When A Museum Experiments – The Hillman Photography Initiative At CMOA




The Persistence of Memory  (1931), by Salvador Dalí (Spanish, 1904 – 1989)  is a kind of soft image. *

Photography has always had a tenuous claim to being ‘fine art’— perhaps due to its origin in the 19th century as a tool, a product of the industrial age (I touched upon it here  in comparing the ‘perfection of form’ of the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe to the sculptures of Rodin and Michelangelo). But now the idea that the photograph captures a true situation of a certain moment—‘the camera never blinks’—is becoming even more tenuous. That’s because digitization has changed everything. Since the 1990s, many artists have produced staged- or digitally-altered images to convey an idea, rather than an actual situation: artists such as Cindy Sherman and Andreas Gursky; while the British artist Tacita Dean pushed the boundary by producing a collection of photographs found in flea markets. What comes now is the age of the ‘Soft Image’ * :

“With today’s digital technology, the image is no longer a stable representation of the world, but a programmable view of a database that is updated in real time… [it also] plays a vital role in synchronic data-to-data relationships… [and] contains its own operating code: the image is a program in itself. Softimage aims to account for that new reality, taking readers on a journey that gradually undoes our unthinking reliance on the apparent solidity of the photographic image…”      — From  Softimage: Towards a New Theory of the Digital ImageBy Ingrid Hoelzl and Remi Marie, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, September, 2015. 

At this critical junction, the Carnegie Museum of Art’s Hillman Photography Initiative  takes a timely examination of this field from the perspective of a museum. And in the process—ongoing and open-ended—also explores new ways for a museum to produce exhibitions and gauge their success. The initiative, in “seeding curiosity”, serves as “a living laboratory for exploring the rapidly changing field of photography and its impact on the world”. It aims to serve as “incubator for innovative thinking about the photographic image” and it is hoped that collaborative projects with other institutions could widen the experiment.

Conceived by four external Agents from different vantage points (including a professor of robotics), working with a CMOA curator, the initiative launched its Cycle One (2014 – 2015) with the following projects, onsite and online:

  • The Invisible Photograph is a five-part documentary series investigating the production, distribution, and consumption of the photographic image not apparent to the public eye. It included films of the team’s visits to CERN, The European Organization for Nuclear Research and the vast underground Corbis Image Vault deep in the mountains of Western Pennsylvania, housing among others the National Archives and US Social Security, even celluloid reels of Hollywood films. 
  • This Picture showed one image each month online between May, 2014 –April, 2015, inviting people to respond. It aimed to explore how a single image could provoke multiple reactions— because each one of us can only see what he or she is capable of seeing based on prior learning and memory. Works included a diverse list of artists from Shirin Nashat to Robert Adams—and the responses even more surprising.
  • A People’s History of Pittsburgh, an online project which invited the people of Pittsburgh to submit pictures from their own albums. To no one’s surprise, it generated the most enthusiasm from the city. It resulted in a print photo book showing photographs of Pittsburgh’s past and present.
  • The Sandbox: At Play with the Photo Book, onsite at the museum, is a reading room and public space for photography books, run by two artists who also own a photo book store in Pittsburgh.
  • Orphaned Images, addressed the increasingly widespread digital dissemination of photographs. Consisting of two artist-commissions which examined the relationship between word and image as well as how feelings are provoked as an image travels in the impersonal world of the internet.

These unique projects, straddling virtual and physical spaces are not the only experimental aspects of this initiative. The process of bringing these projects to fruition was also unique and outside of usual museum practice: i.e. their short production time and improvisational nature. Additionally, the lack of precedents made for some anxious moments.  As program manager Divya Rao Heffley recounted  here, these projects demanded a flexible style of management, improvising as thing happened; often having to ask her colleagues to perform outside of their job descriptions—a feat that needed “a buy-in from the highest levels”. These projects were realized within months, not years like most museum exhibitions. But that’s not all.

Evaluation, Heffley continued, was just as important despite the fact that there are no established museum metrics for such experimentation. The online projects nevertheless, provided amazingly detailed statistics: two of the 20-minute videos had 60,000 complete views and over 300,000 loads, from Argentina to Russia. But onsite participation was not as dramatic as it had not been a priority. Plans are underfoot to make changes in the next cycle, including the development of evaluation metrics. Here Heffley is well aware of the dilemma of the great discrepancy between internet numbers and actual numbers manageable in a museum.

As Cycle Two (2015-2016) is inaugurated this fall, new Agents including two artists, an academic, and a CMOA curator are charged with formulating

“plans for a public program to be realized by CMOA in 2016. The program will investigate photography in an era of the medium’s rapid transformations. Throughout the year, it will expand upon the museum’s photography program to offer dynamic, inventive, and interactive experiences both on site in the museum and on digital platforms.”

To my mind, the astute choice of subject is just one of the important aspects of the Hillman Photography Initiative. It is also its potential as a ‘disruptor’ in opening up the museum’s practice to outside agents not necessarily in the art world; and the importance it places on viewer position: what triggers their imagination? As ‘personalized learning’ is becoming widely recognized (in no small part via our current biological understanding of how learning occurs in our body-brain), this initiative can go beyond experimentation to true revolution as CMOA does not exclude itself from some collective learning of its own. 

*    Salvador Dali produced many paintings with ‘soft’ images, e.g.  Soft Construction with Boiled Beans (Premonition of Civil War)  (1936) in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. For him, the soft depicted our malleable and amorphous  unconscious. His prolific imagination stands in stark contrast to today’s photographic soft images as mutable computer code. (This image is posted here from WikiArt and in accordance with fair use principles.)                                                                                                                                                                                                     

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