SFMOMA: Art of Participation

by tribekat

(That’s odd – a number of my posts got deleted! Strange…good thing I saved this text, but a shame that Nina’s comment was lost…)

I had an interesting evening at the Art of Participation exhibition at the SFMOMA tonight. I can’t believe I waited until the very end of the show to see it.

delayed6One piece in the show reminded me of an Exploratorium exhibit. Matthias Gommel’s Delayed has two headsets and microphones, just like Delayed Speech. But Delayed has about a 5 second pause instead of a fifth of a second. And Gommel’s piece does not include specific instructions or explanation of what’s going on. Those variations translated into a dramatically different experience than I ever had with Delayed Speech. It actually felt like performance. But then again, the context was an art museum, not a science museum.

Space and location does affect how we think and what we do, in an implicit way I don’t always take the time to consider. On the show’s blog I read some thoughts that Rudolf Frieling, the show’s curator, has about rethinking museum space:

“One thing that is really key to this whole project as an exhibition is that we want to explore what it could mean for the museum to be not just a container for artworks, but actually a producer, or a site of production. And we’ve been thinking about the practice of institutional critique many artists developed in the 70s and 80s which in part involved leaving institutional spaces and going into alternative spaces, and the way some contemporary artists work in different kinds of social space, perhaps educational spaces, blurring the distinctions between them. In a museum we normally have a clear distinction between what is gallery space, what is social space, and what is educational space, and this is something that many contemporary artists would certainly want to challenge.”

The Exploratorium is good at posing that challenge. Don’t you notice that trend in lots of museums? Even the most traditional collections-based museums are offering participatory activities that deepen visitors’ experiences. I hope museums that are willing to bend and flex their ways of using space and visitors’ expectations of participation will co-evolve. It seems that the “immersive experience” in which a museum visitor is surrounded by an exhibit can give way to truly participatory experiences, in which visitors determine both process and the product.

The only problem with that idea, though, is that it relies on lots of guidance and interpretation. The best pieces in the AoP show, for me, were the ones in which the artist was also participating. Most of those were on video, like Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece. John Cage actually came to the museum and performed his piece 4’ 3”, which must have been awesome to witness. Just looking at his piano and blank music sheets? Not so much.

At least I visited in time to get a free beer at the final performance of The Act of Drinking Beer with Friends Is the Highest Form of Art. I couldn’t agree more.