Monday 31 December 2012

A year in reading

Paradoxes and Oxymorons - John Ashbery

This poem is concerned with language on a very plain level.
Look at it talking to you. You look out a window
Or pretend to fidget. You have it but you don’t have it.
You miss it, it misses you. You miss each other.

The poem is sad because it wants to be yours, and cannot.
What’s a plain level? It is that and other things,
Bringing a system of them into play. Play?
Well, actually, yes, but I consider play to be

A deeper outside thing, a dreamed role-pattern,
As in the division of grace these long August days
Without proof. Open-ended. And before you know
It gets lost in the steam and chatter of typewriters.

It has been played once more. I think you exist only
To tease me into doing it, on your level, and then you aren’t there
Or have adopted a different attitude. And the poem
Has set me softly down beside you. The poem is you.


This year I read far less than usual. I lost my attention span for fiction and my appetite for non-fiction. I made up for it a little in poetry, which I could let roll over and through me. The greatest delight? A constellation of friends who would read, send me, even once or twice memorably write for me, poems they thought I would like. And I did.

Alice Oswald Memorial

Like staring up at that tower of adulthood
Wanting to be light again
Wanting this whole problem of living to be lifted
And carried on a hip

This was the first book to blow me away this year - a retelling of the Iliad. Gods and men, nature and death, names, names, names ...

Rebecca Lindenberg Love, An Index

knows she's famous 
in a tiny, tragic way. 
She's not 
after all

This was the first book I bought, after. It is tearsoaked and angry and lyrical, but also in love with words and how they bring us together.

Wislawa Szymborska View with a Grain of Sand

So you're here? Still dizzy from
another dodge, close shave, reprieve?
One hole in the net and you slipped through?
I couldn't be more shocked or

how your heart pounds inside me.

Szymborska was the first of a group of Eastern European poets - Tadeusz RozewiczAdam Zagajewski, Miroslav Holub - that I came to know this year. It's the bubbling joy of her writing (as well as the sorrow and the unsparing observation) that brings me back to her over and over again.

James Schuyler Selected Poems

The green leaves of the tulips on my desk
like grass light on flesh,
and a green-copper steeple
and streaks of cloud beginning to glow.
I can't get over
how it all works in together

I always start with the library book. And I can always tell how much I like the writer by (a) how rapidly the dogears accumulate (sorry, public library, and all your patrons) and (b) how quickly I fire up Book Depository to order my own copy. With Schuyler both these happened fast. Very fast.

Craig Arnold Made Flesh

This collection did such things to me that I wasn't able to write about it. But I shared the exquisite Hymn to Persephone - Then she reached on her tiptoes he was a head taller / and breathed into his mouth the scent of mint and violets - over and over again.

Rosemary Sutcliff Tristan and Iseult

I went back to some childhood favourites this year, for comfort reading - I Capture the Castle has been referenced in endless Twitter conversations, but Mrs Frisby and the Rats of NIMH got another outing, as did M.M. Kaye's An Ordinary Princess and a bit of Mary Poppins and some Margaret Mahy. This book by one of my favourite children's writers was new to me, and its moral complexity and occasional sensuality surprised me.

And beyond, Iseult sat among the piled cushions, combing her hair that was red as hot copper in the smoky torchlight.
She said, “Put out that torch. It has served to guide you to me, and the moon is better for keeping secrets.” And laid aside her silver comb and held out her arms to him.

Louise Erdrich Shadow Tag and Jacklight

Now shadows move freely within me as words.
These are eternal, these stunned, loosened verbs.
And I can’t tell you yet
how truly I belong

to the hiss and shift of wind,
these slow, variable mouths
through which, at certain times, I speak in tongues.

Louise Erdrich punches your heart and then makes you ask her to do it again. I find her brutal and beautiful. The Plague of Doves is nearing the top of my holiday reading pile.

Charles Simic

Could you live in the middle of
nowhere Virginia
could you live as in the game
of tag

live as a bride of no one
the sister of algebra
could you love and remember
and remember only to forget
could you live as a dog without a master

and you do of course you do
with the river the wind and the evening star
your little insomnia their big insomnia
each night clenching your eyes hard
clenching them with a sigh

Could you live knowing nothing
of why and where and how
live as a balmy day in dead winter 
live as the kitchen radio
blaring all the sad old lyrics

and you do sweetheart you do

I read a lot of Simic this year, in collections - Frightening Toys, That Little Something, Classic Ballroom Dances - and online. I found him, despite some initial puzzlement and resistance, slipping into and shaping my thinking.

Mark Leidner Beauty Was The Case That They Gave Me

The woman told me the saddest thing I had ever heard. I told her I loved her because of what she had told me. Her expression soured. She warned me not to love her for her telling me that. She told me it was okay, and maybe even good, to love her – only not for that. I responded that I did not love her for that, exactly, and that she had misunderstood me. I admitted that why I loved her was related to what she had told me, yes, but only tangentially, and was that alright? She asked me to elaborate, so I told her that I loved her, not for the thing she had told me, but for the courage involved in telling someone something like it, something that sad, which seemed to me to be a great deal of courage – and I told her I also loved her, though far less than for the courage part, although plenty still, for the way in which she told it to me, which I explained had been, in all seriousness, eloquent and mesmerizing. She had a small build and at that point she laughed like a flower, wilting and blooming. Her nose was in the center. I decided to show her the river. I picked her up in my hands and carried her, crisscrossing back and down through the steep and elaborate cragwork of the slope of the riverbank. When my feet were finally in the water I looked at her and said, the river is deep, and fast, and it drowns many people, but I still love it. I still love the river, I told her. But I do not love it because it is deep, and fast, and drowns many people. I love it because it runs behind my house, and I have lived above it forever.

The first writer to whom I have sent a fan letter since primary school. And he was very gracious about it.

Robert Leonard Nostalgia for Intimacy

While not all aspects of intimacy are good, these days I catch myself looking back fondly on earlier times, when New Zealand art was a more intensely local discussion, when New Zealand artists positioned themselves in relation to other New Zealand artists, when the proximity of other positions and competing claims seemed more urgent and consequential. I look back at a time of sandpit politics and storms in teacups, when people were at one another's throats and in one another's faces, and so much seemed to be at stake.

This is the only book of non-fiction I have read since Easter. And I adored it.

Friday 28 December 2012

The year in listening

Music was part of my life this year in a way it hasn't been since high school. More space to fill, I think. But also more connections. One of my favourite 'community' moments of 2012 was when many of the speakers at NDF2012 contributed five favourite songs for a conference mixtape. Not only did it provide a soundtrack for my presentation writing, it gave me a lovely insight into many of the people I met at the conference this year.

Like the rest of the world, I lost my heart to Frank Ocean; the sweetness of Forrest Gump, the sadness of Bad Religion (which I can't bring myself to listen to any more), the glossy epic Pyramids and the catchy plaintiveness of Super Rich Kids, the frenzy he caused by covering part of Fake Plastic Trees. But I have a particularly soft spot for an earlier song, Bricks and Steel.

and also for this Odd Future collaboration, White.

Speaking of Odd Future, they've not done much for my language, but they're certainly fun to drive to. Forest Green has been on high rotate on my morning commute.

Falling for Kendrick Lamar is about as original as having a Frank Ocean crush, but 'good kid, m.A.A.d city' is deservedly hitting heaps of year-end lists and I love the Beach House sample Money Trees is laid over.

Angel Haze has been a revelation - young, defiant, raw, and dance-able. Werkin' Girls, New York, Gypsy Letters, but my sing-along favourites are probably the beat-heavy Jungle Fever

And the rather sweet version of Lauryn Hill's Doo Wop (That Thing)

Slower moments have called for the xx, Purity Ring, Grimes, Noah and the Whale - although I've pretty much banned sad music from my playlists, Our Window still sneaks through

Then when I need to bring myself back up, it's the Slate Culture Gabfest's summer strut song from the middle of the year to the rescue, Icona Pop's I Love It

or the windows down and singing along the The Vaccine's Wetsuit

My surprise listening resurgence was 1990s R&B girl bands (I link this, for some reason, to some sneaky listening to Jessie Ware, Charli XCX and Katy B), including some guilty Brownstone (caused by this gorgeous Jessie Ware / Benzel cover of If you love me) and some not at all guilty TLC (because, c'mon, Waterfalls and Creep were my early high school anthems). Bringing the R&B strain back to the present day though, I listened to A LOT of The Weeknd (mind you, with the Trilogy release, there was an awful lot to listen to). Picking a favourite is hard, but let's settle for The Morning

And then slipping in at the end of the year, just in time for my Christmas roadtrip, the new-to-me Wintercoats (aka Melbourne's James Wallace) and the extremely sweet Blood Prints

Wallace also does a rather startling version of TLC's No Scrubs (I swear, once you start listening to them again, they're everywhere).

And finally, and wonderfully, he put me on to pianist and composer Nils Frahm. Frahm's compositions are both intimate and spacious, like standing in the dark night simultaneously feeling so aware of the closeness your own skin and the distance of stars. He's rounded out my year in music beautifully.

Wednesday 26 December 2012

The year in looking

This was the year of the DigitalNZ set for me, and spending sleepless hours sifting through New Zealand's art and photographic collections. Below, some of my favourites.

Monday 24 December 2012

The year in writing

This year, I have written and written and written. To wind up 2012, here is a collection of pieces that I enjoyed writing or were otherwise particularly meaningful.

Three takes on Arthur 
Or, why I was so disappointed by Peter Ackroyd's 'The death of King Arthur'

Getting down with gaming
A joint review of books by Pippin Barr and Tom Bissell

Let us roll all our strength 
Poems from this year's KiwiFoo (one of the most touching hours of my year)

Ladies' choice
Two parables about making your way through the world

How to read a book
Because the act of reading can be an act of living

On the first-dateability of undergrad degrees

Dear Competent 
A love letter to a neglected quality

James Schuyler, Selected Poems
A review of one of my favourite books of the year

Adventures in scent 
In 2012 my perfume obsession continued. On the evening I wrote about here, I added 'Midnight Oud' to my shelf.

Patrick Lundberg at Robert Heald Gallery 
This show was really important to me. Standing in it made the world feel like it might be able to fall back into place again.

Wislawa Szymborska, View with a grain of sand 
The Polish poet has come to occupy a special place in my heart.

A short list for love and joy
Poems that made a difference this year

Where does history start?
A project I want to make one day

Mark Leidner, Beauty was the case that they gave me 
The first poet for whom I have written a fan letter

Craig Arnold's Hymn to Persephone
None of my own words. Possibly the most beautiful thing I read all year.

For the record
Using Over the Net's tweets to pull together a record of the two nights of the Les and Milly Paris Collection auction: part one and part two (warning - will take a while to load)

Dance notation
One of the most exciting nights on the internet of the year

An afternoon with Michael Parekowhai's On first looking into Chapman's Homer 
This encounter meant so much to me.

Black on maroon
Watching the story of the vandalism of the Rothko at Tate Modern unspool online was riveting

Behind the scenes
Because being able to spend time in the collections is a joy and a privilege

Goodbye to all that 
Leaving the language of web development (partly) behind

Going back to gallery land (NDF2012 presentation)
Thoughts on moving back into the art world, metaphors and management, and bringing emotion into the experiences we make (also: A poem, three photographs and another poem, an illustrated excerpt from this talk).

Friday 21 December 2012

John Green - The Fault in Our Stars

From the 'occasional reviews' file


Hazel and Augustus are star-crossed teenaged lovers. It's not feuding families that threaten their happiness - it's the very cells of their bodies, the osteosarcoma that Augustus lost a leg too (but appears to have beaten) and the thyroid cancer that has migrated to Hazel's lung and left her with a permanent nanny in the shape of an oxygen canister.

Augustus and Hazel meet at a support group for children and teens with cancer. Neither is keen to be there; Augustus goes to support his friend Issac, who has lost one eye and will soon have the other removed too. As for Hazel:
I went to Support Group for the same reason that I'd once allow nurses with a mere eighteen months of graduate education to poison me with exotically named chemicals: I wanted to make my parents happy. There is only one thing in this world shittier than biting it from cancer when you're sixteen, and that's having a kid that bites it from cancer.
Augustus and Hazel fall for each other - sweetly, articulately, definitively:
I nodded. I liked Augustus Waters. I really, really, really liked him. I liked the way his story ended with someone else. I liked his voice. I liked that he took existentially fraught free throws. I liked that he was a tenured professor in the Department of Slightly Crooked Smiles with a dual appointment in the Department of Having a Voice That Made My Skin Feel More Like Skin.
As a mark of her liking, Hazel shares with Augustus her favourite book - a intimate and dangerous move because, as she observes, some books are "so special and rare and yours that advertising your affection feels like a betrayal.” An Imperial Affliction is a book about a girl who has cancer, which ends suddenly and indecisively but with terminal finality. It has left Hazel with many hanging questions for its author, Peter van Houten; Augustus woos Hazel by trying to seek answers to those questions.

A third of the way into the book I nearly put it down. As with Dash and Lily's Book of Dares, The Fault in our Stars just felt too damn clever, too manipulative, too arch. Sixteen year-olds just can't be this unbearably eloquent:
“I'm in love with you," he said quietly. 
"Augustus," I said. 
"I am," he said. He was staring at me, and I could see the corners of his eyes crinkling. 
"I'm in love with you, and I'm not in the business of denying myself the simple pleasure of saying true things. I'm in love with you, and I know that love is just a shout into the void, and that oblivion is inevitable, and that we're all doomed and that there will come a day when all our labor has been returned to dust, and I know the sun will swallow the only earth we'll ever have, and I am in love with you.”
They don't get to be this brutally insightful:
“Without pain, how could we know joy?' This is an old argument in the field of thinking about suffering and its stupidity and lack of sophistication could be plumbed for centuries but suffice it to say that the existence of broccoli does not, in any way, affect the taste of chocolate.”
But I persisted. And even though I often felt like I was being Titanicked (i.e. having my feelings played by an expert bowsman) I couldn't help but spend three mornings before work weeping into my pillow as I followed Hazel and Augustus find their love despite it all. There's a running gag between the two about the Encouragements that festoon his house ('True Love is Born From Hard Times'), and the triteness of cancer phrases. Green plays off and against and perilously close to this sappiness and cliche himself throughout the book - Augustus and Hazel are eminently quotable, never more so than when they make fun of the quotability of the cancer world they live in. Yet, just as the book brims with true emotion, the cliches brim with true truth, and it's impossible not to stumble over one or two that burrow down into you. And for me, it was this:
Grief does not change you, Hazel. It reveals you.

Wednesday 19 December 2012

Shoot the walls

UPDATE: So, I drafted this post several weeks ago, before the current kerfuffle around Instagram's Terms of Service. I may wish to replace every mention of 'Instagram' with 'my favoured photo-sharing service'.

The photo above was taken about a month and a half ago, at the Royal Ontario Museum's #instawalk - a day-long event where keen Instagram photographers were invited in to tour the museum, take photos, and share them using the hashtag #instaROM. (You can see a selection of the photos taken here.)

I love this idea. As a sector, we're still sorting out our approach to photography in our spaces and of the objects displayed in them, many of which are not 'ours' but on loan to us, many of which are still in copyright, but also many of which are not. Perhaps rather than getting stuck in gentle flame wars on Twitter and roiling about in policy discussions, we could - like the ROM - try running experiments designed explicitly to invite photographers (of all ilk) in.

The Dowse's spaces are possibly not big enough or grand enough for this to work. The nostalgia-heavy, dramatically saturated nature of Instagrammed filters seems better suited to museum dioramas, dark corners, the old, complex and unexpected. (This also, again, helps get around the copyright factor - gosh, I'd love to organise one of these at Auckland Museum, Te Papa, or Toitu Otago Early Settlers.) But I do love the potential for the social side of this idea - of a photography meet-up at the end of the day, of a slideshow of the images presented in the space (projected out a window at night?), of seeing the building and the objects through the eyes of visitors, of people putting their on stamp on the place.

Personally, I have a bit of a thing about Instagram. It's irrational and ridiculous, but I feel I can't use it because the technology would make me look like a better photographer than I am. Silly, right? But sincere. So I stick to taking my dull, often fuzzy, uninflected pictures. And recently, I've taken and shared far more of these. It's given me a new appreciation for and interest in the way we insta-archive our day to day life (this is something I'm going to explore when I talk about Ben Cauchi's work at City gallery next February.)

I'm desperately looking for a segue between the above and the three images below. Let's go for imagining that rather than discovering Philip George Poppleton's photographs of a 1959 scientific expedition to Campbell Island in the National Library's digitised collections year ago, I had followed along with him in real time. The series is the perfect social media prototype - everything from startling nature shots to haircuts, beer yeast, Christmas pudding and giant cabbages. He would have been an internet sensation - filters or no filters.

Philip George Poppleton, Helichrysum bellidioides, c.1959. Ref: PA12-1425-061. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Philip George Poppleton, Photograph of a lichen (Cladonia species), Campbell Island, c. 1959. Ref: PA12-1426-086. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Philip George Poppleton, Helichrysum bellidioides, c. 1959. Ref: PA12-1425-061. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.

Monday 17 December 2012

Learning to look

Two glowing reviews - Roberta Smith in the New York Times and another on the Economist's Prospero blog (they don't seem to include authors?) - drew my attention to the current Matisse exhibition, Matisse: In search of true painting, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

The exhibition is based on an almost classically simple premise: Matisse throughout his career made multiple versions of subjects, creating pairs or triples or series of works through which he evaluated and revised his painting. The show puts 50 paintings from five decades of Matisse's career into this context, showing how these often seemingly effortless images come from a long process of deeply cosnidered experimentation and adaption.

Smith describes the show as 'one of the most thrillingly instructive exhibitions about this painter, or painting in general, that you may ever see'. "Thrillingly instructive" - not two words you expect to see together, but ones that make me so curious. She continues
The textbook simplicity of this format is irresistible. The visual self-schooling particular to looking at art kicks in, and almost before you know it your eyes are off and running, darting back and forth, parsing differences in style, brushwork, color, detail and overall effect, the expression of emotion that Matisse said he was always after.
Smith praises the exhibition 'forthrightness', which illuminates the process but also lets the art sing. It sounds wonderful.

Saturday 15 December 2012

Flip flop

A few years ago at a National Digital Forum, Andy Neale spoke about the digital/physical cycle; things that move from digital to physical to digital to physical (for example, a photo of a stained glass window posted to Flickr, printed, used to inspire the pattern for a quilt, in turn photographed and put online ...).

I was reminded of this recently, reading Dan Catt's piece Dancing the flip-flop, going by the new aesthetic playbook and devaluing art. Catt takes the phrase 'flip flop' from this piece by Robin Sloan. In it, Sloan uses the video below as a sublime example of the flip flop:
It’s not as direct as the recipes above, but it absolutely qualifies as the flip-flop, and it’s exemplary of the possibility waiting here. Think of each step below as a broad cultural activity, not a specific personal action:
  1. Move. PHYSICAL
  2. Record that motion. DIGITAL
  3. Cut it up. Slow it down. Watch the results. STILL DIGITAL
  4. Reenact what you’ve seen. PHYSICAL AGAIN
  5. Record that motion. Post it on YouTube. OMG

Catt's post includes a smattering of Github, the New Aesthetic and bots churning out endless variations of designs in Zazzle. It's a goodie. And as for that video? It blows my mind.

Thursday 13 December 2012

Cross post

Inspired by John Pascoe, NDF2012 and particularly Sarah Barns, I finally got round to writing up an imagining I have relating to the return of the Maori Battalion to Wellington in January 1946.

Wednesday 12 December 2012

On the radio

Today on the radio I'll be talking about bn exhibition of art that’s no longer ‘art’, a conclusion to the squabble between the American tax department and the heirs of a New York art dealer, and different approaches to showing collections in two new museums.

(Yes. Somehow I ended up talking about cadavers and my history of car ownership. You can never tell where these things will go.)

No Longer Art: Salvage Art Institute exhibition

Review of ‘No Longer Art’ - Slate

Robert Rauschenberg’s ‘Canyon’ goes to MOMA - New York Times

The Louvre-Lens (photos)

The Louvre-Lens (video)

The Novium - Guardian article

Exhibition design at The Novium - Museum iD

Monday 10 December 2012


A few months ago I spent a night in rapt appreciation, learning about dance notation. It is one of the most beautiful mind-stretches I have ever come across.

More recently, a friend shared a link to Tom Armitage's 'Spirits Melted Into Air' project for the Royal Shakespeare Company, which took speeches or scenes from two productions and recorded the paths of actors as they moved around the stage, then visualised these paths through a poster and a laser-cut object. (You can read about the whole process here.)

Spirits Melted Into Air from Tom Armitage on Vimeo.

So I started thinking, casting backwards to that glorious notation for choreography, what about ballet treated in this way? What if I could see the pas de deux from Swan Lake in this way - the traced path of two bodies through space? What if I could then overlay that against the pas de deux from La Sylphide, from the Sleeping Beauty, from the Nutcracker?

What if I could overlay performances of the same work by different dancers? Or show the revisions of the dances over time? If I could see the history of a dance, such as is detailed in this description of the Le corsaire pas de deux from Wikipedia:
Originally presented as a Pas d'action à trois with choreography by Samuil Andrianov in 1915 for a new production at the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre of Marius Petipa's 1899 revival of Le Corsaire. First danced by Samuil Andrianov as Conrad, Tamara Karsavina as Medora, and Mikhail Obukhovas the suitor. Today the Le Corsaire Pas de deux is presented in versions derived from the revisions of Agrippina Vaganova (1931) and Vakhtang Chabukiani (circa 1940), among many others. Music by Riccardo Drigo (opening Adage); male variation by Yuli Gerber; female variation by Baron Boris Fitinhof-Schell; and coda by Drigo. Often other variations are utilized for the female by the composers Anton Simon (in Rudolf Nureyev's 1960 version), and Cesare Pugni.
My mind darted off to thinking about bodies traced through space with points of light, layering over and diverging from each other, rather than flattened paths. At that point, I opened a link on Twitter and an email from a friend within about five minutes of each other, both pointing to this rather extraordinary piece of projection work

All this has made me think that I really want to visit a museum of dance (a brand new desire for me). Visualisation is a term that's used so promiscuously  but I see such potential in the near future for us to bring it into our galleries and museums in really meaningful ways.

Saturday 8 December 2012

Why? Like, seriously - why?

An interesting piece by James Cuno for the Daily Dot has been doing the rounds lately. The web, data analysis software, and collaborative tools offer so much, and yet:
... we aren't conducting art historical research differently. We aren't working collaboratively and experimentally. As art historians we are still, for the most part, solo practitioners working alone in our studies and publishing in print and online as single authors and only when the work is fully baked. We are still proprietary when it comes to our knowledge. We want sole credit for what we write.
Cuno's article was followed up on by Beth Harris and Steven Hucker, in a piece titled “Can I Use This?” How Museum and Library Image Policies Undermine Education. They challenge the restricted release of high-resolution images of collection items by museums and galleries, arguing that
Art historians have accepted the legal overreach by museums, even while admitting the harm done to their own scholarship and that undertaken by their students. Scholars and students have no legal tools to do otherwise—teachers don’t normally have access to a general counsel. In essence, museums suppress scholarship and educational initiatives via a chilling effect. Museums assert layers of restrictions with impenetrable legal language (see for example, a reproduction of a painting by the 19th-century artist Gustave Caillebotte). As art historians want to maintain their strong ties to museums, they often simply forgo publishing an image. The irony is that other disciplines more freely use the 42,500 results that come from a simple Google image search for the Caillebotte cited above.
Finally, a piece I found late last night and have only skimmed myself, but feel is likely to link in: Hasan Niyazi's 'The moment of digital art history?'. It's a literature review and polite polemic aligned to both the above pieces, but also argues for art history being set down outside the academy (in which to some extent I include galleries) through newspaper and freelance blogs.

Wednesday 5 December 2012

"I'm a little bit special"

Until a mention by Suse Cairns on Twitter, I'd never heard of The Novium in Chichester, which was a massive oversight on my part, given I spent a chunk of my childhood obsessing over Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth series (set in Roman Britain) and The Novium preserves a Roman bathhouse amongst many other things. An article in the Guardian describes the local context of the museum (and some local disgruntlement with the new, sleek, modernist building). It includes this interesting quote:
Myles Cullen, deputy council leader and project leader, is proud that a local authority has been able to build a fine public museum despite the recession. The price, literally, is abandoning free admission except for children under three ("Needs must," he said sadly).
Cairns pointed to an article on Museum iD that delves more deeply into the architecture and exhibition display. It's a fascinating mixture of flexible components and the metaphor of the specialness of collection storage spaces.
The design of the space offers the chance to ‘get behind the scenes’. Almost as if it’s been turned inside out, the design aesthetic takes elements from archives and inspiration from the stores at the Fishbourne Roman Palace, also in West Sussex. It plays on the idea of discovering the collections for the first time and getting up close to the object. Archive boxes, forming part of the display cases, and labels in faded colours recalling old-fashioned index labels both add to the sense of gaining a sneak peek into the storage of operations of a museum. Practical solutions including a bespoke, highly flexible mount system as well as cost-effective templates, which facilitate the in-house printing of graphics and object labels.
I'm excited by collection storage. I'm excited by the enthusiasm I see on people's faces when they are in these spaces. And I'm excited about the potential of what The Novium is doing.

Following on from this article, there was a rapid-fire exchange on Twitter. I know some people still find the whole concept of Twitter weird and stupid, but over the past six weeks or so, its place is my life has only been strengthened. This exchange - despite the forays into robot and Princess Bride geekery - felt to me like a condensed panel discussion, raising and stretching and challenging ideas.

Since drafting this post, another interesting reflection on exhibition design has come out. In October this year the Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen opened an exhibition called 'Obesity - What's the problem?'. As they have recently blogged, the exhibition design was stripped back, but also deeply metaphorical - almost philosophical:

... the idea of having intentionally blank sections of wall and floor was one of the very first concepts we discussed during the development of the exhibition. The exhibition spans a very diverse thematic field, running from obesity surgery, through medical treatment, and into current metabolic research. And the actual objects are also very diverse – ranging from heavy surgical machinery to tiny biopsy samples of the human intestine. We wanted to make this complex field of themes and materials more comprehensible by making clean cuts through the exhibition material. Cuts that formally present themselves as spatial gaps, blank walls and the empty back sides of some of the display installations: all acting to divide and structure the exhibition material. 
But whilst we wanted to present the different exhibition themes as diverse installations that are formally – both visually and spatially – self-enclosed, on a more conceptual level we also wanted to make clear how each installation connects to other sections of the exhibition. Or in other words, we hoped to create the sense of singular ‘cells’ that have a function of their own, while at the same time letting the interrelations between these cells shine through. For that reason we have used translucent materials and lighting, to enable and activate the views and pathways across the exhibition space.

(The post has some photos that illustrate this point.) The problem is though that visitors think the exhibition is unfinished. They don't see "a spatial concept that also has a momentary, non-linear rhythm, based around the concept of exhibition voids that in some ways disconnect the material on display, but at the same time establish pauses that enable the visitor to reflect on the connections between this material" - they see bare walls that look like someone ran out of time to finish hanging the show. The Museion is treating this as an experiment in science communication, and 'observing' visitors and their reactions; part of me wants to say 'fix the show' and part of me wants to say 'hold fast and learn'. I'm not sure which is the right approach in this case.

This review of the Museum of Hunting and Nature just came over the transom from Nina Simon. Taxidermy, paintings, antique furniture ... it's the Alice in Wonderland of exhibition installations.

Tuesday 4 December 2012

Listening to the Museum of Emotions

I am so seduced by Stephen Cornford's Binatone Galaxy.

Cornford turns obsolete cassette players into musical objects in their own right. Hung on the wall, they are activated by motion sensors - as visitors pass by, the cassettes begin to play the sounds of their own activity: an ebbing and flowing mixture of clockwork chimes laid over rushing water and whistly warbles.

In a way, Binatone Galaxy reminds me of Janet Cardiff's The Forty-Part Motet: functional objects that release us into emotion through sound. With Cardiff this is beautiful voices, but somehow Cornford teases a wistful, yearning quality out of these blocky lumps of plastic and metal. The piece got me thinking about how how we attribute emotion to inanimate objects and representations of them. Take the 'Faces in Everyday Objects' group on Flickr for example, where members hunt out examples of pareidolia. Or author Sianne Ngai's observation that defining something as 'cute' has the effect of infantilising the viewer, and that:
... just as a child might love a doll to tatters, our absorption with “cuteness” is born of both tenderness and aggression. Something cute is something we condescend to, even as we desire to touch and ruffle and hold and possess it.
These inanimate objects are something I have thought about a lot in relation to my ideas for Emophoto. If it is ever built, I want to seed it with curated sets of content. One would be William James Harding's studio portraits from the late 1800s. And another would be a subset of the product photos by K.E. Niven from the 1960s and 1970s.

Daniel Manders Beere, Steam crane, Gisborne, during work on a breakwater. Ref: 1/2-096270-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand.
Or take this image of a crane, by Daniel Manders Beere. It always reminds me of Kipling's 'last, loneliest, loveliest' - only it is staunch and stern, as well as tinged with melancholy. It's part of a set I am growing called, somewhat facilely, 'Sad face' - images of nothing in particular, usually, that hold a certain pathos for me.

All this makes me muse on my Museum of Emotions idea. One of the thing that has linked particularly moving works for me - Michael Parekowhai, Janet Cardiff, in its own peculiar, heart-twisting way, Binatone Galaxy - is sounds and/or music. Sound draws us in and slows us down. It holds us for a time. It lowers our defences. It opens us up.

(To the side - this New York Times article about 'affect' in architecture and design makes interesting reading in this context; the efficient lines of Helvetica communicates straightforwardness, progress: the warm wooden lines of the Thonet chair merges the industrial with the handmade.)

Monday 3 December 2012

Just lovely

Chalk this one up with dance notation: 'A music-inspired taxonomy of scent offered by English chemist and perfumer George William Septimus Piesse in his seminal book The Art of Perfumery (1857)'.

(Thanks J)

Saturday 1 December 2012

Going back to gallery land - presentation at NDF2012

At the National Digital Forum this year, I gave a different kind of talk to that I usually give. It made me feel unusually exposed, and when I was up on the stage, I couldn't tell whether the audience was coming with me, or watching me in bewilderment (or boredom). However, the way that people responded after the talk made me feel this was worth sharing. So, here goes ...

Going back to gallery land - National Digital Forum, Wellington, November 2012

I’m feeling a little nervous about this talk. I’m quite used to getting up in places like this and talking about topics I know well, or making grand-gesture calls for change, or getting what one friend of mine describes as "all breathy" and aspirational.

In fact, DK’s talk yesterday – the excitement and urgency that radiated in that moment – made me look back over my opening remarks from last year’s NDF.

The Doing Good Shit statement Matthew recalled yesterday came from an article titled ‘What Big Media can learn from the New York Public Library’ by Alexis Madrigal, published in the Atlantic in June 2011. Reading the article – and preparing for Michael Lascarides’ keynote – the phrase that jumped out for me was giving a shit. Madrigal was talking about the tenacity, the bullheadedness, the inspiration and the desire that’s needed for people like us to keep pushing our institutions forward in order to serve the people we are here to serve.

Here’s the relevant quote:
I'm convinced the NYPL is succeeding online because of desire. The library's employees give a shit about the digital aspects of their institution, and they are supported in that shit giving. I mean this in the most fundamental way possible and as a damning critique for media companies.
Those remarks were definitely me at my hand-waving best. This year’s different. This year I’m a different person. And this year’s talk is different: a little more reflective, a little more speculative, and a little more personal than I am used to. But let’s give it a go.

When I originally proposed this talk, I was the General Manager at Boost New Media. I was going to do a talk about being a good client - having sat on both sides of the table, I felt like I had a lot to offer.

Things change. But I promised that talk, so I’m going to do it, hopefully in less than a minute.

My advice for being a good client is as follows:

First. Build a trusting relationship with your vendor. Don’t think of them as vendors. Think of them as the other half of your team. Trust them for the expertise you hired them for. And act in such a way that they trust you in turn.

Second. Be customer focused. I’d love it if this didn’t still need saying, but it does. And it’s not about stopping the logos from getting bigger and the About section from filling up with pointless crud. It’s about using your knowledge of your customers to decide what work you prioritise and how you make the hard decisions.

Finally. The hard decisions are usually around money. Go with a time and materials project on a capped budget. Take your trust and your customer focus, and use these two tools to deliver as much value as you can within the budget you have available.

And that’s it. That’s my best, condensed, advice.

So. Things change. In the time between submitting that proposal and standing up here, life turned upside down, and instead of being about being a good client, this talk is more of an experiment. It’s about floating a few ideas into the air, and seeing how they fly.

Today is my 24th day as Director of the Dowse Art Museum and Petone Settlers Museum. I’ve swapped the private sector for local government, things on the web for things on the wall, Cuba Street for the Westfield mall. I’ve been living in a state of exhilarated exhaustion that I’ve only ever felt once before. Even in this short time, I don’t think I’ve ever felt more challenged or more fulfilled in a job.

I should tell you a little bit about the Dowse. We’re a contemporary art, design and craft museum in the heart of Lower Hutt. We’re a young institution - we opened in 1971, part of a moment in New Zealand’s history when a number of regional centres decided to bolster their identities by establishing art galleries that were both strongly community focused and outward looking. Hence we have a commitment both to listen to and serve the people near us, and to be nationally and internationally ambitious. We’re a team of between 14 and 25 - depending on how you slice it. We’re big enough to do things, and small enough to be nimble.

The leap from running a web company to becoming art gallery director can seem a little unfathomable. Going into the interview process, I had to frame up - for myself to start with, before I could even begin to explain it to others - how six years of working on the web equipped me to run a contemporary art museum.

And it surprised me what I came up with. There are the obvious things. Budget management. Stakeholder relationships. HR. Strategy and planning.

Then there are the less obvious things. Six years spent arguing for engagement, sharing, openness, prioritisation, experimentation, customer focus: this is a mindset that transfers surprisingly well.

When people learn that I have come from a web company, they mostly assume that this means I’ll be good at talking to IT and at making my phone work. And they’re so wrong. I’m not in the least technical.

When I left Boost, I wrote an essay about what I was leaving behind. And the thing I realised I’d really miss - poker nights and dirty jokes and massive tea rounds aside - was the language of the web developers.

I assembled in that essay an alphabet of the phrases and names and acronyms my devs used. Some of these were as familiar to me as my fingertips. Some of them were incomprehensible, and often delightful. When I think about the language of my Boost experience, I see a trail of stepping stones across a fast-flowing river; the stones were the words and concepts I knew, which I’d balance on and jump between: the water was the stuff that was foreign to me, that washed around me and slowly transformed into understanding. I didn’t understand half of what my devs said, and it didn’t matter. In a way, it made it better. The process of wrapping my head around their language, and the areas of creative slippage, were so good for my thinking.

There was an eight week period between applying for this job and starting in it. In that time, I held two worlds inside my head - my accustomed experience of the web world, and my imagined experience of the art museum. And I started to find myself increasingly thinking in metaphors.

Metaphors allow us to understand and experience one kind of thing in terms of another. They are a bridge between the familiar and the unknown. They can be a way to make sense of new things.

And they can also be a way of making a new sense. There’s that notion of creativity emerging from misunderstanding. Artist historian Francis Pound used this when talking about New Zealand artists of the 1950s, who absorbed American Abstract Expressionism through small black and white reproductions. A painter like McCahon looking at a squitty black and white Frank Stella didn’t see texture and nuance. Instead, he saw hard lines and strong contrast.

I found this happening inside my head as I sat surrounded by one world and thought my way into another, mentally shifting from Boost to the Dowse.

One of the metaphors I found myself thinking about a lot was THE STACK. Inside my head, whenever someone mentioned THE STACK, I saw racks full of VCRs. I have a somewhat better understanding of the concept than that, but that’s what I saw.

My Boost boss Nathan advocates that when you start a new project, the first piece of work you do should take you all the way through the stack. Whenever he said this I pictured a bright line connecting the darkest recesses of that rack of VCRs to a person lying in bed late at night with their laptop open.

I started using THE STACK as a metaphor all the time. ‘You need to take them through THE STACK!’ I would urge people when they asked me for advice about how to tackle this or that.

And then it dawned on me that I have my own stack - and that as a metaphor, it can encompass every piece of planning I need to do, every decision that I need to make.

You see, for years I have been presented with diagrams that I didn’t understand that sought to explain the organisation I worked in to me. Cylinders and chubby bars and strange dotted lines. I never took them seriously. They never helped me think.

And then, to my own internal horror, a few weeks ago, I started to draw these diagrams myself. But I drew them like THE STACK.

At the bottom there’s the vision. Why are we here? What are we for? What do people want from us?

Over that there’s strategic planning. Where are we going? How long might it take? How do we know when to change direction? How will we know that we’ve gotten there?

Then there’s what we do. These groupings are still taking shape, but they look a little like this:
  • Collection management
  • Exhibitions and publishing
  • Outreach, public programmes and education
And at the top, at the end of this process, there’s the users.

Or, the audience

Or, people

Or, maybe ... fans.

At NDF in 2009 Nina Simon said every decision should be able to be traced back to your mission statement.

Actually, she said this:

I need to be able to draw a bright line at any time from vision to fans. Every decision needs to go through the stack. Which budget to cut? Which extra-curricular projects to take on? Not just big decisions, small ones too. Is it more important to be on time to a meeting, or to talk to a visitor?

Then I had a slow-dawning realisation. This happens to me occasionally. The ‘Oh, honey. You can be a bit slow, but you get there eventually’ moments.

I realised my stack isn’t a straight line. It’s a circle. It’s a bangle. It’s the fact that our fans and our vision need to be the same thing. That’s how we succeed.

How I will do this, I still don’t know. I mean, God, when you’re breathing the turbid air of administrivia, it’s almost impossible to raise your eyes to this level. But I’ve learned to do it before, and I will make it happen here.

There are other metaphors I’ve been thinking about. About how being a professional visitor to galleries is like being a developer who can’t resist flicking open the View Source screen; you’re always moving between being with the art, and looking at how the works are hung, spaced, lit, interpreted. About how we need non-JavaScript fallbacks in the real world, for people who don’t have smartphones for our QR codes, or English as their first language for our wall labels.

But there is one metaphor I keep returning to.

A friend told me a story recently, after he found out I was changing jobs. He’s a smart guy. And he said he visited a certain gallery after their redevelopment and got so frustrated and felt so stupid walking around the spaces, constantly hitting corners and deadends, that he left. And that he probably won’t go back. And this was a guy who really, really wanted to be involved. He really wanted to feel like this was for him.

We can’t afford to have our visitors feel stupid and wrong. We just can’t.

And we really, really can’t afford to have them feel like this.  We’ve learned on the web to support people, when we or they do something wrong. User experience design is all about trying to make everything go well - and helping correct things swiftly when they don’t.

Our buildings need to be like this too. Our exhibitions need to be like this - subtly, but helpfully. And most of all, our front of house staff need to be like this. They need to be our Fail Whales, our Top 20 Awesomest 404 pages. They need to have the knowledge and authority to do whatever it takes to make sure no-one leaves our buildings feeling like a failure.

[A little sidenote. I have been thinking lately about how hard we agonise over our website homepages. We want them to orient and delight; serve and inspire; be ever changing but also consistent, reflect our personalities and also welcome the visitor in. And then we build museums and galleries where you walk into a space that has a shop, a cafe, a big empty functions space and a person or two behind a big desk. Suse Cairns published a post over the weekend about priming for the museum visit that closely relates to this point, and I totally recommend you read it.]


So far, I’ve been talking about conceptual metaphors - this is like that. (Actually, I suspect I’ve been talking in parables, but let’s run with my chosen figure of speech.)

There’s another kind of metaphor - the non-linguistic. It’s been suggested that this is how art, music and dance work on us. When we hear a piece of music and it makes us feel sad, when a painting unsettles us, when a dance excites us - this is a metaphorical mapping between the art form and our human experience. It is a connection between us and another person, another time, another emotion.

Emotion is something I have been thinking about a lot this year. This year I was torn open. And it was horrific. It was also, in its own way, beautiful. One of the side effects of being for the first time in my life totally raw to the world has been the deeper and stronger way I respond to art.

I cry all the time over books - in the privacy of my own home, on buses, in the street. I weep unashamedly in art galleries. When Michael Parekowhai’s Venice Biennale work was installed upstairs, I sat against those long white walls and I listened to people play that red piano and I let the tears fall down my face. When I visit Auckland Art Gallery and I sit in front of Are there not twelve hours of daylight? I let myself go in a way I would never have had the impulse or the confidence to do before.

I recently read an article about Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate. Talking about what’s happening at the Tate Modern in particular, one of his peers, John Elderfield, said that we’re now seeing a period of radical change in how people use museums.

He was quoted saying: "It's not only about looking closely at works of art; it's moving around within a sort of cultural spectacle. I have friends who think this is the end of civilisation, but a lot more people are going to be in the presence of art, and some of them will look at things that transport them."

This quote jelled with some things I’ve been thinking about for a while. One is a thought that goes back years, to a day when I heard a commentator on Radio Sport talk about a rugby game in terms of spectacle. He didn’t mean this in a ‘what a total freaking disaster’ kind of way. He meant it as an event designed for the viewers, built around a physical contest between two opposing sides. It made me realise that ‘spectacle’ does not have to be a dirty word. It can mean an event or experience that is carefully crafted to evoke a reaction. That reaction does not have to be dictated, but the expectation is that the viewer or participant will be aware that they are in a moment. 'Spectacle' in this sense means memorable, meaningful, moving.

The second is a feeling - a questioning - that I have. I wonder if we have become a little timid. Our visitors are hungry for experience. I want to explore what it might mean to have more emotion in our museums. To have more personality. To have more connection - between our visitors, our staff, our artists.

This desire is the kind of thing that makes me daydream. I want to end this morning on two of my daydreams.

The first is my Museum of Emotions.

My Museum of Emotions started with an uneducated observation, based on a bunch of books I had been reading. It was about how men used to (say, up until the early 20th century) have intimate friendships with each other - close, even impassioned, correspondences and conversations - that operated outside the domestic and sexual zone of wives and mistresses. And that today, this intimacy seems lacking in the lives of many of the men I know.

I had been thinking about how our language has become impoverished. How we have fewer words for love, for friendship, for our feelings. How words have become watered down over time - words like melancholy or chivalry once had entire schools of thought built around them, rather than meaning ‘a bit depressed’ or ‘holds doors open for women’. And when our language is impoverished, our ability to describe or share or face our feelings is likewise diminished.

The Museum of Emotions is not about collections, civic pride, or community involvement. It is a place you can go to to experience emotions that have fallen into disuse, emotions that are foreign to your workaday life, or emotions that have not been part of your life yet.

It’s not a place to learn about emotions. It’s a place to feel them. I had a conversation with Michael Edson about this idea. He talked about a museum where you programmed exhibitions and performances explicitly designed to elicit emotional responses. I talked about a room that you went into where someone would radiate an emotion towards you, like perfume rising off warm skin.

So whether this is through art in its various forms, or through some kind of speculative Matrixy-Minority-Reporty magic, I don’t know. This idea is probably not realistic. But as a metaphor for dreaming about the kind of experiences I want to create for people through my life and my work, it's invaluable.

My second daydream brings us a little closer to the normal themes of NDF.

Anyone who is kind enough to follow me online will know I’ve gone a little bit crazy for Digital New Zealand’s set-making functionality. It wasn’t my idea at all, but I was involved in the implementation of sets, and I’ve become an avid set maker.

I make sets for a number of reasons.

I make sets related to projects that I want to do in the future - they’re a way of gathering together and quickly annotating items, usually artworks in public collections.

I also make sets as a way of exploring an idea or a thesis. For example, I recently made a set of nearly 100 items, triggered by seeing an exhibition of new work by Peter Robinson and finding myself thinking really hard about what felt like to me “1990s” art. I used DigitalNZ to sift through public collections and pull out works that spoke to me of this period, a decade that seems characterised by a new consciousness or self-consciousness: of our art history, of our place in the world, of sexuality and the body, ethnicity and identity, language and communication, of how art is made, framed and disseminated.

I make sets to accompany blog posts and to pull together galleries of images for the spots I do on Radio New Zealand - I can do this more quickly on DigitalNZ than I could if I contacted the institutions individually and asked for permission to reproduce their works on the RNZ website.

And I make sets to amuse friends, as private/public gifts, and because I find myself moved by what I see as I pore through this treasure trove.

I also pay a lot of attention to the sets other people make. At the moment, there is no way to search for sets on the DigitalNZ site, or to see sets other than those presented on the homepage. If you want to find them, you really need to follow set makers on Twitter and jump on the links they send out. The little DigitalNZ Fan Club tumbler I set up was a work-around for this problem - a way of finding and sharing these sets. Of course, this is totally reliant on me being dedicated enough to keep adding to the site, and I can’t thank Donna Robertson enough for sharing my love for these things, and also sharing the load - unprompted - of adding them to the site.

I have a little extra insight into the public sets (for which I am very, very grateful). I am fascinated by the overlaps I see between the sets. For example, sets of images of people reading are popular - set makers tend to be bookish types. There were two early sets that contained almost identical items - one titled ‘Woman on left, leaning on table’, after the cataloguer’s description that helped aggregate them; the other titled, simply, ‘Elbows’. A friend and I both made sets, entirely independently, months apart, of images associated with safety campaigns.

There is, I think, a kind of meaningfulness that accrues to images as they are repeatedly collected. In a way, the restricted ability to see other people’s sets gives a kind of purity to this data. It’s not just the same few popular images - say, Eric Lee-Johnson’s laughing kitten from Te Papa’s collection - being used over and over again. When an image is added to multiple sets, it is more likely to be - I think - because it has an intrinsic quality that moves, intrigues, or tickles people.

Of course, having seen this, I want more. I want to see which images are the most-collected. I want to see, when I’m on an item landing page, all the sets that that item belongs to. I want, when I’m looking at someone’s set, to be able to suggest further additions. I want to make sets collaboratively. I want someone to play with the set data and see if there’s any kind of pattern to which items are popular with set makers. (i’m going to give you a hint. The bigger and more luscious your images, the more likely you are to get set love.)

And I want more than that again.

For a long time I have been frustrated that I can’t search our collections by emotion. Cataloguers record a factual description (‘Boy, aged approximately five, wearing woollen pullover and crying’) but rarely emotional tone or content (‘Boy, aged approximately five, wearing woollen pullover and crying with frustration’). But I want to type happy or sad or loving or bored or awed into a search box and get a stream of results.

So, I want to source emotional interpretations of historical photos, and then let people play with the data.

This is how kind of how I see it working. There’s a wagon wheel - a little like a colour picker - with the names of emotions around the circumference, each allocated to a shade. The colours are paler towards the centre (the centre is kind of emotionally boring) and deeper towards the edges; the edges are intense emotions.

Images are presented alongside the emotion-picker. And people drag and drop each image onto the emotional zone that seems appropriate for it.

Then we take this metadata, and we use it not just to power search, but also to present the emotional attributes alongside each individual photo.

Maybe this is shown as a version of the emotional wheel with each data point on it. Maybe it’s as little colour samples complete with their closest emotional descriptor, so you can see the shades and strengths of associations. Maybe it’s as pie graphs – this image has been rated as 100% happy, as 50% bored and 50% lonely, as 90% joyful and 10% dangerous. Who knows. It’s good to have some things to work out.

Anyway. That’s just on the screen. Then I want it out in the world.

I can imagine displays where the emotional spectrum is presented as a long horizontal stream, with the images floated over the slowly-changing colours. I imagine curating a show based on the emotions that you see emerging in your collections. I imagine an experience that plucks out the most emotionally divergent images, and tries to draw out why they move people in such different ways. I imagine people making things that blow my mind.

Note - I am keeping this post just as I gave the talk, but I also wrote an illustrated and slightly extended version of the following section, which includes the full Charles Simic poem quoted above. 

There’s something else that keeps me returning to this idea. Let’s go back to the DigitalNZ sets again. I have a set called ‘You Move Me’, which is mostly just for me. It’s not a set I’ve ever publicly shared. It brings together images that do just that - that move me.

Some of them are easily parsed. Colin McCahon’s Scared, for example: the stark, brave statement in white paint flung against on a black background: I AM SCARED. I STAND UP. Ian Scott’s joyous, sexy, carefree Leapaway Girl. A photo from 1905 of three blind old men in matching beards, pipes and uniforms, sitting on a bench on the verandah of the Ranfurly Veteran’s Home. A man and a woman kissing at the Wellington Railway Station, watched by the partial profiles of two soldiers.

Then there are the items that are less explicit. There is a photo I feel great tenderness for. It’s by John Pascoe, and it’s from 1943. It shows Laurie Walker, the owner of Manuka Point Station in the South Island, standing in profile, head bent over his hands, reading a letter. Next to him stands his horse, also in profile, patiently waiting for him. It is so quietly reflective, so peaceful, so intimate, and when I look at it I hear the silence of my childhood, sitting in a paddock in the middle of nowhere, no-one else in sight, reading my book, waiting for my father to come back from wherever he’d gone and collect me.

There’s an image that I find endlessly forlorn. It’s so bland, when you describe it: it’s a photograph, taken in about 1935, documenting a pothole on Molesworth Street. An empty section of street, the bottom part of a row of shops, and a pothole. But I feel this wave of loneliness whenever I look at it.

And there’s a 1950 photo from the Evening Post that I find incredibly romantic. It’s titled, simply, ‘Man and bird’. It shows a young man, his hair ruffled by the wind, wrapped in a trenchcoat, in Evans Bay here in Wellington. In the background, there is an overturned bicycle. And in his arms, he cradles a huge, powerful dark bird.

Every time I look at this photograph, I think of Richard Brautigan’s ‘The Castle of the Cormorants’:

Hamlet with
a cormorant
under his arm
married Ophelia.
She was still
wet from drowning.
She looked like
a white flower
that had been
left in the
rain too long.
I love you,
said Ophelia,
and I love
that dark
bird you
hold in
your arms.

These are all intensely personal reactions. They are me feeling myself into the images. This is metaphor in action.

And the point of this little diversion into my feelings is this. I still don’t know what my prompt for Emophoto is. I don’t know whether I want to ask What emotion do you see in this photograph, or if I want to ask What do you feel when you look at this photograph. These are intensely different questions, and would lead, I think, to entirely different results.

At the moment, this indecision doesn’t really matter. This idea is pure daydream. I’m not like Chris and Tim -- I’m kind of talentless. Or ... skill-less. If I was still at Boost, I could probably cajole Emophoto out of a couple of the guys. As it is, it’s living in a set of sketches and a Google doc that I visit occasionally to remind it that I still care. And now it’s out here, to see whether anyone else finds it interesting.

So that’s where I’m at. I had a bunch of other things I thought about talking about this morning. About how metadata is a way of turning looking into seeing (thank you Petra for giving me this phrase).

About the notion of the sensitised or sensitive museum; a physical space that senses your behaviour and shapes itself around you, about data-driven curating and push-notifications and those freaky gloves that record your pulse and skin temperature as you look around exhibitions.

About how much harder it is to tweet when you’re an art gallery director than I ever thought it would be, even when - perhaps especially when - you’ve been bleating on about openness for god knows how many years. This subject is even brighter in my mind after reading the notes from the director’s roundtable at the MCN conference.

In this session Janet Carding, director of the Royal Ontario Museum, described their new website. It’s designed to democratise staff access: every staff member will be able to blog or tweet without moderation. Carding herself joined Twitter to model behaviour for staff and move things forward; in the session, she asked for tips about blogging because she needs to start doing this too.

This is quite a usual pattern - directors taking on new technology at the behest of their staff, leading through doing. But I’m a little unusual right now. I’m the first person since the 1970s to come from the private sector to run one of our art galleries. I think I’m the first person to come from a web background - with all the things that means, all the things we come here each year to celebrate and question and reinforce - and run one of New Zealand’s cultural institutions. I’m possibly the first person of my generation to do this, the first of the people who are comfortable with living their lives - or some carefully curated version of it - online.

So, I tweet. I blog. I radio. About art and artists and art institutions. All the time. A lot. But now the personal and the professional are smashing up against each other. I don’t have the safety net of putting ‘My views are personal and not necessarily those of my institution’ on my twitter bio, because they are both.

Talking about my job and my team - talking about art  - which are things I love doing, which are the things that make me happy, which I kind of think is the purpose of my job - has suddenly become a little dangerous; not just for me, but for my organisation. The risk of putting a foot wrong and standing on a landmine I was completely unaware of is actually quite real. And it’s nerve wracking, and it feels very isolated at times, and yet I will not stop.

Because I firmly believe that this openness - scary as it can be - is one of the most powerful and scalable ways we can be friends with our fans; that other half of my bangle.

So. I have a bunch of things to talk and think about, and I’d love to do that with you all. But for now, I just want to say thank you. Not just for your time and attention this morning, but also for being the community you are. Someone asked me yesterday if it was weird being back here, given my new job: I told them I felt like I was back with my people. So … thank you all for being you. I hope you all enjoy the rest of the day.