January 27, 2009

On Letting Them Do It Themselves: Activated Anarchy vs. Designed Intentions

Bay Area artist Stephanie Syjuco weighs in here on the successes and pitfalls of ‘participatory’ art, and takes a close look at New York design firm Freecell‘s Stack-to-Fold project, currently in use in our second-floor “D-space“.

“(T)hese objects, once they are assembled, will lend themselves to certain functions, but they might also be reconfigured and used in ways that we can not foresee..Precisely because we might embrace the idea of dysfunctionality-the fact that it becomes more difficult to do something maybe is what makes it more interesting — and provide an open situation.” — SFMOMA curator of media arts Rudolf Frieling

The term D.I.Y., or “Do It Yourself,” has become something of a buzzword lately, an ethos. The acronym was spawned from early 1950s home repair manuals, grew to refer to alternative punk and hardcore music, and now encompasses everything from the burgeoning indie craft scene to the Slow Food movement. Doing It Yourself, it seems, is pretty darn cool because it means you can really “have it your way” and the term wears itself like the ultimate democratic and even populist statement. We are all creators! We are all designers!

However, left to their own devices, humans can be an unruly lot, especially when it comes to following a given set of instructions. Take it from someone who once worked as a designer at a hands-on science museum: a large part of my day was spent trying to design instructions and images to coax museum visitors into doings things a “certain way” (push this button) to get a “certain result” (make it go). The trick was to frame the instruction in a friendly and “rewarding” way that would make the visitor feel they had gained something (“I learned about quantum physics! Neat-o”), or had done something correctly (“I followed the instructions and the whirly thing spun around”). These were the basic goals, with conveying complex concepts falling at one end of the success spectrum, and delivering simple physical results falling on the other.

Mind you, these were the best outcomes one could hope for. What usually happened, comically enough, was a lot of museum visitors randomly banging around on high-tech machinery, buttons being pushed willy-nilly out of sequence, and the lovingly designed graphics ignored and thrown to the winds of instructional irrelevance. What I learned, essentially, is that humans are a messy, anarchic lot that, on the whole — and despite your best-designed intentions — will revert to a herd of cats with incredibly short attention spans.

Of course I’m being more than just a little cheeky here. For every fifty people who “do it wrong,” (or don’t do it at all) the one person who does it “right” may really get the right “something” out of it. And who says there’s no success in eliciting joy from randomly pushing buttons anyway? What is right, anyway? And what is, for lack of a better term… wrong?


Initial Freecell design proposal photographs

How do designers and viewer/participants gauge “success” when it comes to open-ended or participatory experiences? Especially when the viewer/participant is called upon to follow a given set of rules but also to bring in their own creativity (or even lethargy) and possibly do something unforeseen or deemed “unruly” by the designer? In other words, are all outcomes — especially the ugly — ones… good? Does inviting someone to respond to a work only to have them merely scribble graffiti on it a valid invitation-response exchange in itself? Should designers nod approvingly when their works get turned upside down? To take a well-known and ongoing online example, I wonder how much of the “crappy” or “wrong” responses end up online at the “Learning to Love You More” website by Harrell Fletcher and Miranda July and how do they get weeded out as so? I assume that not every response is deemed a “right” response.What an artist/designer hopes for is a response to their solicitations for participation. But I suspect they also expect something in particular. How does a sliding scale of success become formulated?All of this is a rather long-winded way to begin a rumination on design group Freecell’s Stack-to-Fold , commissioned by SFMOMA for the Participation exhibition. Visiting on a crowded Free Tuesday at the museum last week, I encountered gorgeously designed cardboard panels available in the museum’s D-Space area for visitors to punch out (they are perforated) and assemble into different modular types of furniture-like structures: bench-like things and wedge-like table-things. Depending how the assembler wanted to interpret it, each person could design for themselves different useful components out of basic building blocks: perhaps a bench to sit on to watch the movies being projected in the space, or a comfy corner to sit against, or perhaps a platform to peruse a book on. In a prior blog interview the designers touched on the notion of dysfunction as inherent in their design setup and this is what intrigued me the most during my observation of their installation.

OK, back to the unruly public:

I can appreciate when the best of intentions goes a bit haywire. Structured (or even semi-structured) situations like Freecell’s project have the potential to elicit the most interesting and off-the-wall end products simply because the public responses defy expectation.

I feel for anyone in the designer’s situation who finds themselves inviting a type of open-ended response but may also have a rather specific vision of what they want the outcome to be. As someone who has also tried her hand in projects that elicited outside participation, it was an interesting personal barometer as to what I deemed “acceptable” as a result. I have been both amused, shocked, and humbled by the off-the-wall end-products generated. The Counterfeit Crochet Project solicits crafters all over the world to hand-make designer products and then send me photographs of the results. These have ranged from stunning feats of verisimilitude and skill to the most banal or strangely made objects. And while I’ve been impressed at the “good” ones (interesting proposition: can you really counterfeit “correctly”?), it’s the “bad” results — the lumpy mistranslations, the not-so-perfect outcomes, the Christmas ornaments, doilies, and non-designer results that actually give me more insight into the real customized DIY experience, one that reflects personal tastes, concerns, and a “this is what I want to do, not so much what you want me to do” attitude. In the end, I keep all the results, promise to show all the items in some way, and have learned that you never can tell how people will interpret your proposition.


Left: original image of Coach handbag. Right: counterfeit crochet version, never finished, by Carrie Suchman from Ohio.

Suzanne Stein, SFMOMA community producer, pointed me in the direction of this video snippet showing SFMOMA visitors using Lygia Clark’s interactive work Rede de elástico (Elastic Net) as a jump rope in the galleries. This work requires visitors to collectively knot together individual rubber bands to create a “net” of sorts; life as a jump rope was unexpected and had to be quickly discouraged as it may have interfered with or bumped into other works in the gallery. To be fair, in an earlier Open Space blog interview, Art of Participation curator Rudolf Frieling acknowledges that there are always institutional restraints that keep artworks from getting too unruly and that may even hinder a fully “active” participatory experience. Clark intended her work to be actively played with. It’s just that SFMOMA can’t accommodate all the ways in which that can happen.Institutional limitations

“There is a famous historic example of an exhibition by Robert Morris in 1971, at the Tate in London, that had to be closed after a few days because people were destroying some of the objects. There is an urge and an eagerness to do something and to participate that can be counterproductive to the usual aims of a museum.” — Rudolf Frieling

Freecell’s initial plan was devised for a minimal room with no other furniture in it, in which visitors could construct the modular units. But “D-space” is also the Koret Visitor Education center, and purity just wasn’t possible: Stack-to-Fold bumps up against a video projection area, and coloring/drawing area (The 1000 Journals Project), creating a bit of confusion as to what one is supposed to focus on or pay attention to. As the exhibition progressed, it was also apparent to the museum staff that folks weren’t utilizing the space “correctly” by making their own seating area and tables out of the Freecell units, so they added actual chairs and a formal sitting area with tables. This may have discouraged folks even more from thinking of their constructions as functioning as utility items. From my visit, it looked as if the Freecell units had become surfaces upon which to graffiti on or stack like Legos. It certainly looked like a far cry from the clean, platonic, designed experience originally depicted in their mock-ups.

The Participation show, and the Freecell project in particular, invites viewers to take part in a specific set of circumstances; artists/designers as well as the museum then have to stand back and hope that they have constructed a proposition that is both contained yet still open to interpretation. What’s interesting to me are the divergences that occur, the trajectories and unruliness that can come about from the public choosing to reinterpret or even ignore a given set of conditions within a participatory artwork and just “do it themselves” in their own way. Also, actual institutional circumstances (space constraints, budgets, etc) can hinder the execution of a “pure” vision. I’m curious if there’s such a thing as “failure” in these types of works, and if so, how do we evaluate this? As artists and curators, we try to frame our participatory proposition to the best of our abilities, and then it is up to us to step away and watch what happens when set upon by that fabulous, inventive, unruly, and chaotic public. Whether we like it or not.

Stephanie Syjuco is a visual artist based in San Francisco. Working primarily in sculpture and installation, her objects mistranslate and misappropriate iconic symbols, creating frictions between high ideals and everyday materials. You can view her work at http://www.stephaniesyjuco.com.

Comments (2)

  • It’s very informative posting, actualy i’m new in the domain matter, so this writing help me much increase my knowledge.

  • Rudolf Frieling says:

    Stephanie, thanks for this great reflection. One comment on the notion of failure in the spirit of Samuel Beckett “you can only fail better the next time”: the Freecell project, like many others, is open and does not prescribe a specific function. What is specific is just how to assemble them, what is open though is to what end. So finding out about the visitors’ use of these cardboard pieces is an accomplishment in itself. We also learned a lot about the space and its overdetermined multi-purpose function. Setting these constraints aside at least temporarily has been a truly rewarding experiment which I would not consider a failure. The level of complexity is maybe key to the degree of participation. In our specific case, some of these cardboard pieces were probably asking too much. We should have had a series of objects that were easier to assemble. Rudolf

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