museums, reddit, and vernacular criticism.

A quick blog post, but a fun one. Last week, Mia Ridge suggested ways to search for your museum (or personal) website’s mentions on various corners of the internet. For example, to search for your museum on Reddit, you simple plug in your URL in after /domain/:

http://www.reddit.com/domain/designmuseum.org

I thought this was a neat strategy to see what folks around the world are saying and sharing about museums. I decided to compare the listings for three New York museums: the Museum of Modern Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Brooklyn Museum.

A glance at the Reddit results reveals that most of the posts are reactions to collection objects. People share images they find powerful, mesmerizing, and creepy. They inquire about how an artist made a work or whether they should attend a show. Others debate developments in the museum world, chiming in with opinions on new graphic identities and what a museum should (or shouldn’t) collect.

I think this is a fantastic way to find out what people are saying about your cultural institution (are #musesocial folks already on this?), and it’s something that museum staff beyond PR and marketing teams could profit from. Reddit, along with other platforms like Wikipedia, Google Webmaster Tools, Pinterest, and Twitter, are a record of the discourse around a museum and its collection. Education folks can witness how engagement with art continues outside of the galleries; curatorial staff can take note about what riles up their audiences. Not that I don’t have plenty of research projects on my plate, but I think it would be fascinating to do a virtual ethnography of online discussions about art museums, exploring what pique participants’ interest, intellect, and ire.

The Reddit search results also reminds me of a recent, excellent piece by Brian Droitcour, who moonlights as an Elite Yelper focusing specifically on galleries and museums. Two years of penning these short reviews has opened Droitcour’s eyes to the power of what he calls vernacular* art criticism:

Yelp does a lot of things, including a number things that make people hate it. But one thing it does is provide a platform for vernacular art criticism, a different kind of writing about art and the public spaces where it is seen. Vernacular criticism can reject the guidelines set by cultivated artistic tastes, or it can guilelessly speak in ignorance of them, or in its naive fascination with them can inadvertently expose their falseness. Vernacular criticism is an expression of taste that has not been fully calibrated to the tastes cultivated in and by museums. Vernacular criticism inscribes bodies in public spaces that would otherwise erase them.

In Droitcour’s point of view (and mine), laymen have the potential to be incredibly insightful critics of the museum. His writing hints that it might behoove museums to start looking at these vernacular web platforms, because they reveal quite a lot about a visitor’s experience at the museum, even (or especially) when the account hardly mentions art:

Even reviews that don’t detail responses to art offer frank facts about the bodily experience of being in a museum that professional criticism tends to omit.

“Exhibits are hidden in rooms and there are no signs to direct visitors. I was informed that signs are aesthetically ugly and I should write a letter to express my opinion,” writes Iris S. in a three-star review of MoMA. “One final observation. Women’s bathrooms don’t have tampon machines. I was told that it’s because it looks ugly!”

Yelp reviews like these are a reminder that museums tend to subjugate concerns of the viewer’s body to things like sight lines, the production of meaning through juxtaposition, the interaction among isolated works of art. To museums and their curators, the social space produced by the people’s encounter with artworks, or the needs of a body in between its encounters with art, are secondary.

*My guess is that the “vernacular criticism” here stems from McLaughlin’s concept of vernacular theory. It’s worth reading the intro if you can get your hands on it.

some structures in santa cruz.

MIT at la biennale di venezia.

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Kuwait pavilion [curated by Alia Farid, graduate of the former Visual Arts Program at MIT, now Art, Culture, and Technology]

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Dominican Republic pavilion [fantastic intro text by Junot Diaz, professor in CMS/W]

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Elements of Architecture exhibition—”Fireplace” [featuring the MIT Senseable City Lab] 

[all photos mine except the last one, which is from here]

european adventures begin.

Hi folks—for the next two weeks, I’ll be hopping around Europe for some pretty exciting adventures. First stop:

Venice! In fact, I just stepped off the vaporetto and onto the Floating City about an hour ago. I’ll be here for four days, exploring the sites, sounds, alleyways, and canals. I’ll also be checking out the Venice Biennale for architecture, and in particular Kuwait’s pavilion, Acquiring Modernity. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, the Kuwait biennale team took us under their wing when my class visited them in March, and in exchange, we learned all about their project. I’m excited to see the culmination of a year’s worth of planning!

Lausanne, Switzerland. Lausanne, a small city looking onto Lake Geneva and the Alps, is why I’m in Europe in the first place. I’ll be here with colleagues from HyperStudio—my lab at MIT—and we will be at the Digital Humanities 2014 conference. I’ll be helping the team out at a workshop on Annotation Studio, our open, collaborative online annotation platform. Additionally, fellow research assistant Liam Andrew and I will be giving a short paper called “Rethinking Recommendations: Digital Tools for Art Discovery.” You can read our abstract online.

And finally, the Netherlands. A good friend of mine moved to Utrecht in January, and I’m excited to see what his life is like there. I’ve already bombarded him with a long list of art/architecture things we need to visit, including the Rijksmuseum, the Stedelijk, the Van Abbemuseum, the Schröder house…any and all recommendations are welcome!

on language, nationality, and the Gulf.

As a student in a media studies program and a former museum person, I often say my research focuses on art and technology. What I’ve realized in grad school, though, is that I’m more interested in people than anything else: it’s the relationships people have to art and technology that get me going.

It’s no wonder, then, that I’m drawn to the qualitative methods of ethnographers. Over spring break, I had the chance to go to Kuwait and Qatar with my Public Art class, and I decided to try my hand at participant observation while I was there—taking field notes, documenting interesting sights through photos, and learning through informal conversations with local residents. In both countries, we were lucky to have exchanges with groups of students, scholars, and artists. In Kuwait, we were taken under the wing of the team that curated this year’s architecture pavilion at the Venice Biennale (more on that soon: I fly out in a few days to see the exhibition!). In Qatar, we met with a group of professors and students at UCL Qatar.

Some of the best moments occurred when in situations in which taking notes would have been be conspicuous, disrespectful, or awkward. Riding in the cars of our hosts, we had many great conversations on things like childhood, family, and what it meant to be Kuwaiti. Instead of risking ruining the mood by busting out my notebook, I would try to jot down thoughts when I returned home at night. However, a few days into my stay in Kuwait, I felt like there was some kind of disconnect between what I wrote into my notebook and the thoughts lingering on my mind. When I sat down to try to capture these thoughts on paper, I found it hard to articulate these feelings into words. I wonder if an ethnographer always feels this way: that the medium we choose to express our ideas—words—can ever fully match the ways we think about the subject.

But if language, at times, seems insufficient in relating my experience to others, it also became a key to gleaning a deeper understanding of Kuwait. In “How I Learned What a Crock Was,” one single word allowed Howard S. Becker (my sociology hero) to glean insight on the culture of medical students. But it didn’t happen through a breakthrough “ah-ha” moment that researchers often talk about. Back in the fall of 1955, Becker was shadowing a cohort of future doctors during their hospital rotations when he heard a student say, “Boy, she’s really a crock!” (as in, “crock of shit”) with regards to a talkative patient with many complaints. Becker probed the student’s word choice of “crock” further, asking questions like “What’s a crock?” and later asking if further patients would be considered crocks. (I’m tempted to get into the whole story, because it’s that good, but I’ll refrain for the sake of brevity. But go read it!) Becker unraveled multiple meanings in that one little syllable, revealing beliefs and assumptions of the medical profession. 

In the Gulf, I had a similar experience. On the morning of our first full day in Kuwait, I found myself in conversation with three members of the Biennale team, all of whom I had only met an hour earlier. I asked the group, “What do Kuwaitis do?,” hoping to get a general sense of the country’s industry and economy. Their response: most work in the government. The country’s residents pay virtually no taxes; instead, the country makes money from oil production, which has been nationalized since the 1970s. Thus, government workers’ salaries are all indirectly indebted to the oil industry. They also explained that people are encouraged to work in the private sectors; those who choose such a career path receive a stipend from the government, which essentially amounts to a second salary.

I later learned, however, that this schematic only applies to Kuwaiti citizens, who make up 55% of the small country’s population. Foreigners are not entitled to the same kinds of government jobs that Kuwaiti citizens are guaranteed—nor do they receive many other benefits, such as access to public school. Additionally, nationality is only passed down patrilineally, and granting citizenship to foreigners is virtually impossible. When I had asked the question “What do Kuwaitis do?,” I had meant to ask what do people living in the country do, but their response reflected the stricter delineation of nationality that pervades the country and much of the Gulf.

I soon found other ways in which members of the Biennale team and I used language differently to discuss nationality. They often used the term “expat” in conversation: one person found “that the expat community makes the best use public space in Kuwait City.” To me, “expat” connotes affluent, often white people who live abroad. But for the members of the Biennale team, the term referred to anyone who was a non-Kuwaiti citizen, and more specifically, to the large migrant community—often originating from South Asia—who made up the service and labor force in Kuwait.

As the trip progressed, I strategically crafted my questions, choosing ambiguous language to test out hypotheses. In Qatar—where less than 15% of the country’s population is Qatari, and the country’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of this group—I was careful to use the word “locals” when I asked “How do locals react to the new push to bring contemporary art to Qatar?” My respondents—a group of mostly foreigners at a university, with only two Qataris in the room—interpreted “locals” to mean Qatari citizens.

Just as Becker had found, it was the slow decoding of language—rather than a single eureka moment—that allowed me to glean a little insight. Sure, we all spoke English. But by delving into these tiny words that held so many different meanings, I was able to (begin to) untangle how nationality was constructed and understood in the Gulf, a perspective different from what I was used to.

announcing museum making: a research project.

This summer and through next May, I’ll be hard at work on my thesis research project, Museum Making: Creating with New Technologies in Art Museums. Over the past three years, art museums have launched initiatives inviting audiences—from casual visitors to professional artists and technologists—to take the reigns of creative production and experimentation with new technologies. Hackathons, startup incubators, labs, 3D printing workshops, and maker spaces are just some of the offerings that fall under museum making. From the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Media Lab to the Peabody Essex Museum’s Maker Lounge, I’ll be investigating how these initiatives have emerged and the impact they are having on communities of creators.

While many types of cultural and learning institutions—especially children’s museums, science museums, and discovery centers—have long incorporated making and creative technologies, my research primarily focuses on technology initiatives at art institutions. Among other things, I’m interested in exploring the implications of museum making on concepts of aesthetic value and creative production.

Museum making initiatives have only been adopted in art museums in the last few years. I believe this research project is an excellent opportunity to trace the historical precedents of these initiatives, while also observing how museum making develops and imagining its implications for the future of cultural institutions. Although this is a specific movement happening right now, the debates around it address broader questions: How do change and innovation happen in cultural institutions? Who gets to make cultural and art objects? And who gets to bestow aesthetic value on these new forms of art?

I launched a blog to share my thoughts and progress as I delve into my research. Over the next few months, I’ll be reading, writing, attending museum tech events, and talking with participants of these programs. If you’re involved in creative technology at a museum in anyway, or just generally interested in the subject, let’s talk!

almeida and art in america.

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Instead of providing immediate aesthetic pleasure, Almeida’s works are rich with layers that need decoding, and her sketchbooks serve as the key for doing so. On the cover of one of the books, the artist pasted what look like images of bejeweled medieval artifacts: a chalice, a disk (or is it a plate?), and a pitcher. These are the same motifs that are silhouetted, obscured or erased in Silver Screen and Forward/Play/Pause. In another sketchbook, precisely rendered streaks of blue ink call to mind refracted light rays. The drawing may suggest a mathematical model, but its deep, consistent color signals that the sketch is anything but a simple reflection of the physical world. 

For the May 2014 issue of Art in America, I wrote about Sonia Almeida at MIT’s List Visual Art Center. Pick up a copy at your local bookstore or check it out online.

annotation station.

In the digital humanities, we often talk about how we can use technology and big data to accomplish what Franco Moretti calls “distant reading” of literary, historical, and artistic texts. But Wyn Kelley uses Annotation Studio, our web-based, collaborative annotation application, to engage her students in close reading and writing. (source)

Over the last few months, my lab, HyperStudio, has been hard at work on our collaborative digital annotation tool. I’m currently working with a few colleagues to assess the use of Annotation Studio in undergraduate classrooms at MIT. We’ve discovered that educators and students alike use the tool in really diverse and unexpected ways. I edited the video above of the wonderful Wyn Kelley describing some of her strategies to get students to read closely and develop their writing skills. You can also check out the companion blog post I wrote on HyperStudio’s website. 

investigating identity on MoMA learning.

For me, contemporary art is at its most powerful when we can connect our own experiences and histories to an object. During my tenure at the Museum of Modern Art, I wrote a theme for the MoMA Learning website called “Investigating Identity,” now available online. In this theme, I delve into works that simultaneously celebrate one’s identity and question why we align ourselves with certain labels; art that can be highly idiosyncratic while at the same time expressing universal concepts; artists who bravely make material their personal stories, fears, and hopes. I was even able to squeeze a little feminist theory in there (in, hopefully, down-to-earth language): a little bit o’ the construction of gender, a dash o’ intersectionality. I’m hoping that art can be a vehicle for getting people to question our assumptions about the world and about ourselves. Happy exploring!

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adventures in the Gulf await.

In three hours, I’ll be on a leaving on a jet plane…heading to Kuwait and Qatar! I’m currently enrolled in a class called Seminar in Public Art: Spatial Cultural Identity, part of MIT’s Art, Culture, and Technology department. We’re taking a comparative look at the intersections of public space, art, and culture in Boston, Kuwait City, and Doha. I’ll report back here about my adventures. You can also follow my exploits on Twitter.

Irrational thoughts should be followed absolutely and logically.

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