SMF Blog: The Good, The Bad and The Untitled

image © National Galleries Scotland

image © National Galleries Scotland

This article was originally written for the Scottish Museums Federation blog.

The museum is one of the great educators; this has always been understood to be its primary function. Despite several pedagogical shifts over the 300 years since the first UK institution opened its doors (the Ashmolean in Oxford, 1683), the one typical constant has been the direction of travel in which knowledge and information is imparted, especially when it comes to children. In nearly all circumstances, learning is conferred from a knowledgeable adult upon a recipient young person, and understandably so.

 

There are occasional anomalies though. At the end of 2014 for example, the National Museum of Scotland hosted the exhibition Games Masters, where there was often an observable role reversal in which younger visitors who tended to be more familiar with the content, assumed the role of educator to their accompanying adult. This is why Bad Entertainment, which opened this month at the National Portrait Gallery is such a fascinating concept. The exhibition, a series of films and artwork created by artists as young as 12, puts young people not only in the position of communicating the museums content, but creating and curating it as well. The result however is a distinctly harrowing experience.

 

This is not a criticism. “Legitimately creepy” by its own admission, the show is also an incredibly astute and well-considered piece of work. Centred around the theme of “the actuality of everyday experience and the fantasy world of media culture,” the four films depict a nightmarish future in which masked youngsters appear to rage against the savagery and anti-socialised world that they find themselves a part of. The young artists collectively wash their hands of the responsibility attributed to them by the media for the growing culture of narcissism, where language is deteriorating and anti-social behaviour is on the rise, by suggesting that the media itself is to blame instead.

Bad Entertainment is a declaration from young people that today’s media culture is not a by-product of their behaviour, but is forced unwillingly upon them. Amongst the exhibition’s targets are the dual over-saturation and over-simplification of media via a television set that shows four channels of “scratch” videos, a relentless stream of over-stimulating and almost incomprehensible 4 or 5 second clips. By exclusively donning masks and referring to themselves only under the collective guise of The Untitled, the group also challenges conceptions of the current “Instagram-generation” as attention seeking and vain. Whilst there is also a resistance towards the over-selling that occurs in the consumer world, with an exhibited desire for honestly best exemplified by “Stone,” one of the props from the films, which is presented like art but labelled with the brief catechism: “What is this? A Rock. Describe it? Rocky. What does it stand for? Rocks. Is this art? No, it’s a rock.”

 

The Untitled are a group of young people who have seized the opportunity to inform not only their peers, but also their elders and the results are as effective as they are visually impressive. Demonstrably, despite what the exhibition portrays as a dumbed-down media culture and its resultant society, young people today are now better informed and more in-tune than ever, and credit to National Galleries Scotland for providing them with a platform to prove this. These young artists not only show that a reverse museum pedagogy, where education flows from the young to their elders is achievable, but is valuable too.

 

Through the horror, Bad Entertainment is actually a message of hope. A message from a self-aware generation, conscious of its own flaws but resistant too to a media culture they are unfairly blamed with demanding when they have done no such thing. It is a message from a generation who also fear a future where, “society has collapsed, language has collapsed. Everyone is a stranger,” but will not accept that as their fate.

 

The exhibition too gives hope to the museum itself. Bad Entertainment’s message is a vindication of their necessity and of their approach. Amongst the torrent of “scratch” videos and frustrated creations is a longing for the tranquillity, honesty and respect with which the museum communicates information, and for the breathing space and time that it affords reflection. The beauty of the exhibition is therefore twofold. Not only is Bad Entertainment good education, but it has also provided young people with the freedom to challenge and explore their fears in one of the few places they are not manifest.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 29.2.2016

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Useful Work vs. Useless Toil

tp15

The Turner Prize 2015 exhibition drew to a close this week at the Tramway gallery and there is no doubt it has been a great success for the city of Glasgow as much as for worthy winners, Assemble. The show brought a record number of visitors to the venue, increasing its local influence and improving its stature and reputation further afield.

 

It also did an excellent job of engaging the city’s residents, both through Tramway’s complementary in-house programming, and across Glasgow itself. A fine example of this being the establishment by residents of the Pollokshields Playhouse, a community arts space in the formerly derelict site across from gallery itself. The exhibition also facilitated the return of the Assemble group to their continuing project in the east end, an adventure playground for children on Baltic Street, begun in 2014 with funding from the Commonwealth Games. The positive legacy the Turner Prize exhibition leaves Glasgow is clear, however it is the effect it will have on its eventual winners that is most intriguing.

Pollywood cinema at the Pollokshileds Playhouse - image © Glasgow South and Eastwood Extra

Pollywood cinema at the Pollokshileds Playhouse – image © Glasgow South and Eastwood Extra

The announcement on the 7th of December last year that the judges had plumped for Assemble to receive the £25,000 prize was a splash with powerful ripples. The key talking point was that Assemble were the first “non-artists” to win the award. Assemble consists of individuals with varying skills, but predominantly come from an architectural background and by their own admission much of the group do not consider themselves an art collective. This of course provided commentators with both cultural and economic concerns.

 

From an economic standpoint, being non-artists the collective are the first winners to consciously ignore the art market. Assemble’s portfolio is a collection of in-situ community projects, created collaboratively with the people who reside in them. They are therefore, not for sale. Rather than the Turner Prize being a launch pad to fame and fortune, Assemble instead, as they freely admit, saw the exhibition as a perfect opportunity to promote the catalogue from their Granby Workshop. The workshop is part of the Granby Four Streets project in Toxteth, Liverpool that lead to their Turner nomination, and sells handmade homeware created under Assemble’s supervision by the local community. The exhibit created by the group at Tramway was not so much an artwork as a showroom; a physical catalogue to peruse. This is a catalogue however that just won the Turner Prize, and anyone with as little as £8 at their disposal can purchase a piece.

Assemble exhibit at Tramway - image © Murdo MacLeod (Guardian)

Assemble exhibit at Tramway – image © Murdo MacLeod (Guardian)

From a cultural perspective though, Assemble’s non-artist status is blamed by some as the reason for their inability to communicate the social context within which their work is placed. All across the UK families are being torn apart as local councils are being forced to sell off their social housing stock to private developers who replace them with expensive new properties. While a small information panel in their corner of the exhibition explains some of plight of the residents of Toxteth, and Assemble’s work to help the community there, their exhibit in its manifestation as a bespoke home furnishings showroom did little to highlight what is a far wider issue.

 

My concern is that the excellent work that Assemble is doing does not become hindered by a convergence of these economic and cultural peculiarities. Whilst it is admirable to see creatives ignore the lure of the art market and its stratospheric sums, Assemble’s abstention from it assumes that the art market too wishes to ignore them. I am not suggesting that a simple Turner Prize win will put million pound price tags on everything the group have ever touched, but it will certainly raise the prestige value of owning them. Assemble will need to be careful that any perceived financial value in their output does not negate its good intent, especially if they do not improve their ability to communicate the social context that their work engages with.

 

The social housing crises affecting areas like Granby Four Streets for example has been described as “social cleansing dressed up as gentrification.” Oppositely, Assemble do not want to appear complicit in this by having their excellent work in these communities misconstrued as gentrification as well. The worst thing for them would be for 10 Houses on Cairns Street to become viewed as “Turner Prize winning properties,” or the art and studio spaces they have created as Durham Wharf and Sugarhouse as harbingers of the bourgeois bohemian economies that have overtaken other formerly lapsed areas of London.

 

The solution is simple though, Assemble merely have to assume a more conscientious responsibility for their brand. Whether they consider themselves artists or not, they have just been awarded the most famous art prize in the UK. Assemble’s victory owes surely to its clear echoes of the utilitarian principles of William Morris in the unending usefulness of their artfulness. However, as Morris once wrote, “History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.” They can protest, but Assemble have had “art” conferred upon them. They must now accept the responsibility of remembering the people who have helped them create, and specifically, why.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 22.1.2016

Sticks in the Mud

bluesteel

There seems to be a lot discussion in museum circles of late regarding the infamous “selfie stick,” likely due to the wake of “Museum Selfie Day” and the news trickling in that sensible institutions such as the Louvre have started to ban them. Now, the Museums Association is running a poll asking its membership their opinion on the issue of whether UK venues should follow suit, or stick with the insufferable contraptions, deliciously referred to by Gawker recently as the “wand of idiocy.” I’m sure you have worked out by now which side of the fence I’m on.

 

This is no fresh grievance for me however. I am fortunate enough to be working in Venice at the moment where there are now more “selfie sticks” than there is water. Every day I run the gauntlet over Accademia Bridge between two rows of grinning tourists brandishing their baton-mounted phones into its centre at a 65° angle. It’s reminiscent of an enormous guard of honour until you consider the fact nobody in it has eyes for anyone but themselves.

 

The “selfie stick” has been on my mind for a while, and in my face, and I’ve been smacked in the shin with one, and had a drink knocked out of my hand. This is precisely the reason given by Deborah Ziska of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where the “narcissi-stick” (thanks, Alyson) has recently been banned; they’re dangerous. They’re dangerous to people, and dangerous to the displays. When you take a step back to consider it, the “selfie stick” is essentially a retractable golf club, and nobody complains about not being allowed to bring them to a museum. Obviously I appreciate that nobody is coming into a museum and swinging them around, intentionally. But when your entire attention is focussed on the end of a 5-foot pole, and what’s at the end of said pole is a reverse image of yourself, you cannot possibly have any awareness or comprehension for the people or objects in your surroundings. You are literally brandishing it into the unknown. This is the point where you become a danger, and not just to other people, but yourself as well. As Ziska rightly points out, her gallery is filled with low balconies and stairs to topple over as you unwittingly shuffle around in search of the perfect angle.

 

To further the argument, there is no justification that necessitates their use in a museum environment anyway. People have tried though. One reason I’ve heard is, “you can fit more into the background.” Yes you can, but if that is your chief concern then you’re taking the wrong kind of photograph. If somebody wants, for example, a photo memory of the time they saw Picasso’s The Poet, they’ll remember it better if they don’t insist on obscuring half of it with their face. If they are more interested in remembering what they looked like that day than the art, why pay €14 to go to the Peggy Guggenheim Collection when there’s a boutique home furnishings shop around the corner selling mirrors for the same price?

 

I have also heard, “it’s safer, I don’t have to give a stranger my phone.” True again, but who is going to run off with your camera in the middle of a museum? Even in the street you have a better chance of retaining it by singling out one person to entrust it to than precariously strapping it to a shiny pole and waving it around in a sea of people. The fact of the matter is, the pole gives people greater control over their appearance in the picture. It’s not “I don’t trust you not to steal my phone,” it’s “I don’t trust you to make me look good.”

 

The “selfie stick” gives the photographer complete control, and perhaps most importantly of all, it can give the photograph the illusion of not being a “selfie” at all, by de-necessitating that “slightly too close to the lens and my arm is growing out of my chest” camera angle. “Selfies” are vain and people don’t like to admit to that. You can tell this is the case because some people still at least have the humility to look slightly embarrassed after taking one in public, some people. There is nowhere to hide if you’ve been waving a “selfie stick” around however, but this no longer matters as those who use them have demonstrably ceased to care about the opinions of those in their vicinity.

 

The reality is that the oxymoronically named “selfie” is not for the benefit of the subject at all, but for their connections everywhere else, chiefly those on social media sites. This is why museum people have embraced them. We like to “see” people in museums, and we like that people feel like their visit is one of these “show off” moments that they want to add to the rose tinted timeline of life experiences that they have chosen to share online. That’s as good as it gets though. There’s a reason we have “Museum Selfie Day” and not “Share Pictures of Your Favourite Exhibits Day.” People more and more are insistent on being the subject of the photos they take, and everything else, such as the museum, is secondary.

 

Essentially every “selfie” is the same, except the backgrounds change from time to time, like the “Blue Steel” calendar in Ben Stiller’s Zoolander (see the above photo). A “selfie” is not a memory, it’s a momentary snapshot that is discarded from the photographers conscience as soon as a fresh one is taken, or in the case of Snapchat, discarded from existence after a mere few hours (more on that here). In a museum we can embrace the “selfie” as, despite being the secondary content, we can still benefit from their exposure. The “selfie stick” however only benefits the “selfie taker,” and in fact adversely affects the museum by endangering its collection and the other visitors.

 

I’m sure one day the “wand of vanity” will have a rightful place in a museum, presumably as a key piece in the British Museum’s “A History of the End of the World in 100 Objects,” presented by a robot Neil MacGregor in the year 2110. For now however it does not. The “selfie stick” hazardously facilitates a form of photography that increasingly has no appreciation for memory, for history, for art or any aesthetic external to ones own appearance. They do not therefore belong in museums and those that have banned them already have done so quite rightly. Sometimes it’s good to be a stick in the mud.

Must Be Accompanied by a Responsible Apprentice

gamers

There are few places more deserving of a visit from the currently touring Game Masters exhibition, created by the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, than Scotland. Some of gaming history’s most influential titles were born here, including Lemmings and Grand Theft Auto, the latter of which is now one of the most lucrative franchises in all media and is still developed in Edinburgh today, only a short walk from the National Museum of Scotland, where Game Masters is currently on show.

The rationale behind exhibiting a history of video games is easy to see. It gives an institution the ability to provide a rich and varied, yet at all times fully immersive hands-on experience. There are not many interactive exhibit types that boast such equally high levels of “holding” and “attracting” power as video games. They are also, of course, massively popular these days and have an ever-broadening appeal, providing ideal foil for attracting new audiences to the museum.

A cynic therefore may feel justified in claiming they are an easy and unimaginative option, however the presentation of Game Masters far from evokes a curatorial team of such a mind-set. The trouble with an exhibition about gaming is catering for this aforementioned broad-spectrum audience. Despite what my dad would like the world to believe, video games are not just for children; the content of some of the earliest games in unspeakable (read up about Custer’s Revenge, if you dare), Grand Theft Auto certainly isn’t for children and even Lemmings requires constant user intervention to stop them from walking to their own increasingly grizzly demises.

If anything, there are more games for children nowadays than there ever were when I was one. The introduction of the hugely popular Nintendo Wii opened up the industry to a whole new audience and has seen massive emphasis placed on family friendly video game products. These days video games are truly for everyone, but not everyone views “gaming” in the same way, so I have more and more frequently heard the use of “casual” and “hardcore gamers” as differentiating labels. Creating an exhibition that appeals to these two subsets equally is therefore no mean feat, and the curators of it have done an excellent job. There is a huge and varied range of both populist and obscure game types to suit any and all visitors, and this is supported by detailed and informative ephemera, retrospectives on influential game designers and characters, and a clear historical narrative to “play” your way through. Just as video games are for everyone, this exhibition has something for everyone too.

I can only rate the exhibition from within my own subset however, which I would describe as “casual gamer” and even that is a stretch. My flatmate and I regularly struggle to a 0-0 draw on this year’s instalment of FIFA before he beats me on penalties, but that is the extent of my current immersion in the gaming world. In fact the only video games I have extensively played since leaving home 8 years ago are the Assassin’s Creed titles and only really because through sheer chance they have all been set within the same time periods as my History MA and I found it perversely therapeutic to be able to hunt down and punch in the face the same historical figures who had spearheaded countless weeks of essay-related stress and despair. I had hoped to visit the exhibition with a friend who would define himself as a member of the “hardcore” team so we could compare our experiences however time has not allowed for me to do so. Having said that, as an individual with more of an interest in exhibition planning and design than gaming I was actually more interested in the ephemeral exhibits and interpretation than the games anyway. I do of course appreciate that I’m a difficult breed of visitor, as it’s not exactly easy to cater to an audience that insists on spending half their time staring at the fourth wall, nor should you.

Predictably in keeping with this position, the thing that fascinated me most about the exhibition was actually nothing intentionally exhibited at all. Instead, surrounded by the sounds and flashing lights of over a hundred playable games, my attention was gripped by the sight of a distinct and notable role reversal in the child/guardian museum visit dynamic. There were of course adult visitors at the exhibition too, as I said earlier, games aren’t just for kids, but likely given that it was Christmas eve, the ratio of younger visitors was heavily skewed in its favour. As these visitors traversed the exhibition with whomever their responsible adult may be, it was fascinating to see them discover and then engage with the fact that, possibly for the first time in a museum, they were the authoritative side of the pairing.

It struck me though that this role reversal can only function if said responsible adult upholds a “responsibility” to facilitate an educational and entertaining exhibition experience for their charge, and if this can’t be in the role of “teacher,” then maybe it should be as the “student” instead. I remember as a child, my grandmother taking me to visit Edinburgh Castle and marvelling at her incomparable knowledge of Scottish monarchic history. Had I been in possession of the facts that day instead, I believe our enjoyment of the experience would have been no different, because we were both positively engaged with the exhibitions and their content, and this is the key.

Some parents at Game Masters got this, while some took a little encouragement. It was incredibly heart-warming to watch adults take and interest in the interests of children, and likewise to watch these youngsters revel in the role of educator within the exhibition. So too was it wonderful to see people, initially unenthused by the Game Masters concept, take the time and effort, despite not having a vested interest in the games, to read some of the information panels and interpretation, and spark for themselves an enthusiasm for the content that they could share with their young companion.

This is one of the exhibitions strengths. The curatorial team have done an excellent job of highlighting that games, especially nowadays are more then simply just “games.” Those who read the interpretive material discovered that the history of games is a rich tapestry of attention to artistic and stylistic themes, of morality and decision making, problem solving, and storytelling, to name but a few. They realised, imperatively, that games are universal and can be fun for everyone, and in doing so, improved their experience of the exhibition, and that of their child. In the time I spent at the exhibition, I witnessed only one parent who refused to embrace it, who stood stony faced as his trusts fiddled with control pads and touch screens in silence. This was a responsible adult who had shirked his responsibility, and I fear that the children in his “company” may have lost out because of it.

I would love to see more exhibitions utilise themes that can bring about this fascinating role reversal, and it would be interesting to ponder what these could be. The content of Game Masters lends itself very well to this because of the universal nature of games, and that it is well placed within a time when the younger generations are increasingly literate to the subject while many of their elders lacked the opportunities to become so at their age. For this reason I would implore everyone, especially those sceptical of games and gaming to give this exhibition a visit. But those doing so with young charges must absolutely remember that as much as young visitors to the National Museum of Scotland must be accompanied by a responsible adult, these little game masters must be accompanied by a responsible apprentice too.

The Reality of Possibility

salamis-ruinen

Last week I attended the 2014 Museums Association Exhibition at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, and was fortunate to have been able to take in a number of free workshops from a selection of some of the UK’s most forward thinking museums and design companies. One that stuck with me particularly was a presentation from PEEL Interactive and Bill Seaman on their implementation of Augmented Reality (AR) app software at Colchester Castle.

As someone with a passion for envelope-pushing interpretation, to see what PEEL have achieved at Colchester was fascinating. A quick Google search defines AR as:

A technology that superimposes a computer-generated image on a user’s view of the real world, thus providing a composite view.” 

This had been my understanding of the technology up until last week, and I had seen it used to good effect. At Glasgow Science Centre’s Glasgow Tower for example, where 360° views of the city are supported by an AR map that allows you to zoom in on certain landmarks and obtain onscreen text interpretation for them. This, I believed was the extent of AR’s capability; a real time image, with additional text or images layered over the top. So to see some of the things PEEL are doing using AR software was a truly eye-opening experience.

So much so in fact that I would be hesitant to even describe it as AR, not under the parameters of Google’s definition anyway. The reality is that PEEL’s app at Colchester offers so much more. Although they have yet to roll the feature out, attendees at the MA Exhibition were afforded a sneak peak at a few of the things it will be capable of. Some highlights to my mind were portrait plaques that spring into life and speak to the visitor, entire rooms within the castle re-furnished to their original interiors, and ornate Roman wall slabs that are re-displayed in their historical location.

This creates a valuable visitor interactive because the interpretation offers something new. Rather than merely re-displaying what the audience can already see, the visitor is now offered an enhanced visual and at times tactile experience of every exhibit. The talking portrait plaques for example, turn a small, flat and unimposing object, into a lively, personable and engaging attraction. I am a firm believer in technology and informatics as a means of providing exhibits with what Eileen Hooper-Greenhill describes as “attracting power” and “holding power.” Using AR in the manner that Colchester Castle has, provides even the most unassuming objects with attracting power due to the curiosity instilled in the visitor as to what the app can add to their experience of it, and that experience in turn provides holding power as well. It is win-win.

The examples shown to us by PEEL were particularly effective because they provided new and exciting visitor experiences without diminishing or negating the physical exhibits themselves. While Google’s definition of AR places the object and the interpretation on the screen, PEEL’s onscreen product is entirely interpretation, ensuring that people are encouraged at all times to refer to the physical object. This is imperative for supporting material in any exhibition, and Colchester Castle appears to have found a novel and effective method of achieving this goal.

Of particular interest were the AR features relating to the ornate Roman wall slabs that the Castle has on display. Firstly, because the app will allow visitors to view the slabs in their original historical setting. This is incredibly useful for the visitor as it allows them to appreciate the objects as being of both individual and part of a collective historical importance. It’s not a perfect solution, but what the AR app does is afford the objects a small degree of the much-vaunted idea of “archaeological context,” allowing the exhibits to be viewed in relation to their inherent landscape and neighbouring artefacts. I was immediately reminded of a recent trip to see the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum, and how wonderful a similar app would be, that would allow the friezes to be viewed in their entirety, gap and damage free, and in their respective positions on the Athenian temple. Proponents of repatriation claim that the marbles need to be viewed in their original historical and cultural setting to provide a fuller understanding of them, whereas the British Museum argues that they are better contextualised within their displays of the human history of the world. To some extent, an AR app such as that at Colchester Castle could satisfy both demands?

The second thing that excited me about the Roman slab AR features was an interactive element that allows the user, as demonstrated in a short video by PEEL Interactive, to destroy the virtual on screen structures that the slabs were a part of, by tapping and swiping on the screen. This is both a novel and intuitive method of communicating the history of the objects and their provenance to the user, in a fun and engaging manner. In addition, it also provides the visitor with a tactile interaction to an exhibit that they are not permitted to touch, deepening their engagement and providing them with a richer, more rewarding experience.

As a teenager I was fortunate enough to visit the ancient city of Salamis in Northern Cyprus, where I witnessed hundreds of incredible Greek statuary, that for years I was ignorant as to why their faces had all been removed. I have since learned that this was due to the iconoclastic actions of invading Muslim forces throughout history, however there was no interpretation on site to reveal this at the time. The sight has always fascinated me and again, PEEL Interactive’s presentation immediately transported me there, filling my head with ideas for AR features that could complete the statues, bring them to life, and explain their current condition, much in the same way that the features for the Roman slabs at Colchester Castle will.

On the subject of statues, another workshop that really captured my imagination was the Talking Statues initiative, a collaborative effort from Sing London and Antenna Lab. This is yet another interpretive masterstroke. Talking Statues has equipped many of London and now Manchester’s most famous sculptural figures, from the “Unknown Soldier” at Paddington Station to Samuel Johnson’s cat “Hodge” or the Spitalfields Goat, with QR codes and web links that generate a “phone call” from the statue in question to the individual phone user.

The phone call element is effective because it feels more personal than listening through a prescribed audio guide device. In addition, the statues are voiced by familiar figures. Hodge the cat for example is portrayed by Nicholas Parsons, who sneaks in phrases such as “look at me for Just a Minute.” This increases the personal element by providing the listener with a voice they are already comfortable with, and allowing them to draw on snippets of existing knowledge amongst the educational content, giving users an immediate intellectual confidence in their engagement.

Although statues are 3D objects, I have always found them somewhat two dimensional in nature, especially if accompanied by limited interpretation. Talking Statues however, by audibly animating them, breathes life into the cold and unwavering expressions on their faces. By personifying the sculptures in this fashion, the initiative turns the statues into warm and engaging characters. Perhaps most importantly of all, it turns them into familiar characters, because they are. Many Londoners will walk past the “Couple on Seat” at Canary Wharf every single day, and now they can finally get to know them. Voiced by celebrity marital couple Sanjeev Bhaskar and Meera Syal, they may just feel like they always have.

There was much to get excited about this year at the Museums Association Exhibition and every workshop truly deserves mention. I have singled the presentations from PEEL Interactive and Sing London out because they are thematically akin, and interpretation is a theme I am greatly passionate about. Talking Statues is wonderful because it opens public artworks up to new audiences through accessible and engaging interaction, whilst PEEL Interactive’s work with Colchester Castle, if the ever-trusted Google search is to be believed, has re-imagined, and re-defined the possibilities of augmented reality technology.