Listening In: Nascent Experiments in Audio Guidance

The following is a case study on the usability of an audio guide I helped create for an exhibition. There’s a somewhat lengthy bit of explanation to contextualize the exhibition’s design prefacing the audio guide post-mortem, so be forewarned.

TPITFOAL

The Present Is the Form of All Life: The Time Capsules of Ant Farm and LST (henceforth known by its abbreviated acronym “TPITFOAL”) is an exhibition I co-curated at Pioneer Works, an art center in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The exhibition opened on September 9, 2016 and closed on October 23, 2016.

Media Van in situ

TPITFOAL combined archival works by the media art and architecture group Ant Farm, active from 1968–1978, with contemporary artworks by LST, a sort of successor group to the historical Ant Farm. LST (which stands for Lord, Schreier, Tombs) is made up of two of Ant Farm’s principal members (Chip Lord and Curtis Schreier) joined by architect and artist Bruce Tomb. The three members of LST are located in the Bay Area and have been making media and installation work together since around 2008.

Most famous for the iconic and oft-plagiarized sculpture Cadillac Ranch or the spectacular video performance Media Burn, Ant Farm made several time capsule works throughout their collective career, most of which were lost or destroyed. Much LST’s contemporary work is engaged with re-envisioning Ant Farm’s oeuvre.

Gabriel Florenz (Pioneer Works’ director and the other curator of this exhibition) and I worked closely with the artists of LST for over a year to research, strategize, and plan the exhibition. We took research trips to Berkeley Art Museum’s extensive Ant Farm archives, the NYPL architecture holdings, Artpark in Lewiston, NY, and the Burchfield Penney Art Center archives, which holds the archival materials for Artpark. We also had regular meetings with the artists and their technical advisors to design and build the enormous inflatable structure that was the centerpiece of the exhibition, as well as the custom software installed inside the Ant Farm Media Van v.08 that allowed visitors to contribute images from their smartphones to a digital time capsule.

Pioneer Work’s main space, a 130+ foot long gallery with 34 foot ceilings, was filled with a 75 foot long translucent inflatable structure, reminiscent of the inflatables Ant Farm made famous in the 60s and early 70s through the Inflatocookbook, a DIY how-to guide of temporary architectural intervention, and through inflatable installations at venues as varied as 1969’s Altamont music festival and the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Inside the inflatable, like a ship in a bottle, was the Ant Farm Media Van v.08 [Time Capsule] a wheel-less, black painted, “post-internal-combustion” vehicle created by LST as a revision of Ant Farm’s original Media Van, a (functional) Chevy van the group used for performances and road trips. Inside the Media Van v.08 was the HUQQUH, a digital time-capsule creation device, containing software that allowed visitors to plug in their smartphones and upload a photo to be contributed to a participatory time capsule.

rendering by Curtis Schreier.

We designed a darkened “airlock” room to guide visitors into the inflatable. Inside this space we presented architectural drawings of the Ant Farm Media Van v.08 and the Time Capsule Triptych, a 20’ long grid of thumbnail images representing images collected by the HUQQUH during its first exhibition at SF MOMA in 2008 as well as two channels of video documenting the apocryphal “discovery” and “final resting place” of the Media Van.

The final space presented a timeline of Ant Farm’s time capsule works, tracing the history of each of the time capsules from its creation to it’s opening, destruction, or (in the case of one still-buried time capsule) to the present day. The Time Capsule Timeline included archival video as well as other documentation and ephemera created by the artists.

We knew the exhibition’s narrative was complex and recursive — like the work itself. We assumed some viewers, particularly those unfamiliar with Ant Farm’s work, would engage primarily with the interactive and spectacular aspects of the show such as the inflatable and the HUQQUH. For Ant Farm’s many fans from the architecture and art community, we designed the timeline and audio guides in order to provide a variety of openings for engagement with the lesser-known works the show presents. Since Ant Farm has already had several major retrospective exhibitions and monographs, we decided to privilege the presentation of never-before seen process drawings, schematics, and video documentation over the better known “greatest hits”. Though we knew many of our viewers wouldn’t have seen any of Ant Farm’s works — even the greatest hits — the lesser known works allowed us to focus on the group’s collective working process and draw clear connections between the historical time capsules and the contemporary digital time capsule works.

Sound Capsule

I worked with Clocktower Productions, the radio-station-in-residence at Pioneer Works, to create “Sound Capsule” an audio guide that would primarily engage the second type of viewer — we will call them the Ant Farm Aware Viewer (or AFAV). We also wanted the audio guide to be less “interpretive” than the typical museum audio guide. Instead of giving facts and details about particular works in the exhibition, our guide (still available at sound-capsule.org) was made up of short interviews with the artists of LST as well as archival audio from Ant Farm’s videos. Jake Nussbaum, Clocktower’s station manager, and Mia Wendel-DiLallo, managing editor, to record interviews with Curtis Schreier, Chip Lord, and Bruce Tomb. The interviews included anecdotes and ideas about works in the exhibition, but also included their thoughts about events that influenced their directions and ideas, such as the 1969 moon landing. Jake then went through hours of archival video to find supporting audio from the archives, including recordings of Doug Michels — an Ant Farm member who died in 2003.

We designed the audio guide as a website designed for mobile devices, with each of the sixteen playable audio clips presented with an associated image. Clocktower had recently created a similar audio guide for PS1’s 40th anniversary exhibition, FORTY, curated by founder Alana Heiss. That audio guide was also presented as a mobile-designed website, but the exhibition featured listening stations for some of the content. We hoped that our audio guide would allow visitors to learn more about the history of the works and get a feel for the artists’ attitude and ethos, without tying them to a specific interpretation.

However, not very many people engaged with the audio guide. After looking at the google analytics for the site we found that only a fraction of the show’s many visitors opened the page, and most of the site engagement was of relatively short duration, meaning that most people weren’t listening through more than one of the audio clips. After the exhibition, I met with Jake and Mia to do a bit of post-mortem and discuss how we could have gathered more engagement.

Reviewing the experience

Without being able to do real-time testing of different modalities, we made a few educated guesses as to future direction. Presenting the audio guide as a site that could be accessed through a user’s own phone seemed like an easy streamlined way to get the content to users. But perhaps users would prefer to have a designated access point, with the site already loaded, and earphones easily accessible. A few iPads or stripped down smartphones available at the front desk, could have been presented to likely users — such as people viewing the exhibition alone, or groups doing a tour. Even just making headphones available, which many people don’t carry with them, could have made a significant difference.

We also could have included more information and signage about the audio guide throughout the exhibition’s paper ephemera, programming guide, and wall signage. We didn’t want to clutter the already dense works and didactic text on the walls with additional information, but we might have added small icons to the labels of the works referenced, with the URL in smaller type.

Basically, our finding was that people do not use or engage with content that is difficult to access. While those audio-guide devices available at the Met and other big museums may seem clunky (and cost $!) our free, always available guide had no urgency attached to it, nor was it offered in a compelling way to visitors. The signage we did have for the guide didn’t specify it’s ease of use or make a compelling case for the content. Guides and other peripheral exhibition materials must be presented seamlessly to the visitor and must provide some value beyond viewing the exhibition itself.

It is also useful to be able to alter the presentation of an exhibition asset like an audio guide during the run of the exhibition. Asking the gallery attendants to provide anecdotal feedback from visitors and adding a short survey onto the site would have made course-correction possible during the exhibition. In general, gallery attendants or docents who are interacting with the public on the most frequent basis are invaluable in providing real-time user feedback.