Fresh & New(er)

discussion of issues around digital media and museums by Seb Chan

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‘Constant short term nostalgia’

February 14th, 2013 by Seb Chan
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Suse Cairns, writing about how carrying her iPhone around with her as a (then) later adopter PhD student changed her way of seeing (and experiencing) the world,

I now see socially. I listen, not just for myself, but for what I can translate and share to my networks. I pay attention to the ideas that you, my network, is interested in, and in so doing, I encounter the world through that lens. The things I notice are not of interest to me alone. I notice those things that I think you would be interested in too, and I think of you when I am noticing them.

This is probably a familiar experience for many of you.

But I also think it is one that passes – over time – and in my case has been replaced by a sense of ‘constant short term nostalgia’.

Timehop is a good example of a service that feeds this desire. It works by reminding you everyday of what you did exactly one year, two years, three years and more, ago to the day on the various social services that you’ve given it access to – your tweets, your photos, your location checkins.

There is no forward or back in the interface. Just the past, exactly to the day. It is a constraint that greatly enhances its appeal/addiction.

Much like my children who won’t, until the Great Power Outage comes, be able to forget the overly-detailed photographic renderings of their childhoods, Timehop (and the more diary-like Momento) is a constant reminder of what you were saying that you were doing, what you thought was interesting enough to photograph, and where you were.

I’m not as concerned as, say Simon Reynolds, about this, but it is uncharted territory. This is related to, but qualitatively different from, the constant warnings to young people about the ‘permanency’ of unfortunate public overshares.

Just as there is value in being able to forget, there may also be value in not ‘seeing socially’ (Goffman, anyone?) – or at least, being able to un-see.

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Coming back around to colour in 2013 via 2009 via 2005

February 13th, 2013 by Seb Chan
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The online collection experiment that changed a lot of the way I looked at museum collections was the Electronic Swtachbook that we launched at Powerhouse way way back in 2005. The first version took a selection of high resolution images of fabric swatches from the Powerhouse collection of swatchbooks and made them available for free download, asserting that their Copyright had lapsed and that they were now in the Public Domain. One twist was that, because they were not individually catalogued, we enabled user tagging. The experience with that project led directly to the development and launch of the Powerhouse’s then influential “OPAC 2.0” the following year.

Giv Parvaneh who worked as a developer on the Swatchbook and OPAC2.0 as part of my team back then left the Powerhouse and went to work in the UK. A few years later while he was at the BBC we circled back and he added some long discussed ‘colour search’ features to the Electronic Swatchbook in 2009.

Fast forward to today and at Cooper-Hewitt we released colour browsing on the Cooper-Hewitt’s prototype online collection site. Aaron Cope took a look at the colour analysis code that Giv eventually released on GitHub, made a few modifications and enhancements, building upon that good work and now it is live.

In keeping with the generous spirit of Giv’s code release, Cooper-Hewitt also released its code and method to the world.

There’s little value in keeping useful code, useful tools, and useful methods to yourself in the museum sector. As I’ve said many times before, it ends up just keeping everyone from moving forward.

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Some thoughts at the end of 2012 and a year in NYC

January 1st, 2013 by Seb Chan
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I’ve been in New York for just over a year now.

And it turns out that America is an endlessly fascinating, strange, land. Being away from Australia, it is much clearer to see how well Australia has fared economically – and how comparatively high Australian wages are.

And being the end of the year and there being a pause in regular posting, here’s a brief dump for the sake of timeliness rather than completeness.

Museums:

In the museum world, New York has two things going for it. Density of population (and tourism), and of capital. Context is everything, and many museums in New York rely on these two specifics – along with the sheer scale of their collections – more than any superiority or progressive-ness in ‘museum practice’. As I’ve told many people now, museums in Australia, New Zealand and even the UK are hungrier and more determined to be ‘relevant’ – out of necessity.

How can that be? Surely, New York museums are world-leading?

I’ve been thinking about this for the past little while and there seem to be some possible reasons.

The primary funding model (private philanthropists, foundations and big endowments) isn’t conducive to broad collaboration or ‘national-scale‘ efforts. Instead it entrenches institutional competition and counterproductive secrecy. A lot of wheels get reinvented unnecessarily.

The project-based nature of digital (and exhibitions) also tends to mean a much higher volume of outsourced creative work than in Australia. The heavy tilt towards outsourced digital work allows many museums over here to roll out impressive sites and apps (at unspoken high costs), but those same digital projects rarely have the chance to have significant institutional impact on the core. The ‘creative agency’ gets all the learnings from the project – and the museum acts in a ‘commissioning’ role. In some ways it shouldn’t be unexpected for art museums to operate like this as they’ve long had artist commissions, but it certainly isn’t helping them adapt rapidly to the future. The ‘cliffs’ that Diane Ragsdale wrote of recently are much closer to a reality in the USA.

If you’ve been following my team at Cooper-Hewitt’s Labs blog you’ll know that we’ve been forging ahead with some rapid change – using the time that the museum is rebuilding itself, physically – to rethink a lot of the basics, roll out a large number of ‘fail fast’ public experiments, and in the process establish some new paradigms. Aaron, Micah and Katie are forcing us to be ‘of the web‘ (not just ‘on the web‘), Pam is upturning the tables on museum publishing, and Shamus is reconsidering video in all of it – and our awesome interns and ‘residents‘ are reconstructing foundations and experimenting at the edges. (Want to be an intern or resident in 2013? Then make contact!)

It has been quite a shift moving in to a smaller museum and the race has been to establish new systems and create an environment of experimentation and rapid change – while we have the opportunity as our main campus is redesigned and rethought by Diller, Scofidio & Renfro and Local Projects. It has been a delight to have the opportunity to work alongside these firms – each with their own specialities and approaches. But the reality of inventing a new type of museum whilst also building one is exhausting – and I feel the limitations/realities of the architectures of meatspace daily.

It has also been a year where I’ve made the most of being closer to the ‘rest of the world’. I’ve joined numerous advisory committees and assessment panels, and much of the international work has continued with the second phase of Culture 24′s Lets Get Real digital engagement metrics project happening in the UK. There’s also been a steady run of keynotes and lectures and a fantastic week at Salzburg Global Seminar – the first half of 2013 is already booked up too! And plenty of trips down to Washington to the Smithsonian mothership.

Games:

2012 was the year I slimmed down my mobile gaming. In fact I can’t think of any game that has stayed on my iPhone from 2012 except for Triple Town. On the flip, though, was a reengaging with the longer form commitments required by desktop/laptop gaming. Probably the Kickstarter-mania around Double Fine Adventure and then Wasteland 2 started rekindling interest for me, and then Diablo 3 dropped (pretty disappointingly really). Notably Steam on the Mac has really started to deliver the titles that Mac users generally missed out on – so its been nice to catch up with the last five years all in one hit.

The kids went very deep into Minecraft after two years of casual play and I’m happy to say they understand and enjoy it far more than I do. That’s how it is supposed to be. I’ve enjoyed reading about the possibilities and then seeing my kids begin to enact them, and I am super happy that the Powerhouse has expanded their Minecraft workshops.

Mid-year I ended up talking on a panel at MOMA on art and videogames. I was probably the least interesting person there as I’m quite wedded to the idea of non-art games, and I do enjoy a FPS and old-school arcade shooter a little more than most art people (or parents!) are willing to admit. Whilst I’m impressed with MOMA’s recent acquisitions – games as examples of interaction design – I do find the art/not-art distinctions that others often raise as very dubious.

Music:

I knew I was going to be downscaling my musical activities upon moving to NYC. That’s been true in terms of performing and going to gigs but if anything, 2012 has been a bumper year for listening.

My Last.fm profile continues to track what I listen to in almost precise detail and 2012 was a busy year for revisiting a lot of music that I’m now physically located far way from.

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And, after being prompted each week to log my ‘tune of the moment’, ThisIsMyJam captured a good snapshot of some of the tunes I had on ‘high rotation’ each week. Even better, ThisIsMyJam partnered with EchoNest to auto-generate ’2012 jams’ for its users and here’s mine [see/listen!].

After seeing what is possible with EchoNest the idea of Art.sy’s Art Genome is even more seductive. Can you imagine a ThisIsMyJam-style mashup of the objects you’ve loved in all your museum visits throughout the year? MONA v2?

Although I’m probably the right in the crosshairs of Spotify’s ‘premium customer’, their service didn’t really click for me. I’m already so drowning in music, thanks to two decades of being on DJ promotional lists, and generally feeding a hardcore music habit – that Spotify’s sizeable jukebox doesn’t have a deep appeal especially for the niches in which I like to inhabit the most. (But I was never the one to listen to DJ mixes either though.)

On the other hand, Bandcamp has proven to be an occasional wallet-opener (alongside Boomkat, Bleep and the rest) as more friends start to make available their back catalogues there, and I’m gently nudged towards emerging bands by those younger than me.

I expect that there’s some lessons in that for museum content locked up in old publications and catalogues.

Happy new year, and maybe I’ll see you at one of my upcoming talks.

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On storyworlds, immersive media, narrative and museums – an interview with Mike Jones

October 2nd, 2012 by Seb Chan
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Back when I was working at the Powerhouse Museum, Mike Jones worked in the SoundHouse VectorLab (now called Thinkspace) teaching young people and adults, alike, how to tell stories with digital media. After a few years, Mike left to pursue a role at the Australian Film TV and Radio School (AFTRS), and a deep study of video games.

As I’ve been thinking about cross-media storytelling and the ways in which museum experiences and exhibitions are becoming more ‘theatrical’, I thought it made sense to get Mike’s thoughts on the matter.

F&N – You’ve worked in a museum for a while so you know the scene. It must be of interest, and perhaps mirth, that museums seem to have cottoned on the idea that ‘story’ matters. But it is obviously more complicated than that. What have you been doing since?

Since leaving the museum world I’ve been a bit of a multi-headed hydra working in lots of different ways on different things, and yet at the same time very focused and consistent in what I bring to all these projects. In simple terms, I’ve been writing for Screen-Based Media – screenplays for feature and TV projects, novels, multi-platform and interactive forms. Sometimes they are my own projects, more often it’s script editing, developing or contributing to other peoples’ babies. At the same time I’ve been teaching as a lecturer in Screen Studies at the Australian Film TV and Radio School and this is a particularly vibrant and interesting gig as I teach across all disciplines – screenwriters, directors, cinematographers, designers and so on. And with my colleague Karen Pearlman I’m teaching creative development processes for forms and formats outside of the scope of the traditional ‘film school’ – WebTV and Webseries, Online Documentary, Multi-Platform and Transmedia, Interactive Experiences. Its given me a great sort of vantage point to see the lay of the land – to be researching while I’m teaching and applying those discoveries back into my own work.

I’m now working with a newly formed company in the UK called Portal Entertainment that produces Immersive and Interactive Thriller and Horror experiences for touch-screen and mobile devices. Think Interactive Horror Movie on your iPad! My role with them is as Head of story and in effect this means my job is to ensure that the projects we produce have intrinsically strong narratives – engaging, dramatic, transformative, compelling. And we do this in a kind of platform and technology agnostic way.

The stories are not driven by the technology, the technologies are selected and constructed to best serve that story and the role we want to the audience play in that storyworld.

But I confess I get very frustrated with the word ‘story’ as its become the hot buzzword of recent years. On one hand we hold the word up like it’s some holy relic and sacred cow that must be revered, and yet at the same time (and perhaps because of this word-status) we often fail to really interrogate the word and understand what it means. We simply declare that ‘story is king’ without defining what that means or in particular, what it means in the particular context you want to ‘tell a story’.

In my work with Portal – which functions much like a TV series Writers-Table where a number of writers bring ideas forward that are workshopped, discussed, and brutalised into shape as a group – one of the first things we did was attempt to define not just what makes a ‘good story’ for an interactive touch-screen Horror/Thriller experience but also ‘how do we identify a story that is suitable to that format and environment’?

Not all stories should be interactive, not all stories can be cross-platform, so you need a kind of framework to be able to sort out the right stories from the wrong as much as you do the good from the bad.

So we focus on things like ‘Can the story be told in the First-person or Present-tense?’ and ‘Is there an Active, Meaningful and Motivated role for the audience to play in that story?’. If the story idea possesses these kind of qualities, or naturally lends itself to them, then they are the ideas we pursue and develop further.

At the same time, I get very frustrated with a lot of the baby-out-with-the-bathwater thinking that goes with technology and story thinking; that somehow it’s a ‘Whole New Form of Storytelling’, or that Storytelling on new technologies is somehow ‘All Different, all New’, that the rules don’t apply.

I think what we have to recognise is that technology has never actually changed what a story is. No story-telling technology is near so huge in impact as Radio was to a previously Theatrical and Literary culture. And yet a Radio Play conforms to all the same principles of character, tension, action, catharsis and transformation as a book, play or movie for that matter.

The technology changed what mechanics you had at your disposal to tell that story but it didn’t change what a story was or why people wanted them, what engaged and satisfied them. Just as there’s no precedent for any new media deleting an ‘old’ media (we still have TV, movies and plays in the age of video games and the internet), so to should we avoid gross assumptions of what technology does to the idea of a story. In simple terms, I work across new and old media everyday – from a feature films script to a WebSeries to online and touch-screen interactive, and the skill-set I bring to all of them as a writer and shaper of story experiences is the same – just the canvas changes.

Having said all that, not everything is a ‘story’. That’s the bit that really gets up my nose. A corporate brand logo and their social media adverts are not a bloody ‘story’!

Nor is every museum gallery or exhibition a ‘Story’.’ A story is not just a collection of things or a sequence of events. In this I think breaking down some distinctions between Story, Plot and Narration is very useful.

The framework I like to use, borrowed form numerous scholars in the field over centuries, is that Plot is a sequence of Events, Narration is how those events are Told and Story is what the Viewer experiences through the combination of the Plot being Told in a certain way… or in other words Plot + Narration = a Story Experience in the mind of the Audience.

Once we engage with this idea we can get away from the vacuous notion that ‘everything is a story’ and actually focus on bringing to bear the mechanics and craft to generate an engaging story experience – dramatic questions, a cause and effect chain, a distinct voice in the ‘telling’ of the story, clear point-of-view, characters who are flawed and have desires and obstacles – a story that’s worth experiencing.

This is where I wonder about museums and the idea of story telling.

In factual and documentary storytelling (which is obviously analogous to storytelling in the museum context), the topic or subject is never what the story is actually ‘about’. Stories are not about their subjects – subjects are metaphor, subjects are the means to explore bigger ideas.

So, for example, if a museum does an exhibition on fashion, there is a fundamental story-telling problem if the curator believes the exhibition is actually about fashion. If such an exhibition is going to embrace storytelling then it will no longer be about fashion – fashion will simply be a metaphor for something else and the curators and design team better have a very clear understanding of what that ‘something’ is if they want to create an effective story experience.

This obviously isn’t rocket science and I imagine many curators would agree, yet I see very few museum exhibitions that enact this idea – I see a lot of exhibitions that seem to hint at the idea of storytelling, yet ultimately the exhibition is only about the subject. This is the equivalent of a movie that is all plot and no subtext, all dialogue and no transformation of character.

In this context perhaps we might argue that storytelling is only suitable for ‘some’ exhibitions but not all? What do you think? Is story intrinsic to the museum exhibition? or is it a tool that some exhibitions might use? Is it being used well? Is it being used poorly?

F&N – A number of us in museums have been thinking about exhibition design as ‘storytelling with physical space’. At the same time we know that people in the screen industries are attempting storytelling across both multiple screens and other media. Perhaps there is a potential intersection here? What are some of the key lessons from screen-based media’s attempts to ‘branch out’ that have been learned recently? Certainly with all their experience with audio tours and mobile tours, museums might have some good ‘second screen’ ideas to contribute?

I think the idea of Spatial Narrative is a really important idea and also a vibrant one with lots of good precedents. The obvious connection is with 3D video gaming and ideas by scholar Norman Klein whose book ‘From the Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects‘ deals specifically with the idea of narrative architecture.

My particular take on this is the idea of Player (or in the case of the museum, the Visitor) as Cinematographer; how can the space itself coerce, prompt, dictate or shape the movement and experience of the camera/visitor through the space. Klein calls this ‘gentle repression posing as free-will’. Shopping centres have been doing this to us for decades.

I wrote an article and a video essay specifically on this idea of ‘Player as Cinematographer‘ and I think the implications for the museum space are very acutely connected.

But that does bring us back to where we started with the notion of what a story ‘really’ is – Plot + Narration, point-of-view, dramatic questions, character transformation, catharsis and metaphor. Without these things the spatial coercion and construction may well be shaping your visit but it wont necessarily be the Spatial Narrator of a Story.

F&N – When I wrote about Punchdrunk’s digital efforts I emphasised their idea of a ‘parallel story’ that they were trying with Sleep No More deploying online interactivity to select performances. Parallel in the sense that the online audience experienced an entirely different narrative but using the same set and temporal space as the ‘in theatre’ audience’ with some crossover moments. Is this happening elsewhere?

Parallel and Multi-stranded narratives are an vital part of conceiving and developing multi-platform projects. The idea that an audience on one platform may experience a different set of events, point of view, narration or catharsis to an audience on a different platform, but that all those parallels – be they 2, 3 or more variations – are unified. This brings us to the idea of a ‘Storyworld’ an idea that, like ‘Transmedia’, is a bit of a buzzword, but one which is also a very useful as a conceptual and development tool.

The idea of a Storyworld is not particular to digital multi-platform and is absolutely applicable in traditional television series. It’s the idea of articulating the holistic world in which the stories are set – not just What, Where and When but also defining the Rules and Pressures of that world, the forces in conflict and opposition, the social frameworks and contexts that make that world not just unique but definitively pressurised with narrative potential.

The principle I use is the mantra ‘World First, Then Plot’.

I recently was involved in judging an international Storyworld Writing competition for the Immersive Writing Lab project in the UK and this is what we were looking for in the submissions – a Storyworld that had strong potential to spawn numerous plots rather than a discreetly defined plot. Thus it’s the defining and shaping of the Storyworld that must come first before the articulation of a discreet plot. Increasingly writers working in screen media, both traditional and new, are starting to view their central creative IP as not ‘a’ Plot or ‘a’ Character but rather as the Storyworld from which numerous plots and characters across numerous media may spawn.

I wonder if this idea of defining the parameters of a Museum exhibtions’ Storyworld as a set of oppositional forces, rules and pressures, contexts, settings, characters and themes is a useful developing system for museum exhibitions?

F&N – Now, audience. Early ‘transmedia’ stuff seemed to have really low participation rates and reached only the hardcore fans. Has anything changed? Does the ‘second screen’ stuff broaden this or is it a bit like ‘casual games’ vs ‘hardcore games’?

Its certainly true that for all the cool stuff thats been developed for interactive transmedia multi-platform projects, the audiences are small and moreover, the awareness of the work is very low.

Audiences are growing and these experiences are being normalised as mainstream entertainment rather than a fringe for the hardcore ‘early adopters’. But at the same time creators of these kinds of forms are maturing and realising they don’t need everything and the kitchen sink – that the story isn’t ‘better’ just because they’ve got a Facebook page and buttons you can click.

The best projects I’m seeing are those that are very focused, very specific, not offering platforms for platforms sake, but a clearly defined experience. And in this way genre is crucially important. genre speaks to how the audience expects to ‘feel’, and they engage to satisfy those expectations. In a maelstrom of new media scattered-ness and inconsistency and variation, Genre gives you a really solid narrative handle for the audience to hold on to.

What role is there for Genre in the Museum and Gallery space? Do museums have recognisable genres? can they employ or engage with traditional literary or cinematic genres? I might be more inclined to engage with an exhibition if I knew what feeling-state it was going to satisfy before I stepped inside.

F&N – Obviously sandbox video games are the Storyworlds that a lot of us are familiar with. These environments accrete immersion over time – and it strikes me that although museums might wish to emulate these worlds, the ‘average visit length’ (<1 hr) isn't conducive to it happening. Even when I go to Disneyland or a theme-park it is a day long commitment - and perhaps that's why Tasmania's MONA is so successful - the tourist really commits to a multi-hour journey through it.

When I left Sydney I'd been thinking about how to turn museum experiences into 'lifelong' journeys. I'd been considering how Days of Our Lives and those daytime soap operas work. They don't require sequential viewing and you can not 'visit' their worlds for years but then immediately feel 'at home' inside them when you do reconnect. How do you think serialised entertainment can contribute to how museums consider their own 'experiences'? Do you think that immersion in Storyworlds can be achieved in the short period of time of an average museum visit?

Time is obviously a big factor in immersion but there is a different ways of thinking about time. It might mean a long duration of a single immersion (ie. in the gallery for a long period of time) or, it might mean short periods of immersion but numerous of them for a cumulative effect. And this speaks to the importance of episodic narrative and the way we are cognitively engaged by episodic structures. Episodic stories have a long history in print and on screen – from Chaucer and Dickens to The Wire and Mad Men. And also on to sandbox video games which are, by nature, ‘episodic’ narrative experiences. They are not designed or intended (or even practical) to experience in one sitting, instead levels, spaces, missions, the natural rise and fall of tension and release through completion of stages makes for a distinctly episodic experience.

What’s important to recognise about the very rich legacy of episodic storytelling is that its not the duration of a single viewing (or visit) that is as important as the cumulative effect of both ‘returnability’ (what compels us to come back) and the gaps between ‘sessions’ that are the conscious and subconscious processing of the relationships we form with events, ideas and characters. In other words immersion happens as much between sessions, viewings and visits as it does in them.

So, to answer the question of can immersion be achieved in a short period of time, I think the answer lies in thinking of time in terms of episodes and episodic patterns. How do episodes link, how can we be compelled from one episode to another and how does the space and time between episodes build the immersion. One way to understand or inform how this is constructed in TV and games, which might applicable to museum spaces, is consider the idea of Closure as a pattern of dramatic questions. An episode poses one or more dramatic questions that the viewer is compelled to find the answer to. In this it’s important to understand that a Dramatic Question is not just any question, rather its a question with something at stake, something at risk, a question that has an ‘or else’. It’s this element that motivates us within an ‘episode’. Dramatic questions become an episodic pattern through closure; when the question is answered, the episode is ended but a new question or extended question, drives the audience forward into the next episode.

Another way to think of this is the ‘But, So…’ sequence;

“X had to do Y but when they did, they realised Z…
So then they had to A before B,
But when they did, they encountered C.
So…. etc etc.”

This opening and closing of dramatic questions is an episodic pattern and it is the heart of long-form and immersive storytelling. And it works not only for hour long TV episodes or 3 hour gaming sessions but also for short form WebTV series as well.

F&N – Extending that idea a bit … now that a lot of people ‘binge watch’ a series on download or DVD/BluRay – doing an entire season in a single sitting, what does this do to sequential narratives? The viewer’s desire to have deep immersion over a binge session trumps a longer spaced out viewing cycle which might have been how the narrative was originally constructed. Does this suggest that we might be finding that media consumers might be tending towards more one-off deep consumption?

The ‘binge-viewing’ is an interesting phenomena. And there are certainly some writers of long-form series that are adamant that this is not the ‘best’ or ‘right’ way to view the series – that the immersion requires the ‘gap’ between episodes.

I don’t really have a hard answer on this other than to refer to what I mentioned earlier; that immersion can come either in duration or episodic pattern (or both). A viewer can become immersed by spending a huge amount of time in a single stretch (bingeing) or they can become immersed through an episodic experience. Both work. And yet there’s nothing new about binging. Pride and Prejudice is a long episodic book but Im sure there are many people who’ve read it almost in one sitting and we wouldn’t say they were less immersed than those who read a chapter a night or even that they had a lesser experience.

In terms of long-form TV series the increasingly normalised mainstream way to consume is actually not so much binge viewing as it is 1-2 episodes per night each night. Which is a step away from the episode per week broadcast mode and obviously facilitated by on-demand technologies, but is still very much in line with the ‘gap time’ between episodes that fulfils the cognitive processing that immersion relies upon.

What I think is important to engage with in the ideas of episodic narrative experiences is that the principles apply not just within mediums but across mediums. So the same thing that compels me to come back for a new episode might also be the same thing that compels me across platforms (or from a gallery space to an online experience). The idea that the gallery represents one ‘episode’ that poses certain dramatic questions which are answered by exhibition’s end but which trigger new dramatic questions, the answers to which I have ‘get’ on a different platform.

This is an idea I would suggests drives many good multi-platform and transmedia projects – recognising that Transmedia Storytelling is Episodic Storytelling – questions posed on one platform compel us to answers on a different platform.

In this way we can actively motivate the audience between platforms rather than simply expect them to go there of their own volition. I think the mistake many multi-platform projects make (and many museum projects too) is to assume the audience are motivated, assume they are already interested and so they neglect to light a fire under their arse, they forget to give the audience really good, motivated, compelling reasons to engage.

Catch up with Mike on Twitter (@mikejonestv) or read his copious articles at www.mikejones.tv.

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Pulling a rabbit out of a mesh hat – Liz Neely talks about 3D digitisation & 3D printing

September 7th, 2012 by Seb Chan
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At the tailend of February I was invited to address the National Art Educators Association at the Met. I was fresh to NYC and I was in a mood to stir. I spoke about a number of different challenges yet to be properly addressed by the sector – and the one I ended up spending most time on was the opportunities afforded by 3D digitisation and then 3D printing. What, I posed, could be made better for art education if school students could ‘print a work’ back in class? Or, coming as I do from a design museum, students could ‘re-design’ an object by pulling a 3D model apart, prototyping a new form, then printing it to ‘test it’?

Little did I know that a few months later, Don Undeen’s team at the Met itself would hold an artist-hack day to use consumer-grade tools to digitise and print certain works. Their event set off quite a wave of excitement and experimentation across the sector, and fired the imaginations of many.

Liz Neely, Director of Digital Information & Access at the Art Institute of Chicago (not), has been one of those experimenting at the coal face and I sent her a bunch of questions in response to some of her recent work.

Q – What has Art Institute of Chicago been doing in terms of 3D digitisation? Did you have something in play before the Met jumped the gun?

At the Art Institute before #Met3D, we had been experimenting with different image display techniques to meet the needs of our OSCI scholarly catalogues and the Gallery Connections iPad project. The first OSCI catalogues focus on the Impressionist painting collections, and therefore the image tools center on hyper-zooming to view brushstrokes, technical image layering, and vector annotations. Because the Gallery Connections iPads focus on our European Decorative Arts (EDA), a 3-dimensional collection, our approach to photography has been decidedly different and revolves around providing access to these artworks beyond what can be experienced in the gallery. To this end we captured new 360-degree photography of objects, performed image manipulations to illustrate narratives and engaged a 3D animator to bring select objects to life.

For the 3D animations on the iPads, we required an exactitude and artistry to the renders to highlight the true richness of the original artworks. Rhys Bevan meticulously modelled and ‘skinned’ the renders using the high-end 3D software, Maya. We often included the gray un-skinned wireframe models in presentations, because the animations were so true it was hard to communicate the fact that they were models. These beautiful 3D animations allow us to show the artworks in motion, such as the construction of the Model Chalice, an object meant to be deconstructed for travel in the 19th century.

These projects piqued my interest in 3D, so I signed up for a Maya class at SAIC, and, boy, it really wasn’t for me. Surprisingly, building immersive environments in the computer really bored me. Meanwhile, the emerging DIY scanning/printing/sharing community focused on a tactile outcome spoke more to me as a ‘maker’. This is closely aligned with my attraction to Arduino — a desire to bring the digital world into closer dialogue with our physical existence.

All this interest aside, I hadn’t planned anything for the Art Institute.

Mad props go out to our friends at the Met who accelerated the 3D game with the #Met3D hackathon. Tweets and blogs coming out of the hackathon-motivated action. It was time for all of us to step up and get the party started!

Despite my animated—wild jazz hands waving—enthusiasm for #Met3D, the idea still seemed too abstract to inspire a contagious reaction from my colleagues.

We needed to bring 3D printing to the Art Institute, experience it, and talk about it. My friend, artist and SAIC instructor Tom Burtonwood, had attended #Met3D and was all over the idea of getting 3D going at the Art Institute.

On July 19th, Tom and Mike Moceri arrived at the Art Institute dock in a shiny black SUV with a BATMAN license plate and a trunk packed with a couple Makerbots. Our event was different from #Met3D in that we focused on allowing staff to experience 3D scanning and printing first hand. We began the day using iPads and 123D Catch to scan artworks. In the afternoon, the two Makerbots started printing in our Ryan Education Center and Mike demonstrated modelling techniques, including some examples using a Microsoft Kinect (eg).

We also did the printing in a public space. Onlookers were able to catch a glimpse and drop in. This casual mixing of staff and public served to better flesh out public enthusiasm. In the afternoon, an SAIC summer camp of 7-9 year olds stopped by bringing their energetic minds. They were both completely enthralled and curiously bewildered by the process.

The event was a great success!

Colleagues began dialoging about a broad range of usages for education programs, creative re-mixing of the collection, exhibition layout planning, assisting the sight impaired and prototyping artwork installation.

Q – Your recent scan of the Rabbit Tureen used a different method. You just used existing 2D photos, right? How did that work? How many did you need? How accurate is it?

In testing image uploads onto the Gallery Connections iPad app, this particular Rabbit Tureen hypnotised me with its giant staring eye.

Many EDA objects have decoration on all sides, so we prioritised imaging much of work from 72 angles to provide the visual illusion of a 360 degree view like quickly paging through a flip book. It occurred to me that since we had 360 photography, we might be able to mold that photography into a 3D model. This idea is particularly exciting because we could be setting ourselves up to amass an archive of 3D-printable models through the museum’s normal course of 2D sculptural and decorative arts photography.

This hypothesis weighed on my thoughts such that I snuck back into the office over Labor Day weekend to grab the full set of 72 image files.

Eureka! I loaded the files into 123D Catch and it created a near perfect 3D render.

By ‘near perfect’, I mean that the model only had one small hole and didn’t have any obvious deformities. With much Twitter guidance from Tom Burtonwood, I pulled the Catch model into Meshmaker to repair the hole and fill in the base. Voila-we had a printable bunny!

The theory had been proven: with minimal effort while making our 360 images on the photography turntable, we are creating the building blocks for a 3D-printable archive!

Q – What do you think are the emerging opportunities in 3D digitisation? For education? For scholarship? Are curators able to learn new things from 3D models?

There are multitudes of opportunities for 3D scanning and printing with the most obvious being in education and collections access. To get a good 3D scan of sculpture and other objects without gaping holes, the photographer must really look at the artwork, think about the angles, consider the shadows and capture all the important details. This is just the kind of thought and ‘close looking’ we want to encourage in the museum. The printing brings in the tactile nature of production and builds a different kind of relationship between the visitor, the artwork and the derivative work. We can use these models to mash-up and re-mix the collection to creatively explore the artworks in new ways.

I’m particularly interested in how these techniques can provide new information to our curatorial and conservation researchers. I’ve followed with great interest the use of 3D modelling in the Conservation Imaging Project led by Dale Kronkright at the Georgia O’Keeffe museum.

Q – Is 3D the next level for the Online Scholarly Catalogues Initiative? I fancifully imagine a e-pub that prints the objects inside it!

A group of us work collaboratively with authors on each of our catalogues to determine which interactive technologies or resources are most appropriate to support the catalogue. We’re currently kicking off 360 degree imaging for our online scholarly Roman catalogue. In these scholarly catalogues, we would enforce a much higher bar of accuracy and review than the DIY rapid prototyping we’re doing in 123D Catch. It’s very possible we could provide 3D models with the catalogues, but we’ll have to address a deeper level of questions and likely engage a modelling expert as we have for the Gallery Connections iPad project.

More immediately, we can think of other access points to these printable models even if we cannot guarantee perfection. For example, I’ve started attaching ‘Thing records’ to online collection records with associated disclaimers about accuracy. We strive to develop an ecosystem of access to linked resources authored and/or indexed for each publication and audience.

Q – I’m curious to know if anyone from your retail/shop operations has participated? What do they think about this ‘object making’?

Like a traveling salesman, I pretty much show up at every meeting with 2 or 3 printed replicas and an iPad with pictures and videos of all our current projects. At one meeting where I had an impromptu show and tell of the printed Art Institute lion, staff from our marketing team prompted a discussion about the feasibility of creating take-home DIY mold-a-ramas! It was decided that for now, the elongated print time is still a barrier to satisfying a rushed crowd. But in structured programs, we can design around these constraints.

At the Art Institute, 3D scanning and printing remains, for now, a grass-roots enthusiasm of a small set of colleagues. I’m excited by how many ideas have already surfaced, but am certain that even more innovations will emerge as it becomes more mainstream at the museum.

Q – I know you’re a keen Arduino boffin too. What contraptions do you next want to make using both 3D printing and Arduino? Will we be seeing any at MCN?

Ah ha! This should be interesting since MCN will kick off with a combined 3D Printing and Arduino workshop co-led by the Met’s Don Undeen and Miriam Langer from the New Mexico Highlands University. We will surely see some wonderfully creative chaos, which will build throughout the conference.

These workshops may seem a bit abstract at first glance from the daily work we do. I encourage everyone to embrace a maker project or workshop even if you can’t specifically pinpoint its relevance to your current projects. Getting your hands dirty in a creative project can bring and innovative mindset to e-publication, digital media and other engagement projects.

Sadly I won’t have time before MCN to produce an elaborate Arduino-driven Makerbot masterpiece. I’m currently dedicating my ‘project time’ to an overly ambitious installation artwork that incorporates Kinect, Arduino, Processing, servos, lights and sounds to address issues of balance ….

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On ‘farewellers’ and exit marketing

August 18th, 2012 by Seb Chan
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So ridiculously busy right now that there is little time to blog. But stay tuned for some cool stuff over at the Labs shortly.

But here’s a the first of a few quick thoughts on some topics bouncing around the blogosphere.

This week Nina Simon wrote about her ideas of having a staff of ‘goodbyers’ instead of ‘greeters’ in order to better build continuing engagement with visitors. She writes –

We realized from this discussion that we have a huge missed opportunity when people are leaving the museum. On their way in, they are excited, curious, ready to engage. They are not ready to hear about membership or take a newsletter about what’s coming up next time. They bolt right past those tables to the “good stuff.” But at the end, they’ve had a great time, and they want a takeaway from the experience. They WANT to join the email list. If we’re smart, we should be developing a takeaway that both memorializes the visit and leads them to another. In other words, we should be giving them a string for their new pearl.

This reminded me a lot of the efforts we’d go to back in the early 90s putting on all night parties. Before this was a task given to ‘street teams’ (no one had commercialised enough to hire people to do the least exciting tasks), you’d take a stack of flyers to parties at the very end of the night just as the dawn anthems were blasting through the bassbins and start giving them out as people exited. Others would go and plaster the windscreens of parked cars to similar effect. No one would ever give out flyers early on in the party – they’d get forgotten, sweaty, destroyed, or just ‘repurposed’. It was all about ‘exit marketing’ – and it was an important part of building bonds within the subculture. Flyers for the next month’s worth of warehouse parties made for a strong encouragement to ‘stay involved’ – especially as most people would be returning to their ‘ordinary lives’ during the week, saving their living for the weekends. It gave newcomers a sense that this wasn’t just a fleeting ‘temporary autonomous zone‘ but something they could regularly return to, and for the hardcore flyers and their effective distribution became core ‘subcultural media’. I’d argue that they were more effective than the more scattergun street press advertising, and definitely more successful than ‘record shop drops’.

Now museums rarely ignite the sort of passion that subcultures do. Perhaps they should, but that’s unlikely to happen given the age demographics. But there’s plenty to be had in Nina’s idea – the farewelling experience is likely to be the only opportunity to remind visitors that museum visits need not be a ‘one-off occurrence’ or a ‘once a year’ activity, but an essential part of their cultural calendars.

And of course, ‘farewelling’ behaviours are exactly the sort of things that you’d be hoping the staff in your ‘well placed gift shop‘ are doing as just good business.

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An exhibition is a mixtape

May 29th, 2012 by Seb Chan
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The best mixtape is made with love and care.
The best mixtape requires deep knowledge and skill to make.
The messages contained in a mixtape are simultaneously opaque and clear.
A mixtape is an invitation.
A mixtape is not a compilation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about exhibitions recently. They are expensive beasts and tend to still be produced with the same models of high risk cultural production as cinema.

As the museum educator has risen in prominence and institutional power over the last three decades, exhibitions have been challenged by the ‘event-driven museum’. So much that exhibitions, themselves, have become ‘events’ – in the most contentious and problematic form of ‘blockbusters’.

At the same time we’ve seen the spread of the verb ‘curate’, and the noun ‘curator’. Some people even want appropriate credit for their online ‘curatorial’ skills.

Researching and then assembling a narrative told by music selections to communicate messages of love, hate, ambivalence, or just to assert your superior (sub)cultural capital – that’s what making a mixtape was all about. Exhibitions, in their most primal form, are not that different.

The mixtape is dead.
The mixtape died with MP3.
The mixtape died with iTunes.
The mixtape died when it became an ‘unconstrained’ playlist.

So where is the new model for exhibitions in a world where mixtapes have been replaced by iTunes and now Spotify?

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On robot guides

May 23rd, 2012 by Seb Chan
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The robot guides are coming.

This isn’t entirely new – as some Japanese museums have been, unsurprisingly, experimenting with this for over a decade. One of my fondest science museum memories was stumbling upon a ‘bipedal robotics conference’ inside the Miraikan in Tokyo sometime in the early 2000s.

But this is slightly different and combines the potential of the ‘Roomba-Curator’ (hat tip to Aaron Straup-Cope for that phrase) with the growing trend for ‘school incursions‘ (rather than ‘school excursions’) but delivered over high speed broadband.

The robot is in preliminary design but expected to be the height of an average adult, have a motorised base with wheels and a “head” that is a 360-degree, panoramic camera.

It will find its way around the museum and avoid bumping into visitors and objects using sensors and a sort of global positioning system.
The robot is initially for the use of school students, who will each control the robot’s camera head using computers as if in a video conference.

The camera can transmit many views of an object simultaneously – from above or the sides and zooming in and out – so each user can control what they see.

I like that this lets multiple students control their view and zoom on objects of their own choosing.

But I’d really like this if it was deployed to the collection stores – the behind the scenes areas where museums keep all vast numbers of the objects they don’t have on exhibition.

Imagine an informational overlay using a collection API to pull up data on shelves and shelves of objects.

It won’t be far off.

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On Sleep No More, magic and immersive storytelling

May 23rd, 2012 by Seb Chan
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If you’ve run into me in New York City since I moved here six months ago I’ve probably badgered you about Sleep No More.

It was something I saw in my first weeks after moving here after two aborted attempts on previous trips to New York. Best described as an immersive theatrical experience, it has deeply affected the way I think about theatre, theme parks, exhibitions and museum experiences in general. And, coupled with my experiences at the Museum of Old & New Art before I left Australia, it has challenged my thinking around ‘participation’ and ‘openness’.

Loosely based on Macbeth, inspired by film noir, and transforming 100,000 square feet of a 5 storey warehouse in Chelsea, Sleep No More is about immersive exploration rather than a linear narrative. Everything is touchable, openable, operable. It is a world of cinematic detail – shelves, drawers and cabinets are full of papers and objects that are purposefully selected and layered with information from and about the story world – and sound and smell are turned up to 11. With the audience masked, silent, and anonymised, the experience becomes highly individualised and for three hours you explore, following performers if they take your fancy, or chancing upon happenings and scenes.

Apart from the choreography of the performers themselves, there is a sense of the audience being choreographed as they spread out and move loosely through the space, yet always managed to be ‘nudged’ subtly to climactic moments in the larger congregational spaces. Friends have remarked how game-like it is in the way it does this nudging – and on my first viewing I made connections to the ways in which good 3D sandbox games manage to maintain a core narrative whilst encouraging players to ‘freely explore’.

Despite this subtle nudging your experience will be different to mine. Couples are advised to purposefully split up for the duration of the adventure to have a more individualised experience (and a lot more to talk about afterwards).

If you haven’t been and you are visiting New York in the next little while, then I do urge you to go. And try not to read to much about it beforehand.

So tonight at Storycode – a periodic transmedia & storytelling meetup – I was excited to hear Pete Higgin and Colin Nightingale from Punchdrunk talk about the development of Sleep No More in its current incarnation and their approach to storytelling. (You can watch the video of the whole talk on Livestream).

Punchdrunk have been working with MIT Media Lab to explore ways in which a complementary experience of the environment could work online. Last week, in some trials, several audience members were selected to wear special masks with sensors and cameras and joined their fellow patrons in the regular Sleep No More performance. Connected to them were selected online participants who experienced a version of the performance through an interface that recalled the classic text adventure, but with ambient sound and some intermittent vision.

The selected audience members were drawn to specific parts of the set where a communications portal between the online and onsite opened so that they could communicate with each other – mediated by actors in a control room. This is going on in realtime in the same physical environment as the regular performance – so it is a strange kind of ‘third story’ in the same world. These ‘portals’ were subtly disguised in the fabric of the set so as to be unnoticeable by others.

Obviously there were some issues – the additional layers of the 3rd story secret world were not obvious – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. And the locational technology (Bluetooth) and content delivery/transmission over wifi didn;t always work satisfactorily. There’s a New York Times piece on the experiment from the point of view of an participant that is worth a read.

What really impressed me was the deep consideration that had gone into making the online experience for the remote participant as immersive as possible by using sound and the limitations of text descriptors rather than relying on inadequate video or worse, the uncanny valley of 3D simulations.

The online experience wasn’t meant to be a ‘replica’ of the Sleep No More experience, but a parallel to it.

This parallelism is something I’d love to see museums do more with. Online/digital as a parallel experience. This is what so much discussion in the museum (Rodley) blogosphere (Cairns) has recently been about.

Take a look at Punchdrunk’s recent outreach and literacy program ‘Under The Eiderdown’.

Hit play. Watch the seven minutes. Then come back. It is worth it.

Wow.

Towards the close of their talk Pete Higgin had a nice line – “explanation is the killer of wonderment”.

It reminded me of a recent article from Salon on the effect of YouTube on the traditions and social practices of magicians.

“The biggest problem with DVD and YouTube exposure is that it has damaged the skill of learning through asking, and it has created the mistaken assumption, perhaps, that all knowledge and all wisdom is available to buy,” [magician Jamy Ian Swiss] said. “And there’s so much difference between those two acts, because asking involves a human experience, while buying is just sitting in your couch and passively absorbing countless secrets that you think constitute magic.”

Magic, like theatre, isn’t about the technicalities of the tricks – it is about performance and the moment.

Higgin told an anecdote about a run-in with a overzealous ‘fan’ who had created an article deconstructing the timings of scenes in Sleep No More – under the strange assumption that by giving the ‘factual information’ would actually be useful. It is a tension that plays out in all media now – the plot summaries and spoilers that are immediately posted to Wikipedia for popular TV series after an episode airs – but for immersive, purposefully opaque narrative experiences the stakes might just be higher.

Museums, especially those of the scientific and historical persuasion, have been hesitant to embrace theatricality – “there be charlatans”, or worse “there be theme parks” – yet all good storytelling is all about performance. (Something public librarians at Reading Time know all too well).

Yet consider the mass popularity of the early commercial museums in the late 19th century when scientific phenomena were akin to magic and Coney Island had premature babies in cribs showing the ‘miracles of modern medicine’ and freak shows, and electricity! Wonderment!

These are not things we generally think of as desirable in a modern museum – however there may still be much to learn about their appeal that still applies today.

What if we designed exhibitions to have the same ‘dense, cinematic detail’ that Punch Drunk’s productions have? (And trusted visitors to respect and engage with them appropriately through scaffolding the entry experience?)

What if we designed our exhibitions to hold things back from some visitors? And to purposefully make some elements of an exhibition ‘in-accessible’ to all? (The Studio Ghibli Museum in Tokyo is wonderfully designed with some spaces and passages that are only accessible by small children that lead to experiences that only children can have separate from their parents.)

What if we made ‘wonderment’ our Key Performance Indicator?

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