From Curator Journal this month, my conversation with Machine Project’s Mark Allen about museums, strangers interactions, and the art of interruption

The life of the street, at its best, is lyrical, unexpected, and momentarily intimate. Cities by definition comprise strangers, and when strangers find cause to break their urban detachment, the episodes of street intimacy they make can be precious and thrilling. These moments fascinate me, both in my own experience and in the abstract, as what I believe to be a craved pleasure of city dwellers. I’m talking here about the pleasure of interruption, of fleeting connections. These moments are metonyms for why we choose to live in cities. They shimmer with the beauty of the ordinary and everyday. And they’re rich with meaning, as instances of what linguists call “phatic communication,” which is to say, an exchange that has little semantic value but high social and emotional value. When your neighbor says, “How’re you doing?” what they also say is: I know you, I recognize you, we’re in this thing of being humans together.

I am both a writer and a teacher, and my passion is opening windows for people to see and experience the things I see when I move through the world–a world driven and animated by the marvelous interruptions of street life in the city. The story of my first novel, Follow Me Down, emerges from a concatenation of these sorts of moments, drawing an existential mystery out of them. And at the Interactive Telecommunications Program of New York University I teach technologists, artists and inventors to explore these interactions in public and private experience, to understand the minutiae of how and why and where they happen. What I’ve learned from my students’ experiments and projects is that it’s far from easy to instigate city interactions that carry the same rich social and emotional experience as the ones produced by accidental convergences.

I was thinking about these contexts when I set out to revisit Mark Allen’s Machine Project, a Los Angeles non-profit performance and installation space that hosts events, workshops, and site-specific works on art, technology, natural history, science, music, literature, and food, focusing on hands-on engagement. Machine Project also operates as a loose confederacy of artists producing site-specific work. They’re currently serving as artists in residence at the Hammer Museum of Art, producing a year of programming addressing the visitor experience and public engagement. I find their work deeply charming, and exciting for the ways that their installations shift the dynamics of museum spaces. The Machine Project’s work changes the aura and authority in the room. It can call into question the social rules of how museum spaces are used, what is allowed, what is expected. They are skilled orchestrators of unexpected experiences in unexpected places.

Out on the street, in everyday conversations, at work, at school, or in the museum, we are governed by unwritten rules and unexpressed expectations that are visible, knowable, only when they are broken. It’s jarring and illuminating when it happens. It pulls you firmly into the present, into the moment and place where you are. This is not merely a metaphor: a moment like that wakes you up.

Mark and I met up in New York recently to talk about our shared passion for playful awakenings.

–Kio Stark

Mark Allen: Machine Project started out as a real interest in this notion of the city as the site of engagement with different kinds of ideas. Every week we engage with a different form of culture, so there’s cycling of different kinds of ideas and people. Because it’s a storefront, you can see what’s going on in there and cues of authority are not particularly strong. It’s a very casual space and people wander in.

When you move into the museum it’s a very authoritative space and so I got very interested in what that space is and how people occupy it. One way to think of it is as a civic space like a park. So, there are other people there. They’re there to use the space in the same way that you are. You do not know them, but there is a kind of commonness of purpose.

Kio Stark: And there’s a set of expectations about that–a working consensus is what it’s called in sociology–about behavior. There’s also a set of experiential expectations. In theory you go to the museum to have your mind opened and to have a contemplative experience, but you know what that experience is going to be in advance and you’re prepared to take pictures of it and you’re prepared to talk about it afterwards in certain ways. So the space includes those codes as well, and you may have a predetermined narrative of what happens in the museum space.

MA: Yes, so part of my project overall is how can you carve out a space in the museum that’s less authoritative and how you can make work that is smaller, more intimate in that same space. One thing I do is look at interstitial spaces. The museum really constructs viewership in galleries and not in elevators so you do something in an elevator, it feels like a different form of space and it also changes the viewer’s perception of where the site of the aesthetic experience is. It’s a way of producing a different form of attention.

KS: Which is really central to the way I think about interruption and pleasure–in this case, unexpected experience in public space and unexpected experience of a space where you’ve got an idea of what’s supposed to be happening and that gets disrupted. So let’s talk about a concrete example of how you do that.

MA: Sure, one example is at the Hammer Museum, they have a coat room which is underneath the stairs of the museum and we’ve been staging two-minute concerts for two people at a time in there. It’s a very raw space. There is a coat rack with a security guard, a couple of chairs in the corner. It feels like backstage. So I conceptualize it as a spot that’s more connected to the security of the museum, but it also feels like a space outside the panopticon of security. The lobby that the coatroom is in feels like a bank lobby so the architecture and the security are constructed in such a way that it’s very intimidating.

In conceiving the piece, I thought about metaphors like: “You’re squatting in an abandoned house,” or “you’re at a party at somebody’s parents house when they’re out of town when you’re a teenager,” situations where you don’t own the space. In the coatroom concert, you’re occupying in a way that makes you both more aware of how the rest of the museum space constructs authority, but also feels like some kind of escape from that.

KS: In interpersonal relations, there’s the concept of the opening position, which is the position of openness or receptivity that an unengaged person presents, and then the opening move someone makes to engage that person. I was thinking about the space of the museum having or lacking opening positions, and that your work creates opening positions in spaces where they are not expected. This is a big thing with my students at ITP. They get very focused on the technology and we have to push them to consider the idea that you have to get people to pick up the object, or walk up to something that’s going to interact with them, or initiate an interaction with someone–whether it’s via technology or not. People have to feel invited into involvement. So, with the coatroom piece, I’m thinking: how did the piece invite people in?

MA: We have a giant sign that says, “Two-minute concerts, inquire.” We tried a bunch of different strategies. We tried asking people when they came in if they wanted to see a concert. We tried seating somebody right by the sign and in the end it seemed like those approaches were a little bit oppressive. People had just entered the museum and they didn’t really want to have to think about this crazy thing of whether they wanted to hear a two-minute concert in a closet. So we scaled back a little bit, and instead tried to give lots of indicators of what was happening and to have people you could ask. We would sometimes leave the door open so you would see the people performing, and the people watching people perform. They can imagine in their head what it will be like if they’ve seen someone else do it. In general that’s always a really good model for participatory things. If you can create it so that the non-participants can see other people participating, then it sort of becomes like the way you put a dollar in your tip jar at the beginning of your shift. It may be unfamiliar, but you can see how to use it.

KS: Did people stand around outside talking about it?

MA: In this case, not really. It does happen in some of our work. You can create a piece where it’s a container for people to do something in.

KS: The piece becomes a social object.

MA: It depends on how much you construct for that, and of course, it depends if it’s one of the values that the work is trying to advance.

KS: You can only choreograph with so much certainty, though, right? In terms of how people respond to the piece socially. There’s the Marina Abramovic piece at MoMA. It’s a performance for one person in a situation that’s being watched by everyone else. You’re very aware of being watched and photographed when you’re sitting there with her.

So it’s an intimate experience in public, and you would think it would become a social object in that way. But it doesn’t really. It’s a fascinating situation in the space she’s made. People are sitting and talking, and even though the piece is about this profound presentness and attention, everyone else is kind of chattering. You’re at enough distance from the intimate performance that you don’t feel like you’re interrupting it. I sat on the sidelines and had a conversation with my friend about her love life and then we’d watch for a while and then we would go back to talking. That’s what most people were doing, alternating between attention and inattention. What surprised me was I didn’t actually see a lot of people talking to strangers in that arena. Usually any point of triangulation is an excuse for people to talk to each other. It’s the equivalent of when something weird happens on the subway.

There’s also a way of constructing an experience that’s not just social but also collective. You guys have done really interesting things in that vein.

MA: We did a “dream-in” at the Hammer Museum, a program organized by Art Spa, where 180 people slept overnight in the museum. We did lucid dreaming workshops and then people volunteered to be woken up at 5:00 the next morning, and we videotaped what their dreams were and then we had actors doing a subtle reenactment of the dreams the next day, playing with the idea that there’s a trace of the dreams.

And actually what was interesting about it was much less that they were sleeping in a museum but just that as an adult (if you’re not trapped at the airport or in a refugee camp) very seldom do you sleep with 180 people. So that experience itself is really interesting.

MA: There’s such a dynamic there of public and private experience. Your dreams are private insights into yourself. But in this case you’re making those insights and raw images public to strangers, and having a collective experience of private matters.

I like how much room there is in your work for the audience to maneuver. The container is generous. In the Tino Sehgal piece at the Guggenheim, that we talked about the other day, it’s a bit different. [This Progress, an installation by the British-German artist whose father fled Pakistan, was on view in February and March 2010.] The piece was also designed to make a small, intimate experience for each participant, in the context of a collective experience. All in this space that was supposed to be about something completely different, which is spectatorship of objects, basically.

The piece involved a series of guided conversations with a series of performers that had a very individual quality for each person. The visitor entered the [emptied-out] rotunda of the museum and was met by a child. The child asked the visitor a question and listened to the answer. As they continued walking up, the child told the answer to a teenager. The child introduced the teenager to the visitor, who continued the conversation as the child walked away. Farther up the ramp, an adult popped out and interjected a statement into the conversation. The teenager introduced the visitor to the adult, who continued walking up as the teenager walked away. At a certain point on the ramp, the adult disappeared. The visitor was greeted by an old person who introduced him or herself, gave the visitor the name of the piece, and told a story as they continued walking up the ramp to the top. The problem was that people immediately asked: “What is this? What is this about?” That wasn’t a question the performers were supposed to answer. So there’s the issue of what do you do when the audience is breaking character as audience, or, by asking those kinds of questions, they are refusing to stay in the container of the piece.

MA: Sehgal’s work is very theatrical, and theater works because of conventions–I sit here, and I behave this way, things happen in the performance space and I clap. Sehgal is creating these sorts of interactive theatrical experiences, which are also playing with the form of theater, so that you have people trying to have the experience, and at the same time being shown how to deconstruct it. and I think that becomes a difficult thing to choreograph.

But I have very different intentions, of course. I usually like to let people know as much as possible what the thing is. When something really is concerned about creating different kinds of experiences around our ideas but within the space of the social in a way that’s very gentle and comfortable. I like it to be clear that we’re now going to do X, Y, Z, P and Q, and hopefully that gets people into a place where they can then kind of just roll with the experience.

KS: As you said, it’s interstitial. It’s not instead of the art, rather, you’re sneaking unexpected experiences into the spaces and overall environment of the museum. I think that’s the most exciting thing that’s going on, whether it’s in museums or traditional public spaces, and whether you’re using technology or basic human interaction, whether it’s about the quotidian or the spectacular. You’re changing the experience of particular spaces and their authority, and at the same time you’re engaging the same feelings of pleasure and aliveness and awareness as you might get from talking to a stranger in the street. I love that.

As a savvy museumgoer, I know that the museum is where the art (or history, or science) is, and that being in the museum makes it art or history or science in a way that has all kinds of economic, social, and cultural ramifications. Now, the museum is always going to be about the art or the history or the science, fundamentally. But the building in which that material is situated is such fertile social space, and rarely used as such.

So, let me say this another way. As an investigator of the public realm, I also know that museums don’t often act like public space, and I’d call that a missed opportunity. To act like public space (like a park or an urban plaza, for example) is not simply to open one’s doors. To act like a public space is to allow and encourage a wider variety of activities than those that are programmed. To let the constituents of the space have some freedom and spontaneity in how they are using it–and since this may be a radical shift within a museum, I think you also have to entice them into thinking of it that way. Even the café, the most potentially sociable, least ruled-by-convention part of a museum manages not to be very sociable. And here’s the challenge: People don’t seem to think of their encounter with the art or history or science as something that’s happening to other people around them at the same time.

I like to see performances, installations, interventions in museum spaces that make that fact impossible to ignore. In Machine Project’s work, you find that there is something weird here in the spaces between the art, and we’re all seeing it, and maybe voluntarily participating in it. In Tino Sehgal’s piece, the experience was the whole of the art, visitors and performers intermingled, and the collective nature of the experience was integral to the piece. Other artists approach the problem in different ways. For me, the point is simply that in treating the museum as a social space you can provoke a very different form of awareness. One of the awakenings you can have in that space is to the space itself, and another is to the other humans in it, to the idea that you are actually sharing an experience with strangers.

Kio Stark writes about and teaches relational technology and human social dynamics at the Interactive Telecommunications Program, New York University, New York City. Her first novel, Follow Me Down, will be published by Red Lemonade in June. Mark Allen is the director of Machine Project, Los Angeles.

This is the pre-peer-reviewed version of the following article: “A Conversation about Machine Project” in Curator: The Museum Journal, 54:1 January 2011, which has been published in final form here.


1 Response to “From Curator Journal this month, my conversation with Machine Project’s Mark Allen about museums, strangers interactions, and the art of interruption”

  1. 1 Mark Allen on getting people to participate « virtues of the absurd Trackback on January 29, 2011 at 2:34 pm

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