Art

The Potential of Participatory Museum Exhibits

In a colorful group show at CAC Cincinnati, artists Calcagno Cullen, Amanda Curreri, and Lindsey Whittle invite visitors to join in their creative processes.

Artist Amanda Curreri with spools to be deployed in “rope-walks” for the three-person show Archive as Action at CAC Cincinnati (all images by the author for Hyperallergic)

CINCINNATI, Ohio — Intermedia artist Lindsey Whittle introduces her artist statement for Archive as Action a three-woman show at Contemporary Arts Center Cincinnati — with a recounting of the Hindu parable about three blind people who encounter an elephant. One grabs the tail and thinks it’s a snake; one lays hands on the leg and thinks it’s a tree; one handles the ear and thinks it’s a bird.

“Individually, these people don’t really understand what an elephant is,” Whittle writes, “but all together they are starting to get to the bottom of something.”

Whittle describes this story as a consistent foundation for her as an artist, and it certainly serves as an excellent metaphor for the show in three galleries that she shares with Amanda Curreri and Calcagno Cullen — all of whom are grasping the enormity of participatory art as a mechanism for societal impact from different and wildly colorful angles.

Artist Lindsey Whittle, wearing a pair of interactive spectacles that invite viewers to engage face-to-face with the artist and navigate space in this position.

While social practice art is nothing new, there is a specific and refreshing kind of dynamism to Archive as Action, which suggests, from title to implementation, a necessary and kinetic element that must be present for art to generate change. Many artists are content to raise questions with their work, but Cullen — who also facilitates the community-driven, artist-led art space Wave Pool, in Cincinnati’s Camp Washington neighborhood — seems uniquely dedicated to actually listening to answers.

“To me, that’s my art practice, really this kind of connection-building and facilitating community collaborations,” said Cullen, during a walkthrough with Hyperallergic at CAC. “So I wanted to figure out a way to make that visible in a museum setting — creating a space where events happen, people gather, co-working [on Thursdays], community asset mapping… just creating a space that can be activated.”

Artist Calcagano Cullen, explicating various past projects and current programming, represented in a wall-sized mind map on one side of her exhibition space

Cullen’s section of the exhibition is dominated by a giant table assembled of collected woodwork — doors, desks, sideboards, drawing boards — all leveled and collaged into a roughly single entity around which a series of discussions, meals, and activities taking place throughout the exhibition run. Outside of these special events, the table hosts a letter-writing station, at which visitors can type letters out to send to random recipients — an extension of an ongoing project by Cullen, wherein she sends letters to random people listed in the NYC white pages, the first 500 of which have been collected into a book — as well as an answering machine standing by to receive messages from people on the subject of “the last time you met someone new.”

“Let it ring! The machine will get it,” directs a prompt written on the table next to the answering machine, in contrast to the exhortation “Pick it up! Pick it up!” written on the wall next to a grid of old-fashioned rotary dial telephones that are a dimensional part of a giant, wall-sized mind map visualizing Cullen’s process and projects in cartoony drawings and handwriting.

Visitors play with an adding machine and calculations page for generating your happiness percentage, according to a complex algorithm provided by Cullen on the wall.

Standing at Cullen’s phone bank, perhaps reveling in twisting one of those long, raveled plastic phone cords around your finger while you hold the receiver to your ear (a sense memory that targets only those who sit on or before the millennial cusp of wireless technology), the next eye-catching piece of the show is a wall of colorful spools, arranged on pegs running all the way to the top of one of CAC’s vaulted galleries. This is a work by Amanda Curreri, and the most interactive aspect of her portion of the exhibition. During scheduled “rope walk” periods, Curerri and her team of facilitators — sourced from her student cohort at the School of Art at University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning (DAAP), where she is a professor — use these spools and draw small cohorts of visitors into an approximately half-hour-long process of braiding long strands of colorful rope. The rope strands are made of patchworked discards sourced from Cincinnati’s National Flag Company — at 150 years old, one of the country’s oldest flag manufacturers — and this process hearkens to a similarly archaic time when the best manufacturing technology required twisting rope from fiber components at full length. Curreri leverages the CAC’s open floor plan to engage visitors in a highly physical process that involves collaboration, teamwork, and ideally, conversation.

Completed rope works accrue on the gallery wall in Curreri’s exhibition space.

“The authorship [of the work] gets conflated, I guess,” said Curreri, “but that’s maybe leveraging aesthetics — like the formal and abstract potential with color. It’s not locked in, it isn’t English language — which is the language of capitalism — so maybe there’s ways to negotiate around meaning, and find new ways to have conversations that I want to be having, or that normally travel in a really specific, linear direction.”

Curerri finds that the acts of moving bodies, getting sweaty, and making decisions in the creation of art loosens the field of interactional possibilities. The work of the exhibition is slowly accumulating in a wall hung with braids created during rope-walking sessions, which anchors some of Curreri’s other works on display, many of which involve a fiber component.

Lindsey Whittle’s installation chamber, featuring numerous of her shape language elements, and her first use of reflective surfaces.

Finally, Whittle’s work blends wearable and installation art with a lexicon of idea-shapes that the artist has developed as a kind of personal language over many years.

“All of the pieces I make have a performative component,” said Whittle, during an artist talk at The Carnegie Art Gallery in nearby Covington, Kentucky. Whittle is highly recognizable, prone as she is to wearing homemade fashion adorned with colorful iterations of her shapes in felt or foam. Standouts among Whittle’s work on display at CAC include an installation of riotous color and shape, amplified by reflective mylar surfaces in a small chamber off her main gallery space, and a row of cut acrylic puzzle-sculptures, which configure her language of shapes into bristling, dimensional katamari-like standing structures. Video montages chronicle Whittle’s daily fashion challenges, including experiments with paper garments, and hook-and-loop works that physically connect people with a special hook and loop tape that NASA developed to anchor people to surfaces and each other in zero-gravity.

One of Whittle’s freestanding Interlocking Acrylic pieces, detail view.

Though aspects of each artist’s works fit within conventional notions of a museum show, the majority of Archive as Action lives in its participatory programs, activated spaces, and visitor inputs. Whether it’s the long braids hung in Curreri’s gallery, self-reported demographics on happiness as aggregated and re-presented by Cullen, or Whittle’s wild exhortations to shape fashion and self-presentation, the artworks in this show requires and successfully harnesses museum-goer involvement. One imagines that, in a time when many museums are struggling to boost audience engagement, a show like this will turn institutional heads in recognition of a powerful new model.

Archive as Action continues at CAC Cincinnati (44 East 6th Street, Cincinnati, OH) through June 16.

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