#MobilePhotoNow Models Participatory Culture

Screen Shot 2015-02-08 at 1.17.00 PMThe curator’s talk at the opening of #MobilePhotoNow at the Columbus Museum of Art was a whole lot different from similar talks I’ve been to in the past. While the tone was serious, it was also welcoming. The comments were smart, and thought-provoking, but understandable by folks who don’t spend the majority of their time in white boxes with artists and collectors. Attention was also paid to those who might not speak hashtag as well as Jimmy Fallon and Justin Timberlake. This is all in keeping with CMA’s mission: “to create great experiences with great art for everyone.”

The night started with a greeting from museum director, Nanette Maciejunes, who was proud to let everyone know that “#MobilePhotoNow is the biggest mobile art show on the planet to date, demonstrating the power of social media as a means of creative expression and connection.” She spoke about the museum’s commitment to creativity and innovation and how this show fit with their goals of celebrating and enabling participation in the creative process.

She went on to remind us of a show a few years ago that CMA co-created with the Jewish Museum in New York called “The Radical Camera.” That was a fabulous show which featured many images from The Photo League, a group of (mostly Jewish) politically engaged photographers who focused their lenses on the lives of everyday people, doing everyday things from the end of the Great Depression to the start of the Cold War. CMA owns a lot of works from artists in this group who not only recorded the lives of others, but in doing so, reflected on their own. The League was blacklisted in 1947 and by the time it dissolved in 1951, it “had propelled documentary photography from factual images to more challenging ones—from bearing witness to questioning one’s own bearings in the world.”

It’s clear to see how The Photo League’s citizen reporting paved the way for our 21st century newsfeed of events large and small. But Maciejunes described a less obvious, but equally salient connection between The Photo League and mobile picture sharing, “the photo hunt.” In this creative exercise, league members selected a theme and made images around that theme to share with one another. Sound like anything familiar? CMA staff immediately related it to communities of interest on social media and so the first, CMA-sponsored, Instragram-supported, photo hunt was launched.

The CMA strives to be a participatory museum (Simon, 2010), in the context of a participatory culture (Blandy, 2011). “Connectors” appear in many of the galleries offering visitors opportunities to reflect on and respond to what they see through an activity; a game, a puzzle, a drawing prompt, a wall of post-in notes and a question. For The Radical Camera, CMA staff crowd-sourced images through a series of photo hunts and displayed their favorites. Maciejunes recalled that when she walked into the opening for the show and didn’t recognize anyone, she knew they were onto something big. They were connecting with a new audience.

The CMA Photo Hunt helped bring together mobile photographers in and around Columbus. Seeing the exhibition brought to light the potential of social media to inspire artistic practices that are at once personal and collective. But, at the time, I still didn’t have a smartphone so the whole thing was somewhat lost on me. Now I get it. Little did I know that for more than two years members of the jj community were pushing one another to make art, and share it everyday. What art educator wouldn’t like the sound of that?

Recently, in connection with a course I’m teaching, and in expectation of #MobilePhotoNow, I started using Instagram and following the #jj daily challenge stream. It’s intense, and beautiful. These are not a bunch of poorly-lighted selfies and half-eaten meals, they are (on average) well-designed, artfully composed, and intentional images shared with pride and purpose. See for yourself. Here’s something that showed up last night.

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 9.12.23 PMIt was a response to the day’s theme:

Screen Shot 2015-02-07 at 9.14.58 PMThis is a kind of formalist invitation (similar to black & white or group shots). Others are more conceptual (where I live, tourist trap, the night) or object-oriented (cars, the beach, woods). It’s a nice balance really. So often art educators struggle with questions of focusing on form or content, agreeing in the end that a balance is ideal. I only scrolled through a few weeks of challenges to get this collection of examples but it suggests a pretty well-rounded “curriculum” to me.

Everyday, people from around the world tag between 5 and 10,000 images with the hashtag #jj. This means anyone who searches for jj in Instagram will be able to find their image. When jj founder Josh Johnson spoke at #MobilePhotoNow, he expressed his personal love for the community he helped create. In a shaky voice he described Instagram as a place where “this buttoned up preacher’s son could be himself.” He reminded the audience of the connection between dopamine and addiction, how we respond emotionally to immediate response and gratification. Try 30 second feedback. “Powerful things can have pluses and minuses. Some of us spend too much time taking pictures. But if you have to have an addiction taking pictures isn’t really a bad one to have.”

CMA partnered with jj community to organize and manage #MobilePhotoNow. They hosted 4 challenges in one month this fall: street, portrait, black & white, and community generating 45,000 submissions from 5,000 photographers in 89 countries. A jury process through the jj community yielded about 600 images with 320 finalists selected by the museum staff. The images were printed locally, for free, by a graphics company supportive of the project whose name I should credit here but can’t recall.

Jennifer Poleon, CMA Digital Communications Manager and organizer of the CMA Photo Hunts introduced contributors in the crowd from Sweden and Iran as well as an older women, who looked to be around 70 years old. Her son, a photojournalist in town, got her on Instagram and soon thereafter she showed up at a CMA “insta meet.”  This is like a flash mob where strangers all show up at a designated place to share some experience. There she met other photographers who welcomed her and offered her tips. I loved this idea. Putting mobile photography in the hands of older folks and encouraging them to take pictures and participate in a community of creators. It’s an idea I want to push my students working with aging populations to seriously consider. For house- and institution-bound folks in particular, Instagram can offer a forum for rich connection, taking them across the Earth and back.

Kevin Kuster, who helps run jj described it as a modern day pen pal project; one which yields responses everyday. “The virtual world is not virtual,” he suggested. “It is deep and personal and when you do meet, you already know one another.” Kuster came to mobile photography after burning out in the world of professional photography. He described this as “the best time in the world for photographers. And the worst time to be a professional photographer.”

The enthusiasm throughout this session was palpable. It ended with a declaration from the museum’s contemporary curator, Tyler Cann: “I want to say. Yes, this is photography, and you are photographers. And I hope this exhibition creates more photographers and more radical eyes.”

An online gallery for the exhibition should be available tomorrow. Google it.

 

 

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#mobilephotonow

Sitting in the auditorium at The Columbus Museum of Art for a curator’s talk on a new exhibition. “Mobile Photo Now” brings together Instagram photographers from eighty-some odd countries. It is the latest installation in a series of crowd-sourced shows at CMA.

Due to familial duties I didn’t get to the museum until now, 1 hour and 15 minutes into the members’ opening; 15 minutes before the talk. I didn’t come downtown to sit in overflow seating, starring at a screen, so I’ll have to check out the show another day.

Teaching about globalization, art, and education this term has me pinning and posting all over, using hashtags like never before. I’m still trying to figure out what I think of it all but I like the way Instagram, like twitter, promotes interaction between like-minded strangers.
Just last week I posted this:

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“Composition in Compost” which lead me to meet the compostess, who identifies herself as a NYC master composter. This is one of those specialized interests you just don’t intersect with everyday. When she liked my photo, I felt understood.

More and more our students at UF are reporting on experiments with social media and their students. They find that asking their students to post their artwork on social media,  tagging it in meaningful ways, helps them and their students experience what it is like to put themselves out into the world in ways they never imagined.

I’m excited to hear how mobile photo now came together and consider its implications for art education. But for now, the talk’s starting. Gotta go…

Promoting Creativity – A Welcomed Invitation

Yesterday I attended a panel discussion on Making Creativity Visible at the Columbus Museum of Art. It’s part of a grant project spearheaded by the museum’s Center for Creativity which I will report on at a later time. As a warm-up to the discussion, the educators and docents in the room were asked to think of ways we model, promote, and assess creativity in our work. While I’d like to think through these prompts again with my university students in mind, in the moment I thought of my own children and our home studio experiences.

In the section on promoting creativity, I wrote: “I let things get messy.” And just below that, I wrote, “I clean things up.” I firmly believe that being creative requires space and time to put lots of materials out on the table but it also requires clear space to think and see one’s options and imagine new possibilities. This all reminded me of something that happened at home this past weekend.

As regular readers know, I’ve been working with the concept of “invitations” for creative activity around the house. This weekend, the invitations I’ve been sending came back to me, wrapped up with a big red ribbon.

This was the scene of the action.

Cora's easel positioned in a new location, with supplies she hasn't used in awhile, and a fresh sheet of drawing paper.

Cora’s easel, which for the past month had been moving around the living room mostly just collecting dust, caught her attention the moment she rounded the corner into the kitchen. In addition to moving it into a new space, I had rolled out a fresh sheet of paper and set out some triangular crayons she’d been neglecting in favor of markers.

“Thanks for settting this up for me mom!” she cheered, and my eyes immediately welled up.

Cora picked up some crayons and started drawing, big bold strokes of color. She was drawing with her whole body, in motion, and singing songs from the Sesame Street alphabet album which we listened to that morning. She was exuding positive energy and intensely making fields of color.

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For the past while Cora’s been making up a stories when she draws. Talking through her process, but still not drawing much recognizable imagery. So I asked her to tell me about what she was doing.

“This is a spiral drawing,” she declared and then she paused . . . . . “Do you know why I am doing this, Mom?”

“No. Why?”

“Because… I have to.”

I’m not really sure what Cora meant by this statement but I am sure it relates to issues of discipline, persistence, and drive to make things mentioned by the panelists at the museum. I’m sure I’m going to keep thinking about it. And I hope reading my documentation of this creative happening in my kitchen prompts some of you to set up a clean slate for your students and children to embark on a new creative adventure. If not today, then perhaps in the new year.

Need inspiration: Check out Tinkerlab and Playful Learning.

Wonder Room, Redux

Lots of museums have creative play spaces primarily intended for families with young children. While the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity’s Wonder Room was designed with children 3 years of age and older (and their families) in mind, it serves as a place for visitors of all ages to engage in creative play amidst original works of art.

Scenes from the original Wonder Room:

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In its first iteration, the Wonder Room included the chance to create giant faces with magnetized household items, make constructions with sticks and rubber bands or plastic dinnerware, build a fort, and more. Our family and friends had a lot of good experiences exploring and experimenting in this room together over the past few years. But, I was happy to hear it was closing for an overhaul this Fall. We were ready for something new.

So it was with bells on that Rosa, Cora, and I went to the members only opening of the new Wonder Room this past Sunday. We had a great time exploring the new space and hanging out with some of the artists whose work is included. But, we’ll need to return a few times before we determine how it will best suit our needs. While the old space was a bit of an all-over design, the new room was designed around the idea of an enchanted forest. Anyone who has ever read The Wizard of Oz, Little Red Riding Hood, or The Lord of the Rings know that enchanted forests aren’t always happy places. The components work well in conveying this idea and presenting lots of great art from the museum’s collection, but I must admit that some aspects caught Cora off-guard and will take her time to get used to. The space feels, overall, darker than it was. In addition, many of the activities seem better suited for older visitors, like Rosa, than in the previous incarnation.

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For instance, Heidi Kambitsch, a local artist known for her Openheart Creatures, created capes and masks and wings and claws for dress-up. They are inspired and engaging, and a little creepy. Rosa loved wearing them but it took Cora some time to warm to the idea of dressing up as a hairy wild beast rather than a pretty princess. Kambitsch’s work is positioned beside Alex Andre’s Metamorphosis Project which invites viewers to position themselves on either side of a revolving wheel alternately made of mirror and glass. As the wheel spins, the viewers see flashing images of themselves – check out the videos on the link, it’s hard to explain. All I can say is, interacting with Andre’s work while wearing Kambtisch’s costumes is a trip. Whether its good or bad is all based on your perspective.

On a different note, the environmentalist in me will have to think more about some of the activities that use consumable materials. One of the things I LOVED about the first Wonder Room was the way it presented opportunities to engage in process art without producing waste. As I wrote in my review of Oliver Herring’s TASK, I have trouble fully engaging activities that create lots of trash; part of my mind gets lost in the landfill. Time will tell if visitors can create nests and niches that seem (to me) worthy of the materials they are made with. In the meantime, we’ll be heading back to the museum again soon to play with sticks and stones and cardboard squares. Hope to see some of you there!

Serving time in the StoryCorps

While this makes two posts in a row that feature George, he and I haven’t had a lot of quality time together lately. So, it was with great excitement, and some anticipation, that I told to him about our invitation to participate in the StoryCorps project last weekend.

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I was excited because I LOVE StoryCorps – a ten year-old “independent nonprofit whose mission is to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share, and preserve the stories of our lives.” Over 50,000 stories have been recorded so far, most archived at the Library of Congress. Excerpts from select stories are aired on NPR’s Morning Edition on Fridays. Some girlfriends and I routinely listen and then send each other text messages with our reactions. Some are funny, others endearing, many heart-wrenching.

I was anxious because the interview would be 40 minutes long, and I couldn’t remember the last time George and I spoken for that long. Couple that with the fact that our appointment was for 9 a.m. on a Sunday and George is 14 years old, and I wasn’t sure what to expect. Luckily, George was intrigued by the idea: “Cool! We listen to NPR everyday,” he said cheerfully. Hearing we were among a small group of folks who were invited to participate in this series of recordings at the Columbus Museum of Art also appealed to him.

StoryCorps sent representatives to the museum as part of their award for winning a National Medal from the Institute of Library and Museum Services. George and I were invited because of a project we participated in last fall called Dispatchwork. (You can read about that here.) I thought we would be talking about that as part of our interview, but upon arrival and introductions, we learned we could talk about pretty much anything we pleased. We were given a list of questions on a range of subject to help keep our conversation moving.

George and I went back and forth asking one another questions and sharing our memories, ideas, and lessons for life. We both asked questions the other wasn’t prepared to answer, including some I have been harboring for a long time like, “Do you ever imagine what your life would be like if your mom and dad stayed together?” and “Do you ever wish Cora wasn’t around?” Perhaps, now that the door is open, we’ll revisit and respond to these queries in the future.

I don’t think our interview will ever make it to the radio, at least not on a national level. But I’m so grateful for this opportunity to practice the art of conversation with George. I know he will never forget this encounter with oral history, and who knows, perhaps someday his great-great-great grandchildren will listen to our conversation on a trip to Washington, D.C.

Parenting Perk of the Day: Making Halloween Costumes with/for Your Kids

As I wrote this time last year, Halloween is a serious affair at Rosa’s elementary school. This is her final year there and she wants to go out with a bang. It’s amazing to see how far her thinking on the subject of creative costuming has become. This year’s idea was pretty meta.

For the past two years, Rosa and Cora have worn related costumes. Three years ago, Rosa wanted to be something BIG, so she and her mom cooked up a giant jack-o-lantern for her to wear. Since I hadn’t had any brilliant ideas yet, and the costume looked nice and warm, I used some of the extra orange felt from Rosa’s costume and a piece of foam I had lying around to make something similar for Cora. In homage to Rosa’s obsession with mustaches, I gave Cora’s gourd a furry upper lip.

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Last year, I was inspired by this tutorial for the most gorgeous DIY wings I’ve ever seen. Again, looking at fabric hanging around in my stash, I decided to make two sets of wings, one for me and one for Cora. I also made some masks and we were transformed into owls. I attached the wings to sweatshirts to make them easy to get on and off and to keep us warm (notice the trend here?). A week before Halloween, Rosa hadn’t decided what to be. She tried on my wings and begged to wear them. How could I say no? I was honored they would be part of her school’s annual costume parade.

DSC_0178Rosa wanted to continue the tradition of dressing up with Cora. Like most little girls I know, Cora has an interest in dressing up like a princess. Fortunately, this hasn’t developed into a full-blown obsession. I don’t think I could handle that. (See: Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein) Watching her sister play dress-up with her friends transported Rosa back in time. She and her girlfriends mastered the art when they were in preschool and kindergarten. They couldn’t last 5 minutes together without disrobing and cloaking themselves in new identities. My favorite was when they would just trade for one anothers’ street clothes. This year, Rosa declared, she and Cora would be princesses for Halloween. “It would be so funny because noone dresses up like a princess in 6th grade.”

So, we headed to the thrift store, where she found and fell in love with a gorgeous Betsey Johnson dress with the tags still on. Price = $89.95. Rosa was floored. “How could they charge so much? It’s the thrift store!” So, we talked about non-profit organizations and their need to make money and the fact that while this seemed expensive for Volunteers of America, really the dress was a bargain. If she were 5 years older and headed to the prom, I would have snatched that thing up in a heartbeat. But, it was Halloween, so I suggested we examine the dress, think about what made her like it so much and a) look for something similar but less expensive, or b) try to recreate it ourselves.

Of course this didn’t go over well because what Rosa wanted to hear at that moment was that she could have the dress. And if I were made of money, I would have said yes. Like I said it was a beautiful dress the purchase of which would surely have won me some stepmom of the year award. But I’m not made of money and I recognized this as a teaching moment.

I reminded her of the fashion camp she attended this summer and asked, “What would Jen Gillette do?” Jen was Rosa’s instructor for Fashion Blasters – a tall blonde who greeted the kids on the first day with her hair teased out and up like a runway model, wearing an outfit she’d made of found materials held up by super high platform shoes she’d bedazzled from top to bottom. She’s gone to study theater design and production at Tulane, but her spirit lives on in Columbus through the folks she inspired during her time as a Creative Consultant at the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity. Including me.

We put our heads down and went back to the racks. I found a hot pink cotton tube dress the top of which was a lot like the Betsey Johnson design. Rosa found some curtains that were made of a similar material as its skirt. At home we talked about how to put them together. I’ve always been hesitant to sew clothes – I’m not precise enough to make things fit –  so I was proud of myself for figuring out the sewing aspect. But I was sad that Rosa didn’t feel confident enough to help me. I powered through on my own. And then I realized, While Rosa wasn’t doing the sewing, this experience gave her an opportunity to spiral back to creative thinking and problem solving skills she learned this summer. And, as I reminded her to do so, I was practicing those skills too – setting a challenge and figuring out a way to address it.

Are your Halloween preparations presenting any creative challenges to you and your kids? I’d love to hear about them. You’ll see ours in a week. Sorry, no peaking.

A Task, But Not a Chore

Sometimes I feel like I have been living under a rock the past few years. Under a couple of kids is more like it, but the fact is that this weekend I encountered two cultural phenomenon that made the rounds over the past few years without crossing my field of vision, even as shadows: “Caine’s Arcade” and Oliver Herring’s TASK. Once again, I’m grateful to the super cool folks at the Columbus Museum of Art’s Center for Creativity for bringing me up to speed.

“Caine’s Arcade” is a short film about 9-year old Caine and the arcade he built primarily out of boxes he found at his dad’s auto parts shop. The film has been viewed nearly 4 million times on YouTube alone. Yesterday, in conjunction with the Imagination Foundation (read about it, it’s really cool), the CMA hosted a cardboard challenge to celebrate that group’s Global Day of Play. Dan, Rosa, Cora, and I rolled through asking people about their projects, but we saved our energy for TASK which had been highly recommended during the previous day’s discussion of Play=Art.

Herring has been hosting TASK events and parties around the world for over ten years. (Turns out I can’t completely blame the kids for missing this one.) This is how it works: Herring writes a few directions on scraps of paper and puts them in a bin. Participants retrieve tasks, complete them, and they write new tasks to add to the pool. It’s kind of like DaDa meets participatory performance art. This sampling demonstrates the wide ranging nature of the tasks we encountered:

“Make a string web.”
“Host a talent show.”
“Write 5 tasks.”
“Everyone play dead.”
“Lead a conga line.”
“Ask a child about what they are making.”
“Imitate someone for 5 minutes.”
“Make sushi and give it to a dad.”
“You are a fish.”
“Cut the web.”

Most definitions for the word task include some level of discomfort, a chore one is assigned to complete. I’m sure Herring understood this when he chose that word as the name for his project. For while TASK can be a fun-filled venture that invites moments of play, Herring doesn’t believe play must always be pleasurable. Conversely, he suggests play can be an opportunity to break free of routine, to push one’s boundaries. I like this idea. It resonates with my growing sense that disruption can be a powerful catalyst for play and creativity.

It’s been nearly a year since Dan and I brought George to the CMA to participate in Dispatchwork. That had been such a great experience for our family I really wanted to try another round; this time with Rosa as our focal point. But while we started out collaborating on a task, she wanted to do the next one on her own. And the one after that. And the one after that. Dan and Cora also got involved in their own projects as I fell into a participant-observer role and chatted with some of the other educator-researchers in the room.

Our family has been working hard on home projects lately and this was a welcome break from our regular routine. Dan was reluctant to give up time for his works in progress, but ultimately said he was glad he went, that he took the time out. Rosa has had a few good experiences at the CMA recently, and was less difficult to convince. This came as a bit of a surprise since she is a teenager who values her weekends as time to do, pretty much, nothing. When I asked her how TASK was different from art class at school she told me, “Here you have something to do, but you decide how to do it. At school you have to follow the teacher’s instructions.” For us all, this activity was a task, but not a chore.

(Final note: I’m interested in learning how educators have integrated both of these activities into their work. I think the dynamic of TASK must be much different with a finite and more homogeneous group. I’m still processing. Have you got anything to share? I struggle with activities that expend excess amounts of material with ephemeral results. But that’s a big part of process art which I fully support. For now, I think the Makedo reusable cardboard challenge kit is going to be my new “go to” birthday gift.)