Visiting “Contemporary Arab Representations. The Iraqi Equation” and “B-ZONE – Becoming Europe and Beyond” at KW Berlin, was quite a frustrating experience. Not because I thought the exhibitions were uninteresting or that works exposed their creator’s naivety, their lack of capability or their conviction that they can get away with any cheap trick (the things that frequently annoy me). The exhibition at KW frustrated me, because, despite spending three or four hours in there, I don’t have the feeling, I’ve seen much of it.
I roughly calculated that there must be something like 100 hours of video. Even with perfect timing and no waiting for other visitors, it is not only impossible to see all of it (that would also be the wrong approach in an exhibition with little time based art), but it is impossible to even make up your mind about what is worth seeing. The selection of what one actually gets to see is a composed by chance and sheer coincidence.
Of course the feeling that an exhibition is too big or offers too much content for one visit is not that unusual. One almost expects it when visiting a biennial, Documenta or large museums (especially museums of natural history and archeology etc.). Since documentary has become more and more important in art and there is often a lot to read in contemporary art exhibitions. That can be stressful too, but at least in this case one can scan texts quickly and decide wether one should dig deeper into one aspect or not. At least there is a chnace.
With time based art like video one does not have a chance. I don’t know what I missed because of watching a 70 min video by Salam Pax, which I thought was a good documentary, the kind I would like to get on TV more often.
Of course I believe that video represents an important part of contemporary art and I’m definitely not promoting a regression towards painting other traditional art pactices (I must admit that most of what I see in that area does not really feel like it is part of what I consider contemporary art – despite the Leipzig hype). It is great to see a mix of different media used in one exhibition and it is what one should usually expect from an exhibition in times of diversified mediascape. There is no problem when there are a handful of 5-15 min videos or audio pieces in one exhibition. Having 100 hours of video in one exhibition either shows a lack of respect towards the visitor or incompetence of the curator. Of course I can see egocentric curators construct some pseudo philosophical frame that requires art to be shown in exactly that way so it corresponds to the excessive demand we are confronted with in all aspects of life.
I think the reason why this kind of content is shown in art exhibitions is because there is no market so it could be shown on TV or in movie theaters. The way I look at it, it is a question of interface design and adjusting to contemporary ways of publishing. Maybe the concept of what an exhibition is has to be rethought.
From the user’s (visitor’s) perspective one important difference between going to an exhibition and watching a video at home or browsing the web or reading, is that the exhibition is a social situation (arguably the web is a social place too, but I think going to a place where one can have coffee with friends after the exhibition is a different quality).
A good exhibition is inspiring and nourishes ideas and thoughts, it encourages to break out of patterns of thinking. Ideally this effect lasts longer than the visit. for many people today patterns of thinking are closely related to patterns of media use. Spending most of the day working with computers, using the web for information and entertainment, googeling anything that comes to ones mind, media seems to have become an integral part of thinking itself, for many people. Probably even more so for the typical urban visitor of contemporary art exhibitions.
Considering that exhibitions should be designed as portals to content that one might not find otherwise. Rather than showing a 90 minute video there should be a compressed version that works much like a teaser. One can think of technical solutions that allow to compose a collection of links while walking through the exhibition. Cell phones could be used as simple input devices for that. With paying the entrance fee visitors could get access to a personalized website with all the links and content they’ve marked during their visit. If an account is created for each entrance ticket (each ticket relates to a unique ID) one can also imagine to allow visitors to come back a second time (maybe the last one is to complicated considering the hassle with the personalized world cup tickets). There are plenty of possibilities how to really integrate media and exhibitions. Having 100 hours of videos in an exhibition is extremely pour interface design and actually disrespectful towards the visitor.
I know that curators and exhibition places will argue that integrating technology the way I suggest is to expensive, that asking artists to create content that formally integrates well with this kind of a structure is not realistic and that putting content on the web is not safe, because people would copy it. How to deal with those problems is a question of functional design to me. Rethinking the exhibition means rethinking business models for exhibition places and it means rethinking the artist. And of course it means rethinking the curator as a designer of art presentation who can think functionally and not only aesthetically.
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