Shows and sideshows in the new museum

Mike Leggett moves through site-time-media-space at a Museum of Sydney seminar

Maria Fernanda Cardoso, The Cardoso Flea Circus

Maria Fernanda Cardoso, The Cardoso Flea Circus

Touring the globe in search of the ingredients for the cultural pie that is the modern city’s festival of arts, balances personal influence with the grind of corporate travel. Our very own Robyn Archer exposed some of the vices in this inexorable progress recently at the Museum of Sydney. In between the streaming succession of meetings, performances and phone calls, she escapes to, well, the local museum. Whether Mexico, Bolivia, Sweden, Austria, Holland or Taiwan, assemblages of humanity’s artefacts can be found that go far beyond being “merely entertainment.” Such institutions and theme parks she felt, “will have their day.”

The spectre of the museum as a sculptural shell into which the musty remnants of earlier ages are placed was in question here. Site-Time-Media-Space were the sectors of ‘the museum context’ explored by a range of speakers assembled by the creative director of CDP Media and prime media designer for the venue itself, Gary Warner, “…to stake a claim for the exploration of poetics and design, the advocacy of play, curiosity and wonder…” The experiences of museum specialists who work with media technologies (and the research of artists who produce content with them) formed the substance of the seminar.

SITE …we enter its walls leaving the everyday behind to enter a microverse of contrived tableaux, of intellectual conceits and the frisson of play between certainty and ambiguity, credulity and propaganda…

Susan Alexis Collins, from the Slade School in London, demonstrated the webspace interventions that she makes into street life, ranging from sound and imagescapes in a tunnel under the Thames, to a moving mouth on the pavement of a city street. Linked to a website (www.street/gallery), internet surfers are invited to select mouth movements and spoken phrases to be delivered to passers-by on the other side of the world/road. The sense that these become intrusions into streetlife (observed and measured by a hidden surveillance camera) exemplified the confrontational, and attenuated her attempt at communication of a most basic kind, a prerequisite for even the most experiential museum.

“Garrulous media installations…” were far from Ian Wedde’s mind when as Concept Curator Humanities for the recently opened Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongerewa, he was part of the large team who sought to “find, win and grow a new audience” for Our Place where the collections were to be utilised as a unified resource. The ‘Disneyfication’ criticisms and the demonstrations around the Condom Madonna (part of the Pax Britannica exhibition that stopped off in Wellington after leaving the MCA in Sydney) were enough to attract the crowds in numbers that far surpassed original estimates.

Facing It is the section of Te Papa that commissioned media art from around the world. In a series of extended apologies to potential Australian contributors whose email had gone unanswered, Wedde outlined the rollercoaster he had ridden for the past years around “the rocks of management.” The curator as heroic figure emerged, as contracts were issued to the lucky few “to extend artists’ practice and placing risk-management at the feet of the institution”. The risks paid off and the work of Lisa Reihana among many others, for modest cost, resulted in a photo-based exhibit using historical and contemporary photographic images made in Samoa. The response? The Samoan community are each day encamped within the exhibit.

SITE …Display Technology is becoming a material that can be used to directly address the environs outside the gallery walls…Digital media systems will be devised to react to vectors such as crowd movement, meteorological conditions or the sound of traffic and so become dynamic, destabilising and revelatory…

The complex issue of resourcing specific media projects emerged. Bricks, concrete and salaries are less of a problem than accessing the technology and project budgets. Wedde advocated “relationship brokerage” as the method by which artists, institution and sponsor could collaborate to produce museum outcomes. The issue of curatorial objectivity and discretion was left to another time.

TIME …rituals of delay can be quite pleasurable, or, at the very least build anticipation and create the conditions for narrative, drama, comedy and insight…

Installation artist Maria Fernanda Cardoso has reintroduced the tradition of the live interactive booth to the museums of Europe and America with The Cardoso Flea Circus. In this ‘side-show’ concept complete with tent and circus mistress Cardoso, nothing is virtual, all is real, including the feeding of the fleas on the proprietor’s arm.

Touching steel, steering a submersible, and feeling the roar of an oil platform through your feet was the tangible introduction to the Oil Museum in Scotland, one of several new museums in Europe described by Stephen Ryan. The Creation of the World exhibit at the Natural History Museum in London was an example, of how—not surprisingly—a big budget and too many hi-tech resources can lead to lack of clarity and excessive maintenance costs. Avoidance of disruption is thus another measure of design success.

MEDIA …the creation of memorable media experiences, the crucible of memory being the experience of difference…

Jon McCormack’s long-term project with The Museum of Artificial Ecologies will become a public museum with a collection ‘comprised only of software’. In tracing toward such a place we were led past the reputable (celebrated) Osmose by the Canadian Char Davies and McCormack’s own artificial life projects, and through the many intrigues and ironies of ‘escaping the container’ of the frame and the glass cabinet found in so many museums and theme parks, and were entreatied to agree that object-based museums obscure asking the questions “Who are we?, “What are we?”

SPACE …cumulative spatial mapping—the gradual understanding of the often complex spatial relationships that grows out of exposure to a variety of orientation inputs, some planned many unplanned—graphical, sensorium, aural…

Matters of the spirit were raised by Paula Dawson for St Brigids Church, Coogee, Sydney. The Shrine of the Sacred Heart was opened a year ago as a three-dimensional space within which holographic images are sited. Developed during a research period spent in part at MIT Media Lab, the copper vapour laser transmission holograph enables the parishioner to place their hands in prayer into the image space that simulates 3 visions associated with the Christ figure. Dawson’s superbly delivered and illustrated presentation allowed for the patent irony of a non-believer becoming the re-inventor and interpreter of spiritual and devotional practice, re-exploring the smoke and mirrors of inclusive performance in the service of belief. A project involving advanced technology, this was the best example in the seminar of the kind of quantum leap that museological circles need to make, to recapture the imagination and the passion of museum audiences in the service of meaning and knowledge.

Site-Time-Media-Space—New Media in Museums , a seminar, convenor, Gary Warner, Museum of Sydney, October 17–18.

RealTime issue #28 Dec-Jan 1998 pg. 21

© Mike Leggett; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 1998