Process stories

Posted on April 8, 2013

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In politics, the idea of a process story – the inside story about how policy is made – doesn’t always sit well. It’s The focus on what is happening behind the scenes, on the machinations that impact policy outcomes is often perceived to be a distraction from the political outcomes themselves. But I’m a sucker for stories that unpack how something happens rather than simply focussing on the end result or product. I like knowing why particular choices were made and by whom; it helps me understand the flows of power and influence that shape the world.

This emphasis on process instead of only the final product is an idea that I can see in a few different places in our sector too, and I’m really excited by it. Dan Spock recently Tweeted a link to imPERFECT CITY – a fascinating sounding project from Delaware Center for the Contemporary Arts (DCCA), which is “a conversation-based exhibition that evolves from an open call for proposals to conceptualize a utopian city within the DCCA’s gallery spaces.” Although the project has many layers and phases, what I am most interested in is the open processes the project purports to follow, which treats the creation of the exhibition as the exhibition. As the proposal by Maiza Hixson describes, “The exhibition “opens” during the planning phase to allow citizens to interface with DCCA curatorial staff who are present to answer questions visitors may have about curatorial process.” In other words, the exhibition is the process of the exhibition; it is not just the end result. imPERFECT CITY takes its form as a living process story. In addition, the whole project makes use of documentation (blogging, videos) as a means for exploring the issues raised by the exhibition, and creating parallel digital and in-gallery experiences.

I love this. There is something really compelling about the humanness of process that is visible in this kind of approach. The edges of the exhibition become permeable and uncertain; it is impossible to know exactly when it starts or ends. How reminiscent is this of so many digital interactions, which are themselves endless and linked to so many other things? The Internet is perpetually unfinished. It is about process because it is itself a process rather than a product; a constantly-shifting performative environment which demands that those who want use it must interact with it in order to experience it. Unlike most museum exhibits, which have a definite and pre-determined start and end date and typically exist within strictly defined borders, the Internet does not privilege time and space in quite the same way. This gives us a lot of space for publicly exploring and explaining how we do what we do.

Social media and digital publishing platforms open up a lot of potential for institutions that want to create compelling content and stories about their exhibitions that aren’t so strictly bounded by the dates and spaces of the gallery. The Museum of Contemporary Art, Australia has made inroads in this area with their recent ePublication for Anish Kapoor, which was treated as a “living catalogue” and evolved over the course of the exhibition to include a Preview Edition, an Installation Edition, and a Reflection Edition. Rather than creating interpretive content prior to opening and never revisiting it, this catalogue continues to grow during and after the exhibition. The Installation Edition includes information about how one of the sculptures was installed in the space, opening up the mystery of the institution to the public and adding depth to the discussion about the exhibition.

The Dallas Museum of Art’s recently-announced plans for a conservation studio also offer an interesting take upon the emphasis of process in the physical space of the museum, since the studio will effectively turn conservation into an ongoing living exhibition. As describes:

[Director Max Anderson is] going to turn conservation into a public exhibit. Other museums hold the occasional tour through their work rooms. But this is different. Consistent with Anderson’s other efforts in making the DMA more accessible online, he will be, more or less, turning this internal museum function inside-out and putting a spotlight on it. Imagine a hedge fund putting the accountants on display.

Wild, right? There is a certain voyeuristic fascination we have with getting behind-the-scenes in someone’s life, in learning what goes on behind the closed doors. Opening up of parts of the institution to public view plays right into these feelings, and develops a very human understanding of what the institution does.

But this approach also shifts the focus away from the objects and exhibitions onto the human forces that impact them. Could this prove to be a distraction? This is how Australia political strategist Mark Textor describes the political process story:

One of the consequences of an increasingly expansive financial and political media field is the need for content to fill it. Some content is important. Most is borderline trivial, certainly irrelevant. But that has never discouraged the commentators. This search for content to feed the hungry commentariat has led to the rise and rise of the ”process story”. The ”process story” is about campaign mechanics, whether it be a political campaign or a big market offer, not about the issues of the campaign.

Could openly documenting the process of creating an exhibition or of an acquisition take the focus away from the exhibition itself? And is a focus on process worth the effort, or does it just promise to add to workloads whilst providing only trivial or irrelevant content? Would museum audiences be interested in gaining insight into what we do and why, or is this just be extra effort for little reward?

What do you think? Do process stories interest you? Could you see this kind of approach working in your institution?