Thinking Inside the Box

Graphics: Omar Mohammad.

Graphics: Omar Mohammad.

On a sunny day last year in Foster City, California, I walked outside with hundreds of other colleagues at the biotechnology company where I work to witness what was pegged as “The Great American Eclipse.” As I stood there among cliques of co-workers, listening to inane banter, my cynical thoughts gave way to an appreciation for nature’s ability to bring disparate personalities together for something quite beautiful and rare.

On two consecutive Saturday mornings this past spring, writers, artists, curators, and technologists walked into a room. I know this sounds like the start to a bad joke. But in all seriousness, Rethink: Web prompted a group of SFMOMA’s community members to think inside the box — the rectangular field of vision that so often defines how we experience the internet. How does one think within that physical and visual space in order to imagine something new?

As we compared and contrasted online and “in real life” (IRL) experiences, the difficulty of making a digital space that was both inclusive and accessible to the general public became our biggest challenge. We were reminded that non-visual experiences are not nearly as prioritized as they should be when it comes to web design, development, and more generally deepening one’s engagement with an institution. Fostering inclusivity and accessibility for neuroatypical patrons and those with disabilities requires thinking in ways many of us are not accustomed to, and we were soon confronted with our individual and collective ableism.

My group was comprised of a diverse set of individuals: Cecile Puretz, the Access and Community Engagement Manager at the Contemporary Jewish Museum; Fanciulla Gentile, a multidisciplinary sound artist; Jasper Speicher, an artist working in design, art, and technology; and myself, a writer, curator, and researcher. We wanted to explore questions like: How does accessibility inform visual interfaces? How do concerns regarding accessibility and visual design relate to the discussion about commercial versus collaborative design? What makes a collective experience? One definition of collective experience is a cooperative in which people have a central focus or action, which in turn begs the questions, What is a collective digital experience? Is such a thing even possible?

Taking a nostalgic step back, we reflected on participating in everything from AOL chatrooms to massive multiplayer games. Forums often engage people with likeminded ideas and interests, but we were interested in exploring what collaborative and collective experiences might look like beyond this, such as in commercial and educational spaces. With respect to design, we also discussed how to “translate” ideas and language into interactive visual and non-visual experiences. We focused on creating spaces that take into account housebound people and those who choose to not be out in public space, but still possess a desire to converge with others. How might one ensure these people are represented during the creation of systems and platforms?

Fanciulla, Cecile, Jasper, and I thought broadly about what moved and provoked us in the past because we wanted to foster online encounters that would draw people both into and back outside of the museum in ways that felt communal and shared. We exchanged thoughts about non-art-related events, from wedding parties to the aforementioned solar eclipse, and found ourselves most attracted to ideas that factored as many of the senses as possible. How might sensory activation generate intellectual and emotional intimacies online?

On the second day of the workshop, our group created a list of nascent ideas:

  • A plug-in enabling a patron to “hear” something visual and experience a kind of synesthesia
  • Playing with two extreme ends of the spectrum — sensory restriction and sensory overload
  • Multisensory transmedia experiences bridging IRL and digital presences

We decided to focus on two projects we felt might spur SFMOMA to engage with a broad public. The first one, Altaesthesia, would connect search engine queries with results from the SFMOMA collection, enabling participants to create exhibitions and collections of their own, including writing accompanying curatorial notes. The primary difference between Altaesthesia and other aggregate platforms like are.na is that it would require the user to enter synesthetic interpretations and translations of experiences with a given artwork as opposed to more objective or descriptive information. For example, a user would be asked to enter a multisensory descriptor of a memory involving one or all of the five senses and attach any media considered relevant to that entry.

Similar to Wikipedia’s collective ethos, the design projects we dreamed up would be merely a start for artists, writers, researchers, and educators aiming to level accessibility and relinquish — even if for a brief moment — the gatekeeping tools that feed power structures instead of communities. This form of emergent collective experience would allow patrons to become producers themselves, and we had a plethora of questions related to this idea: Would patrons receive incentives to participate? What would those incentives be? How would we ensure privacy and anonymity while providing accessibility and much more equitable engagement? Perhaps tellingly, our ideas started to resemble a social media platform, but the group’s objective remained the creation of a non-commercial experience that would allow for playfulness and discovery.

The second project, Over and Ask (Ksht!), takes its name from Fanciulla’s brilliant spelling for the sound of walkie talkie transmissions. We dreamed up the idea after discussing how we might, in real time, have an impromptu conversation about art with a stranger. Museum-goers who downloaded an application could receive notifications when another participant wanted to discuss a specific piece within the museum; the app would connect the individuals via a button-activated system attached to artworks currently on exhibit. After the call, both participants would have the option to have an auto-generated transcription of the conversation submitted to the SFMOMA archive as metadata for the work. The transcript would also be available on the site or through tours to museum goers who are visually impaired. We imagined Over and Ask (Ksht!) as a buddy system, pairing people from different disciplines and experiences. Consent would be an absolute must for this project or, as previously mentioned, we would invite patrons interested in becoming interlocutors themselves with no need to provide or use their own mobile device. Like party lines in the late ’90s, anyone interested in being connected to a one-on-one conversation would do so through a centralized system available via the app. We also thought about what it might be like to be paired with someone who does not speak your language.

But why a phone call? Essentially, we wanted to tap into the immediacy of having access to someone who might provide insightful comments or valuable knowledge, or offer a perspective different from one’s own. We were deeply inspired by work that connects people over an occurrence or event, thus bridging worldviews that wouldn’t otherwise intersect. In 2017, at the Contemporary Jewish Museum, a project titled In That Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art took on the “Talmudic study principle of havruta,” pairing people from distinct areas of study to examine a concept or idea; this premise presented us with a helpful model as we thought through Over and Ask (Ksht!). We also discussed the Study Sessions at The Whitney Museum, in which an artist selects a piece from the permanent collection and is given the option to create public programming around a central question of their own asking. However, we wanted to go beyond anything that felt formally educational, believing playfulness and whimsy through audio and collective curation would make unforgettable ways of starting conversations and sustaining dialogue. With accessibility as one of our major themes, we discussed the resources required to create a telecommunication relay service for visitors with disabilities.

Overall, our group wanted to imagine atypical web experiences. Over and Ask (Ksht!) and Altaesthesia seek to make the museum and digital experience possible in much more multi-dimensional and multi-directional fashions. Embodied experiences of art continue to be of great value because they show us there are many ways to take in art. Seemingly unorthodox pairings might result in generative exchanges, spurring real change — however minute — within our current political and cultural deadlock.

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