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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


1. Museums Need to Embrace Risk

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

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


2. Artists Disrupt the Institutional Voice

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

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


3. Friction is a Good Thing

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


4. Adapting and Compromise

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


5. Encouraging Dialogue, Provocation and Confusion

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


6. Documentation, Documentation, Documentation

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


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

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


Blurring the boundaries between art and data: Listening Post

Yesterday I paid a visit to the Science Museum to try and make sense of all the ideas, objects and themes that are pinging around my head in relation to the new exhibition I’m creating.  I originally went to look at the narrative structures the Science Museum uses when talking about telecommunications and how they deal with a historical thread in different themes. But after looking at lots and lots of labels and text panels, my brain started to melt.

One of the aims of ‘my’ exhibition is to explore the difference between art and technology, and to ask questions about what is art and what is data. Can art be data and can data be art? With this in mind, I stumbled into the Listening Post installation by Mark Hansen and Ben Rubin.
It’s a mesmerising experience, classed as a ‘dynamic portrait’ of online communication.   The installation displays uncensored fragments of text, sampled in real-time, from public internet chatrooms, which are accompanied by the rhythm of computer-synthesized voices reading – or as some put it “singing” – the words that flicker over the screens.  It’s really quite beautiful and you do get lost listening to it. It really does challenge the visitor to think differently about data.

I’m really looking forward to delving deeper into this idea about the different between art and data, or lack thereof, using UCL Art Museum collections as a base for discussion.  I’d be interested to know if anyone has any other beautiful examples of installations that blur the boundaries between art and data.

my first experiences of DRHA2010

For the next few days I will be at DRHA 2010 ( Digital Resources for the Humanities and Arts). I didn’t really know what to expect, DRHA has become a predominately digital arts based conference, with a smattering of humanities research in between. I have to admit I went with a bit of a closed mind, but some of the presentations and performances are making me change my mind.

Research in art and performance practices is rapidly expanding particularly research and practice in digital performance in the context of the arts, sciences, education, communication/information , therefore as a digital humanist I need to gain an understanding of what this discipline is all about. This conference has got me thinking about whether or not digital art and performance is a new research environment which is just as trans-disciplinary as DH except the end product is a little different and produces installations, performances and compositions, is this an academic discourse? And how do non digital artists understand it or at lease engage with it.

Yesterday saw the keynote by Thecla Schiphorst who bamboozled me no end, but it was interesting never the less. Thecla used the keynote to explore the concepts of performance, sensuality and technology. Introducing the ideas of embodied interaction and somatic phenomenology through collaborative technology. I like the idea of embodied interaction, sense-making, and experience and the aesthetics of interaction, but put into a experimental dance performance /installation it seems completely alien to me.

Thecla described a few of her projects including:
• Whisper
• Exhale
• Soft (n)

whisper: [wearable, handheld, intimate, sensory, personal, expressive, responsive system] wearable body architectures was the first in a series of three interactive wearable public art installations that explore interaction with your own body data.
The whisper installation was based on sensors embedded into a soft white jacket and a wireless network transmitted physiological data: predominately heart rate and breath. I liked the fact that as well as the installation there were A series of user-experience workshops with the goal of developing an interaction model for the public installation. These workshops looked at intimacy with your own body and with others, social navigation and playful exchange. Which provided some interesting responces

Here’s a link to a video about it

exhale: freaked me out at bit. This piece explores the empathic nature of networked breath. Networked breath is used to create output patterns through small vibrators sewn into the inside of the waistband of a silk skirt and speakers that are embedded in the lining of these sensually evocative skirts. Enabling a hidden and “inner” one-to-one communication between bodies in the installation, so that one body’s breathing can directly affect another body’s skirt. In essence using sensors and vibrators in a silk skirt you can feel other peoples breath inside your own skirt. I really don’t like the idea of that. If I wanted someone to breath up my skirt I would ask. This is why I said I entered with a closed mind. But I suppose installations like this are meant to provoke a response, as ask as to why that response occurred.

exhale video

soft(n) is quite cool, it attempts to explore intimacy and experience through physical interaction with 10-12 networked soft objects that exhibit emerging behaviour when touched or moved within a space.

soft (n) images can be found here

So that is my first experiences of DRHA2010 so far; weird yet thought provoking, sort of the way academia should be. maybe.