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Ropes, tropes & bots (or: What the Museum Finds Hard to Say)

24 Apr

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This is the text of a talk delivered at the Freud Museum symposium, Beyond the White Cube Exploring Artists Interventions at the Freud Museum and Beyond, on Saturday 22 April 2017, accompanying the exhibition Temporarily Accessioned: Freud’s Coat Revisited by Paul Coldwell.

 

1. Museums and artists

This talk is a story of ropes and connections, galleries and websites, artists and museums, and the question of what any of us can say with the means at our disposal.

About six years ago, I was walking up Maresfield Gardens from the direction of Finchley Road when I stumbled into a dream. In front of me was a suburban villa, wrapped in what looked like extraordinary fibrous ropes of some kind. My first thought was to wonder — if this is a dream, what is the meaning of this dream? Was it some kind of parable about the entrapments of domesticity (At the time I was married, but I hadn’t yet had kids)? Or was there some kind of even deeper  meaning?

It couldn’t have been more perfectly Freudian. And of course it was — because what I was looking at was Alice Anderson’s work ‘Housebound’, part of her 2011 installation for the Freud Museum,‘Childhood Rituals’, which also included the rather eerie ‘Confinement Room’. Collectively the works were an engagement with the ideas of both Sigmund and Anna Freud, whose home this building was.

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This rather uncanny experience was an introduction for me to the world of artists working with museums, and the idea of the ‘intervention’, an artistic practice that responds to the museum, sometimes in what seems to be a confrontational way, politically, curatorially or aesthetically. At the Freud Museum, Alice Anderson disrupted the unity of Freud’s famous study with ‘Web’, a single strand forming a barrier between Freud’s couch and his desk.

Around the same time, the artist and curator Mark Dion gave a talk at London’s Natural History Museum about his work with curiosity and natural history collections and, among other things, polar bears. During the course of the talk he tackled some of the issues around how and why museums and artists choose to work together like this. A single phrase stood out for me: “The artist can say things that the museum finds difficult to say.”

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This was less an explanation than a puzzle. Why should museums find things hard to say, and artists find them easy? It sounds slightly counterintuitive in light of the generally increasing accessibility of museums and the reputation of contemporary art for wilful obscurantism. Surely museums are the places where artists’ work becomes easier to understand?

So I looked for evidence in the history of the development of collaborations and works between artists and museums. The annals of conceptual art and the idea of ‘institutional critique’ offered some theoretical underpinnings but fewer trenchant examples in practice of something that, by the 1990s was becoming increasingly widespread.

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25 years ago this month, Fred Wilson staged an intervention at the Maryland Historical Society, Mining the Museum, which might help us understand the kinds of things that museums find difficult to say. Wilson’s intervention, organised by Baltimore’s Contemporary Museum, and displayed throughout the historical society’s museum sought to explore the absences and denigrations of Black and Native American people in the official presentation of the history of the state. One piece in the intervention, Metalwork 1723-1880, simply juxtaposed decorative silverwork with a pair of slave shackles, calling attention to the genocidal brutality that underpinned the early United States’ wealth and expressions of culture. Museums of slavery certainly exist, but as Wilson said about his project, “You’ll have a museum for the beauty of the art world and then you’ll have museums for the horrors of our world and never will you have them in the same museum.” Perhaps here what one museum has difficulty in saying is what another museum already knows very well.

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In the UK in 1985, the sculptor Eduardo Paolozzi spent three years working at London’s Museum of Mankind to produce the exhibition Lost Magic Kingdoms: And Six Paper Moons from Nahuatl.Though dealing with ethnographic collections that certainly contain similarly problematic evidence of colonial racism, Paolozzi’s approach was less politically confrontational. Where the Museum of Mankind had traditional ethnographic displays, Paolozzi reconfigured them by aligning objects with aesthetic similarities, and including works of his own which he felt possessed similar properties. The museum’s curator Malcolm McLeod saw ‘new patterns of meaning’ here — perhaps Paolozzi was saying something that the museum suspected, but didn’t know how to say.

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Mark Dion’s own work often concentrates on resurrecting historical modes of display as a means of looking anew at the objects we have. The idea of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ or the wunderkammer is widely used and often abused today, but Dion’s work is the most rigorous and wide-ranging in examining lost ways of looking at things. His work for the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota brings together over fifty separate university collections and rearranges them in nine cabinets ordered by Renaissance classifications of the human and natural world. Looking back to the very earliest incarnations of what we now think of as museums, what Dion is trying to say with this is what the museum has forgotten how to say.

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But collaborations between museums and artists are not always so highbrow. In 2009, Bristol Museum opened its doors on a surprise show, Banksy vs Bristol Museum. The famous stencil graffiti and street artist had been given the run of the entire museum, secreting his trademark anthropomorphised rats into natural history displays, with a burnt-out  ice cream van serving as an information kiosk as the focal point of the installation. Low humour met high art here, with many of the same seemingly-obvious points about authority and commercialisation in museums that emerged in the work of the institutional critique tradition in the 1970s and 80s. The show was hugely popular (I queued for 40 minutes to get in) and enormously successful not only for the museum but also for the local economy, Bristol-born Banksy’s own contribution to civic pride. It’s easy to malign Banksy, but the exhibition contained a lot of everyday humour that’s often missing from museums. Maybe Banksy here altered us to the fact that some of the things that the museum finds difficult to say are the things that everybody else already knows.

These are the kinds of things that happen when a museum collides with an artist over a brief period of time. What happens when you have a more sustained series of collaborations with artists and start to say something together? I’ll try to answer that with a brief look at the Freud Museum and a slightly longer look at my own area of work at Wellcome Collection.

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Early exhibitions at the Freud Museum, including Susan Hiller’s At The Freud Museum in 1994 played with ideas of collecting and arranging things in and of themselves: ideas with Freudian elements, but not intimately springing from either the life of the Freud family or the immediate environs of the museum. Sarah Lucas’s The Pleasure Principle in 2000 engaged in a lively dialogue with the spaces and furniture of the household, as well as skewering a few Freudian fundamentals. Paul Coldwell’s Freud’s Coat in 1996 and the current exhibition Temporarily Accessioned: Freud’s Coat Revisited, addressed Freud’s transition to England, as well as the idea of migration and the possessions that you bring with you on a journey.

For me it was Alice Anderson’s work that achieved the most subtle and complete engagement with the family home, the structure of the building and the ideas of both Sigmund and Anna.

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Many of the artists working at the Freud have chosen to focus on Freud’s couch as a central object. Alice’s choice of Anna’s loom feels itself like an intervention in the history of interventions at the Freud, a reminder of what has been overlooked, accompanied by a simultaneous fascination with and deep ambivalence about the ideas of psychoanalysis.

And it also overcame an oppositionality in the practice of working with museums themselves, moving from an idea of critique, to a practice of collaboration. Together, Alice and the Freud Museum were capable of saying what neither could say alone.

2. Artists and Makers

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Walking away from the Freud Museum, three miles in a roughly southeasterly direction, through Regent’s Park if you like, you arrive at another, slightly larger museum. I work at this museum, Wellcome Collection. We’re part of the Wellcome Trust, a giant medical charity that fund scientific research. As a museum, we’re ten years old this summer — old enough to have developed a small tradition, and young enough not to be hidebound by it. Our permanent exhibition stems from the collection of Sir Henry Wellcome, a pharmaceutical entrepreneur and unstoppable collector, but we also produce interdisciplinary exhibitions and events around the themes of the health sciences, and we also have a library with iconographic and archival collections. We sometime call ourselves ‘the destination for the incurably curious’.

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My work there is mostly in digital. I manage a team that runs our editorial content and social media. But I also work with artists on digital commissions that enhance and extend the work that forms part of the exhibitions, and more recently that begin as digital projects before they find a physical manifestation in the gallery.

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In 2010 we worked with the artist Keith Wilson to produce a simulacrum of the museum digitisation process to accompany his gallery exhibition ‘Things’. Keith ran a week-long project collecting and borrowing objects from members of the public. There was a certain amount of museum theatre here: Keith collected signed acquisition forms from members of the public, and donned white gloves to take receipt of objects that up until that moment had been nothing special. We provided some digitisation theatre, as the objects were photographed and uploaded to Flickr in full view of the public, from where they were pulled down to be displayed on our website as part of the ‘calendar of things’ which Keith had also constructed in the gallery.

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More recently, in 2015, we worked with Sejla Kameric on her ‘Ab Uno Disce Omnes’ installation for our Forensics exhibition. In the gallery, this took the form of a full-sized mortuary fridge inside which were screened computer-sequenced clips relating to the atrocities which took place in Bosnia during the Yugoslavian wars. Online, Sejla and her collaborators compiled a database of evidence relating to the atrocities and their context, containing everything from details of UN investigations to reports on weather and soil conditions. The effect was to provide a near-incomprehensible wall of factual evidence lacking almost any kind of narrative or organising function, suggesting the problems that face forensic investigators when they approach the enormity of war crimes.

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We also worked with the musician Matthew Herbert as part of last year’s ‘This Is A Voice’ exhibition. Matthew, whose recent work investigates the democratic and egalitarian aspects of collectively-created sounds, made a work called ‘Chorus’ for us. Visitors were invited to step inside a recording booth, and to sing one note as pure and long as they could. Each visitor’s note was added to an algorithmically-controlled rising and falling chorus that eventually grew to include all the contributed voices. In the gallery space the effect was almost reverential; online, we decided to make it more playful, and allowed visitors to the website to filter the chorus, not only by pitch, and the date of recording, but also using more tangential factors, such as the performance of the stock market at the time the voices were recorded.

Working on Chorus was also for me an exploration of the relationship between digital artists and digital makers. The conceptual and artistic work on Chorus was Matthew’s, but the digital interface was developed by Toby Ashley, a developer from Brighton. Rather than the more traditional relationship that an artist might have with an assistant or member of their studio, we created the connection between Matthew and Toby, allowing two creatives who work in very different dimensions of digital to come together. (There’s a small moment of absolute genius here on Toby’s part: Matthew wanted the interface to include something like ‘the tangle of wires behind a mixing desk’, evincing a kind of meaningful but ineffable complexity — Toby’s response was to include the code used to generate each filtering of the chorus as the background image to the page on which it appeared: the perfect digital equivalent of Matthew’s concept). Similarly, when we produced an interactive version of Chris Dorley-Brown’s longitudinal video portrait series, Fifteen Seconds Part 3, the detailed creation of the visual media was done by Chris, but the interactive implementation was carried out by another developer, Danielle Huntrods.

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One of my own ideas that didn’t work out was when we had a solo show by Alice Anderson four years after the show here at the Freud Museum. Alice’s practice included wrapping individual items in red fibre as a means of memorialising and remembering them in the context of a digitally ephemeral era. I thought it would be nice to have our website itself ‘wrapped’ in virtual red fibre, disappearing from sight as users watched, but this was too far from Alice’s work for her to be comfortable with it.

Even when produced in the context of temporary exhibitions, digital work can have multiple layers of meaning in relationship to the museum; for Keith Wilson we reimagined a digitally-centred museum; for Matthew Herbert and Chris Dorley-Brown, we facilitated the relationships that realised the works. But if Wellcome Collection is using artists to say something here that it can’t say itself, it’s doing it subtly. And it’s being reminded, in the case of Alice Anderson, that the artist can’t be coerced by the museum into saying things that they don’t want to say.

3. Asylums and bots

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Last autumn, we took a small leap forward in digital commissioning. Wellcome Collection opened an exhibition called Bedlam: the Asylum and Beyond. It was curated by Mike Jay and Bárbara Rodríguez Muñoz, and it explored the evolution of ideas about mental illness, taking the three historical instances of Bethlehem Hospital — the 18th century madhouse, the 19th century asylum and the 20th century mental hospital  — as starting points for thinking about the institution of the asylum, alternatives to it, and the possibility of rescuing the idea of the asylum in contemporary mental healthcare.

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The final section of the exhibition used the work of contemporary artists to explore the post-asylum world: a complex marketplace, where prescription medications and clinical treatment coexist with spiritual therapies, online support and healing or creative practices. In Shana Moulton’s video work, her alter ego, Cynthia, suffers from Restless Leg Syndrome, and looks to TV, health magazines and spiritual sources for relief. A new commission for the exhibition was Madlove: A Designer Asylum. As part on an ongoing project, artists Hannah Hull and the Vacuum Cleaner ran workshops with people with lived experience of poor mental health in range of settings including psychiatric hospitals. They accumulated thousands of suggestions for how a utopian asylum could look and work, creating an architectural model that expressed this collective vision.

The internet was also of particular interest. For the curator Bárbara, the internet presented conflicting visions for the future of mental health: it offers a platform for peer support and advice but it can also have an alienating effect, obscuring the need for real-life community structures. Personally, I don’t recognise the difference between ‘real life’ and the internet, but I was really keen to work with Bárbara on a digitally-led commission for the exhibition to explore these issues. We wanted something that would complement the final section of the exhibition, exploring the role of the internet in contemporary mental health, looking at phenomena like forums, self-care strategies, and therapeutic communities accessing advice and treatment from different global contexts. We wanted something that related to or manifested itself in networked space in some meaningful way, was aesthetically engaging, possibly involving interactive elements for the user. What we didn’t want was anything that looked like any actual kind of therapy.

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We chose to work with the artist Erica Scourti. Her work grabbed us because she used the internet as a medium, and had made work which was sensitive to how technology mediates our sense of self, and the ways in which we create proxies of ourselves online. The works that appealed to us were ones like ‘Life in Adwords’, in which she mailed her daily diary to gmail, and then performed to her webcam the  advertising keywords which Google suggested.

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The work that Erica created for us, Empathy Deck, is a twitter bot which creates automated responses to your tweets and tries to tell you that it feels the same way. It uses a combination of material: against a collage of Erica’s drawings, there’s  some self-help or healing texts, combined with text extracted from Erica’s own diaries, and a symbolic object, often Erica’s own face. It’s playful and often funny — the idea was not to create a genuine therapy tool, or even anything that could be mistaken for one, but to explore the idea of what an automated empath would look like, a programme that responded to you from its own experience, a kind robot.

We launched Empathy Deck when the exhibition opened, it’s still active and to date has just under 2,000 followers and has tweeted nineteen thousand times. For a bot, people seem to regard it quite fondly, they often fave or reply to its automated tweets. Sometimes it seems like it really does know how you feel. As you can see from the examples, the way it responds is smart, but it’s not using any real kind of artificial intelligence — instead it looks at the text and then looks for a match in Erica’s own text. What gives it its bite, is that Erica’s texts are real, from her diary, not automatically generated like many bots. You might say that the bot is Erica’s proxy and that she really does feel the same way as you, she just got there first.

Another proxy here was the artist, coder and developer Tom Armitage who Erica partnered with to develop the bot itself. This wasn’t a relationship that Wellcome Collection brokered, Erica was actually working in the same building as Tom, but it was one that we facilitated and project managed. Like the other artist and maker relationships it involved both collaboration and creative interpretation: Tom’s code wasn’t ‘clever’ — it didn’t create any kind of artificial intelligence; instead it functioned to produce what others might mistake for a kind of automated intelligence, responding to people with ad-hoc artworks generated more rapidly than a human artist could.

Tom’s code, in the form of the bot, used Erica’s words to say what the museum didn’t have time to say.

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Unfortunately, like all artificial life forms, there will come a time when Empathy Deck has to die. We could keep on paying for the server it runs on, and maybe for maintenance, but at some point the way twitter works will change, and it will break. So, better to shut it down while it’s still working properly, and archive it somehow.

But digital art is complicated and difficult to preserve or archive. A painting or sculpture can be conserved as a physical object, and its pretty much the same thing as it was, even if you move it from a living room to a museum or to a store. But the nature of digital art, that lives on a network, and often involves the participation of many people is a bit trickier.

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We could make a single document of it — we could put all the cards that it has generated into a single multi-page document and make that available online. That would be nice and simple, and satisfyingly completist — we’d have the full set, to refer back to.

But the cards themselves make more sense when you see what they’re in response to. In order to really understand the work, maybe we should also archive the tweets which they reply to. But is this ethical? Would this invade the privacy of the original tweeter? They’re mostly public tweets (they’ve probably been archived elsewhere) but is re-presenting them in the context only of our bot a violation of their confidence?

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We could archive the code of the bot itself, the computer programme that made it run. Tom would probably share it with us. Would Wellcome Collection ever want to collect code like this? It could look messy and strange like this, but other museums have started to think about how to collect digital artefacts and code itself — New York’s Cooper Hewitt acquired an early app as code, and MoMA have just acquired the original emoji character set.

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If we acquire the code, should we also acquire Erica’s original diary text? The way that Tom’s written it, the code and diary text are intimately intertwined. We can certainly take one without the other, but would we really have the artwork itself if we didn’t have the texts that it was based on? On the other hand, to make the text available in any way would also surely be a gross invasion of Erica’s privacy. The bot works by making small amounts of Erica’s text available — we might think that we can see Erica in it, but that’s always an illusion.

We don’t have to make these decisions straight away, the bot is currently having a reboot, so maybe we have time to think about them? But it’s certainly true that when it comes to digital art, the afterlife of projects can be at least as complex as their conception. But here at least we are on familiar territory: the museum remembers what the artist once said.

4. Artists and Audiences

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So, as I was preparing this talk, I was planning to end it here on a rather dry call to the digital archivists of the future, but then something rather wonderful happened.

As part of Wellcome Collection’s participation in the Sick of The Fringe Festival in February, we invited an artist called Busty Beatz, a self described “South African Woman of the Diaspora on Stolen land,  Agent of Social Change and Beat Making Mama”, part of the Hot Brown Honey collective, to stage an intervention in our permanent gallery, Medicine Man. It was called We Are The Latest Models of our Ancestry, and involved an audio and multimedia installation in the gallery itself.#

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It entered into a playful but highly politically-charged dialogue with the contents of the gallery, encouraging the audience to reconsider the collecting practice of Henry Wellcome as an exploitative and colonial one (and perhaps to recognise his fondness for fancy dress in the context of what we now often call ‘cultural appropriation’). Posters by the collective highlighted the connections between the lived experiences of colonised people and the development of modern medicine. Outside the gallery there was a bronzed sponge cake bust of Sir Henry’s head, which visitors were invited to partake of as liberally as Sir Henry helped himself to the fruit of others’ cultures.

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It has to be said that this wasn’t universally popular among everybody, and that there were also some uncomfortable facts to be faced about how our museum made other people feel. Some of us had to check ourselves for how comfortable we were with how uncomfortable it made us feel — it’s better to see this as the beginning of a journey for us into how we think about our collections and displays, rather than the completion of a critique.

And having given Busty a voice to speak in the context of the gallery exhibition, we turned back to social media and agreed with her collective to stage a weekend-long twitter takeover. For the duration of the installation of the intervention, we gave Busty the keys to the main Wellcome Collection twitter account to talk to our audience as she wished.

Our twitter feed is more than just an aspect of our website, more than just marketing. It’s how we talk (and listen) to our audiences everyday. We talk about what we’re doing, we respond to criticism, we offer people ways of engaging with what’s on in the venue and online. In lots of ways, our twitter account is as close to a single institutional voice as you’ll get for Wellcome Collection.

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Half a dozen individuals around the world had access to our account for the three days, and kept the conversations going around the clock so our account would be active at every hour of the day across those three days.

People responded pretty well — there was widespread interest and engagement across Twitter, confronting head-on the colonial nature of much of our collection. Conversations like this are critical for us in opening the doors to this kind of dialogue with our audiences about the responsibilities we have in holding a wealth of multicultural artefacts.

And twitter of course is not just a medium for saying, but a medium for listening, a medium for having conversations. Perhaps what’s been missing in all my previous formulations of Mark Dion’s provocation about what the museum can or can’t say is the question of who’s listening. When Busty took over our twitter account and spoke with our voice, she certainly said things that we would find difficult to say, not only politically, but also tonally (like “patriarchy: what’s up with that?”). But she also found ears willing to listen, and other voices ready to join in the conversation, and take it a stage further.

Perhaps we’ve come a long way since Fred Wilson; perhaps we haven’t come quite so far. But maybe we are now able to say that the artist can talk to the museum’s audience in ways that the museum can’t.

Collecting and playfulness

9 May
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One of the collector cards from our game

We’re working on a big digital project at Wellcome Collection this year (and you’re going to hear lots more about it in October, I promise). We’ve been working in partnership with Brighton agency Clearleft on a process which began with some pretty vaguely-defined objectives for a digital product, and is now in code production.

The project itself and what we’re designing is pretty exciting. But so has the process. There’s been a lot of brainstorming and ideation, with workshops and idea generation sessions forming part of a process in which we come up with lots of ideas, winnow down to the ones that we think will work and are testable, and then develop them.

A lot of these exercises have been quite playful. Not strictly as games, but elements of exchange, competition, scoring and teams have been present throughout. And why should we have all the fun? We wanted to spread the joy, and communicate some of the more playful aspects of what’s sometimes been a difficult project to our colleagues. So for one of our monthly divisional meetings here at the Trust, we devised a game to help us think about one of the subjects we’re tackling in the project: collecting, the history of collecting, and the reasons why people collect things.

We based the game on Alex Moseley‘s excellent ‘Curate-a-fact’, as played by delegates to the Museums Computer Group ‘UK Museums on the Web’ conference last year. But (without even asking Alex) we mixed it all up and added an extra dimension to Alex’s game, making some players collectors and others objects. The rules went like this:

  • There are two packs of cards, ‘object cards’ and ‘collector’ cards; both are blank on the reverse.
  • The cards are mixed with a ratio of about 5 objects to each collector, to a total of the number of players
  • A single card is dealt to each player, face down & site unseen; players turn over the cards to begin
  • Collectors must collect five people holding object cards to form a collection
  • Objects do not automatically have to join a collection: they can look at other objects in the collection & decide whether or not to join that collection
  • Once collected, collectors may trade people holding object cards with other collectors
  • Rogue objects may form collections without collectors
  • Once collections are complete, the collectors must explain why they have collected what they have collected and what the collection says about them.

And here are the two packs of cards we used: the objects (PDF, 6.5MB) and the collectors (PDF, 500KB). The objects are a pretty idiosyncratic bunch: any set from your own collection would work as well.

Funnily enough, when we told Alex what we’d done, he told us that his original conception for curate-a-fact had included collectors as well as objects, but that he found in larger groups the collectors dominated.  With a roomful of about 30 people, we assembled five good collections (including one rogue one without a collector), and found some very enthusiastic collectors. Vanity, recategorisation and repurposing of objects all played a role in their collections’ stories, as they have historically with all collectors.

My main learning from this is that if it was my dayjob to make & adapt games for my colleagues to play, I’d be a very happy man. More seriously, I think that we need more appreciation of the role that playfulness and games play inside organisations both in developing projects and in communicating them. I’d be very interested to hear from anyone else in cultural heritage organisations who have used games and play internally in this way.

What is a ‘science’ exhibition?

23 Aug
Santiago Sierra, 5 Anthropometric Modules Made From Human Faeces.

Santiago Sierra, 5 Anthropometric Modules Made From Human Faeces.

It’s a gift to work with people who know what they want to do and how they want to do it. This is more or less verbatim from a recent email exchange with Wellcome Collection Senior Curator Kate Forde. I can’t disagree with a single word of it. She says:

“I’m committed to producing inspiring and thought-provoking exhibitions that make people think differently about science (and indeed art). I think exhibitions can be life-enhancing and can open up conversations about themes which are sometimes difficult or complicated.

“I believe that the integration of history, philosophy and art in exhibitions that are ostensibly about ‘science’ can help us ask questions about what science is or could be now and in the future. I am basically persuaded by those who argue that science is a cultural practice and I think this is an accessible way in for non-experts to discover more about subjects they may have had little access to in the past. 

“I hope that our exhibitions can give people a sense of confidence and ownership when discussing issues that affect us all and I think the collection is key to this because its sheer scale and variety offers us the opportunity to apply such thinking in virtually any direction. The 3-dimensional objects in Wellcome’s collections are crucial because they can help communicate on another level altogether.”

Gaming the suffragettes

12 Aug
Pank-a-Squith board game. Courtesy Museum of Australian Democracy

Pank-a-Squith board game. Courtesy Museum of Australian Democracy

In a provocative post about museum games, Kevin Bacon asks the $64k question about applying game mechanics to historical subjects. He observes that military and economic history may be amenable to the same kind of rule-based play that made Launchball such an incredible physics-learning game, but that social history is much harder. In short: “how do you tell the history of the suffragette movement through a video game, without becoming crass?”

It’s a very good question, and the women’s suffrage movement is a particularly good example. A contentious cause whose supporters used bombs, arson and violence to achieve their ends, the achievement of which is now regarded as part of our national narrative of progress (in which we acknowledge the role of those militants, a far cry from the way in which the struggle against the slave trade was presented at the bicentenary of its abolition).

So what kind of games can you make from the struggle for votes for women? The National Archives have a game about the suffragettes as part of their online ‘citizenship’ exhibition. A policeman on a bike waggles his truncheon rather nastily and chases a cyclist with a ‘votes for women’ banner across the screen. The player must answer at speed trivia questions about the battle for suffrage and related human rights advances. Answer enough correctly and the suffragette will escape. Too many wrong answers and the policeman catches her, bicycles colliding in an ugly heap. Crass? Perhaps (it’s certainly dull) but I think I learned something about the role of police violence (as ever) in opposing progressive political movements.

That’s about all I can find online. But it turns out that games about the suffragettes are not as popular now as they were then, if we can stretch the definition of ‘video games’ back to include games-as-popular-culture in the form of Edwardian board and card games. ‘Suffragettes In and Out of Prison‘ is a ‘game and puzzle’ produced in 1908. The player must escape Holloway Gaol through a maze, landing on open doors and escaping both policemen and wardresses who will hinder her bid for freedom. It’s simple, cheap, has basic production values and is highly topical. Perhaps ‘newsgames‘ aren’t such a new idea after all?

It wasn’t only professional games-makers who sought to make a game of the battle for women’s votes. In 1907, the Kensington branch of the WSPU (the official suffragette movement) produced a card game called ‘the Game of Suffragette‘ with 54 cards in sets featuring both heroes and opponents of the women’s suffrage movement. The ‘Pank-a-Squith‘ board game, produced by the WSPU in 1909, pitted Emmeline Pankhurst against Herbert Asquith, again on a spiral board. This time, progress was made from the outside (‘home’) to the central goal of the House of Parliament, avoiding Holloway along the way.

Many more games and toys were produced by the suffragettes themselves, for propaganda purposes as much as fundraising, and as Kenneth Florey points out, toughthe ostensible justification for their production was to introduce children to the aims of the movement, many of these toys and games actually were aimed at adults” (ain’t it always the way?). So here might also be some of the modern ancestors of our contemporary Games for Change and Persuasive Games.

But merely pointing out that suffragism entered into popular culture, of which games were a part, at the beginning of the twentieth century isn’t to answer Kevin’s key question, which is how engaging with the idea of the suffragettes and their movement might fit into the ‘pleasing feedback loops’ of actual gameplay without appearing to be a crass bolt-on to a generic game. As Martha Henson and I have spent a lot of time saying, making successful engagement games relies on finding a sympathetic entanglement between how the game is played and what it’s trying to get across.

Cataloguing some of the games and toys of the suffrage movement, Elizabeth Crawford talks about “the translation of the mechanics of the women’s suffrage campaign into board and card games”. But what mechanics? The Game of Suffragette could be played in sides. Collected cards equalled points in the form of votes with which a suffrage bill could be passed: politics played as a balance of forces. One could playfully take a political position not necessarily one’s own in the safety of one’s own home.

The key mechanic of the board games seems to be progress. Whether escaping from jail or making your  way from the ‘home square’ to the House of Commons, the aim is to propel the suffragette forward to achieve her aim. ‘Progress’ towards democratic equality for women forms part of the narrative of both the WSPU and our own historical understanding of the suffragette movement. The satisfaction of a narrative completed and a goal achieved, is embedded in the game board and rules.

Kevin’s right that it’s hard to make all this work in contemporary video games, which are complex to create and to costly to make, and that ‘smaller, more casual games will struggle’ in games’ overcrowded attention economy. Modern technology might well better be employed in making facsimiles of these Edwardian games via colour reproduction and 3D-printed game pieces than in trying to create new video games about the suffragettes. But I think that finding such a cornucopia of historical gaming culture attached to the suffragette movement, and the creation of both persuasive and commercial games in suffragism’s own moment, suggests that the social history might not be such an outlier when it comes to making games.

Seven takeaways from Museums and the Web 2013

23 Apr
Digital curating panel, illustration by Paige Dansinger

Digital curating panel, illustration by Paige Dansinger

I didn’t have any takeaways in Portland; one night I didn’t even eat dinner, and I didn’t get any Voodoo Donuts either. But I did go to some great sessions, meet some great people, and learn some interesting stuff. What follows is personal reflection as much as dissemination; there’s stuff to return to here.

The instrumentality of strategy. I’m writing a digital strategy at the moment. It’s not the most fun I’ve ever had. I’ve heard a lot of people in other organisations say that you don’t need a digital strategy: you need an engagement strategy, a communications strategy, or just an institutional  strategy. But one of the themes that emerged during the session on strategy was the use of digital strategies within institutions as a means of acquiring resources, attention, or recognition. It might seem arse-about-face, but the commonality of the experience (and I can feel the truth of it in my own situation) suggests that it’s not necessarily perverse, perhaps just part of the growing pains of digital departments. Sarah Hromack‘s excellent Institutional Strategy Digest zine launched at the session added a much-needed dose of humour to a topic that’s highly susceptible to pomposity.

Gamification fireworks. In a session variously titled ‘Let the Games Begin‘ or ‘Put a badge on it’, the debate kicked off as soon as the panellists started speaking. Bruce Wyman put the case for a behavioural economics of museums based not on the bottom line of cheap entry and bargains but on meaningful long-term relationships with museums. Sharna Jackson retorted that whatever the merits of the approach, it had nothing to do with games, and that badge systems often lead to karma-whoring behaviour that has serious consequences in situations like the Boston bombings. Kate Haley Goldman (who knows her games) valiantly tried to steer a middle course, but the debate was already spilling out onto the floor and into the backchannel. It was agreed at least that we may be approaching ‘peak badges’. It’s reassuring to see the critical spirit alive and kicking at Museums and the Web, not merely accepting every new innovation that the Masters of the Valley hand down.

Collaboration rules. Both the workshop I ran and the paper I presented were collaborations with people from othe institutions; the workshop with Sharna Jackson, the paper with the redoubtable Suse Cairns. Both were facilitated by the standard suite of cloud-based collaboration tools that we take for granted: gdocs, skype, dropbox. More importantly, collaboration was essential to the development of ideas. When you’re working with someone towards a definition of a shared project, there are many modes in which you can operate. Sometimes you try to write down what you think they’re already thinking (and sometimes fail); sometimes you get to try your ideas out before they’re fully formed; you can take it in turns to lead the process. Most importantly, your paper or presentation goes beyond just trying to fill your audience’s cup with the knowledge you have, and moves towards making and thinking new things.

I curate, you’re irate, we debate. The presentation Suse and I made of our paper on curation was a show of two halves. I tried to outline some art and museum-based models of curation, from Harald Szeemann to Iris Barry, that should inform what people do when they seek to ‘curate’ the plenipotent digital world; Suse offered a set of models from that very world that we might better take cognisance of within museums. It was gratifying that the ideas had some traction – Koven proposed a salon session immediately following, to carry on the discussion. Some of the debate felt stuck at the level of defining expertise; Seb Chan perhaps struck a nail on the head when he said that the difference between inside and outside museums was an question of the scale of the material. The best moments for me were when professional curators from outside the web/tech milieu made interventions stressing the importance of understanding curation historically rather than as a static practice. There’s an itch there that needs to be scratched some more.

Conversation as inspiration. Jennifer Trant always used to say that if you have the option of going to a session or having a conversation with a fellow delegate, have the conversation. I’m not scoffing at that after I randomly fell into a mind-blowing 90-minute conversation with Aaron Cope on Saturday lunchtime that began with Roombas then took in curation, artisanal integers, design chairs, savage modernism, raging at the sky, International Art English, rogue routers and the nature of collections data. Other excellent conversations were had with Annie Conway, Doug Mcfarlane, Ian Edelman, Ryan Donohue, Alan Hook, Oonagh Murphy, Seb Chan, Tim Lee, Paul Rowe, and Dave Patten.

All the world’s a stage. Larry Friedlander’s opening keynote proposed immersion as the keystone of on-site digital experiences. If some of his AR examples were unconvincing, the logic of the argument that in a world swimming in images we need to see anew through strength of experience was watertight. The closing plenary brought Punchdrunk producer Diane Borger to the ballroom via Facetime to discuss the success of Sleep No More as an immersive experience. Though the idea of bringing theatre to museums is undeniably thought-provoking, the MW audience was perhaps conditioned to see theatrical productions in terms of sets: the object as prop. I wonder whether there might be other kinds of less glamourously fictive theatre that we can also learn from, such as the verbatim theatre work of Jonathan Holmes, that begins with some of the same concerns as museums (history, evidence, people) to deliver theatrical experiences.

An arcade epiphany I’ve been producing & commissioning games for Wellcome Collection for 3 years now, but I’ve always had a touch of imposter syndrome about not being a real ‘gamer’, just someone who ‘gets it’. On Saturday night in Portland’s Ground Kontrol (in the company of genuinely awesome games people Sharna and Erica), a retro arcade bar stacked with classic pintables and original video game cabinets, as I aced the first light bike level on the original Tron game, I realised that video games really are and have been my thing. My own embodied understanding of ‘low latency’ is the fire button on Galaga, hammered with a flat hand. Arcade classics like this are islands in my childhood, in the brutalist concrete shopping mall I grew up near, in the strange hotels we stayed at on school trips. But I’m still shit at Donkey Kong.

Finished!

29 Oct
Wordle from the final text of my dissertation.

Wordle from the final text of my dissertation.

I finished my Masters. Completed my dissertation on a laptop trembling on the verge of implosion, handed it in and…. even the expected anticlimax (no mark or overall grade for several months) was anticlimactic. In a few days my library card runs out and I’m back to being a pleb, begging for articles on #ICanHazPDF. In lieu of any tangible sense of achievement, I only have reflections on the experience.

I think I made the right choice of course. Not only because studying bang on the doorstep of work makes it easier to get to the library in the lunch break; I’m glad I didn’t choose  distance learning. There’s something about the immanent presence of other people that makes learning easier for me. People to bounce ideas off, to contradict , to find out more about, with different backgrounds and opinions, make all the difference. There were only a couple of places this didn’t work. The core course was taught by ten tutors in rotation, so none ever really got as far as getting the hang of the classroom dynamic; one other course was taught lecture-style rather than seminars. Facing front, we could hardly see each others’ faces, let alone start conversations.

I’m also glad that I chose an interdisciplinary course rather than a ‘museum studies’ course. The genesis of the Birkbeck course seems to have been a shared interest in something like ‘the problem of museums’ across several departments, rather then being rooted in archaeology or curation (although a lot of it was broadly in the area of art history). It didn’t feel like a museum career course as much as some others I looked at. Nevertheless, as part of the core course we did have to sit through a couple of slightly painful practical sessions on ‘how to get a job in a museum’. If I wanted to ‘get a job in a museum’ I wouldn’t start by doing any kind of museum course – I’d start by learning to do something useful that a museum needs, like being a press officer, a marketer, an educator, a conservationist, or even a website editor.

I was lucky enough to be able to do a module at UEL; Birkbeck organised the exchange of students with another new kid on the MAs-in-cultural-heritage block. How different two London universities can be. From the 19th century cosiness of Bloomsbury to new buildings on freezing docksides, rattled by planes landing at City Airport every few minutes. UEL felt part of a different London: less affluent, less white, less secure. But classes were twice as long, discussions longer and more divergent; sometimes watching entire films. Tutors who were more politically committed, practicing artists. Even the idea of ‘visual culture’ seemed to mean something different, more steeped in an explicitly political legacy of cultural studies, than it did at Birkbeck.

There were some crossovers with my day job – I wrote module essays on the Wellcome Library’s collection of AIDS posters, and on video games. A few colleagues very kindly read chapters of my dissertation. But in most ways, my professional and academic worlds remained separate. Something about being a student made me keen to present at academic conferences, and to extend my thinking about my work into areas closer to my study. In other ways the situation that Suse Cairns describes herself in, the critically engaged museum outsider, was reversed for me – attached to an institution I have a solid but non-academic authority to speak or write about my professional practice; being a postgraduate student changed a lot of my feelings and motivations, but added little to any authority I have to talk even about my own work.

On a mundane level the technology of study had changed immensely since I was last writing academic essays; and yet a lot hadn’t. Literature scrobblers like Mendeley and bibliographic management tools like Zotero make a huge difference to discovering and managing sources, but when it comes to spitting those sources out into footnotes and bibliographies, the limitations of referencing seemed painful. Such fine distinction between different types of printed journal and so little between vastly varying types of online sources (and a feeling, somehow hammered in an academic induction, that tutors would regard too many URLs-as-references as a sign of laziness). I spent a lot of time wishing I could just add hyperlinks to the text.

Writing the dissertation was a lonely business. Weeknights reading until my coffee-bulging eyes defocused; Saturdays spent spreading my papers out across a meeting room at work instead of playing with my son. (Protip for Bloomsbury-based students: work in the Wellcome Library. It’s spacious, peaceful, quiet and free to join.) Academic writing itself has both pleasures and pains. Precision requires discipline: you can’t afford to gloss over fuzzy thought with clever language; but few kinds of writing are worse than essays that have never been read aloud to hear how they sound. One of the biggest pains is that the writing you try so hard at is ultimately read by so few people.

Given the tedious way in which some quarters  of academia never stop banging on about it, it pains me slightly to say this, but twitter was really useful. People answered questions, responded to provocations, lecturers shared reading lists, artists put me in touch with curators, and researchers shared articles I didn’t have access to. An academic I have still never met in person gave me the most useful and detailed feedback on a chapter I had. Sometime I should make a separate list of people that I follow just because I quoted them in essays (based on what they actually tweet, it would be a very odd list).

I find myself asking what difference it’s all has made. I’ve learned a lot, including how to study; but study is really only its own end. Though it wasn’t really intended to, it might have opened up new career possibilities, even if I’m not sure exactly what. I met many interesting people, both students and tutors, and got a chance to put on a film show, which is always fun. Now, after nearly two years, I can read novels again without either guilt or impatience. In the first week after I submitted, I found myself wandering around bookshops and libraries, looking for things to be interested in next. Processing, insects, microbiological images all suggest themselves. But no more essays just yet.

Screening the Museum

3 Jul
Elizabeth Price: User Group Disco

Elizabeth Price: User Group Disco

Screening the Museum, a programme of artists’ film and video about museums, took place at the Birkbeck Cinema on Gordon Square on Friday 29th June 2012. It was programmed by me and presented by Suzannah Biernoff and me, with Laura Mulvey introducing the second session.

The films in the programme all took museums and collections as their subject in one way or another, from the examination and animation of objects to the museum as a site of interaction, to the critique of museum institutions.

The running order for the first session, a compilation of shorts, was:

Mouse Heaven, Dir Kenneth Anger, 2004, 11 mins

While Darwin Sleeps, Dir Paul Bush, 2004, 5 mins

The Phantom Museum, Dir Quay Brothers, 2003, 12 mins

Narrative Remains, Dir Karen Ingham, 2009, 12 mins

Museum of Stolen Souls, Dir Chris Elliott, 1993, 7 mins

Historia Naturae (Suita), Dir Jan Švankmajer, 1967, 9 mins

Monkey King Causes Havoc in the Heavenly Palace, Dirs Cai Yuan and Jian Jun Xi, 2004, 10 mins

Every Painting in the MoMA on 10 April 2010, Dir Chris Peck, 2010, 2 mins

Museum Hours (Preview), Dir Jem Cohen, 2012, 7 mins

Hole, Dir Adam Chodzko, 2007, 12 mins [excerpt]

User Group Disco, Dir Elizabeth Price, 2009, 15 mins

After a short break, Laura Mulvey introduced a fascinating film she made with Mark Lewis at the moment of the USSR’s collapse in 1991:

Disgraced Monuments, Dirs Laura Mulvey and Mark Lewis, 1994, 50 mins

and discussion of its implications continued apace over wine and food in the Gordon Square basement.

Links above to online versions of the films screened are offered in the following spirit:

The difference between watching a postcard-sized, poor resolution image of a film and truly experiencing that film can be correlated to students with seeing a photograph (or photocopy!) of a painting vs. the genuine item. Teach this as a form of media literacy.

which is from Jem Cohen’s The Double {+} Anchor: Notes Towards a Common Cause, a manifesto for the support of independent artists’ moving image well worth reading (we were very pleased to be screening films from LUX artists moving image collection and to have their support for the programme).

You can download the programme notes (pdf).

My interest is (natch) particularly in the work of (experimental) moving image artists who take the museum as their subject of representation. If you’re interested in the broader field of interaction between cinema and museums, check out the programme of last year’s conference Moving Image and Institution: Cinema and the Museum in the 21st Century to see who’s working on what in the field.