Art Mobs: Strolling MoMA with Student Curators on Your iPod
10.30.09 | In the open-source era, there are endless — and seemingly endlessly proliferating — examples of once-passive consumers of “content” turning producer. Wikipedia is probably the best-known example of citizen curators, but everyone from the New York Times (with reader-written neighborhood reports) to a spunky new tech website I write for (motherboard.tv) have opened their channels to the masses.
You might think that museums — those fusty old warehouses stuffed with physical things — would be the last to embrace open-source ideas. And in a way you’d be right: As far as I know, not just anyone can hang a painting in the Met. But a few years ago, students at Marymount Manhattan College found a way to participate in and inform the museum-going experience. They did it with a project called “Art Mobs,” in a nod, I’m guessing, to so-called Flash Mobs, those Internet-arranged public gatherings popularized way back in 2003.
As part of the Art Mobs project, students created downloadable audio tours for pieces hanging in the Museum of Modern Art in midtown Manhattan. The assignment was to produce a short podcast pertaining to one of the museum’s works; some students joined with art professors to discuss a particular painting, while others offered more abstract creations, like music-backed poems or hip hop recordings.
Duly inspired by such arty creativity, I recently put a few podcasts on my iPod (actually, my daughters’ iPod, as mine is on the fritz; and, yes, my two daughters are both under age 5 and they share an iPod — such is the world we live in) and took them for a spin around MoMa.
Standing in front of Pablo Picasso’s flesh-filled “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon,” I press play. A ribald, informal conversation between a student and a professor pops on. “Can’t we just go back two rooms and get a drink at the café?” the professor asks, by way of an opening line. That sets the tone for six-and-a-half minutes worth of flirty banter.
Buried beneath the breathless back-and-forth about brothels is the occasional real insight, as when the professor exclaims: “People in the early 20th century were obsessed by STDs!” It’s like touring the museum with a slightly tipsy, slightly knowledgeable couple of friends. It may not be the most informative way to experience the art, but I feel lucky to have this renegade guide when I see two tourists struggling to share one of those oddly antiquated electronic wands bearing the museum’s authentic audio information.
Next I visit the grim domestic scene depicted in Max Beckmann’s “Family Picture.” Curiously, a jaunty beat, sampled flute and original hip-hop composition accompany me here. It casts an interesting, though also jarring, new layer over a picture of contemporary solitude.
The production built around Robert Rauschenberg’s “Bed” — painted blankets, sheets and pillows thought to be the artist’s own — is a complicated mixture of genres that manages to work effectively as an organic whole. Bluegrass-style guitar strumming yields to a poem delivered in a coldly robotic and asexual voice.
In the middle of the piece, the voice asks a series of questions that I would not otherwise have thought to ask: “Has [the piece] always looked this way? Will it still look this way in 100 years?” Soon the soundtrack gives way again, this time to an equally robotic reading of the Adrienne Rich poem, “Rauschenberg’s Bed.” It’s a multi-media whirlwind that leaves me physically dizzy.
My last stop is in front of Jackson Pollack’s “Echo: Number 25, 1951” for a rollicking and raunchy conversation between two students and an art professor. The result is like a far friskier This American Life segment with a scene-connecting rock soundtrack and some genuinely interesting tidbits of information (the professor points out that Pollack is referencing ancient Roman painting in his calligraphic technique and also that a big reason that MoMa underwent extensive remodeling not long ago, was so it could accommodate Polluck’s massive canvasses).
The podcast-propelled tour complete, I step blinking into a peculiarly warm October afternoon in New York City. I feel somewhat conflicted about this most modern way of seeing MoMa. Because while I likely would’ve learned more about the paintings had I taken the museum-issued tour, I don’t think I would’ve have had quite as much fun.
Visiting MOMA? Download the podcasts Mac listened to on his tour.
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