The Descriptive Acts exhibition was an unexpected bonus from my most-recent trip to SFMoMA. It was probably the highlight of my trip. I love it whenever art museums manage to not only engage their visitors but pull them through the fourth wall. Usually, it’s only people like me who watch fellow museumgoers as part of the museum experience who see other visitors as part of the exhibition. When museums show artworks which force this interaction onto visitors, my delight in the experience increases exponentially.
I can’t really think of too many other art exhibitions which are like this. Architecture* is close but a very different kind of interaction. Big art exhibitions such as Biennale often have some of these but it’s hard to give them the attention the deserve there. The only one which comes to mind right now is Erwin Wurm’s One-minute sculptures and I saw those a decade ago.**
**Those also didn’t force interaction, they just encouraged it. All the adults just looked and read until a little girl dragged her mom on to the dais. Maurice Chevalier would be proud.
Descriptive Acts directly involves the visitors in an interaction whether they like it or not. As soon as you enter you’re part of the experience—though you may not be fully aware of this. There is a writer in the room describer what she sees and anyone in there is a potential target.* That the writer is in the room makes it work. It would creepy if the author were invisible. Instead there’s a subtle dance of watching each other, and everyone else, which occurs. Some people try to avoid the author. Others want attention. Others are totally oblivious.
*SFMoMA’s blog has a more in-depth description of the experience.
I watched the writer and the room. She was having fun with the student groups which visited. My favorite moment though was a visitor with a fancy camera* taking photos of the artwork oblivious to the fact that his movements were being described and that he was part of the artwork now himself.** Most people do not interact with the writer. I did.
*Some flavor of Canon with pro-grip and gigantic white L lens.
**How do I know he was oblivious? He was behaving in the “photograph everything, then move to the next item” fashion which too many tourists exhibit now. Pix or it didn’t happen indeed…
I also can’t help but think about how the identity of the writer is hugely important to the piece. I don’t know if it’s the same woman. That the one I saw was young and attractive diffuses a lot of potential pitfalls with the exhibition. She was also wearing regular clothes. If she were dressed as security or in some sort of costume it would completely change things. Same if she were male. Or threatening. Or older. Or a child. Or writing in a non-english language.
Which brings up the second point of this exhibition. Context matters—whether it’s the identity of the observer in the gallery or the information provided with the pieces themselves. All the pieces in the exhibition have extra information which is all intended to reframe and change the art on display. Sometimes it’s personal information about the subjects of the photos, other times it’s a narration for a movie. But in all cases, seeing the image is not enough, you have to pay attention to you your understanding changes as you learn additional information. As a context advocate, I find it fantastic to see this kind of thing in a museum.
And yes, to everyone who feels like art which comments on the viewers is somehow an infringement on privacy? Think again. The museum is not a library. If you go, there will always be people like me will consider you part of the experience.
Plus, like sitting on the aisle or in the front row of a play, there’s always the potential that the museum will implicate you without your knowledge. SFMoMA is also running a series of games to play in the galleries. Some of those games also encourage interaction while others involve unsuspecting museum goers.
Everyone in a museum is on display at some level. To think otherwise is to underestimate art.