Interview with Jeffrey Inscho

“Being a gatekeeper is completely out of the question”

Despite a full-time staff of only 12, the Mattress Factory has been able to create an impressive online presence that includes an active blog, Twitter account, the recently launched “Is This Art?” iPhone app and website, and more. One of the leaders behind these initiatives is Jeffrey Inscho, who answers questions about the Mattress Factory’s iConfess project and makes important points about using new media tools to advance the organization’s core mission, creating opportunities quickly, and establishing new methods to measure their success.The interview was conducted by email earlier this week.

ETB: By way of introduction, can you tell us about your position at the Mattress Factory, how long have you been there, and what the scope of your responsibilities is?

JI: My official role at the museum is to handle media and public relations, but don’t let that fool you. As a small non-profit, all staff members at the Mattress Factory wear several hats. My main priority is to facilitate the telling of the museum’s story through both traditional channels like paid advertising and conventional PR, and non-traditional approaches like projects such as iConfess and our inclusion of QR codes in the galleries. I started working here in 2007, after almost a decade of being a fan of the museum.

ETB: I want to specifically ask about iConfess, a series of short videos posted on YouTube showing visitors to the Mattress Factory speaking alone (or with friends) before a video camera. The first clip in this series shows you introducing the program in December 2008. Was iConfess your idea, or where in the organization did it originate? JI: The general idea for iConfess stemmed out of something the Brooklyn Museum did with their Black List exhibition. One thing Brooklyn does really well, and something we try to do well, is to create an open framework for sharing our technological experimentation in the context of a museum. Essentially, our goal here at the Mattress Factory is to create an open source environment for ideas. With the QR codes, for example, we blogged about our process and exposed the methods we employed so other organizations can pick up the ball and continue running with it. That’s kind of what happened with iConfess. We saw what Brooklyn was doing, and we remixed it with a Mattress Factory spin.

ETB: Do you know of any other institutions doing similar things? Did you look at external references besides the Brooklyn Museum?

JI: I’m not sure if other organizations are working on similar projects, but I hope they are. The more institutions push forward with new ways to engage community in an open environment, the bigger benefit for all involved.

ETB: How long did it take to move from the approved concept until installation/inauguration?

JI: It took us approximately one week to get it rolling. Maybe a week and a half. Definitely less than two.

ETB: Since then (December 2008), how many clips have been posted? JI: Our visitors have posted nearly 500 videos. There is also one from our founding director, Barbara Luderowski, in there. Bonus points for anyone who finds that one.

ETB: Where in the building is the “recording booth”? Can you tell us how this is identified or what kind of signage or message you have at the booth to encourage participation?

JI: The Confessional, as we like to refer to it, is currently located directly off the elevator on the museum’s third floor. You can’t miss it. It’s been designed to include a big plexi-glass window so people are generally very curious and approach the structure without any convincing on our part. Once they’re close, they can see directly into the booth. We’ve placed the operating directions in close proximity, so if someone chooses to participate they have everything they need to complete the process.

ETB: Tell us more about the process; what happens once a visitor decides to participate?

JI: The visitor operates the entire thing. We created some simple, icon-based directions that are easy for people to comprehend and follow. They record, preview, re-record if necessary and upload their own videos.

ETB: Does anyone review the recordings before they are published on YouTube?

JI: Videos are published instantly to the YouTube channel. I receive a notification via email that a video has been published, but there is no vetting or approval process. This project is inherently about relinquishing control of communication to our visitors, so our being a gatekeeper is completely out of the question. From the beginning, we’ve said that we’d only remove a video if it violated YouTube’s terms of service or the Mattress Factory’s mission. To date, out of the hundreds of videos uploaded, I’ve only had to remove two.

ETB: Some of the published content is very irreverent; does this concern anyone in the administration?

JI: No. What might be irreverent to us obviously meant something to the visitor at the time it was recorded. For each instance of an off-topic video, I can point to a relevant and on-point submission.

ETB: Give us a little context: What was the overall objective for iConfess when you pitched this idea? Do you see it in the sense that Nina Simon writes about in The Participatory Museum, that it can be a tool for visitors to become more engaged in the programmatic ideas?

JI: I think that in order to provide context about this particular project, I need to provide some context about the organization. The Mattress Factory is a research and development lab for artists that doubles as a museum of contemporary installation art. We’re much more concerned with creative process than we are with creative outcomes. We bring artists from all over the world to Pittsburgh where they live and work for a number of weeks in-residence creating new site-specific works. Our purpose as an organization is to help make the artists’ visions realities. In that spirit, we try to undertake creative ways to engage our visitors and the online community. The only objective behind iConfess was to break down the traditional flow of information — to not only hear directly from our visitors, but also make that feedback public record. We continue to view it as an experiment and a learning tool. I think Nina is right on the money with her assessment.

ETB: Are the recordings seen or discussed by the director, curators, or other staff in order to integrate this feedback?

JI: Yes, but there is no formal organizational process in place for reviewing the videos.

ETB: Do you also make this material available for visitors see in-house?

JI: Currently we don’t, but that’s not to say we never will. We just haven’t found the right interface. We learned from the MF SCREENtxt project that sometimes a publicly visible, on-site content stream can become a distraction for a large segment of visitors. With SCREENtxt, we displayed a real-time stream of visitor text messages and photos on a huge flat-screen television. All content was also viewable online, so there was this really interesting dialog occurring between people who were onsite with the art and people who were offsite looking in. Oftentimes, that content stream became the visitor’s focus, rather than the art. We try to avoid that at all costs, and are examining tactful ways to introduce iConfess content to visitors while they’re onsite. But there’s also something to be said for the fact that visitors have no frame of reference or preconceptions of previously recorded videos when they participate in the project. I think this element of the experience creates some truly unique responses that would have never occurred had the visitor seen the way others had participated earlier.

ETB: iConfess has relatively few viewers on YouTube; what measures to you use to assess its success?

JI: This is a really great question and something I’ve been thinking a lot about lately. I think organizations make a huge mistake when they use the metric of numbers to evaluate the success of initiatives designed to grow relationships. Placing heavy weight on irrelevant numbers like Twitter followers or video views is the result of marketers using antiquated analytics to evaluate success within a new paradigm. From a traditional marketing point of view, success is based on the return of your investment — if you spend X dollars/effort on an initiative, you should get Y dollars/awareness/views/followers as a return, where Y is greater than X. I would argue that when it comes to relationship-building initiatives, the ratio of Y over X should be as close to the number 1 as possible. That means you’re each participating in the equation and growing a vibrant community. Having said that, the iConfess channel has almost 5,000 page views and more than 11,000 video views, which really surprises all of us here at the museum.

ETB: Since its launch, have you made any key adjustments based on experience?

JI: Yes, we’ve moved the physical location of the Confessional to provide a more private experience. It was originally located in the museum lobby, where many people gather. It’s a space that gets quite crowded, so we moved it to the 3rd floor gallery. Having the booth in the galleries is definitely quieter and gives participants the space they need to speak freely.

ETB: How does iConfess fit into the Mattress Factory’s broader online strategy — do you see a relationship to the more recently launched “Is This Art?” iPhone app?

JI: Yeah, they’re kind of related in that they both rely on user-generated content. But other than that, not really. They’re both serving different objectives: iConfess is doing a great job at breaking down traditional communication structures, while “Is This Art?” is provoking an interesting discussion about the complex nature of art — what art is, where art can be found, what art can be, and why art is important.

ETB: Are there other new initiatives you have in the works that you can speak about?

JI: We’re in the very early stages of a digital archive & organizational history project that I think will blow some people’s minds. Other than that, the Mattress Factory is just really focused on making interesting art and producing amazing exhibitions.

Great visitor quote: “It was definitely a waste of my time not coming here”
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