Monday, April 09, 2007

Exhibition Audio Guides

I've never given it much thought, because I've never rented one, but a section in an essay by Robert Storr recently convinced me that audio guides designed to supplement viewing an exhibition, regardless of how well produced, actually do the viewer more harm than good with regards to the experience available. The essay is the first in a collection commissioned by the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, titled "Questions of Practice: What Makes a Great Exhibition?," and it introduced me to a term I had not yet encountered: the "exhibition-maker," as opposed to "curator" whose primary concern Storr describes as "the care or preservation of art." But the idea therein that truly captured my attention was this:

[A]udio guides have become the bane of exhibitions by unfairly competing for the attention of the viewer by piping words into their ears when they should be using their eyes. [...] Moreover, inasmuch as audio guides function by directing the listener to duly marked "key" works in a gallery, they cause crowds in front of these works, making it impossible to examine them in any careful or sustained way. Worse, they spur the crowd to skip everything in between. No compelling sequence of works can overcome this herding effect, which means that there is little chance that the viewer can "read" the installation as an ensemble of discoveries, the positioning and pacing of which inform each other and instruct the viewer by example in how to "read" the whole of the exhibition.
Storr goes on to acknowledge that he has been involved in creating such guides and that, within the context he described above, some are clearly much better than others, but he offered, for me (being obsessed as I am with the dialog about art between the viewer and the artist via the work, as well as the dialog among viewers themselves), the most damning aspect of their use:

[T]he audible whispering of such guides substitutes itself for conversation and arguments among viewers, and the taped voice of authority---whether art expert or mellifluous actor---drowns out the voice in the viewer's head that struggles to articulate its own ideas and feelings.
He notes in further explanation of his position on this something I've felt explains why video is perhaps the most un-ignorable medium of our time (which is a whole other thread, I realize):

The combination of sound and moving images upstages every other kind of image
And he finishes his thoughts on this topic with a summary that well states a position we've hashed out on this blog repeatedly:

Experience is, in fact, the subject of art and establishes the subjecthood of the viewer. Anything that supplants it, regardless of how valuable in its own right, or how well-intentioned on the part of the provider, is, ultimately, art's nemesis.
Storr notes that he doesn't expect his making of this case to end the practice of audio guides, and, again, as I've never rented one, I can't add anecdote to his rationale in my support of his stance, but I wholeheartedly agree that anything that interferes that much with the experience a viewer would have had on their own (and, yes, that applies to the insufferably pedantic co-viewer you're unfortunate enough to be with at any given exhibition) is to be avoided. I know this implies some purity of experience (i.e., left to their own devices, each viewer will have some pure epiphany of sorts or whatever) and clearly that's got its own problems as a position, but given that the ultimate experience any viewer can hope for at an exhibition is undoubtedly an individualistic one, a chance aggregate of their own unique collection of experiences with the vision of the artist, forces that deprive the viewer of the potential of that by inserting their own preferences and priorities into the path the viewer would otherwise take are regrettable.

Having said that, I'm open to opposing viewpoints. Anyone willing to defend the audio guide?

Labels: art viewing, audio guides


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Audio guides usually accompany big ticket exhibits, costing viewers $10-20. The audio guide is one way to make sure that you get your money's worth (another way is to just spend time in the reading room that follows many major exhibitions now. I know, I know, reading is hard).

I assume (maybe I'm wrong) that many blockbuster exhibitions, no matter how exciting their curatorial scholarship may be, are created to make money, and that visitors to the blockbusters are attending the museum as a form of entertainment. While we scholars of art (ahem) may think that locating our subjecthood in a work of art *is* entertainment, many people don't.

Is it wrong or bad that some people want to just be entertained when going to a museum? I do wish that many people could step up to the challenge that good exhibits often present, but I won't scold anyone for being lazy, i.e. easily entertained.

As for the crowding, yeah it can be bad, but any savvy museum visitor knows to not go on the free day or on rainy days. I recently found myself alone at the Art Institute of Chicago's blockbuster exhibit Cezanne to Picasso. But i'm not telling you which day it was on; maybe your audio guide can give you a clue =)


4/09/2007 04:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

one more thing-- if we are going to get rid of audio guides, we should also probably get rid of the cafe, restrooms, gallery lectures, benches and cots that many major museums now host. Discipline people, discipline!!

(I really do wish there were some cots)

4/09/2007 04:59:00 PM  
Blogger Taylor said...

Andrea Fraser's piece with the audio guide is so great!

She is a an amazing artist.

4/09/2007 06:18:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Robert Storr surely has a point. The only thing working against his arguments is the overall context of museum expositions. There's a "voice of authority" in every part of museums' work with visitors, and you just can't silence it with a diatribe against audioguides. Museums sell postcards with the foremost masterpieces, they hang the best works in the best places, and so on. So the viewer is always led, with audioguides less subtly maybe.

The Post-Blogger

4/09/2007 07:28:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

I like listening to "God Save the Queen" really loud on my iPod when I view an exhibition, but I don't think this is the sort of audio guide you're talking about.

4/09/2007 08:02:00 PM  
Blogger Concrete Phone said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

4/09/2007 08:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I hate them.

I gave them a second chance recently.

Reveron's show at MOMA. The worst audio ever! The English version/narrator had a fake or kind of strange accent and the Spanish one....I better not say. Just bad. I returned the thing right away.

Let's not get into the bull they were saying. That's another post. Poor people.


4/09/2007 08:44:00 PM  
Blogger George said...

I agree with Storr’s observation that, the audible whispering of such guides substitutes itself for conversation and arguments among viewers, and the taped voice of authority---whether art expert or mellifluous actor---drowns out the voice in the viewer's head that struggles to articulate its own ideas and feelings.

I’ve never rented an audio guides either. I have had great number of wonderful conversations with other museum goers who seemed approachable. We live in an age of complex technology, and just like programming a VCR, I think a lot of people are afraid they might "get it wrong" and are attracted to the audio guides voice of authority.

The point Richard and Ed make, that "experience is, in fact, the subject of art…" is well taken, ‘experience’ is different from conscious thought. I suspect many of the readers here, have the wonderful experience of just being totally overwhelmed by an artwork, this is something which has less of a chance of occurring while one is being distracted by a headset. It is what art is ultimately about.

I had a number of interesting conversations with people in museums. At the recent Manet show at MOMA, I became curious about the viewers who ‘poked their nose’ into the paintings, and out of curiosity, I started asking them if they were artists. To a person, they were and I had a number of interesting conversations, taken from different viewpoints than one would have found on any audio guide. Another time in the Met, at the Matisse exhibition, I was looking very closely at a part of one of his paintings, when an elderly (eighties) lady came up to me and said "see, he scratched the lines in with the back of his brush" I knew this, but as a painter I was overjoyed that she did, I was so taken aback I never thanked her properly. I guess my point is that there is a much greater experience to be had in a brief shared moment with another person than in the drone of an earpiece.

4/09/2007 08:55:00 PM  
Blogger Concrete Phone said...

..I've always thought that... what a disservice to the work...
If it's built into the work, great!
Another possibility is that if an iPod can be geared to the brain patterns of the user and shuffle answers to those thoughtful questions, "when was the work made?" it'd be great!
The iPod would whisper "1894".
And even more personalized...
"I wonder how that would look above Gran's couch?" "
iPod, "Your Gran's couch has already been replaced, so your question is no longer meaningful or valid. Would you like to start again?"
Is iPod there yet? Hello!

This all from a person who refuses to walk down the street plugged in... despite the atrocities man has set to nature, I want to hear them, the squeals, the rumbles, and the occasional flying thing. For me these things are not the curtain...

mls, I don't get it! Weren't you the one who advocated the virtual as the new reality? I mean silence in a room on e-bay, isn't that the future? Isn't ipod part of that crippling system of thoughtlessness and convenience?
I sound like an old grouch...whoops!

4/09/2007 08:56:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, my.....

Read my post again Concrete.

Bad narrators, not bad technology.

I like your idea of pointing to every object and getting lots of information.

I like the Borg but I don't want to be one, yet.


4/09/2007 09:52:00 PM  
Blogger Concrete Phone said...

Ok, I see mls! I'm with you now...
I guess it works for some and some things and not for others. I'll be open... like a painting...

" this painting by ****** 'The Crisis of Seeing', moves us out of the stationary of signifiers and connectors to a realm much wider and more open, though initially entered through silence, the doormat, and each side the jams. Once past this... ... summoning the tides of experience.
After the beep, please begin your silence and walk through. Beep....
Beep..... this next piece..."

4/09/2007 11:17:00 PM  
Blogger Joanne Mattera said...

Every once in a while I get the audio, and in two recent instances I was glad I did.

The first was at the Eva Hesse show at the Jewish Museum last summer. There were wonderful segments of the artist speaking with an interviewer (sorry, I don't remember who the interviewer was). Hesse has been gone some 35 years, but her voice was in my ear as I walked among her work. It was a moving experience.(I wrote about this show in my blog, Two Artists Talking, if you're interested:

The second instance was the Brice Marden show at Moma. I was somewhat less plugged in for this one, but I did enjoy hearing him talk about his process and connect his conceptual dots.

Fortunately as artists we are more self directed in our looking, and we can use the audio guide to enhance the experience if we wish. And, of course, while all those other plugged-in visitors are crowded around the audio-enhanced artwork, we have the rest of the gallery to ourslves.

4/10/2007 12:05:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

i feel a fool. i always got the audioguide and thought I learned from it. if i wass with a friend we got separate two so that we could wander at will. i believed that they have facilitated my appreciation for what has been before me. i stand corrected and i am pleased to be relieved of my previous thoughts on the issue.

in october, i stood on grand canal at the front of the peggy guggenhiem with my sister. we each had our audioguide, me having explained that it was the best way to see the gallery. we stood before the " " name of the piece escapes me, but it can be described as tubby man with erection on horse. my sister, a horsey type, knowingly commented about the state of arousal of the horse. i dismissed her comment. she shrugged and responded that my dismissal was the final proof that i argue about everything even. I disputed that view. When she pressed me, I bent down and checked out the belly of the horse. by gosh if she was not defence of course was that the audioguide had made no mention of it. perhaps I hazzarded, it was not an important aspect of the piece as we broke into gales of laughter. so much for audioguides in venice.

4/10/2007 03:01:00 AM  
Blogger Marc said...

There's a common idiom about market-driven collectors in the Teutonic culture sphere that goes thus: "He buys with his ears, not with his eyes."

Now, as a writer, I'm the last person to argue against informing the viewer, but personally I prefer to 1) see work, 2) draw my own conclusions, then 3) see what other people see and think about it and 4) take another look to see if I agree or see it differently. That's why I commonly take two laps around an exhibition.

4/10/2007 03:20:00 AM  
Blogger Carla said...

Add more voices????

4/10/2007 09:31:00 AM  
Anonymous Henry said...

I can't defend audio guides. I don't use them. I tried them a few times when I was younger, and found them an impediment to viewing the exhibition. For one thing, I wanted to see the entire exhibition and then come back and revisit the pieces I liked, but my travelling companions always insisted on seeing Painting #1, then Painting #2, then Painting #3, going to each painting with a number printed next to it, and parking there while the recording droned. You may as well go alone if you're not going to talk to your friends.

I'd like to think there's a way to receive education about a painting or an exhibition, and that it would be good to receive the type of insight that only comes with the experience and education that a curator has, but I don't know that audio guides provide this. I get (got) the sense that the guides pretty much just tell stories about the paintings, without delivering much insight. I hope I'm wrong about this.

There was at one time an effort called Art Mobs, an attempt to create unofficial audio guides to MoMA, which one could download into their iPod before attending the museum. As you can see from the site, it went nowhere fast. Which is too bad, because I can see the benefits of third parties competing over this type of thing. Imagine the art department of one university creating a set of audio guides which stressed history, or an artist collective creating a set which stressed technique, or so on. You could pick the sensibility you were interested in, and download it. Of course it's nigh impossible to create an audio guide for every single work of art in the world, but the longest journeys begin with the first step....

Another thought is that I get upset when their users park themselves in front of a painting not to look at it, but to listen to it being explained. You get this cluster of dead-eyed people looking at a work, but concentrating their effort on their earpieces, while those of us who like to put our nose in a canvas are forced to the periphery.

Maybe we could replace audio guides with video guides. The painting can be explained to the viewer without them having to stand before it. This could backfire, of course -- people might park even longer in front of the painting to hold the video guide up against the canvas -- but hopefully peer pressure can be brought to bear, so it would become "proper etiquette" to consult the video away from the painting, then approach the painting in the absense of the guide.

I also like Concrete Phone's idea of an electronic FAQ. Instead of forcing us to listen to a lecture, why not give us an electronic guide with questions like "why is this painting historically important," or "How the hell do I pronounce Ingres, anyway?"

4/10/2007 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger James said...

I can't stand audioguides in art exhibits, but I did once use the audioguide on a tour of one of the mansions in Newport, RI and loved it. It provided such a background to what I was seeing. I think audioguides have a definite value for historial exhibits, for they pass along a narrative that you're not able to locate within what you're experiencing. But maybe that's because I've studied art for years but know squat about 19th century robber baron lifestyles...

4/10/2007 11:01:00 AM  
Anonymous dannielynn's daddy said...


Closest English equivalent: "ang".

I think what we're really talking about here is the divide between the knowers and the don't-knowers. I don't like to appear to be a snob, but not only do I not listen to audioguides, I generally don't like going to museums with other people, especially people who don't know much about the art on view, or who aren't very good at looking at things unfamiliar to them. I think it's great that there are such people who are willing to go (and sometimes even excited about going) to museums, and it's great that there are museums for us all to go to. But it detracts from my experience of the work on view to discuss it with someone uneducated (unless I'm teaching, but that's a job). I know that sounds terribly elitist, but that's the way it is. But, hey, it's fine that the people who want them listen to the guides and the rest of us don't have to.

4/10/2007 11:50:00 AM  
Anonymous David said...

Despite my smart-assed comment above about listening to the Sex Pistols while viewing exhibitions, I have to say that personally I hate audio tours. But many of my non-artist friends seem to love them. Perhaps it's because, as Joanne mentions above, "as artists we are more self directed in our looking."

The last thing I want when viewing art is to have someone talking in my ear. It feels watching a movie while someone behind you explains to their friend what's going on. There are certainly some interesting things that could add to one's appreciation of the work, like hearing the artist talk about it, but I think I'd only want to listen to them after seeing everything first with the sound off.

4/10/2007 11:52:00 AM  
Anonymous house_of_rats said...

OK--I don't like them either for their content--but they do slow me down (I have a tendency to run through museums...) and if its crowded in front of the piece they're yakking about, I just look at another one. I don't usually pay attention to what they are saying...
I like them especially if the speaker has a mellifluos foreign accent.

4/10/2007 12:35:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Another bad experience:

Met's audio tours by Mr. Montebello...creeepyyyyy!

It felt like the old testament god talking down to me... .

After a few minutes I started thinking about subliminal messages within the recording asking me for money and/or my soul.


4/10/2007 01:55:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

...subliminal messages within the recording asking me for money and/or my soul.

Did you end up buying a lot of stuff at the museum store?

4/10/2007 03:57:00 PM  
Anonymous Marshall said...

I too have never used an audio guide at a museum. I want to experience the work and bring my impression to it without being told what to look at, think or whatever. What audio guides do (and as at least one other commenter pointed out - so does other museum media) is concentrate the viewer into a "packaged" vision of what's important, rather than giving them the opportunity to discover what they think is important or interesting. I always feel that this does communicate to the public the idea that art is "hard to understand" and that you need to have your hand held in order to look at it. Which is nonsense - anybody can appreciate art.

That being said, I was just at the YBCA in San Francisco, and for their Crumb show some of the pieces had accompanying phone numbers you could call and Robert Crumb would talk about the piece over the phone. My friend called a few of them and she really dug them. So I think there's some place for audio in the gallery.

4/10/2007 03:57:00 PM  
Anonymous dannielynn's daddy said...

I like the idea of audio by the artist.

4/10/2007 05:09:00 PM  
Blogger Avi said...

Storr's critique is predicated on a woefully antiquated notion that a person can best experience art simply by sitting, meditating and, at last, discovering its true meaning. This view takes no account of the fact that most of the work which populates museums has been removed from the context of its creation and use. It may be moot to think we can ever recover the subjectivity of, say, a 17th century praying before a Caravaggio altarpiece in his village cathedral. But an audio guide at least goes some way in giving a museum-goer some sense of context. And it alerts the visitor, through the very disruption that Storr so deplores, to the rupture between the object and the space it now inhabits.

Storr's suggestion that audio commentary silences discussion about the works is equally ridiculous. It is just as likely that the commentary can serve as a starting point for dialogue when viewers feel overwhelmed and puzzled by new works. To follow this proposal to its logical conclusion, we should excise any and all curatorial commentary because it dampens public discourse through its authoritative stance. Then again, what a relief that would be!

Finally, at bottom this is a consumer choice. From the above comments, I would get the impression that the guides have been sewn to patrons' ears or that Philippe de Montebello's voice is blasted through a PA system at the Met. Just because you "don't like being told what to look at or think" should not foreclose other museum-goers from being offered a service they enjoy and (in many cases) receive a great benefit from.

4/10/2007 06:18:00 PM  
Blogger Concrete Phone said...

'Each person draws a line differently and each person understands words differently' ... Sol LeWitt.

... and so it goes...

1] The unity of experience is that it is unique.
2] The things we share often go unspoken, as with common sense.
3] In multiple world theory we the novice tend to think in terms of big things, big times, big distances, big differences and changes. Perception and understanding work like that.
Put things under a microscope and things get easy too. Analysis and Data like that.

But on a human level, just a simple feeling level, and to bring back the model of Multiple Worlds again, my life and your life is not the same. Each orbit and spin, departure and arrival write a unique world of experience that leads to the next, and the next: Worlds bounce off, touch, sometimes collide, love, the holding of one within the another, the bursting out, the dripping tap, the splat...

'Each person draws a line differently and each person understands words differently' ... Sol LeWitt.

... and so it goes...

4/10/2007 08:16:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The only good thing I can say about them is that they keep people quiet; fewer tangential conversations to hear while I'm looking.

4/10/2007 11:10:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Listen people:

If you like something in a museum/exhibition, you stay a while, you try to go back, you talk about it with someone, you read the catalog and you google it afterward. Audios are for turists and they never compare to the information in the catalog. Is just not posible. That's how is done if you want art or whatever to be a part of your life. (It's ok, if you go through life like that. Whatever.)

You see the Struth photo? Those white fat ladies? Look closer. The French rooms at the Met? The one with the audio guide in her hand? That thing is very close to her mouth. They never clean or wipe or do nothing to them. They are full of microbes. Colds, Flu and worst than that... . Understand?


...calling in? that's interesting...

4/11/2007 02:21:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As someone who has had a great deal of experience with audio tours, I am dumbfounded at how many responses were written by people proudly announcing that they had never taken one.

At least with an audio tour, you can look while you're listening. Ever watched people reading wall text and labels, glancing at the art, and moving immediately on to the next written word?? I suppose that could be taken as an argument for eliminating all information beyond the title and date of the work, and the name of the artist. But it seems incredibly elitist to assume that no one needs any help in understanding, appreciating, or even engaging with art -- an attitude that, in my experience, often goes hand in hand with a true ivory tower perception of the average visitor (who probably has facility in many other areas that art experts do not). This is not to imply that audio commentary should ever be ex cathedra -- there is certainly room for a variety of approaches, and with the proliferation of media and participation in it, more are being used all the time.

4/11/2007 11:59:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

As someone who has had a great deal of experience with audio tours, I am dumbfounded at how many responses were written by people proudly announcing that they had never taken one.

Well as for me, I'm not so sure the announcement was made proudly, as much as simply to verify that I'm no expert on the matter, but I don't mind saying that I've never once been tempted to rent an audio guide because the notion of experiencing VISUAL art with an audio aid strikes as as intuitively logical as taking a cat along to go snorkeling.

I appreciate the distinction between looking at an image while listening versus reading wall text, but that's the point at which Storr (and I theoretically) finds audio guides too invasive. Again, the combination of image and sound dominates any other expected experience in the context of a gallery.

Again, I could be wrong though...I've never rented one. Perhaps, for an exhibition I feel I've exhausted visually, I should. To see if I still feel this way.

4/11/2007 12:13:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm a fan of the cell phone dial in guides at YBCA--they provide interviews with the artists, comments by participants (at least for the William Pope L. exhibition) and an occasional curatorial comment. They are optional (an extension to dial after calling a phone #) and only interfere as much as you want them to. The main thing about them is that rather than an authoratative voice they add additional interesting tidbits of information that enhance my experience of the work.

Also, I do think that sometimes it is the responsibility of us as artworkers to provide some form of entree into the works--I think it helps make art more relevant in the larger culture.

4/11/2007 02:33:00 PM  
Anonymous Gwendolyn Holbrow said...

I'm a visual artist, and just tried my first audio tour at Boston's MFA. It is quite a different experience. As long as I looked first without it, I was interested in the additional input, whether I found it relevant or not. I think it does increase access to the work for those with less experience.

On a related note, I have recently been experimenting with audible visual art. It is somewhat similar to an audio tour, but meant to be seen through the ears, viewed in the mind's eye with no material visual component. The first pieces are from the new ICA in Boston. If anyone would like to check it out at (The Seeing Ear dot net), I would be interested in your comments. Thanks.

4/11/2007 08:15:00 PM  

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