Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Adventures in Artist-Driven Public Engagement: Machine Project at the Hammer Museum

What happens when a formal art museum invites a group of collaborative, participatory artists to be in residence for a year? Will the artists ruin the museum with their plant vacations and coatroom concerts? Will the bureaucracy of the institution drown the artists in red tape? How will the visitors, the registrars, and the security guards respond?

No, this is not a reality TV show. But for museum and art wonks, it could be. The Machine Project and the Hammer Museum have just released an incredible ebook documenting Machine's year-long residency at the Hammer in 2010. The 182-page book includes detailed descriptions of projects, budgets, and decision-making processes, along with extensive interviews with artists, curators, and museum staff of all stripes.

The book is fascinating on multiple levels. Artists and administrators grapple with the shifting roles of institutions as hosts and incubators for creative work. Several artists offer surprising insights into making participatory projects appealing to visitors. The honest reflections from staff members beyond curatorial and education departments--including registrars, security staff, and PR--are unparalleled. And the projects themselves are brilliant.

Here are a few elements that really resonated for me.

Artist as Problem Solver vs. Artist as Problem Explorer

Mark Allen (director of Machine Project) and I have talked about this issue several times, and Mark articulates it beautifully. As an artist, he doesn't see himself as someone who is hired to solve problems but as someone who uses those problems as the starting point for investigation of deeper issues and possibilities. When I was working as a design consultant and he as an artist, we'd often note the fundamental differences in our approaches via this issue. As he put it (page 14):
When people at an institution speak of a problem, it is often to indicate something that interferes with their operation. From the artist’s perspective, a problem is a provocation or a site to which the artwork responds by creating something that engages the problem and makes it visible in a different light. The problem is aestheticized, framed, or reconfigured; it is seldom erased or resolved.
This issue is highlighted in the Giant Hand project at the Hammer, in which Machine Project artists and collaborators created a Monty Python-esque, oversized hand to help visitors navigate the museum. In the end, the Hand did more to point out (literally) wayfinding issues than to solve them. As Mark noted in conversation with collaborator Chandler McWilliams (page 116):
One of the things that I found working with the Hammer is that, because it is a challenging space to navigate, there was a lot of anxiety that generated for the institution. They were concerned that visitors were confused, so any project had to work toward making people less confused. I remember when we were talking about it you said, “What’s wrong with confusing the visitors?” 
Are you asking your collaborators to solve your problems or to help tease them out in new ways? Is it appropriate to ask artists to be problem solvers in the same role as designers or consultants? Much of the tension and creative spark in this book comes from the fundamental differences in perspective on this issue.

This is particularly true when it comes to project evaluation. I'm a bit troubled by the lack of rigor in the evaluation of the impact of all these projects--big and small. Both Mark and Alison Agsten, the Hammer public engagement curator, talk lovingly about the power of the intimate, but it's hard to figure out how to act on statements like "We’ve talked often about how you measure success: it’s not just the number of people that come through; quality is part of it" (Alison, page 37). Mark often talks about how he and his collaborators do this work because it is their artistic practice, not because they are trying to achieve specific outcomes. I'm sympathetic to this perspective, but as someone who wants to be able to make a case for certain kinds of projects--and to make programmatic decisions based on research--I'd like to see the artists paired with some inventive evaluators. As artists expose and play with possibilities in engagement, it would be useful to see how those possibilities play out in terms of visitor responsiveness--whether the artists care about those outcomes or not. Otherwise, the artists' work gets put in the black box of "inspired activity" which may or may not be sustained or replicated by staff.

Whose Job is it to Inform (or Confuse) the Visitors?

I loved the sections of the book that focused on the interplay between artists and security staff. Security staff are so rarely involved in the creative development of public engagement projects, but in many museums--especially art museums--they are the staff members who end up negotiating them.

For example, the Machine Project offered an ongoing two-minute concert series in a coatroom under the stairs they named "The Little William Theater." In an interview with Mark, artist/sound curator Chris Kallmyer reflected on the basic challenges of negotiating the space alongside security guards (page 43):
Chris: Conflicts arose partially because we were also aiming to be the front line, so we were competing with them in a way. 
Mark: Right. At the time when you entered the lobby at the Hammer, the only person there to talk to was the guard. Since then, they’ve added a front desk with people whose job it is to greet you, which is great. We added a different layer, this random guy who’s like, “Do you want to see a concert in this coatroom?” 
It's easy to understand from this perspective how the artists could be seen as distracting from or even causing trouble for the security guards in their front line function. The Hammer Museum's operations manager, Andrew Werner, reflected on the early challenges (page 145):
The initial response, from both management within security and more of the rank and file, was primarily resistance, confusion, annoyance, and generally not supporting it. I think, as with all unusual activities that interfere with one’s routine, that was a reasonable response. Once those activities become the routine, and with the right personalities involved, things start to smooth out. Chris [Kallmyer], I think, was exceptional in his approachability, and in his willingness to explain and engage, so he made it easier for the guards to eventually accept, respond, and enjoy.
Developing Opportunities for Intimate Participation

Many of the Machine Project's projects at the Hammer were designed for very small audiences. Eight person needlepoint and psychotherapy groups. Two person audiences in the Little William Theater. Frequently, we get stuck on developing participatory projects or events that serve as many people as possible. Machine had the vision--and the luxury--of creating big experiences for small numbers of participants. But, as Mark argued in conversation with poet Josh Beckman, these intimate experiences can "colonize the audience's imagination" (page 63) and have much broader impact conceptually.

As an example, guitarist Eric Klerks provided a "personal museum soundtrack" to visitors by following people around with an electric guitar, playing music just for a single listener/visitor wearing headphones. The piece was evocative not just for the individual participants but for everyone walking through the museum alongside the participants--and probably, for most of you, who are just imagining what this would feel like.

This kind of intimacy has power partly because it's more personal and vulnerable than the typical ways that museum staff members engage with program participants. In conversation with Mark and Chris Kallmyer, Eric talked about the sign-up process for the soundtrack tours (page 80):
Eric: At first it was a little bit intimidating—all these looks that you get from patrons, especially the regulars. You can tell they are wondering why you are here but they don’t necessarily want to articulate it, so you just get this weird vibe. You know, I’m standing there and I’ve got my sign-in sheet, but it looks a little bit trivial. 
Mark: Right, like you apparently have permission to be there, but you are not quite part of the Museum. 
Eric: Exactly. But I think there’s a difference between something being difficult and something being a problem. The difficulty is almost as much a part of the event as walking through the gallery. If it had been a more clinical situation, where people came up to a desk and I was sitting there saying, “Oh, yes, we have this slot open and this slot open,” I think some of that intimacy would have been lost. It would have been more like those audio tours, and it’s not about that. 
Mark: Right. This piece is a critique of those pieces: those pieces are a sad simulacrum of a human interaction in the museum; this piece is about real engagement. 
Eric: Absolutely. And it had as much to do with my evolution as with the audience. I think there’s really an art to being able to put somebody at ease. It got easier for me, getting that comfort level and the confidence to say, “Here I am. I’m part of the space. People can engage me just like they’d engage that painting.” 
This section really expanded my thinking, especially as I am trying to encourage my staff and interns not to always design for "maximal participation" but to also think about opportunities for intimate, surprising, and personal moments. It can get so easy to slide into "let's make a festival" mode and miss the opportunities for secrets in the elevator. Again, I'd love to see some evaluative study of this intimacy--perhaps to pair the artists with social scientists who measure cultural impact or evolution in perception of an institution over time based on small and distributed changes. There are many people studying the audience for participatory work--especially online--and it would be fascinating to understand more about the ripple effects of these projects on the broader visitor base.

Who Owns the Work?

There are some fascinating bits about intellectual and artistic property sprinkled throughout the book. One of the reasons I feel strongly that museum staff should assume their own creative agency to create experimental public engagement projects is because then the museum owns the work and it can grow, perpetuate, and shift over time. That's not always true when you work with artists (or consultants). I always worry that the mindshare--and the related products--will walk out the door when the contract ends.

Take the lowly ping pong table. Elizabeth Cline, the Hammer's public engagement curatorial associate, talked with Mark about their different perspectives on the ping pong tables that Machine Project installed on the Lindbrook Terrace. While initially conceived as a way to make the museum more convivial, over time, Mark came to feel that the ping pong tables were creating an ambient sound installation that should be treated as a piece of art (and formally acquired by the museum for a fee at the end of the residency). Elizabeth disagreed, saying (pages 51-52):
Elizabeth: Some of what the grant was asking you to do was to develop projects that, in the end, the Museum could have used, or to generate ideas that we could have implemented in some way again in the future. So I feel like the Museum should have inherited the Ping-Pong tables as part of your Residency, with a plaque describing the work we did together during the Residency. ... [T]he sticking point in everyone’s mind is that what you proposed was not an artwork. The tables were situated in an unusual space in the Museum—Lindbrook terrace—that you hoped to transform over the course of your Residency into a social space. 
Mark: To me that shows a really strange idea of what art is—that art is completely determined by its instantiating moment. If I were a painter and you came to my studio and saw me working on a canvas, that material is transformed into an artwork at the moment I say it is an artwork. Similarly, we can think of the Ping-Pong tables as a social canvas that was transformed into an artwork by people using it.
This gets back to the difference between artists and consultants (or designers, or internal staff members).  It's philosophy and business model rolled into a messy package. Near the end of the book, Margot Stokol, the Hammer's associate director of legal affairs, weighs in (page 161):
[B]ecause we’re a museum and we work with artists all the time, the words artist and ownership mean certain things to us, and we often distinguish how we, as an institution, contract with artists as opposed to consultants. In the past, we have drawn those categories very broadly and in relatively black-and-white terms, and one of the things we learned from last year is that sometimes it’s not so clear. Because a lot of the art was conceptual or ephemeral or something that we expected to incorporate into ongoing practice, we found that the implications of calling something “art” didn’t always reflect our expectations for the specific project or for who owned the work. 

Ultimately, I think this book does an extraordinary job of transparently, honestly, and provocatively presenting the impact of artist collaborations with institutions. Read it. Check out the related videos. Grapple with the things that inspire and frustrate and confuse you. I know I did.

Mark has agreed to do one more interview (daunting after you see the list in the book) with us--with you--if you have specific questions you want to discuss. Please leave your thoughts or questions in the comments and Mark will join me in responding. If the questions are sufficiently voluminous, we'll do an interview follow-up post sometime in the next month.
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