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Museum audio tours

Let celebrities be your guide

by Zoe Weisman

Many people find the museum experience to be one of quiet solitude, an opportunity to contemplate artwork in a private, yet public atmosphere. This paradoxical environment allows people a private experience in a social setting. But recently, the war between electronic and traditional forms of commentary have apparently infringed upon the subtleties of this experience.

What once was left to the curious viewer’s imagination may be stuffed down their throat instead. Conversely, information integral to the understanding of the work might be overlooked in long, tedious descriptions. When technology advances, it becomes time to examine what technology is replacing, or more often, as Associate Professor of Art Technology John Manning says, what it “insidiously erodes.”
Manning commented, “On a pragmatic level, museums need all the understanding they can get. The harsh reality of it is that they rely on benefactors and patrons for the most part. Technology becomes necessary. The funny thing about the gadgetry used in museums, though, is that it makes one interrogate their own feelings about art.”

Audio guides give museum visitors historical information about artwork, and for those who don’t have much of a background in art history, this can add significantly to an understanding of a piece. But some are skeptical. Jennifer Crowe and Scott Patterson’s site-specific, interactive show at the Whitney, which ran from December 2005 to January 2006, explored the alienating potential of technology by programming fake information into the Whitney’s audio-visual guide. “Follow Through” equips the viewer with a hand-held MP3 player, and sends them on a journey through the permanent collection. While actual Whitney commentary plays (re-edited to exaggerate the academic stuffiness of the information) a hand-held program shows diagrams of how your body should be situated while looking at artwork. The installation puts the viewer’s experience at the center of the piece, creating a biting commentary on the structure of the museum setting.
Ironically, “Follow Through” is a result of a proposal from Antenna Audio, who provided the technology for the show in hopes of getting their product into the hands of museum attendants. Inevitably, the show profits from the structure it criticizes.

“The potential of all systems to be subverted puts art and crime in a similar place,” says Manning, “Hacking, for instance, is sort of like art, sort of like crime. There is a vast sector of criminal activity that exploits the weakness of technical systems. When you devise a system, people are almost invariably going to take advantage of it. Artists have an absolute obligation to do the same. Criminals and mass marketers do it for profit, or even to perpetrate violence, but an artist can have a much more interesting motivation. Something imaginative, fanciful, non-practical, you could even call it pure expression.”

Film is just one medium that started off as a form of communication and has now become a staple in artistic expression and entertainment. Recently, artists such as Joan Leandre and Cory Arcangle have developed “Real-Time Cinema,” turning video games into an artistic medium. In many ways, the electronic-commentary system in museums is ripe for subversion.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art uses celebrity personalities to attract viewers, using the voices of Omar Sharif, Jorge Ramos, Steve Martin, Edward James Olmos, and Dennis Hopper on their audio guides. According to the Los Angeles Times, the rate of audio-guide pick-up has been 65 percent, about double the usual rate, since the introduction of celebrity voices. The Tate Modern is known for using the voices of contemporary art-stars whenever possible to accompany the work, and have featured commentary from David Hockney, Damien Hirst, and Bruce Nauman in the past. Tom Brokaw delivers the general audio tour at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, and while Basquiat was at the Brooklyn Museum last year, Wyclef Jean read poetry aloud on the audio guides. More people are picking up audio guides, but not necessarily to enrich their historical understanding of the work. When audio guides cost $6-$8 a pop, we can only hope that it’s for the best. After all, more people are learning about the art, whether information is delivered by Tom Brokaw or Dennis Hopper.

“In many ways, the tech artist’s work is perfectly congruent with the larger project of the art world,” reflects Manning. “Certain artists are afraid of technology, or naively think they’re not interested in it, but technology has become much more subtle and widespread. So widespread it’s become almost invisible. That’s why it’s so important to uncover it.”

MARCH 2006