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What can one say that’s new or more than of passing interest about a place like the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California? Once one is in on the joke, you might ask, what more can one add?
According to Irit Rogoff, “The history of modernism is … inscribed with collaboration and collectivity, [with] avant-garde movements … founded in a perception of artists coming together with a mutual and coherent project in mind. … But no sooner are such supposedly collective entities established by historians than the process of privileging a dominant talent, an artistic leader … begins in earnest.” If collaborative work is represented by “a critical interrogation of the processes of production through artistic practice,” critical mediation acts as a filter or schema limiting the way the production is viewed.
What follows is an abbreviated version of a story we presented at the recent Modernist Studies Association Conference in Victoria, B.C.—a story of two interviews, two artist statements, one conducted with David Wilson, Director of the MJT, in 2006; and the second conducted last month with Wilson and his staff. Our first interview (“our” because I’ve been working with artist-researcher Donald Lawrence and, more recently, our student research assistant Emily Hope), like all those conducted before us, focused exclusively on Wilson—we sought to test out the view of the museum as a performance art installation. The second interview modified that view and revealed an extraordinary behind-the-scenes look at the collaborative efforts that sustain the museum as a site of collective and thoughtful inquiry.
The Museum is typically described as “Part installation art-performance, part curiosity cabinet, part testimony to the fact that truth is stranger than fiction, and purely David Wilson’s creation” Experiencing the museum through the modernist lens of Lawrence Weschler’s Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder, a Pulitzer Prize nominated work, critics and commentators consistently insist on the museum’s self-consciousness, its ironic inflection, its focus on the individual, its presumption of authorial intention, and the authenticity of its objects—and on David Wilson’s role as a kind of performance artist. Over and over, the Museum is discussed in terms of “Wilson’s singular vision”—and perhaps most tellingly, the museum is represented by critics as a one-man show.
What these observations have in common is their conflation of the man and the museum. And it is easy upon first meeting David Wilson to become intoxicated by his sincerity, his seriousness of purpose, his sense of wonder, and his thoughtful curatorial presence-cum-performance.
During our first interview I was struck by how often he used the word “think” or “thought” as both a linking device (“we think”) and a generative metaphor (how visitors raise questions that “cause us to pool our thoughts”). When discussing the Garden of Eden on Wheels exhibit, for example, he said that “We actually went out of our way to choose collections that felt thoughtful and carefully put together but without being primarily quirky or strange.” And when the idea of exhibiting the possessions of ordinary people was first raised, he spoke of “ripples that came out of that thought that were really appealing to us.” At that time the interview answers seemed well rehearsed, and despite my appreciation for his responses, I couldn’t help feeling disappointed that he wasn’t more forthcoming about his artistic intent. Intent on confirming his role as the creative agency behind the project, like Weschler I interpreted Wilson’s references to the museum staff, his repeated use of “we,” as merely part of the performance.
In my Victoria presentation, which takes up insights drawn from our most recent visit, I wanted to take Wilson at his word and tease out the possibility that his use of the first person plural is more than a theatrical affectation. I wanted to reconsider David Wilson and The Museum of Jurassic Technology not in terms of the heroic artist, a postmodern gesture or unstable rhetorical trope or a fake modernist museum, but as a research and public art collective, a community at once informed by the tradition of artist house museums (for Wilson does indeed live in a 1951 Spartan Aircraft Trailer Coach parked on the museum property) and inflected by a commitment to research and artistic inquiry akin to that pioneered by new genre public art and now under intense reflection in the universities.
To the best of my knowledge, however, no one has considered in depth the equally extensive studio, workshop, office, research and archival space that scaffolds the public work of the museum—another several thousand square feet where staff busy themselves with the meticulous documentation of projects; the construction of new exhibits and the repair of others; the ongoing work of interns, visiting artists, and university researchers; the long-standing residency program with the University of Wisconsin. For the Museum is home (quite literally to Wilson) to seven staff members—all artists (a dancer, a ceramicist, a textile artist…) and all committed to the museum as a collective enterprise. A place where those who work speak of themselves as both “curatorial and janitorial”; where behind the scenes it is “part school, part zoo.” During the course of our interviews we heard how “everyone participates in the development of new exhibits, how “the best experience is when you cannot remember whose idea it was”; how the museum is “very much open to people’s participation [for] it’s so small here”; how Alexis and David “write together all the time”—and how they are consciously working “to defeat authorship.”
At present I’m busy working on the transcripts of interviews conducted during the second visit; but even at this point it’s obvious that there’s more to the Museum of Jurassic Technology than meets the eye.
I want to highlight a recent success story, one suggesting the value of community-based research in the social sciences and humanities. Our Small Cities CURA’s work on the family and quality of life in smaller cities—in particular, our partnership with the Kamloops Museum and Archives–established the groundwork for developing the first children’s museum in BC.
Our lead university researcher on this project was Helen MacDonald-Carlson, who worked tirelessly on studying, critiquing, and developing museum and community programing, beginning with storymapping workshops with school children, walking tours exploring what she called “Jewelry for Buildings” (teaching children about the architectural features of local buildings), and a cemetery project (a heritage study used by local elementary school teachers, the Regional Heritage Fair, and the Museum). In addition, with Museum Director Elisabeth Duckworth (our principal community partner on this project) she surveyed children’s museums across North America, considering best practices and alternatives to commercially-produced historical displays. Together their take on the ideal children’s museum was significantly influenced by MacDonald-Carlson’s scholarship on what’s become known as the Reggio Emilia approach to early childhood education: Reggio is a small city in Northern Italy, a city famous for integrating artistic practice and research into the education of small children. It was my pleasure to work as a team member with Helen and others on the Heritage Fair and Reggio research.
Further background research, helping to frame the museum development, was conducted with a second partner, the Make Children First Learning Initiative. With Director Val Janz, MacDonald-Carlson prepared a parent survey report, Growing Up in Kamloops (available online via the Small Cities Website)
Subsequently, Make Children First, working with City partners, developed independently the Kamloops/Thompson Community Mapping Study: Healthy Families, Healthy Places (with research lead Jennifer Casorso). Most recently, we helped organize and facilitate a community conference, Working Smarter for Child and Youth Health: Improving Quality of Life in Our Region (final report prepared by Sue Lissel and Dr. Terry Kading of our CURA team):
Professor MacDonald-Carlson died of cancer in 2007, but her vision and that of the Museum Director and staff was honored at the opening of the Children’s Museum, where Elisabeth Duckworth acknowledged the CURA’s contributions–especially those of MacDonald-Carlson, the student research assistants who worked on the project, the advice offered by MacDonald-Carlson’s colleagues following her death, and the importance of the community-based research that has helped elevate the Children’s Museum from a simple renovation to a nine-year example of community-university collaboration and friendship.
A video podcast featuring MacDonald-Carlson and Elisabeth speaking briefly about the project can be found as part of the video Introduction to the Small Cities CURA.
I think that part of the genius of these community-university research alliances is that they create possibilities for networking within projects and among projects. The announced opening of BC’s first Children’s Museum in the small city of Kamloops is only part of the story; behind the scenes, at least some of the success of this opening arises from the research activities of the CURA partners–field testing museum materials, studying best practices, considering both the needs of young families in small cities and a host of other community-based research questions.
To see a recent story about the Museum project, check out the recent edition of Dialogue Newsletter (published by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada).
For the last 10 years or so, I’ve been exploring the notion of artistic research. This exploration began in earnest with the first Small Cities Community-University Research Alliance, or CURA (2001 – 2006), and became a defining element of our current CURA, “Mapping the Quality of Life and Culture of Small Cities.”
The research projects included in the Small Cities CURA do not employ a single methodology; rather they reveal a commitment to methodological diversity, where the fundamental criterion is to use the most appropriate form of inquiry for the topic under study. Some projects incorporate traditional archival and historical methods; others employ ethnographic approaches and action research; while some use a combination of methods. One unique feature of this endeavour has been the involvement of artists-as-researchers.
From the beginning–and with an art gallery as lead partner–the directors of the Small Cities CURA saw the potential for “displaying” research as an important means of public dissemination. Once the research program was underway, at the first major meeting of researchers and community partners, the group reviewed its goals for (1) collaboration and assessment, (2) new partners and alliances, (3) additional funding possibilities, and (4) communications and dissemination strategies. In addition, Lon Dubinsky and I presented a brief on the potential involvement of artists. Initially, including the artists was presented as an example of how new researchers could be drawn into the project, in this case through culminating exhibitions that documented the projects and presented artistic work reflecting major project concerns. The program quickly moved to attach artists to projects as they arose. In the meeting, we noted that this enhanced use of artist-participants reflected the progress of several current projects, and was generally supported by an increasing interest by the contemporary art world in what we might call ‘community-based art. We envisaged several possibilities, each contingent upon agreement by the researcher(s), community partner and artist(s) for each project. For example, some artists might participate fully as researchers with their work incorporated into, if not in some cases synonymous with, a specific project. in other cases, artists might work as more detached observers.
Since the first CURA, we have refined the roles of artist-researchers, with the artists now following one of three inquiry models:
(1) Affinity: where the artist is encouraged to match existing work with issues under exploration by a particular CURA research group.
(2) Response: where the artist is encouraged to create new work responding directly to the particular research group’s project.
(3) Integrated: where the artist works with a particular research group, becoming in effect a co-researcher by committing skills, insights and art production to the research findings.
A couple of years ago I submitted the following description of the artist-researcher team as part of a funding report:
A key aspect of our previous CURA continued here in the current CURA is the inclusion of artist-researchers, practising artists working alongside academics and community partners. We are encouraged by the potential we see for linking creative inquiry to more traditional methods of research. The presence of working artists as co-researchers (Doug Buis, John Craig Freeman, Laura Hargrave, Ernie Kroeger, Donald Lawrence, Eileen Leier, Adelheid Mers, and Melinda Spooner) provides enhanced access to, and credibility with, the cultural communities of our participating cities: as one of our partner organizations found when employing artists in the ‘‘Small Towns : Big Picture’’ project, ‘‘While the development of sustainability indicators is of academic interest to those working in the field of . . . performance evaluation, the [Small Towns] research would have been an insignificant blip in the community’s experience if it had not been for the involvement of the artists’’ (Rogers, 2005; Rogers & Collins, 2001). Involving participating artists and engaging communities via locally-developed cultural projects promotes dialogue and social interaction. In addition, artists offer opportunities for well-crafted critique, playful destabilization, and an identifiable ‘‘Third View,’’ not tied directly to either the university or the community partners.
Thus, the interest in artistic forms of inquiry and the role of artists in community-based research arose from our work with the community partners–and was especially inspired by our partnership with the Kamloops Art Gallery.
In 2005, Rachel Nash and I hosted an international symposium on “artistic inquiry”; and in 2008, in collaboration with the Banff Centre, we ran a 6-week residency devoted to exploring notions of artistic research. The current research project, “Making Interdisciplinary Inquiry Visible,” builds on these earlier initiatives.
In brief, we are now looking at the following questions:
- What happens to academic writing and research when non-linguistic modes, strategies, assumptions, and traditions are introduced?
- What special opportunities, benefits, limitations, pressures, and obligations does involvement in academic and community-based research offer artists and their co-researchers?
- What can we learn from visual artists, in particular, about image-based inquiry and writing?
- How can such a focus on visual/verbal collaborations help construct a new paradigm for academic research, one that recognizes a “visual turn” in academic and creative work?