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“Long gone are the days of no flash photography,” said Alexis Miller, a local art conservator, discussing materials issues related to an art piece’s long-term exposure to extreme bursts of light. Low-light capable smartphones, she remarks, have changed everything. Instead, “As a conservator, I worry about people bumping into stuff.”
It’s a notorious story: the museum-goer knocking down hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of sculptures in pursuit of a selfie, with the entire thing (ironically enough) caught on surveillance video.
“When you’re on your cell phone, you’re distracted and you lose a sense of your body in space,” Miller said. “You lose your sense of your place within an installation.”
Immersive art installations, including the brand new SDMA Tim Shaw exhibition, “Beyond Reason,” on display through Feb. 24 (which Miller succinctly describes as “really around you”), there’s so much to bump into. Of the six installations in Shaw’s exhibition, each housed in a unique room, one is specifically noted as photography-restricted (though at special events, some visitors experienced additional restrictions).
“It really depends on the intent and wishes of the artist,” said independent curator and erstwhile-Wonderspaces producer Rebecca Webb. Many pieces, including some of Shaw’s installations, restrict photography not for specific conservation reasons, but because of the artist’s wishes related to the biographical trauma that inspired it. It draws questions when moving between installations with varying restrictions: Why this room, but why not that room?
Most major art museums and galleries now allow personal photography throughout their collections. Whether this cultural shift is considered caving or just catching up with the current zeitgeist, even the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery just advises visitors to please try not to be in someone else’s way. When the modern reflex to whip out a phone and document everything is interrupted, a certain element of psychology is at play. It either forces a user to pay more attention to the art, encourages a social buzz around this mysterious piece, protects the actual art or — in Shaw’s case — protects the artist’s intent or content.
Officials at SDMA pointed out that photography restrictions tend to be at the behest of the artist, the loan or a copyright, and unless noted, personal, no-flash photography is allowed and encouraged throughout the museum. In recent years, they’ve even moved away from forbidding photography during the incredibly busy periods of December Nights or Residents Free Tuesdays.
There is no shortage of journalism on the matter of selfie-centric pop-up museums. But what about the traditional arts spaces that are bringing in experiential and immersive art while still — whether because of art conservancy issues, marketing or proprietary reasons, or for more psychological purposes — sometimes preventing visitors from taking their own pictures of the pieces?
In SDMA’s exhibit, one room’s installation, “Mother, The Air is Blue, The Air Is Dangerous,” specifically forbids photography, but then sends you in a closed room alone or with a companion, without the supervision of a guard. It’s a fear-inducing scene from Shaw’s own memory of a Belfast cafe bombing: low, droning noise, cafeteria trays suspended in thin air, bloodied clothing abandoned near upturned tables and projections of figures fleeing in silhouette. The implicating nature of immersive art means that suddenly the space in which the art dwells becomes the viewer’s space. If a visitor, fully immersed, sees this as their trauma, can they not touch it? Do they not own it? The photography restriction, then, is unsettling and ultimately grounding.
Beyond terrorism, there are themes of violence, misogyny, rape and oppression. Several of the installations are in closed rooms, toured in pairs or in very small groups. It lends itself well to conversation; in fact, as visitors exit “Mother, The Air is Blue…,” they’re invited to write thoughts on sticky notes to place on the wall. It’s basic-level interactivity but it makes a general point: Notice how you felt.
“Sometimes the act of documentation/recording is part of the interactive experience,” said Webb. “The sharing via social media is the extended interactivity. When that happens it certainly boosts the reach of the exhibiting entity (marketing), maybe at the expense of the immediate visceral ‘experience.’”
Though the time period is notably pre-ice cream museums, and arguably even before the Instagram boom, according to a 2013 psychology and cognition study, taking pictures of museum pieces impacts a visitor’s memory of the piece. Graduate students in the study were asked to either not photograph certain pieces, snap a picture of the entire piece for others\ or zoom in on an assigned, specific feature (like a subject’s foot, or an object in the scene, for example) for yet a third set of pieces.
Recall on the unphotographed pieces was far better than when the participants were instructed to take general pictures of the pieces. Taking quick, relatively thoughtless pictures — ultimately an act of saving information to consult or share later — reduces the brain’s ability to form meaningful memories of the subject. A surprising result, however, was that the detailed, zoomed-in pictures resulted in a similar recall to the no photograph instances. Focused and intentional photography, then, can heighten an individual’s experience of the piece in a way that less-intentional photography reduces the experience.
With Shaw’s exhibition, deeply psychological and traumatic, a plea to pay attention — maybe not all the time, but once, in one restricted space — focuses and heightens that cognition in a similar way, by noticing how it feels.