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Yes, You Can Touch It: Interactivity and the Museum Space

Mar 20, 2018

In September 2017, the Museum opened Sonic Arcade: Shaping Space with Sound, a multi-component exhibition featuring interactive installations, immersive environments, and performing objects that explored how the ephemeral and abstract nature of sound is made material. In this previously published essay, Forrest Pelsue, who was the Sonic Arcade: Subject to Gesture Engagement Fellow, recalls visitors' responses to the exhibition's interactivity. 

From a young age, we are taught how to behave in our surroundings: “Raise your hand before asking a question”; “Say please and thank you”; “Put that back where you found it.” Museums in particular have notoriously strict codes of conduct: no photography, no flash, no food or drink, no running, don’t talk too loud, and especially, DO NOT TOUCH.  

With the exhibition Sonic Arcade, the Museum of Arts and Design encourages direct contact in a space where objects are ordinarily off-limits. Signs invite you to “play gently” and “make your own rules.” Galleries are filled with artworks and objects that rely on interaction in order to be fully experienced. When faced with gadgets and gizmos aplenty in a space where we’re usually limited to using our eyes, what is a visitor to do?

My role for the last four months has been to facilitate visitor interaction and understanding of Subject to Gesture, one of the nested exhibitions within Sonic Arcade. This mini-exhibition centers on the concept of visual music and the practice of creating electronic sound. During the time I spent stationed in the gallery, I learned a lot from visitors about what it means to interact with objects in a museum. Although some seemed hesitant to engage, more often I was impressed by people’s eagerness to dive in, to explore something new, and most of all to share that experience with others. Their constant curiosity gave me fresh perspectives on the objects I stared at for hours a day. Visitors’ reactions and questions highlighted both the benefits of engagement and the issues that arise when the museum space is made interactive.

1. “What is this thing?”

One of the unique aspects of Subject to Gesture is the inclusion of analogue synthesizers, objects that most people—with the exception of musicians and electronics enthusiasts—have never encountered. Unlike Julianne Swartz’s singing ceramics and even the cacophonous superstructure Knotted Gate Presence Weave, which are more obviously read as crafted or designed objects, the synthesizers are an amalgamation of functional mechanics, electronic systems, and aesthetic objects. While viewers can appreciate Swartz’s ceramics as sculptural work and Knotted Gate Presence Weave as an installation piece, it can be challenging to decipher the synthesizer’s presence in the gallery space. This makes the synthesizer especially intimidating when presented for interaction, as its use appears to require special knowledge. Visitors often spend a minute assessing the synths, keeping their distance, asking each other, “What is this thing?”

Once the initial surprise (or skepticism) subsides, visitors have the opportunity to interact with an object rarely seen in daily life. The chance to literally lay hands on synthesizers—some of which, like the LYRA-8, are renowned in electronic music circles—gives the visitor access to a new realm of objects, ideas, and creativity. These aren’t watered-down versions that simplistically explain how analogue electronic music is made; these are the actual handmade objects used in the industry. Furthermore, though the synthesizers appear confusing, most are intuitively designed and easy to use. Simply touching a sensor or turning a knob starts the visitor on their aural journey into the production of electronic sound. The more complex systems, like the Double Double Knot, are more difficult to grasp on the first go, and this is why I’m there, because sometimes people do get a little stuck.

The designs of the synthesizers allow visitors to sculpt their own sounds, and visitor participation is necessary for the synthesizer to reveal the extent of its possibility. While interaction with an intricate object appears challenging at first, a hands-on experience is key to comprehending the synthesizer as both a uniquely crafted structure and a useful instrument.

2. “Where’s the craft?”

When people think of arts and design, the first things to come to mind are usually objects like textiles, chairs, or interiors. Subject to Gesture diverges from conventional conceptions to explore sound as art and electronics as design. The exhibition includes a number of unique, handmade objects, which require a great amount of individual skill and labor to construct. However, some visitors are nonplussed upon entering the gallery, surprised to encounter “Oh, more sounds,” and wondering, “Where’s the craft?”

Interaction offers an answer to this question. When visitors engage with the synthesizers, which appear mechanized and cold, they are often surprised to find the systems quite sensitive and user-friendly. As they explore the different synths on display, the diversity of approaches and methods becomes apparent, underlining the distinctive design of each piece. Super Mode, made by Emily Counts, is especially effective at joining disparate notions of craft and technology. Small windows on the sides of the work show how the hand-built ceramic “keys” are wired into a Raspberry Pi computer system, such that each key triggers a different sonic sound bite. Visitors enjoy looking at this work as much as playing it, which highlights how aesthetics affects consideration of both artworks and instruments.

3. “This place is super wow.”

Sonic Arcade is a unique museum experience on many levels. Not only does it include unconventional objects and extensive opportunities for interaction, but it also challenges the expectations visitors bring to MAD. When invited to touch, play, listen, and react in unfamiliar ways, visitors may find themselves outside of their museum comfort zones. While for some this can be disturbing, it can also be liberating: the boundaries shift, allowing visitors to take an active role in exploring craft and design rather than simply bearing witness. Whether positive or negative, I believe everyone who has encountered the exhibition would agree it is a different museum experience. As for me, in all my time stationed in this exhibition, I think one visitor put it best: “This place is super wow.”


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