Wednesday 30 December 2015

Growing on me

A friend sent me a link just before Christmas to something I'd missed earlier this year - the NYT 'walkthrough' of Matisse's cut-outs at MOMA.

I'd be hesitant to call this an 'interactive' (even if they do) as there's no interaction beyond being able to horizontally scroll forwards and backwards. (I instinctively tried to click images a few times, to get zoomable versions or more information). As you move along, the info panels quietly update, in the manner of encountering a wall text as you enter a new gallery in the exhibition (I would've actually liked more of a cue that the text was updating so as to notice it more quickly - also, they're rather long on the lyricism and short on the fact).

At first, I really disliked the flattened approach. I've always enjoyed the art of laying out an exhibition in a three-dimensional space, the use of sightlines to lead you through the experience, the way works hung on intermediary walls can be part of more than one grouping. These full-frontal composite photos flatten out the viewing experience, and really do emphasise the nature of 'scrolling'. The one photo that does give you the sense of a built space instead of a flat page - above - is the weakest point in the experience. I wonder how it would (or wouldn't?) work for sculptural objects?

And yet, as I spent time with it, it grew on me. As my friend observed, it's far more enjoyable than that ghastly Google Street View zooming-around-galleries thing, which I dislike using (though I appreciate what the project's done in terms of loosening digital constraints). And I became quite fond of the intentionally unsmoothed photo composites, the places where walls and floors didn't line up.

And then I realised that fondness stems from years of enjoying encounters with Peter McLeavey's composite photos (modelled here by Robert Leonard and Jacqueline Fraser in 1986).

Sunday 27 December 2015

Summer school

I was trying to explain the other day to a wrestling friend who came by the house whilst I was sitting on the floor, tapping away on my laptop, surrounded by old issues of Art New Zealand, just why it is I spend a decent portion of my free time editing Wikipedia.

After just saying that I was a nerd, I explained that just like jiu jitsu is, for me, about the pleasure of exercising physical skill (on occasion - most of the time it's about aspiring to exercising physical skill whilst having my head sat on), working on Wikipedia is a way of exercising my mental skills - a combination of my body of knowledge and my abilities as a researcher and writer, combined with a sense of satisfaction about fixing things on the internet. I guess it's kind of become my thing.

Over my summer break I've set myself the task of trying to improve the coverage of New Zealand women art historians and curators, feminist art, and key exhibitions. It involves a lot of old school research, and my god, do I wish Spiral and Antic and Broadsheet had been digitised already - and that Art New Zealand  was more fully available online and with better search functionality. It's also struck me that we're immensely reliant on obituaries to pull together and publish narratives of professional lives - try making a career history out of what you can find online about Priscilla Pitts or Paula Savage or Jenny Harper, for example.

Anyway. So far I've created pages on Tina Barton, Jill Trevelyan, Rhana Devenport, the exhibition Alter / Image and artist Allie Eagle. I've also added more detail to pages on the exhibition Bottled Ocean and the entry for Ngahuia Te Awekotuku (and myriad other bits and pieces as I fall over articles of relevance). Today's target might be improving the entry on Cheryll Sotheran.

(Current stats: 71 pages created, 230 pages edited, 1326 edits)

Saturday 26 December 2015

Reading list, 26 December 2015

Most of my reading this week was offline, research done using catalogues and journals for my summer Wikipedia project (god, what I wouldn't give for Art New Zealand and Midwest to be fully digitised). But I squeezed in a few things.

Jerry's Saltz's lengthy piece on public art and cultural programming in New York. I don't always understand what Saltz is asking *for*, as opposed to railing *against*, but it's always mind-widening to read a decent piece by him.

Pantograph Punch's summary of Auckland exhibitions to 2015, about half of which I agree with and about three-quarters of which I saw. I wish Wellington had this depth of coverage, but 2015 has really reinforced for me the gravitational pull of Auckland, and the difference that sheer population scale makes to an art scene.

A long NYT interview from earlier this year with Jenny Diski. Diski was such an important part of my 20s. I'm gonna miss her when she's gone.

This WSJ infographic (and accompanying blog post) on measuring success across genres. It made me feel ... inarticulately uneasy.

This articulate and insightful interview of Kushana Bush by Megan Dunn. More of these next year please, Pantograph Punch.

And I guess we needed something Christmas themed: Vogue nails it with 'Why Museum Gift Shops Are Actually a Christmas Miracle'

Tuesday 22 December 2015

Actually, the labels were really bloody good

I should just stop following links through to Judith Dobrzynski's blog on the ArtJournal platform, because they almost inevitably leave me feeling scratchy and combative. There's a mendacious 'gotcha!' tone to many of her posts, an in-the-know way of writing that I often find mean-spirited.

But this post lambasting the labels in the touring Heatherwick Studios exhibition currently on show at the Cooper Hewitt annoyed me so much I felt I needed to write something. Here's what Dobrzynski had to say:
There’s little questions that some museums have dumbed down their labels of late. Granted, people seem to know less and less about art, even as museum attendance seems to be growing. (That may be because there’s so much more to know and to learn about art, what with more museums showing increasingly broad and diverse offerings). For prime evidence of the dumbing down, though, look no further than the Copper Hewitt Museum in Manhattan. I was there a week ago to view Provocations: The Architecture and Design of Heatherwick Studio. Heatherwick’s work is original, innovative and fascinating. But neither the show nor the labels do him justice. 
We’ll stick to the labels here, which are framed as questions. Probably meant to be engaging, to involve viewers, they instead are condescending. The museum feels like a kindergarten.
Now, there's a point here that I agree with. As the offer and the audience at art museums gets broader and broader (and contemporary art continues to become less and less figurative, and an audience's familiarity with Western religious stories, literature and classical subjects can be less and less taken for granted) it *is* becoming harder to write labels that will offer something of value to every visitor. This is why we see museums offering layers of interpretation, often through digital supplements, to try to offer an entry point to an unfamiliar visitor and a new idea to a familiar one.

But I saw Provocations earlier this year, and was actually delighted by the labels. I thought they did a marvellous job of demonstrating to a lay audience how the studio approaches a project - and what makes them unique. Each label starts with the central design problem, posed as a question, and then explicates what the studio settled on as a solution or answer. They captured the playful spirit of the studio's work, and the sense of social engagement I saw in the images and maquettes.

In fact, I thought the labels were so good that I took shitty memory-jogging photos of them:

New London bus



Hereford Community Centre (unrealised)

'Spun' chair

And here's the text for the Zip Bag:
How can you make objects out of long pieces of zipper? 
Discovering as a student that it was possible to buy a 656-foot-long roll of continuous zipper, Heatherwick began researching ways to use this material to make three-dimensional objects. The studio produced various bags, vessels, and even a dress before approaching Longchamp, the French handbag company, about collaborating. The resulting design incorporates strips of fabric between the toothed edges of the zipper so that the bag could double its size when unzipped. The Longchamp Zip Bag, which began as an experiment in 1993, was retailed worldwide in 2004 and became a bestseller.
You can see for yourself though, as the Cooper Hewitt has posted all the projects with all their labels online

Design and architecture shows are the genre of museum display that I struggle most with - the Gehry exhibition I saw at LACMA, for example, was just a sea of plywood and different shades cardboard, which was exhausting on the eyes and hard to imagine as shapes in space. The Heatherwick exhibition in contrast was a joy, from the interactive project at the start that let you print out pieces of tickertape to carry around with you, to the cunning modular display that makes it a good touring show (curated by Cooper Hewitt's Brooke Hodge, the exhibition was organised by the Nasher Sculpture Center and also showed at the Hammer Museum in LA).

In contrast to the Heatherwick labels (condescending to the point of insulting, Dobrzynski concludes) she approvingly cites a 2010 newspaper interview with John Baldessari:
“I don’t think you really have to spoon feed the viewer,” he explained. “You just have to give them something to hang on to and they can begin to unravel it themselves. It’s kind of like reading a detective story, you get a clue, you follow that.”
And I honestly can't see where she finds the distance between that commonplace idea and the Heatherwick labels.

Sunday 20 December 2015

On the radio - special edition

Many thanks to Lynn Freeman from Standing Room Only on RNZ National, who let me come in and talk about the digital innovations I saw at the Brooklyn Museum and Cooper Hewitt this year, making fulfilling the requirements of my Winston Churchill Fellowship that little bit easier.

Saturday 19 December 2015

Reading list, 19 December 2015

This week I read:

Vu Le's (of 'Non-Profit With Balls') post Hey, you want nonprofits to act more like businesses? Then treat us like businesses.

This excerpt from Ruth Bernard Yeazell's Picture Titles: How and Why Western Paintings Acquired Their Names which draws on Gombrich's observation that titling of artworks became more common when the mobility of artworks (a painting's likelihood of being moved from one location to another, from one audience to another) grew.

Nina Simon's prep piece for a twitter live-chat about donations/giving and cultural organisations. Nina's observations about how moving into a fundraising role has made her think more about her own giving are fascinating. She also points to the elephant in the room:
I became more and more aware of the screwed-up societal inequities that make philanthropy possible. One of the ways we redistribute wealth in an inequitable society is by asking rich people to voluntarily donate. And then we celebrate their generosity, rarely questioning why they had the capacity to give in the first place. Especially in the arts, research shows an alarming imbalance in what kinds of organizations have access to grants and donations. Our system of philanthropy often reinforces the inequity that it theoretically has the power to disrupt.
This lengthy interview with Seb Chan (who joined ACMI this year as Chief Experience Officer) about the evolution of his career - a gem for understanding how 'digital' has evolved in museums this century.

Russell Davies breaking down a panel discussion on the future of the BBC (sounds dry, is actually fascinating and, well - depressing).

The NYT on the appointment of Nancy Spector (ex-Guggenheim) as chief curator at the Brooklyn Museum, an institution of which I'm extremely.

Something old, but new: this week we digitised the Bone Stone Shell catalogue at work, so it's now available online to download and read.

Wednesday 16 December 2015

On the radio

Today on the radio I talked about two stories coming out of Rijksmuseum in the Netherlands (including this one about removing racially charged terms from the online information about artworks) and shows to see around the country over Christmas

Necessary Distraction: A Painting Show - Auckland Art Gallery

Sister Corita's Summer of Love - Govett-Brewster Art Gallery

Julian Dashper & Friends - City Gallery Wellington

New Zealand Photography Collected - Te Papa

Seraphine Pick: White Noise - The Dowse Art Museum

Christchurch Art Gallery re-opens 19 December

Jae Hoon Lee: Stranger in a Strange Land - Dunedin Public Art Gallery

Saturday 12 December 2015

Reading list, 12 December 2015

What I've been reading this week ...

This NYT feature on 'female artists now in their 70s, 80s and 90s we should have known about decades ago' floated across the transom this week, recalling for me Brooklyn Museum's work in 2010 writing Wikipedia entries rather than a catalogue for their exhibition of the work of female Pop artists, a project which in turn inspired the Wikipedia project we did at The Dowse in 2014/15, and my own ongoing editing work.

Last weekend I talked to some people about the massive changes in scale faced by libraries and museums as they go from trying to collect and preserve a physical world to trying to collect and preserve a digital world. This article in The Atlantic by Adrienne Lafrance tells the story of one piece of PulitzerPrize-winning journalism and its journey on to, off of, and back onto, the web.

Eric Rodley's write-up of MCN in Minneapolis reminded me again of the fact that this is the conference I am saddest to have not yet attended. The quality of content is one thing, but the creation of a community is another even greater achievement. I have mentally ticketed his recommendation of Liz Ogpu's keynote for summer watching.

John Herman's piece ''Access Panic'' for The Awl, on the media's role after the problem of people's access to information has been solved. Still digesting this, but *fascinating*.

In a project titled 'Adjustment of Colonial Terminology', the Rijksmuseum is reviewing the titles and descriptions of artworks in its collection, and removing or changing racially-charged terms such as 'Negro' and 'Hottentot'. Apparently staff recently reported on the project at a conference - I'd love to know how it was received.

This week I was interviewed by MBIE and MCH as preliminary research for a review of the Copyright Act. When asked what the challenges are facing the arts sector, one of the key things I identified was the shrivelling mainstream media coverage of the arts. At the same time when newspaper publishers in particular seem to be in a race to the bottom that's paved with clickbait, we as consumers are becoming increasingly good at filtering out 'irrelevant' news. Galleries once relied on arts sections in newspapers to put exhibitions and artists in front of browsers who might be interested even when they thought they weren't: no matter how much we boost posts on Facebook, we can't replicate the value of good newspaper presence. Which is all a long way of saying that this review of John Stackhouse's Mass Disruption: Thirty Years on the Front Lines of a Media Revolution makes a number of similar points.

Thursday 10 December 2015

First they take 'curate' away from us ...

... and now it's 'museum' that's been filched by the marketers for their own nefarious practices.*^ The American media has been awash (where 'awash' means 'four articles I have read') with commentary on Glade's Museum of Feelings. From the official listing:

This holiday season, Glade® invites consumers to explore their emotions at The Museum of Feelings, an interactive experience built to showcase the beautiful connection between scent and emotion. Visitors will be taken on a sensory journey through the Museum, where Glade® fragrances act as the muse to inspire visitors to explore their emotions.

A series of five interactive light, sound and scent installation rooms lead the visitor to the gift store, where they can purchase Glade's new scented candle range.

The emotional tone of the commentary quivers between bemused and scathing. From the Village Voice:
Housed in a pulsating cube nestled between a luxury mall and a yacht harbor (just blocks from noted tourist attraction Ground Zero), this paean to...what, really?... is a confusing mix of ambient advertising and immersive art. ... 
The cube’s exterior changes color based on the mood of New York City, which (according to a press release put out by Glade® parent company SC Johnson) is determined by “the sentiment of conversations by New Yorkers on Twitter, coupled with local news and trends including the weather, stock exchange fluctuations and flight delays”. Evidently rage stroke coupled with crippling panic attack is a vibrant teal that undulates into fuschia.
From the NYT:
At the end of the exhibit, Ms. Santoro and Ms. Borghini, who work nearby, were shuffled through a gift store. There were no negative emotions on sale, perhaps because it might be difficult to sell a $9 envy-themed scented candle. 
The two friends were asked to stand in front of a large camera and take a selfie, which was then evaluated and tagged with an emotion. It took a few tries, but in the end, the machine returned its assessment: “Indifferent.”
Jared Keller in the Smithsonian Magazine undertakes a scholarly investigation of the marketing ploy. His headline, Fear and Loathing at the Museum of Feelings, might give you a hint of how that pans out:
Without some level of pedagogical logic and civic intent, is it simply an entertaining art installation, regardless of who foots the bill for its construction? In the eyes of historians like Ward, the Museum of Feelings represents a “clever attempt to conflate itself with something respectable.” 
To Ward, it’s indicative of a larger trend in American culture: a tendency to crowdsource art and culture, to turn things to the masses, in lieu of the careful (if elitist) curation of scholars and academics that imparts museums with the knowledge and sensibility that makes them worthy stewards of the title.“Instead of rationality and pedagogy, we’re getting something closer to a carnival,” says Ward. “There’s no demonstrably larger social significance running through a place like the [Museum of Feelings] … so why are they pretending it’s something it isn’t?”
Gotta love that 'simply an entertaining art installation': clearly, Jared has never tried and failed with a family-focused art exhibition. At the same time there's an effort in the article to untangle where corporate and philanthropic support of a museum meshes with the integrity of its programming.

My favourite piece is probably Dayna Evans for The Awl, kind of a Lena Dunham meets art review:
From the tiny screens of my computer and phone, art looks mostly dull, flat, and familiar, especially when it arrives via jpeg or tinyletter or Tumblr scroll. Only a few weeks before I first heard about the Museum of Feelings, I had ordered a new Rizzoli art book called Feelings: Soft Art, a collection of works by contemporary artists that explore the evocative emotions drawn out by visual art. In many ways, this book is drastically different from what the Museum of Feelings attempts to accomplish—which is, make millennials think Glade airspray is trendy and aware and worthy of use—but in some ways, it is not. When Cat and I tried to figure out how it was we even came to learn about the pop-up museum, we both realized that a lot of our more “arty” friends had said they were attending the Facebook event. It spread virally. We trusted those people’s tastes, so we decided to go. We never really thought to check if it was worthy of praise, or even exactly what it was. 
This is the same principle by which the casual museum attendee learns to namedrop Cézanne and Miró. MoMA is just as much sponsored content as the Museum of Feelings—they’re just sponsored by different power structures.
(Like the Village Voice, Evans identifies the James Turrell / Hotline Bling overtones to the installation's aesthetic, the ubiquity of which is possibly now even further emphasised by Pantone's 2016 Colour of the Year.)

It's all a long way away from Charles Simic's William and Cynthia, which I quoted from three years ago in a presentation where I talked about what I imagined when I thought about a museum of emotions:

Says she'll take him to the Museum
of Dead Ideas and Emotions.
Wonders that he hasn't been there yet.
Says it looks like a Federal courthouse
With its many steps and massive columns.

Apparently not many people go there
On such drizzly gray afternoons.
Says even she gets afraid
In the large exhibition halls
With monstrous ideas in glass cases,
Naked emotions on stone pedestals
In classically provocative poses.

Says she doesn't understand why he claims
All that reminds him of a country fair.
Admits there's a lot of old dust
And the daylight is the color of sepia,
Just like this picture postcard
With its two lovers chastely embracing
Against a painted cardboard sunset.

After all this reading, I remain curious about one question. How strong was the pull of that word 'museum'? Was it the selfies on Instagram that got New York's 20-somethings queueing for this experience, or does the word hold some special magic? I'd like to think the latter, in which case I am sure we will survive Glade's assault upon our ramparts, and live to fight in the culture wars on yet another day.

*I mostly joke here. Some of my best friends work in comms and marketing. Hell, I work in comms and marketing, and we're all shameless.
^Also, as I was discussing on Twitter tonight, 'curate' is arguably better understood now than it was before it was co-opted for everything from wardrobes to playlists to friend groups. Prior to that, who could've told you that curating has something to do with making informed selections and publicly presenting them?

Wednesday 9 December 2015

Some things change

About once a month I have a mental (or online) rant over the museums-are-changing-for-the-worse meme (dumbing down, too much technology, not enough technology whatevs).

Sometimes its valuable to be reminded of how long-seated some of the 'democratising' efforts at our museums and galleries are. Last week this Art New Zealand article about the opening of the Manawatu Art Gallery in 1977 was floating around The Dowse.

Apart from the fact that the build cost less than half a million and that the gallery had only three full-time staff (director Luit Bieringa, Exhibitions Officer Margaret Taylor and secretary Esme Robinson - the writer does note that the MAG had a similar amount of floor space to Auckland Art Gallery, then operating with the princely total of over 20 staff) it's interesting how much the opening displays mirror how the sector still launches today.

Perhaps one difference is the incorporation of craft, much more a feature of the 1950s-1970s era than the 1980s-2000s:
Entering the first gallery space there was a display of weaving and large photo panels, featuring potters at work. In the floor area a loom and two potter wheels plus tables of clay stood to be used in demonstrations.
However, the next section of the install is exactly the kind of experience that would be tweeted heavily for its innovation today:
The gallery opposite was enclosed in a darkened space set up for a TOUCH exhibition. Participants were blindfolded on entry and felt their way along a predetermined path of specially laid carpet. They slowly handled and touched a diverse range of functional, decorative and art objects.
The largest space was dedicated to "contemporary New Zealand painters who had different approaches to their art" (Toss Woollaston, Ray Thorburn, Don Driver, Gretchen Albrecht, Brent Wong, Pat Hanly and Philip Trusttum - not quite the diversity you'd expect today, but interesting for the figures who are left out: McCahon and Walters in particular). A further downstairs space "revealed a bizarre array of hands: skeleton and X-ray hands, wax hands, photographs and other visual material related to hand imagery" - the wunderkammer aesthetic never dies.

It's upstairs where things get gritty though. Climb past the awesome Ian Scott from their collection to discover the mezzanine gallery, where:
... the more vanguard art was shown: a Bruce Barber video tape Hand Game for Artists, Politicians and Solipsists, plus photo pieces, mail art and other contemporary works. In the lecture/film room, Brian McNeill's specially commissioned synchronised tape and slide presentation was shown to curious and aghast audiences. No doubt the title Hand Erotic Moves Divine lured many people to see a technically superb work. Films related to hands also screened, making the entire Show of Hands an exhausting journey through many different approaches and attitudes to art.
This article was written two years before I was born, and yet I recognise everything in it. Right to the last two paragraphs:
At the official opening ceremony on Sunday, 3 July, where politicians stood up and took credit for everything they did not do, Brian Ellwood, the Mayor of Palmerston North, stated a very important principle - this gallery was able to be designed and operated so successfully because of his principle of non-interference. As a local body politician he let the art professionals get on with their job. Such a statement drew much applause from the audience, especially from those in the art world who were suffering, or have suffered, such harassing political interference. David Taylor justly received a rousing ovation as the architect who made the building happen, though he was shyly hiding in the crowd. 
The product of Brian Ellwood's 'non-interference' policy in Palmerston North is the best designed gallery space in New Zealand; and an exhibitions and cultural programme that far outstrips the gallery's meagre budget in terms of imagination and scope.

Monday 7 December 2015

Call for proposals - Tauhere

Tauhere | Connections* is a new journal in the New Zealand museum sector, initiated by the Emerging Museum Professionals group, which is in turn supported by Museums Aotearoa (of which I am in turn a board member. Turtles all the way down.)

Anyway. Back to the journal. Tauhere is envisioned as a space for newer museum professionals to share their thinking and research. The first issue, edited by Tamara Patten and Rebecca Keenan, will be launched at next year's joint Museums Aotearoa / Museums Australia conference in Auckland. If you're a newer member of the sector, this will be a great way to get your name in front of a lot of senior managers (and your peers too, of course, but let's think strategically about career development here.)

The theme of the issue is the same as that of the conference: Facing the Future: Local, Global and Pacific Possibilities. The overarching theme is Hāngaitanga|Relevance and the sub-themes are Custodianship; Place; Knowledge; Practice.

Submissions can take all kinds of forms, and are due by Friday 26 February 2016.  A PDF of the call for papers here, as that web link above is not going to last forever.

If you're thinking about sending something in and would like to workshop an idea, I'd be very happy to help. You can find me on Twitter or leave a comment on this post.

Saturday 5 December 2015

Reading list 5 December 2015

This past week I've:

Followed Matt Webb's Twitter poem Like to Continue (at least, until this)

Tried to mentally draw some connections between Bethany Nowviskie's 2013 lecture (pointed to by Tom Armitage) that unpacks William Morris's famous quote 'you can’t have art without resistance in the material' in light of digital technology and this article about a Indiegogo project to produce 3D printed versions of famous paintings for blind people.

Looked to the NYT's 100 Notable Books of 2015 for Christmas reading (it's December, y'all! We've nearly made it through another year.)

Read Lenny's interview with Kimberly Drew, online outreach manager for the Met, and realised she's basically living what would've been my mid-20s dream if my mid 20s had happened this decade, not last.

(Drew also runs the Black Contemporary Art tumblr - and her story makes a good pendant to the NYT piece Black Artists and the March Into the Museum by Randy Kennedy)

Read Maureen Dowd's lengthy NYT piece 'The Women of Hollywood Speak Out' and wondered if its been the same for women in the art and business worlds here in Aotearoa.

Saved Lara Strongman's oral history of the past five years at Christchurch Art Gallery for a more leisurely reading opportunity.

Nearly died over this Reddit BJJ thread on names for a new gym, deservedly won by Derek Zoolander Center For People Who Can't Jiu-Jitsu Good And Wanna Learn To Do Other Grappling Stuff Good Too.

Friday 4 December 2015

Art of Empire

In the second-to-most-recent episode of 'Empire', Lucious Lyon leads a pop star's minder/agent out of his living room (creating time for the star to get to know his R&B starlet son better) by uttering the immortal line "Would you like to see my new Mickalene Thomas?".

The use of visual art in the world-building of Empire is one of the show's main appeals for me. Art often features as a metaphorical element in tv and movies, but never have I seen it used so consistently and with such a sense of political statement.

Apart from a key Klimt in an early scene in Season One (which Cookie writes off as ugly), a hazy Monet in the Empire offices and a portentous copy of van Gogh's Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette used to underline a twist in Lucious's story arc, most of the artists are contemporary black Americans, from Kara Walker to Jean-Michel Basquiat, to prominent and repeated use of Kehinde Wiley, to younger and newer artists like Ebony G. Patterson.

I'm far from being the only person fascinated by it. This New Yorker article by Antwaun Sargent describes how Lee Daniels, the show's creator, works with set decorator Caroline Perzan and galleries, museums and artists to select and secure the work for the show:
“We choose pieces that match the taste of the Lyons and the world they live in—sometimes it’s over the top, but most times it’s classy and my definition of ghetto fabulous,” Daniels told me. His view seems to reflect a yearning to open the artworks up to an entirely new language for interpretation. For example, Wiley’s 2007 oil-on-canvas painting “Officer of the Hussars,” which hangs in the Detroit Institute of Arts, shows a young male straddling a horse, with a sword in hand. The painting plays with the aesthetics of race, power, and masculinity, as does much of Wiley’s work. Hakeem Lyon  is the youngest member of the family, and one plot line follows his attempts to be more than just a rapper; the “Hussars” replica hangs in Hakeem’s living room. 
In this video interview for Time, Wiley describes how Daniels approached him to have his work reproduced on the show: "He didn’t know if it was going to be the biggest car wreck or the biggest success," Wiley said. "And I said, 'Sure.'"

Earlier this year though Hyperallergic gave the best breakdown of how art is used on the show, in an article by John Sherman titled 'How the Identity Politics of ‘Empire’ Play Out on Its Walls':
Not 10 minutes into the pilot episode of Fox’s TV drama Empire, Kehinde Wiley’s bright yellow portrait “Prince Albert, Prince Consort of Queen Victoria” looms into view above the dining room table where the men of the Lyon family are gathered: Lucious Lyon and his three sons, Andre, Jamal, and Hakeem, the scions of Empire Records. The portrait’s subject, a young Jamaican man, appears like a fourth son, looking on attentively from his frame, a prince among princes.
And it includes a point that totally escaped me at the time:
In contrast, Andre, Lucious’s eldest son, lives with his blonde, white wife in a townhouse full of dull landscape paintings and a color palette that runs from eggshell to ecru. Andre Lyon is an outsider within the family, having finished an Ivy League MBA instead of a chart-topping album. In their first meeting after Cookie’s release from prison, she asks Andre frankly, “Why’d you marry that white girl?” The spaces he occupies are cold and dull, with none of the color of Wiley or Savoie, further distancing him from the rest of his family.
Andre and Rhonda (the 'blonde, white wife') have, of course, just moved into a new mansion on Long Island, bought for them by Lucious, who is overwhelmed by the fact they are about to produce his first grandchild (still surprised that pregnancy hasn't turned out to be faked, personally). Now that Andre has found both God and his way back into the Lyon pride, will his art take a step upwards too?

Thursday 3 December 2015

Oh, humbug

Every so often I read something very well meaning and my initial response is 'Oh, dear lord, no', and then I feel like a right dick.

My most recent of these was this article in the Telegraph about a start-up's proposal (and Indiegogo campaign) to make 3D printable models of famous paintings to assist vision-impaired people to experiencing the artworks.

I applaud the urge - increasing access to art for a group who obviously finds visual art (and the touch-free way it is delivered in museums) incredibly hard to engage with. The Brooklyn Museum, for example, has made great use of 3D printed replicas of collection items as part of their sensory tours. Riah King-Wall recently wrote up a range of museum offerings in New Zealand for people with various disabilities.

But I'm kind of mystified as to why the company has chosen to run their campaign on the basis of a painting and not one of any number of equally famous sculptures. The 3D printed version of the Mona Lisa gives only the most generic indication of what might be happening in this work, which has enabled it to exert such cultural power - and completely ignores the landscape which forms such a significant element of the whole. How does the material of the printed object -  the key piece of sensory information - relate in any way to the painted surface. And how can colour and perspective be conveyed?

The Unseen Art company's own promotional video of a woman handling the 3D print captures my question. While she notes that the object has aroused her curiosity, she also says "I’d like to have a guide here to tell me what is it that is so special about this." Going back to the Brooklyn Museum's sensory tours, a model of a sculpture is used as one of a number of props designed to recreate the original artwork in the participants' minds - all bound together by the words of the educator leading the session.

I don't mean to just lay into this idea, because it obviously comes from a very good place. But I do question the pedagogy and the relevance of it. In the sector, people are still trying to find ways that 3D printing technology might yet fit in ... I just don't think displays of printed-out paintings are going to be it. (Then again, Rembrandt Remastered exists, so I'm clearly not a great judge of anything.)

It did all make me think though - we have no art form that appeals specifically to the sense of touch. Visual art for sight, music for hearing, food and drink (I'd happily argue that they've been raised to an art form) for smell and taste. Dance may be kinaesthetically pleasing and you may feel a physical empathy with the dancer, but it is not exploiting the sense of touch. Fashion is more about visual effect than sensual experience. Interesting.

Tuesday 1 December 2015

Trying to figure out what "my practice" might look like.

There's been an inevitable attack of the doldrums over the past month as I've returned to normal life after my trip to the States and two weeks re-immersing myself in all things museum-web at Museums and the Web Asia and the National Digital Forum.

I took five weeks off work (or off normal work, at least), and that is the longest break I've had since leaving university. What I didn't appreciate until I got back into the office was how, away from the everyday nudging of people and projects and issues that makes up running an organisation, and away from the always being on that I feel as a director, this extra level of smart opened up inside my head. I was able to see and learn and question and observe and absorb and draw connections with an intensity my real-life brain doesn't seem to have the capacity to do.

I've really struggled with this through November. It feels like the salt has come out of my working life: the good bits haven't shone as brightly as they usually do and the bad bits have been suckier than normal.

In an attempt to hold on to that intellectual excitement of September and October I've been spending more time here on my blog, trying to think through and articulate my responses to the things I see as I canvas my sector every day on the internet. I've also been making a quiet effort to foster opportunities for newer members of the museum sector, especially those who are writing and publishing online - because that's how I got my break.

Last week I attended the Auckland Museum medals ceremony, where senior researchers are honoured for their contributions. One of the awardees was Anthony Wright, long-term director of the Canterbury Museum but even longer-term botanist (a fact of which I was shamefully unaware). He began his botany career at Auckland Museum and has contributed over 16,000 specimens to its collections. After the awards I had dinner with Ian Griffin, director of Otago Museum. In addition to running the museum, Ian is an incredibly prolific science communicator and astro-photographer, and the soon-to-be-opened Planetarium at Otago Museum has been driven by his passion, knowledge and intellectual output.

That really go me thinking. These guys are running two of our biggest cultural institutions, but are still finding time to do what they got into this business for: Science. Actively undertaking research and adding to a corpus of knowledge and being part of their community.

I got my first team leader role in my late 20s and ever since then I've felt like I've drifted further and further away from the things I am good at: my equivalent of making things by hand. It's not astronomy or botany, but my ability to gather and wrestle and interpret and create an experience from information and imagery is something I really treasure - and something I feel I only get to do these days in a rushed or prosaic manner. I badly miss the pleasure of sitting down for an afternoon and just doing something I am good at.

This in turn got me thinking - what does my practice look like? Those abilities found their best expression in my work on web and social media projects when I was working at the National Library, and on a project with Chris McDowall a couple of years ago which has now gone offline. I've never been a curator, a designer, a writer or editor - I've been a coraller, a synthesiser, a presenter. And it's harder to do those things (or at least in my own experience it is) without an external impetus. I really miss my old project work these days, and the clarity and satisfaction of tasks like the extra-curricular editing jobs I used to take on.

So it's time to pull out of this silly little nosedive and snap this problem to the grid. Instead of treating this blog and my Wikipedia editing as extras that I just carry on out of habit, or things that I do when I should be doing other, more important things, I'm going to try thinking about them as my practice. My contribution to a body of knowledge and a community. I'm 29 posts away from 1,500 entries on this site and have made over 1,100 contributions to Wikipedia. If I think of these posts and edits as specimens or astro-photos, maybe I'll start feeling more convinced in myself of the value of what I put out into the world.

And I'm keen to support others who are trying to make things too. If there's something I can help you with, I'd love to hear from you.