Future Exhibitions is an annual publication about exhibition making and curatorial concerns, both in Sweden (where it is published) and globally.
The theme and title of this year’s issue is Spatial Encounters:
“We will focus on the visitor as we move from the content to the receptacle, addressing the following questions: What does space really mean? How can the totality of the visitor’s experience be enhanced by architecture, set design and technology? How does this influence the prerequisites for exhibition production?”
The problem with the traditional white-cube gallery is that space is conceived of as an inert, neutral, and pre-existing given. While Spatial Encounters doesn’t provide clear-cut answers to the questions of what space really means or how it influences the prerequisites of exhibition production, some of the authors profitably draw on Lefebvre’s emphasis on the production of space to highlight that exhibition production should be considered and an approached as a spatial practice (something in my research and writing I am keen to stress).
In his book of the same name – The Production of Space – Lefebvre makes a critical departure from the neo-Kantian and neo-Cartesian conceptions of space. Focusing on social space, Lefebvre argues that space is not an inert, neutral, and pre-existing given, but rather an on-going production of spatial relations. Situating himself firmly in a post-structuralist or post-modern critical discourse, he writes: “social space is not a thing among other things, nor a product among other products: rather, it subsumes things produced and encompasses their interrelationships in their coexistence and simultaneity—their (relative) order and/or (relative) disorder” (p.73).
Here Lefebvre objects to the reification of space by rejecting the Cartesian model, separating “ideal space” from “real space.” Instead, Lefebvre underlines that space is a product of something that is produced materially while at the same time “operate[s]…on processes from which it cannot separate itself because it is a product of them” (p.66).
Art galleries have traditionally been guilty of reifying space and of separating the gallery – “ideal space” – from “real space”, where “ideal space” is conceived as an empty, neutral container. Instead of using artworks and space as preexisting tools that can work together to generate spatial and affective encounters (and therefore new visitor experiences/insights), many curators and galleries seem rather to approach space as a inert framework into which artworks are made to fit, as a “blank canvas” if you’ll excuse the pun.
Although the authors in Spatial Encounters don’t tackle this issue head on, in one stand out essay, Rodney LaTourelle, master in the art of creating mesmerizing spaces, lists and comments on exhibitions and spaces that have made innovative use of the geography and atmosphere of the exhibition space to challenge visitors’ expectations and engage their senses and attention.
The strategies reviewed by LaTournelle range from the subtle to the spectacular. Some curators he reviewed chose to play with the atmospheric qualities of light, whilst others subvert the sequence of space and artefacts. For example the Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology exhibtion Kilma X – a multi-sensory show that explores the causes, effects and possible solutions to global warming – required that visitors to wear rubber boots so that they could physically experience the consequences of climate change.
While unfortunately I was unable to visit this exhibit one reviewer (Justine Roberts) recounts the Kilma X experience:
“Visitors begin in an ante-room where they trade their walking shoes for tall yellow rain boots. They can then enter a darkened hallway which ramps gently down into the main exhibition space. The railing slowly becomes warmer to the touch as visitors begin to notice water underfoot, pointing to the relationship between rising temperatures and rising sea levels. This is the first of a series of innovative “aha” moments structured into the exhibit.
The main exhibit builds on these techniques of juxtaposition, multi-sensory experiences, and immersive environments to create a seamless context for the main message of the exhibit. Standing in 10cm of water, visitors navigate a large room containing a series of components. Some of these such as the large, slowly melting blocks of ice set on palettes, and the occasional rain shower in one portion of the room reinforce a sense of place, and are highly aesthetic experiences. Other components are more interactive and contain more content, including a foot-activated piece, and robotic boats that visitors can dock at columns where they trigger a light sensor to learn more about specific topics.”
The Norwegian Museum of Science and Technology received the Leading Edge Award for “Best Visitor Experience” exhibition and from the rave reviews it has received it is easy to see why. The problem is that while Spatial Encounters spotlights cultural institutions they regard as “ahead of the rest” in terms of spatial and sensory exhibition practices – Laboral in Gijón, the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, Miraikan aka The National Museum of Emerging Science and Innovation in Tokyo and Temporäre Kusthalle in Berlin – so many more art galleries and museums are guilty of creating a standardized exhibition product over innovative spatially sensitive permanent exhibits and “one offs”.
For Lefebvre, there is a parallel development between the hegemony of capitalism in the modern West and the production of “abstract space”: where space becomes “intelligible” to the eye (but only to the eye); where space appears to be a text to be read, a message that bears no traces of either state power or human bodies and their non-verbal flows. The spread of capitalism to the art and museum world (its branding, standardization and corporate sponsors) has similarly engendered similarities rather than differences and by consequence the production of abstract space. In many of the art galleries I have visited recently the “curation” has merely consisted of the artworks, often arranged without much thought being given to “the spatial encounter”, being accompanied by labels (known in the trade knowingly as “tombstones”) and a handful of the prerequisite didactic panels outlining the framing themes, creating a space where the “curatorial message” is indeed only intelligible to the eye.
I would hope that with the publication of Spatial Encounters, which highlights the importance of considering the production of space in exhibition making and curation, more galleries and institutions will be paying more heed to the visitor’s spatial interaction and non-verbal flows of communication. From a less pessimistic standpoint, Lefebvre sees the prospect of emerging new spaces— what he terms as “differential spaces” — serving as a resistance to the forces of homogenization present in abstract space. By reframing exhibition design and curation as a spatial practice, it is my hope that galleries will move away from the production of “ideal” or “abstract space” and instead experiment with creating new “differential” artistic spaces and ways of being.