What Can We Learn from Digital Artists’ Projects in Museums?

Innovation and experimentation in museums has been a growing topic of conversation of late, and an increasing number of organisations have gone down the path of taking risks and developing new kinds of projects that push the boundaries.  As part of this shift in museums, more and more institutions are working with artists in new ways that go far beyond simply placing their works on the walls.  New collaborative projects that consider the roles of art, artists, and visitors from a fresh perspective are becoming more common. More museums are inviting artists to bring their creative artistic practice to focus on museum collections and on creating new participatory and immersive experiences that actively engage visitors and, in many cases, also interrogate the role of the museum.

While you do hear stories about these types of projects meeting some resistance from within the museum for seeming to be trivial, ‘arty-farty’ or without intellectual content, in my opinion more often than not these collaborative creative projects largely succeed in transforming museums into spaces of curiosity, experience, collaboration, risk-taking, and creativity.

This post looks at the process of working on Decoded 1914-18 as part of the umbrella Wor Life project at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

Between October 2014 and February 2015 Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums and Newcastle University Institute for Creative Arts Practice came together to explore some of the issues and questions surrounding experimental digital art projects in museums, thinking about public practice as well as working with digital artists.  The final project – Decoded 1914-18 produced a programme of AV installations and events that explored the First World War and its effect on those living in Tyne & Wear. Seven artists took inspiration from Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) collections to create artworks and performances which examined and interpreted Tyne and Wear in the First World War in innovative ways. It was a fantastic process and I learnt a lot, and I have well and truly been bitten by the power of AV for visitor engagement.

In an excellent blog post entitled “Do We Need Artists in Art Museums?”, Annelisa Stephan states:

“Inviting artists into the institution … has ramifications far beyond any individual project. Including artists means taking risks and ceding control; it means changing how museum staff work together; and it even means shifting what a museum is, from a space for art to a space of art.”

This is very much something I would agree with after working on the Decoded 1914-18 project.

So here is what I learnt about working with digital artists in museum spaces during Decoded 1914-18:

N.B.

Before I started at Durham University I held the position of the Assistant Digital Officer at TWAM, my role was to work with the Digital Coordinator (the excellent John Coburn) to deliver a programme of digital projects that would innovate digital access to TWAM’s collections and increase public engagement.   Decoded1914-18 was one such project.

 

1. Museums Need to Embrace Risk

Working with digital artists to create visitor engaging projects inside the museum is fundamentally different from, and more challenging than, simply commissioning works of art. It means working collaboratively and bringing artists and creative practitioners into the organisation, and equally involves bringing museums in to the risk-taking of the creative process.

The aim of Decoded 1914-18 was to invite a fresh perspective to discover and reimagine stories and material from museum collections.  The project focused on creative arts practice where museum collections, artists and innovative digital practice merge to create a new kind of digital audiovisual experience.  This collaborative innovative creative practice fundamentally disrupts the way in which museums interact with, and provide for, visitors.   This was no mean feat. Not only did we have an aspirational project to deliver but we were also trying to do it with a difficult and challenging subject matter (the impact of the First World War on the North East), across a range of TWAM venues. It was a risk – and to TWAM’s credit, one it was willing to take. Rob Stein in 2012 suggested that creating a culture in museums that embraces risk is a prerequisite to allow significant innovation to take hold.  A certain amount of risk is always associated with digital projects because they are ‘new,’ ‘innovative’ and ‘cool,’ but there are uncertainties about how much risk is too much risk. How far can the boundaries be pushed with one project and how much tolerance does the museum have? These are questions that all museums are now facing and questions which Decoded1914  tried to tackle in a relatively short amount of time and budget.

 

2. Artists Disrupt the Institutional Voice

One of the most dramatic effect of digital artists’ interventions in museum spaces is to disrupt the institution’s voice, content and collections so they can be seen, reimagined and presented from a new perspective. This can transform the museum from a place of information and authority to one of experience, engagement and curiosity.

For example, one of the Decoded artworks took place in the basement museum store of the Discovery Museum, completely changing the space from a working museum collection store not normally open to the public to an immersive art experience.  This was challenging and involved a lot of risk management but the final artwork was well worth the oodles of risk assessments.  Including artists in the exhibition process means taking risks and letting go of authority, and challenging staff working practices. All good things in my book.

 

3. Friction is a Good Thing

Differing perspectives create tension and friction, sometimes unpredictably so.  But tension can be incredibly good for the collaborative and creative process.  If everyone worked in the same way, it would make for a very boring world. For Decoded we worked with a range of artists and creative practitioners.  I was surprised how much friction there was on some projects, whereas others went smoothly without incident. Now I don’t mean friction in terms of disagreements, misunderstandings or negativity.  It is more of a friction in terms of approach and expectations.  There was a disconnect between museum timescales and artistic timescales.  It was really refreshing to work with varying perspectives on timescales and project management and throughout the process we learnt a lot about expectations around museum collections availability, documentation and retrieval.  Despite some difficulties the friction between artists and museums is really interesting.Our ideas were challenged, tested, and in turn better projects were produced. This is the kind of useful friction that leads to new ways of working.   It highlights the challenges of working in a museum, and particularly highlights the need for museums to evolve their understanding around public expectations of collections access in projects.  Friction pushes all staff and can innovate all areas of the museum, by engaging them in the creative process.

 

4. Adapting and Compromise

Flexibility, adaptability and accepting change became key components of the Decoded project.  The nature of creative practice means that things can change quite quickly and often, for example in terms of what is possible. As a result of such changes, there can be impacts upon such things as collections material availability, installation, and evaluation. There is therefore a need to be able to react quickly to changes to the project, by both the artist and the museum, but also to find the space to accommodate these. It is important to constantly refer back to the aims and objectives of the project, and to reflect. Both artists and museum staff need to become very good at adapting to change and adjusting the process accordingly to match that change.

 

5. Encouraging Dialogue, Provocation and Confusion

By working with digital artists to reimagine museum collections, it encourages dialogue, provocation, and confusion for staff and for visitors. Confusion is a profound tool, because it prompts museum staff and the visitors to ask questions.  Seeing museum collections through an artist perspective has really challenged my perceptions of what is possible when it comes to digital interpretation.  It has made me think beyond text and image and to look at the abstract, the immersive and the noisy.

 

6. Documentation, Documentation, Documentation

Decoded resulted in a two week temporary installation, it was ephemeral by its very nature. It’s not unusual for artists’ projects in museums to be ephemeral, which makes documenting them essential. They are full of lessons that can guide future projects inside and outside the museum, so despite the short nature of the installation, it is important to document the process and the outcomes.   For Decoded we decided to use video to document the process of the project as well as to act as a legacy for each of the Decoded artworks.  This rich video documentation serves as a archive of ideas that can be used as inspiration for future digital projects.

 

A big thank you to all the artists,TWAM and Newcastle University Institute for Creative Arts Practice, and Dominic Smith.  It was a great project!

I’d love to know what you think. What else can we learn from digital artists’ projects in museums? What have I missed? Are the learnings different with an artist in residence project compared to a collaboration for a specific theme? 

 

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