Explorations in Exhibition Anthropology

I recently [summer 2006] went to see a Tom Sacks exhibition at Oslo’s Astrup Fearnley Museum of Modern Art. At the entrance, I was greeted by the following signboard: “PLEASE HELP US TAKE CARE OF THE ARTWORKS. Several of the art works [sic] should not be touched. When in doubt, ask a museum-host. Parents are encouraged to look after their children.” The choice of words caught my attention. By claiming that “several” of the artworks “should not be touched” the notice seemed to indicate that some of them were excluded from the rule. But which ones? As it turned out, this was far from obvious. Sacks often uses inexpensive material – indeed, found or stolen “junk” – that does not look like it would suffer from a little stroke. His works also contain (potentially) tactile elements such as handles, switches, triggers and knobs. Yet, although these elements imply everyday interactivity, the works themselves are not “interactive”. Even if the Chanel Guillotine (1998), the electric chair of (What would James Brown do)(1999) and the cabinet-mounted handguns of London Calling (2003) look like they might work (and, according to the artist, they do), they are not meant to be ‘fingered’. Nutsy’s 1:1 McDonald’s (2002) is a functional hamburger stand that has been used to make junk food in performances, but in the gallery it was shown like a sculpture, only indexically referring to its ‘functionality’.

Where were the touchable works? How about Sachs’s life-size reconstructions of Le Corbusier furniture? But nobody dared to sit on them. Or the bench opposite a monitor displaying his (meta)architectural projects? Unfortunately, I happened to read the description first, understanding the bench as part of the work, and so I automatically ‘decided’ to stand next to it while watching the video. Of course, I missed an opportunity to test the validity of the signboard. I did not ask a “museum-host” either, although I was “in doubt”. Most likely the touchable works were just phantoms, brought into life by bad “Norwenglish”. But still, the signboard is symptomatic of real issues affecting museum-going today, and I am not referring to the acts of madmen slashing Van Goghs or attention-hungry “avant-garde artists” attacking Duchamp’s Fountain.1 There is uncertainty about what one should do and how one should behave in a museum, caused partly by cultural and institutional developments, partly by tendencies within the contemporary arts themselves. Although the “serious art audience” purportedly knows how to behave, for the majority of today’s exhibition-goers the art museum has become just another weekend amusement. Art museums have to compete with other family-oriented pastime activities, like visiting science museums, theme parks, “children’s museums” and entertainment centers, where touching the exhibits is not only tolerated, but even encouraged. The tactile dimension of life is reinforced also by the ‘automated’ habit of constantly fingering ATM’s, laptops, game controllers and iPods.

Distance to Be Destroyed

Most contemporary art museums continue to define themselves as “touch-free” zones, drawing a line between themselves and the institutions just mentioned. However, slippages to the realm of the tactile have begun to take place. One of the most extreme examples I have seen was Game On, an exhibition on video games shown at London’s Barbican Gallery (Barbican Centre), The Helsinki City Art Museum and elsewhere (2002-03).2 The majority of the exhibits consisted of commercially released game machines, flanked by a few game – inspired interactive artworks, such as Thomson & Craighead’s Trigger Happy (1999). While the youthful audience wholeheartedly enjoyed game-playing – an activity sometimes characterized as the new “mother tongue” of the young generations – the artworks were (according to my observations both in London and Helsinki) nearly ignored. Compared with the games, they seemed dull, theoretical and alien. Indeed, their main raison d’être in this context seemed to be convincing skeptics that games do inspire artists and the exhibition therefore belonged to the art gallery. Exhibitions like Game On can be justified by the need to “keep abreast of times”, but in an era of shrinking public support it would be naive to ignore the economic interests underlying such endeavours. Profit, and in some cases survival, has motivated prestigious institutions like the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia to move most of their priceless historical collections into storage, replacing them with interactive hands-on exhibits that provide easy-to-digest family-oriented entertainment in the guise of education. The way some art museums are trying to attract new visitors is not all that different.

The uncertainties about touching or not touching also arise from the ‘nature’ of contemporary art. The academic art of the nineteenth century was self-evidently “untouchable” – even raising the issue would have been absurd.3 The idea of aesthetic experience itself was associated with ‘keeping distance’. Twentieth century avant-garde art began calling for the destruction of the barrier separating ‘art’ from ‘life’. Although ‘classic’ works of the avant-garde, such as Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel (1913), Man Ray’s Object to Be Destroyed (1923-32), and Meret Oppenheim’s Breakfast in Fur/Fur Teacup (1936) only implied the act of touching, tactile art was called for by the Futurists and anticipated by dadaist and surrealist actions, as well as by the experimental exhibition designs of Frederick Kiesler and others.4 The Happenings of the 1960s, actions like Valie Export’s Tapp und Tast Kino (1968) and Action Pants: Genital Panic (1969), as well as the early works of Marina Abramovic, Orlan and others, were some of the signposts along the route toward a more tactile relationship between the visitor, the work, and in some cases the artist-performer.5 The most obvious examples of tactile art, however, may be found from interactive new media art, where the visitor’s active intervention is called for to ‘realize’ the work. It is now customary for exhibition visitors to type on computer terminals to access “net art” or to engage in bodily interactions with interactive installations. The tactile value of such actions has been emphasized in an increasing number of works. While exhibitions of interactive art are rarely organized as such, interactive pieces are often shown together with various types of “untouchable” works that still form the majority of art production.

The situation could provide wonderful opportunities for activating the visitor, challenging him/her to investigate critically one’s own position as well as the strategies of displaying and consuming art. However, the result often seems the opposite: confusion and frustration. Exhibition visitors are “in doubt” about what they are allowed or supposed to do. The stressful situation is not solved by the countless notices art museums now display on their walls. These notices not only warn the visitors about the potentially insulting or transgressive subject matter of certain exhibits; they also provide detailed explanations about the “meaning” of the works, “operating instructions”, and warnings against unwanted behaviour. While the presence of tactile works could potentially lead to more flexible, playful and “democratic” experiences, the opposite seems to be the case. The institutions are clearly nervous, leading them to display pre-emptive rules and instructions, and to enhance security by CCTV cameras, beeping signals and omnipresent guards (a tendency that was scrutinized by perceptive artists like Julia Scher already years ago).6 No longer does the museum believe in the existence of codes and modes of behaviour that would be ‘automatically’ shared by the visitors – in spite of the fact that real problems are rare and usually caused by misunderstandings or accidents (oh, those fatal shoelaces!), rather than deliberate pranks or subversive actions.

Your Strange Certainty No Longer Kept

I recently saw an exhibition called Ecstasy: In and About Altered States at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Los Angeles (2005-06).7 I ended up visiting it four times, taking notes and snapshots, observing visitors, ‘trying out limits’, and talking to the guards as well. While the exhibition contained no “interactive new media artworks” proper, it provided ample evidence about the issues raised by the desire to touch and the forces trying to control or contain it. Significantly, issues like temptation, resistance and succumption were at the core of the exhibition itself, which had the artists’ interpretations and uses of “altered states” (including drug-induced ones) as its theme. However, while these issues were deliberately dealt with by the artists and the curators, one could claim that they were also raised by the exhibition design and institutional policies, as demonstrated by a note taped next to a 16mm EIKI projector used to project a film by Paul Sietsema, Untitled (Beautiful Place)(1998): “This is not an Interactive Piece. Please do not play with the Projector.” Because the film was only shown at certain times and there was no guard permanently standing in the room, the temptation to switch on the projector or just to play with the knobs (fascinating remnants from another technological era!) may have been irresistible to some visitors – or could these really have expected the work to be interactive?

At the doorway leading to Olafur Eliasson’s installation Your Strange Certainty Still Kept (1996) I noticed the following warning: “Viewers with light sensitivities please be adviced: the artwork uses strobe lights”. Entering the darkened space, I discovered a ‘curtain’ of water dripping from the ceiling. It was indeed illuminated by strobe lights, which made the waterdrops ‘dance’ in changing formations.8 The installation was close to the narrow entrance, and there was no barrier preventing the visitors from standing right next to it; it was even possible to walk around it to the other side. Therefore it felt quite natural to stretch out one’s hand and touch the water, as I saw other people doing. In fact, touching the water caused interesting changes to the light patterns. I assumed this to be intended, and there was no signboard forbidding it. However, when I started playing with the waterdrops, a guard immediately intervened, informing me that it was “forbidden to touch the water”. When I asked him why, he bluntly explained that he had ‘received instructions’.9 I began suspecting that this unexpected ‘tactiloclasm’ had nothing to do with Eliasson, although it may have had something to do with poor exhibition design. Maybe the museum had simply become concerned about the floor getting wet. Indeed, in front of the other entrance I discovered a yellow plastic “Cuidado piso mojado / Caution wet floor” sign, familiar from public restrooms (I later noticed that there was one at the other entrance as well, leaning folded against the wall).

Pierre Huyghe’s L’expedition scintillante, Acte 2 (Light Show) (2002) had no “operating instructions” either. His “son et lumière box” was alone in a darkened room, with only pillows around it. Most visitors chose to sit silently, watching smoke rise from the bottom part of the box, accompanied by music and illuminated by switching colored lights hanging from a frame above. One teenage girl, however, amused herself by blowing at the smoke during her entire visit, obviously delighted with her amusement that no-one else (including her girlfriends) was willing to join. She sat very close, almost bent inside the box, constantly blowing at different intensities. The open sides of Huyghe’s work permit this type of “interaction”, but whether it was something the artist had anticipated or just an accidental by-product of the design and the moment is difficult to judge. The girl’s behaviour may have revealed her nervousness, her uneasiness with the situation or unfamiliarity with its ‘codes’, or perhaps her “interaction obsession” and need for attention. Or perhaps this girl ‘just wanted to have fun’, in the famous cindy lauperian mode. I felt that her intervention both disturbed and refused Huyghe’s carefully orchestrated combinations of smoke, light and music, destroying the (meta?)meditative quality of the work. There were no guards in the room to point out “correct” behaviour, perhaps because they were needed more urgently elsewhere. One cannot ‘touch’ the smoke; blowing may irritate others, but it doesn’t make the floor wet.

Mounted on the wall just outside Huyghe’s installation was Fred Tomacelli’s Echo, Wow and Flutter (2000). At first it seems flat, but at closer look one notices layers of cut-out images and small objects (including pills) immersed in a thick layer of transparent resin. This gives it an extraordinary three-dimensional quality beneath its plain surface. There was a black line on the floor in front of the work, but that was generally ignored. Almost everybody reached out their hands to touch the work. A guard had to stand next to it, interfering again and again. One elderly lady, who looked like a museum “regular” and obviously knew the ‘correct’ rules of behaviour, went to him to ask for a permission to touch, which was expressly denied. The guard said to me he felt extremely exhausted, adding that he could not understand the urge to touch. Obviously he had not grasped the artist’s cunning. Apparently the work (influenced by drug culture) is meant to create an irresistible temptation, which is denied, because it resembles a painting and paintings belong to the class of untouchable objects. Echo, Wow and Flutter is destined to remain the guard’s nightmare, because keeping the viewers behind a metal bar would not work either – they would just miss the opportunity to observe the delicate details, the veritable key to the work. Unintentionally, the situation brings to mind the audiences grasping images ‘sticking out’ from the canvas in a 3-D cinema. The difference is that in a speciality cinema or theme park this behavioural ‘topos’ is equivocally encouraged. Also, there is no “surface”: touching a stereoscopic image is like touching smoke.

Perhaps the most interesting case was that of Carsten Höller’s Upside-Down Mushroom Room (2000). The way it was presented had many similarities with the ways theme park attractions are organized to regulate ‘traffic’ and to create expectations through delays, promises and “rites of passage”, while keeping the audience under constant surveillance. The visitors had to queue in line, while a guard stood by talking to a walkie-talkie. Just a few people at a time were allowed to enter a long dark tunnel leading toward the work, after reading yet another notice: “Please be adviced: low hanging sculpture in motion. Please do not touch.” One reached eventually a brightly lit room with several gigantic red fly-agaric mushrooms hanging from the ceiling, upside down and rotating slowly. It took a real effort to ‘navigate’ through the room without – accidentally or intentionally – touching their deceptively ‘real-looking’ surfaces. This was, of course, intentional: one was traversing a space of hallucinations and secret temptations.10 Ironically, ‘real life’ interfered with the experience not just in the form of the memory of the prohibition to touch, but also materialized as another guard permanently positioned inside the installation space. So this was the other end of the walkie-talkie line – the loud crackling communications between the guards echoed in the space over and over again, making concentration difficult. The unintentional narrative of the Museum as a Super-Panopticon effectively took over the fantasy about immersion and ‘tasting the forbidden fruit’.

Metalanguages for the Masses?

The museum institution as we know it emerged in the nineteenth century as a response to the challenge of “educating the masses”. This was also a disciplinary gesture: the new industrial urban masses had to be “tamed” so that they would not revolt and overturn the existing order. Although the museum may not seem to have had anything to do with other new institutions of the time, such as spectator sports or the circus, parallels can be found. Participants were kept at one remove from the action, positioning them as spectators rather than as ‘actors’. At the stadium or in a circus tent, the audience members observed a spectacle given by professional trained performers, and paid for it. The museum was somewhat different. While spectator sports and the circus may have been seen as pure entertainment, the museum always had an educational mission. The visitors had some ways of negotiating the experience, deciding their routes, rhythms and what to watch. Instead of live performances, the museum offered pre-meditated exhibits with ‘cultural value’ and ‘elevating potential’. Unlike early ‘curiosity cabinets’ and other proto-museums that were only visited by the upper classes who knew the etiquette, and were thus allowed even to handle the objects, the new mass museum did not tolerate tactility. The objects were there for the eyes only. To make sure no misunderstandings would happen, paintings were displayed in massive frames (segregating them from ‘real life’) and increasingly placed behind protective glass. Lightly touching a statue as a reminiscence of earlier religious practices might have been a little easier, but it was forbidden as well.

In today’s world the art museum again encounters the challenge of the masses. However, these masses are different, having been educated in the ‘open universities’ of global tourism, mass immigration and the integrated media culture. While the classical cinema and even television broadcasting still emphasized somewhat distanced modes of spectatorship, video games, mobile phones, laptops, iPods and other ‘handy’ electronic devices have familiarized millions to the tactile dimension. While the borderline between public and private gets blurred, so does the distinction between different behavioral modes. It is becoming increasingly difficult to decide when touching is allowed, when forbidden. To make things more complicated, today’s art museum audiences, particularly in a city like Los Angeles, are extremely heterogeneous and multicultural. Although the world may be turning into a global village, local habits still persist in its its quarters. As the profuse writings by Edward T. Hall already demonstrated in the 1950s and 1960s, behavioural differences are not easily wiped away, particularly when they are defined along deeply rooted cultural lines. In today’s world global phenomena like the use of mobile phone are mixed with local customs in intricate ways that are hard to predict. The tensions can be creative, but they can also raise anxiety. In a situation like this it is easy to understand why the art museum does not believe in the existence of a single code of behaviour any longer.

It could be argued that the art museum simply cannot do any longer without all the instructions, warnings and apologies posted on its walls. Too much is at stake, also economically; being sued by an injured or insulted visitor is one of the worst nightmares a museum faces; besides, scandals easily ‘echo’ in mass media, damaging the institution’s reputation. One might ask, however, whether everything is correct when the notices begin to accumulate to such an extend that they start competing with the artworks for attention? It might be suggested that the art museum, as well as the works it houses, should in a certain sense be self-explanatory, speaking to the visitors’ instincts and ‘guts’, leaving plenty of room for their own discoveries and interpretations. Perhaps this is no longer possible. At the most recent Whitney Biennial (2006) the works on display had been provided with detailed curatorial explanations about their subject matter and their social, philosophical and cultural significance. One might expect these issues to be something the visitor him/herself deciphers from the work; of course, theoretically one can still enjoy the works without reading the descriptions. Unfortunately, many of the works on display at the Whitney Museum were so introverted (or even nihilistic), that they only seemed to reveal their ‘depths’ through the metalanguage of the notices. While there was little to persuade the visitors to touch (which must have been a relief for the museum staff – could it have been a conscious curatorial decision?), there was much reason for bewilderment. Bewilderment, of course, can be a source of discovery and understanding, but it can also lead to coldness and indifference.


  1. The recent attack on Marcel Duchamp’s ready-made Fountain (1917) by the self-defined avant-garde artist Pierre Pinoncelli was explained by the attacker as “a wink at Dadaism”, an effort to “pay homage to the Dada spirit”. Pinoncelli had already attacked the same piece years ago. His attack represents the most “art history conscious” case of those that come to my mind. The court had no tolerance for Pinoncelli’s act and gave him a three-month suspended sentence plus a fine of €214,000 ($262,700). Fountain itself was “slightly cracked”. Reuters reported all this on its website on Jan 24, 2006.^
  2. See the catalogue Game On. The History and Culture of Videogames, edited by Jo Lightfoot. London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd, 2002.^
  3. This had not been always the case as Constance Classen explains in her “Touch in the Museum”, in The Book of Touch, edited by Constance Classen. Oxford & New York: Berg, 2005, 275-286. The prohibition to touch artworks was the result of specific social and cultural developments in the context of the nineteenth century culture, not a given.^
  4. There are conflicting stories about whether Man Ray himself destroyed any of the versions of this piece as performative acts (although he claimed so). In 1957 a group of protesting Italian students smashed one version. See Janine Mileaf: “Between You and Me: Man Ray’s Object to Be Destroyed”, Art Journal, Vol. 63, No 1 (Spring 2004), 5.^
  5. For a media archaeological excavation of this history, see my “Twin-Touch-Test-Redux: Media Archaeological Approach to Art, Interactivity and Tactility”, in Media Art Histories. Edited by Oliver Grau. Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.^
  6. About Scher’s work with museum surveillance systems, see Julia Scher: Tell Me When You’re Ready. Works From 1990-1995. Boston: PMF Publishers, 2002.^
  7. For more information about the exhibition, see Ecstasy: In and About Altered States, edited by Lisa Mark, Los Angeles: The Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 2005.^
  8. Similar ideas have been explored in depth by Weng-Yin Tsai and others already since the 60s. It is not clear to me if Eliasson’s work is a spontaneous re-discovery of this idea, or a deliberate comment on this tradition. Tsai’s cybernetic sculptures are often “responsive”, or user activated.^
  9. Personal experience, Nov.26, 2005.^
  10. The experience may also feel like an enchanted game world, a spatialized version of Nintendo’s Super-Mario where the visitor is one’s own avatar and the goal is to “avoid obstacles” and get safely through. I am grateful for my former UCLA graduate student, media artist Andrew Hieronymi for this observation.^


Erkki Huhtamo works as Professor of Media History and Theory at the University of California Los Angeles, Department of Design | Media Arts.

This Article was first published in Framework. The Finnish Art Review, Issue 5 (July 06), pp.110-113.