stig Broegger designed wooden platforms that were placed in the gallery, and around public spaces in the New York and New Jersey area, and the exhibition included photographs of people’s reactions to these objects – using them or watching others use them. A photograph from the MoMA archives Curatorial Exhibition Files has a caption reading: ‘One of Broegger’s Platforms Frustrates a Viewer, So He Leans, 1970’ (Lauder 2010: 103).

It is no coincidence that exhibitions of broadly conceptual or immaterial work have formed good historical case studies for examining the relationship between what exhibition installations look like, and the behaviours of how they work. The exhibition Les Immatériaux, for example, curated by Francois Lyotard for the Pompidou Centre, Paris in 1985, has left a legacy that is famous, yet it is still difficult to get an impression of what the experience of the show might have been like. Installation shots do exist of gallerygoers wearing headphones, and of computer screens and keyboards tucked away in dark corners (Dernie 2006: 72–73), but considerable further research is often needed to find out, for example, whether the headphones were artwork or interpretation, or how the online discussion actually functioned. From such research, it emerges that the headphones were indeed interpretation ‘audio guides’, but of a particular non-linear kind, and the online bulletin board system of ‘Writing Tests’ happened primarily between invited experts in advance of the exhibition, and could only be read by the audience, rather than the current default method of online discussion lists being open to all, and live (Gere 2006:18ff; Graham and Cook 2010: 19ff). These kinds of details make a huge conceptual difference for those seeking to establish histories of different types of participation, and indicate just some of the ways in which the documentation of exhibition participation could inform the future installation for participation.

Installations for Behaviours

Photography as storyboard, exhibition as film. (Bal 2007: 71)

As Bal succinctly indicates, for the audience, exhibitions move, and are time-based. They are a dynamic thing for any kind of art or media, whether that is photography or ceramics. Curators might well be used to conceptualizing exhibitions as such, but there are still further more specific considerations if the installation needs to facilitate interaction. The historical examples in the previous section have significant links to more contemporary exhibition practice. The Robert Morris retrospective Bodyspacemotionthings, installed in 1971 and 2009 at the Tate, has been widely discussed in relation to participation, and for good reason. To briefly reprise, in 1971, artist Robert Morris had a retrospective exhibition at the Tate in London where the public could physically interact with large sculptural forms. The exhibition was closed after five days, when audience injuries were reported, and press reviews criticized the participative nature of the show, including the opinion from the Sunday Telegraph that ‘The trouble with participation, it seems, is that apart from making us forget what art’s all about […] it makes people behave like wild beasts’ (Bird 1999: 88). The show was some days later reinstalled as a conventional hands-off sculpture exhibition, plus an artist-made film where a naked woman moves among the sculptures. In May 2009, however, Tate Modern, after some experience of interaction in its Turbine Hall, exhibited a fully hands-on version of the original exhibition, reconstructed from documentation in the Tate archive. The exhibition included the original 1971 installation shots with carefully posed people using the sculptures, which caused some debate in the Tate as to whether the images were too prescriptive an indication of kinds of participation in 2009. Interestingly, the exhibition was instigated by live art and intermedia art curators as part of The Long Weekend (2009) perhaps because these areas have an existing interest in and respect for audience participative behaviours as an inherent characteristic of the art forms. The values expressed in the archived press reviews of 1971 reveal an ongoing tension in exhibition installation aimed at hands-on participation. If participation is associated with the ‘less respected’ areas of education, then such art is clearly in the minds of some art critics only suitable for ‘wild beasts’ – or for children. As Huhtamo points out, in relation to exhibition, a Cartesian mind/body split might be inferred:

The hands-on experience was seen as a necessary step in a child’s development; manipulating interactive exhibits was a logical continuation to playing with toys; at the same time it was seen as unworthy of higher ‘cerebral’ culture. (Huhtamo 2007: 128)

This tension between participatory exhibition practices being identified as educational interactive fun for kids, and participatory practices as art, is a particular quandary for new media, where the same technology tends to be used for both. Some exhibitions of participatory art have aimed to confront this quandary, by including artwork using technologies more usually used for education and interpretation.

The exhibition Making Things Public was curated by Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, with a parallel participative web-based database project Fair Assembly conceived by Steve Dietz, for ZKM in 2005. The show included The Phantom Public (2005), a work by Michel Jaffrennou and Thierry Coduys, which ranged throughout the exhibition, using a badge to track visitors, so that these movements, alongside other data inputs such as local weather, changed the lighting mood in various parts of the exhibition (Weibel and Latour 2007: 102ff). Many new media artists are very used to using any technology necessary for participatory work, from the tracking technology used to centralize responses to audience members, to more familiar communication technologies that facilitate the audience’s communication with each other. The People Speak are a group who provide ‘Tools for the world to take over itself. The People Speak makes it easy for people to talk to each other’. Their projects include Talkaoke, a mobile doughnut-shaped desk with lights and microphone where a host encourages people to talk about whatever is important to them, and to have a conversation with each other. Another of their projects, Who Wants to Be… (2006–), uses a more formal method of voting with different coloured cards, recognized and counted by a video camera, in order to reach important decisions – often local planning issues, or how to spend collective pots of event ticket money on art projects. The group have developed the systems over time, such as a ‘heckling’ system that works both with technology like mobile phones and face-to-face, and hence uses hybrid sets of technological and social skills, with an explicitly ‘distributed’ participatory intent. In this case the artists document their own projects on their website, which includes not only images from live events, but a sharing of documentation and process, and tips such as ‘Ask three times […]. Can’t hear the hecklers ’til they sit down […]. Cultivate conflict […]. Encourage the quieter people’. This sharing of knowledge is so that the skills of hosting conversations can be passed on. The co-founders Saul Albert and Mikey Weinkove cite their experience as including participatory art and chat-show hosting, but should this project be described as education or art? It is interesting to note that like Hans Haacke and his MoMA Poll, The People Speak use participatory systems from politics, entertainment or education rather than art itself. In line with this ethos, the interaction between the participants is as important as the interaction between the artwork and the audience, and in fact the artwork is mostly facilitating this interaction as a ‘host’. This important intent of the artwork is clearly not an object but a process, in which case, how is it best documented in order to historicize the exhibition experience? (The People Speak 2012).

New media artworks that are ‘installed’ only online, and are ‘site-specific’ to the World Wide Web, must also be considered carefully for interactive behaviours, but as the Internet is inherently interactive, net artists are well used to this. www_hack (2008) by Rui Guerra, for example, is a piece of software that allows all visitors to a single webpage at any one time to observe each other’s mouse movements. As part of the web-based exhibition Antisocial Notworking (2008–) at the Arnolfini in Bristol, this work was installed on the server of the art centre’s website, so that visitors to the website had the faintly disturbing sensation of the virtual presence of others, as several cursors or arrows zoomed around the screen, out of the control of the individual user. This thoroughly disrupted the viewer’s expectations of normal web-based interaction, and revealed a ‘server client hegemony in which users are separated from information and from each other. The project demonstrates that the server-client relationship is not open as such, nor free from power structures’ (Guerra 2008). In this case the texts by the artist, on his own website, form an important part of the documentation of the context of the work, and as is usually the case with net art, is under the control of the artist himself. As the artist states, the ‘installation’ of the work is highly specific to the structure of servers that operate the web – a distributed network, but still involving power structures.

New media offers a very particular mode of ‘distributed’ collaborative production – that of ‘open source’ software production, where many people contribute to developing software: the source code is available to all, and written in such a way that the structure (the recipe, if you like) is open to other programmers/users to copy, improve or adapt. ‘Open source’ is a term often applied rather loosely to participatory art projects to mean an essentially non-hierarchical collaborative production structure, but this is not necessarily the case. There may well be hierarchies of skill and time involved in open source production systems, and as artist and curator Dominic Smith identified in his research, a key characteristic of the systems centred on crediting work. The open source project Random Information Exchange (RIE) instigated by Smith in 2008, for example, involved members of the public submitting and exchanging information on anything from knitting and recipes to power generation. The project developed in the several ‘versions’ characteristic of software production, and existed both online in various physical venues, with each physical installation fitted to the context and location including a conference in Belfast and a gallery in New Zealand. Again, it is the artist who is in control of both the exhibition installations to facilitate participation and the documentation of the work – in this case revealing the process and 8. coding in line with open source ethics (Smith 2011).

Because of the history of new media, and the emphasis on process, social systems and production methods, definitions of what might be ‘an exhibition’ are a little more fluid, as are the boundaries between art and design. Because design has historically integrated user feedback into the ‘design cycle’, design has taken ‘the user’ or participant very seriously. Add to this an open-source or DIY ethic, and some interesting artifacts are being exhibited and distributed in different ways, including the participants as the producers of the final works: Yuri Suzuki produces, often in collaboration with others, amazing objects made from carved lacquer, diodes, vinyl, sound and any other thing necessary. Exhibited at the Design Museum in London in 2013, were a working Tube Map Radio, and a Denki Puzzle of parts of circuit board designed so that the users can fit them together to make their own circuits. Made in collaboration with the London-based group Technology Will Save Us, such works reflect the way in which DIY culture can distribute objects that can be both art in themselves, and kits for people to make their own things.

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Dominic Smith, Random Information Exchange (2008–), installation detail at Scanz 2009: Raranga Tangata (2009), Govett-Brewster Art Gallery, New Plymouth, New Zealand. Photo: courtesy of the artist.

Using these kinds of technologies might risk confusing the boundaries between interpretation and art, as the exhibition Les Immatériaux did, but audiences might at least be familiar with educational tropes of participation in museums. The extensive audience knowledge of those who work in museum education can also greatly inform curatorial practice; for example, Nina Simon’s categories of different levels of participation, which are critically exact about who relates to whom or what, and how, especially in comparison to a certain vagueness from art critics as to what exactly is meant by participation. She uses four categories of different levels of participation, where the museum has a decreasing level of control over the visitors: ‘Contributing to Institutions’; ‘Collaborating with Visitors’; ‘Co-creating with Visitors’; and ‘Hosting Participants’ (Simon 2010). New media artists are likewise necessarily aware of different categories of relationship between audiences and artwork, whether a traditional centralized model, or a more distributed model where audience members can communicate between themselves, ably hosted by the artwork, or even the audience as co-producers of the work itself, via the open sharing of skills. Other categories challenged here are questions of what, where and when an exhibition occurs: a participatory new media art project might be regarded as art or design, might exist only online, might be site-specific to the Web, and might evolve over time with audience contributions. Such exact terminologies could potentially be of much use for art historians in archives and collections where database fields are based on size and medium, rather than the intent of the work. The question remains, however, of how these diverse definitions of ‘exhibition’ might be documented for future art historians.

Documenting Exhibition Behaviours

Another important feature of these reproductions is the almost complete lack of people in the photographs. The conventions for taking installation photographs are ‘modernist’, in that there are ‘no subjects in the texts’: exhibitions are pictured for posterity as empty, idealized, and uncluttered by men and women and children wandering through these carefully constructed interiors. (Staniszewski 1998: xxiii)

All exhibitions are temporary acts. (Szymczyk 2009: 56)

If the documentation of exhibitions is what remains in the archives for future art historians, then what is documented is of prime importance. The artwork might be in a collection, but the exhibition itself is a temporary act. If documentation struggles to capture the artist’s intent for the behaviour of the artwork, then it struggles even more to capture representative indications of the linked issue of the behaviours of audiences. If your exhibition encourages participation, then the simple fact of having people in installation shots can at least indicate a lot about participative intent.

Carefully posed museum installation shots are one thing, but informal snaps of wild beasts in galleries may be quite another. The Art of Participation, curated by Rudolf Frieling for SFMOMA in 2010, proved to be a learning experience for the institution:

[W]hat was wonderful to see was that we were learning through what people were posting online. We would see all kinds of documents come up either on Flickr or on YouTube and then say, ‘Wait a minute, what actually happened in the galleries?’ (Frieling, quoted in Graham 2009)

After some initial institutional anxiety, the exhibition changed some fundamental administrative systems in the museum: existing default restrictions on photography were lifted, after the informal documentation online was considered to be not only a useful supplement to formal documentation, but a way of further publicizing and encouraging participation after the museum visit. The importance of these roles of ‘crowd-sourced documentation’ was also acknowledged in curator Caitlin Jones’s workshop on Documenting New Media Art (CRUMB 2008). While unlikely to replace institutional archives, this kind of documentation will by its nature tend to include people in installation shots of participative work, because for the informal photographer, the people are the most important thing.

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CRUMB symposium (2008), breakout group at Documenting New Media Art Seminar with Caitlin Jones, Newcastle. Photo: Verina Gfader/CRUMB.

Documentation, of course, is strongly related to issues of conservation of artworks themselves, especially when the art might be a set of instructions and materials for interactive art such as Felix Gonzalez Torres’s works where viewers can take posters or candies away with them. What is important to conserve here, for the future display of the work, is the participative intent of the work, and so the Variable Media Initiative has suggested a straightforward written questionnaire, including issues of interaction. As Jon Ippolito says: ‘Among the important questions for interactive behavior is whether traces of previous visitors should be erased or retained in future exhibitions of the work’ (Ippolito 2003: 50). This was important, for example, for the participative artwork Zeromorphosis, Swans and Pigeons (1996) by Ritsuko Taho in the exhibition Serious Games (1996), curated by the author for the Laing Art Gallery and Barbican Art Gallery. The work involved viewers making foil-wrapped grass balls where the seed grew on shredded money, and their comments on ‘value’ were also pinned to the walls on duplicate notes. It was important that at least some of the public contributions of notes were saved for the next showing of the work, as a ‘seeding’ of ideas that might form useful examples to the next contributors. Other artworks in the Serious Games exhibition showed an equivalent need for documenting the traces of previous visitors in order to develop a conversation: Ann Whitehurst’s NetEscape (1996) was an early example of online e-mail communication between artist and audience. The artist posed questions such as ‘What is the price to pay? Who pays it? E-mail the bill’ and responded in turn to selected audience responses. Having all of the e-mails publicly available was a necessary part of the work, and helped to further the work at each showing in a different venue (Graham 2008). The debate around the conservation and preservation of new media art has been crucial for the development of such art, not because everyone needs to be a preservation expert, but because the artwork, in order to be collected, also needs to be documented, classified and exhibited, and its most essential characteristics need to be discussed.

When considering what kind of documentation is most useful for building a history of exhibitions, then the book Exhibiting the New Art: ‘Op Losse Schroeven’ and ‘When Attitudes Become Form’ 1969 is a useful example of a broad range of documentation of process and product, from formal and informal sources, so that a comparison of documentation might help to give a history of an exhibition (Rattemeyer et al. 2010). The book includes, for example: floor plans; installation photographs including those by artists and curators; a chronology diary of curatorial process by Harald Szeemann; interviews with artists; and essays behind the scenes concerning marketing and sponsorship, and the press reception of the exhibitions. This kind of approach to making histories of ‘new art’ in this case refers to conceptual art of the 1960s, but the methodologies would apply well to new media, or live art. What the collection of documents does not include, however, are any documents concerning the audiences themselves.

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Ritsuko Taho, Zeromorphosis, Swans and Pigeons (1996), installation detail from Serious Games, Laing Art Gallery (1996). Photo: Beryl Graham, courtesy of Laing Art Gallery.

Audiences

What sorts of viewers, or subjects do different types of installation designs create? What kinds of museums are constituted by particular installation practices? (Staniszewski 1998: xxiii)

For me, it is not ‘the media’ that enter the gallery (the media are positioned, received or generated there) but it is the audience that enters the gallery. What I find exciting about dealing with new media is the extraordinarily complicated relationship between audience and artwork. (Ride 2011: 81)

In acknowledging that the role of the viewer is intimately linked with  considerations of installation and exhibition, Staniszewski pre-dates current debates that fundamentally question the role of the viewer, user or participant in exhibitions – perhaps not only a case of installation design creating viewers, but also of viewers creating exhibitions. More recently, other authors have also stressed the importance of the audience in considering histories of museums and exhibitions, including the experiential aspects of the performative body as it moves through institutions, and the interesting histories of museums seeking to strictly control the behaviour and deportment of visitors (Rees Leahy 2012).

In relation to exhibition histories, one thing that is common is that even in well-researched studies, documents concerning the audience tend to be missing – perhaps some of those ‘less respected’ documents. Where audience studies are present in museum archives, they tend to be of a demographic kind most useful for the berating of arts organizations by funders and governments, and so institutions may be reluctant to reveal them, sometimes on the stated grounds of ‘commercial confidentiality’. As participation seems to be regarded as a vaguely desirable thing by politicians and funders, there is also the risk that documents such as press releases might rather overstate the depth and scale of participation. What is generally missing are documents that might help curators in understanding how artwork behaviours might relate to audience behaviours, a set of relationships that are at the centre of any participative artwork. This is not, however, to advocate a ‘behaviourist’ quantifiable approach to art: the research most useful to curators and artists might not concern conventional concepts of ‘usability’ or comfort, but might explore different kinds of participation, including the interventionist approach of Broegger’s platforms.

My own research drew from exhibition evaluation an approach to observing interactive artworks in art galleries. The findings identified patterns of audience behaviour, including extended use times for artworks that facilitated group use, interaction between people, and the way in which an exposed or private viewing position can affect audience use. The research also illuminated how artists were generally good at predicting the duration of use needed for the audience to have a reasonable experience of the artists’ work and hence at planning the installation accordingly. There is a tension between solo viewing and group viewing in any art gallery, and, surprisingly, those who visit galleries together often squeeze themselves uncomfortably onto seating specifically designed for one person in order to share the same viewing. These unpredicted findings might have gratified Kynaston McShine with his beanbags (Graham 1997).

More recently, researcher and curator Lizzie Muller has pushed audience studies of interactive art way beyond the conventional demographic approach of museums, into documentation that looks in detail at complex audience experiences of interaction, including methods of video-assisted recall, and recognizing the importance of the artwork to explore the ‘experiential goals’ of the artist. Her argument is that because any interactive or participatory artwork necessarily is closely connected with audience experience, conventional visual art aesthetics are inadequate, and need to include experiential considerations. She worked with Caitlin Jones at the Daniel Langlois Foundation Centre for Research and Documentation to develop documentation of David Rokeby’s artworks in ways intended to inform future artists and curators, and perhaps form an ‘oral history’ of new media art (Jones and Muller 2008). As Rokeby’s work is in many international art collections, this resource adds a larger and deeper independent body of documentation that may be beyond the means of individual institutions, but be of great use to artists re-exhibiting from a collection (Muller forthcoming).

Including the artist and the audience in the research process has been a key methodological shift for taking participative systems seriously. When artists are engaged in studying audience behaviour, they are able to bring their own skills in working with space and time into their research. For example, artist Kazuhiro Jo, together with Yasuhiro Yamamoto and Kumiyo Nakakoji (2006), formally studied The Sine Wave Orchestra artworks in public places at festivals. They were able to identify different styles of participation and engagement through ‘temporal and spatial co-presence’ and were very specific about whether the participation was synchronous or asynchronous (Graham and Cook 2010: 183). Rafael Lozano-Hemmer has useful anecdotal observations on reactions to his participatory artworks in different countries and cultures, and in addition, ethnographic research on his public artwork UnderScan (2006–) emerged with findings including interaction patterns that moved from observation to interaction and discussion between participants (Graham and Cook 2010: 187).

To an extent, certain kinds of new media afford automatic tracking of audience behaviours. Any website can track the duration of visits, repeat visits, the location of the service provider, and previous website links. The artwork Ten Thousand Cents (2007) by Aaron Koblin and Takashi Kawashima, for example, uses the existing Mechanical Turk online system whereby many people in different parts of the world do small digital tasks, that only humans can do, for small amounts of money or credit. By making multi-authored art objects via this system, and selling them directly, and giving the money to charity, these artists are making visible a rather complex globalized economic system. The producers and viewers of the work are also carefully tracked on the website, even if they do not buy the work – average times spent, and the location of visitors from Egypt to the Philippines are logged (Koblin and Kawashima 2007).

Again, the potential for the audiences to ‘crowd-source’ their own audience studies online could complement formal research: the more audience members comment, tweet and add their own oral histories, the more of a picture of audience complexity might be available to researchers. A huge area of debate related to art historical methods is that of considering the audience as not only participants in art, but as participants in curation (Graham and Cook 2010: 268ff). To briefly summarize: every time people tag an item or input keywords they contribute to a ‘folksonomy’ – forming those very categories of kinds of art that curators fight so hard over. While this article does not cover this area in depth, the possibility for audience-made categories is one that potentially shifts those new methods of art history discussed in the first section, with audiences not only providing documentation, but also collectively identifying art ‘movements’, a role that art historians have previously claimed for themselves.

Effective Methods for Histories of Exhibitions?

By applying ethnographic procedures of experience-based reflection and to some extent revealing themselves publicly, curators meet an apparent public demand to know how an exhibition and how the curators ‘tick’. This kind of transparency also meets a public pressure to lay bare everything for which tax and other spending was spent. (Farber 2007: 235)

As Alexa Farber identifies, there is a growing demand for, and some response to, an idea of ‘openness’ that rather works against a tendency for curators to keep exhibition processes behind a velvet curtain until opening night, but fully chimes with new media ideologies of ‘open source’ work processes and has been recently discussed online (Howard 2013). As Friedrich Kittler states, data-based new media can easily facilitate the desire that ‘Visitors too – they especially – should be given access not just to lovingly presorted information but to all available information’ (1996: 73). Therefore, both art institutions and individual curators might be called upon to be more open about the processes of exhibitions, including aspects of participatory behaviour by audiences. As outlined in this article, the embodied and time-based aspects of audience experiences of participation demands methods beyond the traditional critical visual aesthetic approach to static, non-interactive art objects.

While institutions might not be ready to provide all available information just yet to art historians considering exhibitions, there is some evidence that consideration of participation is growing in curatorial literature, even if it appears in some unusual places: for example, in Whitechapel Gallery’s A Manual: For the 21st Century Art Institution, most of the well-informed discussion concerning relational and participatory work are in the ‘Café’ chapter, but the fact that there is a café chapter at all marks a significant change in attitude to exhibitions and participation (Ratnam 2009).

As Staniszewski points out, artists as well as curators are concerned with audience behaviours, especially if they do participative work, and whether or not they intend to ‘frustrate’ the users. Juneau Projects, for example, give detailed information on their participative art project with schoolchildren, including evocative photographs (Sadler and Duckworth 2007). Artist Jeanne van Heeswijk has moved beyond documenting processes and has presented the information as art itself. She made with Maurits de Bruijn a very exact database of who related to what, and how, in several of her participatory projects. The artwork Works, Typologies and Capacities in the exhibition Tatig Sein in 2004, translated the database into a three-dimensional mapping, with potatoes representing the people, linked by wires of hierarchical relationship (Heeswijk, Lapp and Lutz 2007: 401). This kind of exact understanding of participatory processes and structures is the kind of material that contributes to a better future understanding of what kind of audience participation might be historicized.

There are an encouraging number of examples of institutions that are willing to take on these changes, and draw in the wider potential of crowd-sourced documentation, or audience curating, such as Rhizome’s Artbase. In particular, those making a link between commissioning, collection and exhibition seem to understand the network of issues. Current: An Experiment in Collecting Digital Art, for example, is a partnership by the Harris Museum & Art Gallery and folly in the United Kingdom, which included an exhibition, acquisition, documented public debate, and audience considerations, presented as a practical case study in a wider research project (Taylor forthcoming; Graham forthcoming 2).

In building the resources for a history of exhibitions involving participation, documentation from as many sources as possible, especially visual installation material and audience experience information, would be valuable. In a report on the exhibition 010101 at SFMOMA in 2001, the research involved talking to gallery guards, press staff, docents and IT providers as well as researching archives and curators, reflecting how the history of exhibition was embodied through the whole organization and beyond (Graham 2002). Since 2001, the added resources of crowd-sourced documentation, and crowd-sourced curating, are adding to the information that is available concerning exhibitions. For art historians, these tools might well be ‘less-respected’, but are nevertheless an undeni-ably effective addition to their methodological toolkits. If critical histories of participatory art are to be developed, then exhibition histories are vital for this, and new media understandings of participatory systems have much to offer to the future of both of these important advances.

Beryl Graham


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Suggested Citation

Graham, Beryl (2013), ‘Exhibition histories and new media behaviours’, Journal of Curatorial Studies 2: 2, pp. 242–262, doi: 10.1386/jcs.2.2.242_1

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