Sunday, May 19, 2013

Confessions of an Exhibit-Builder

Marbellous Indeterminacy

I've had any number of visitors and prospective interviewers ask me where ideas for exhibits come from and what goes into building an exhibit for Mindport, i.e., what does the process involve. It's difficult to come up with any sort of pat answer to this question, because the process involved in creating each exhibit depends on the creator and the individual exhibit. They're all different. I'll attempt to say a few things about my own process of exhibit creation and about Mindport's general experience with our exhibits, which we often characterize as "interactive art."

House of Unborn Saints
It seems that one stage in the process of all sorts of creative work, and which plagues some other creative people I know, is an encounter with the "this is dumb" stage. There's almost invariably a point early in a creative project when it seems like a dumb idea, that it won't work, or nobody will like it. That's usually the second hump to get over. There's an earlier hump for me, which is taking the step from an emotional sensation or idea to something that embodies it in physical form. In my case, there's always an uncomfortable transition back and forth from a logical "left brain" mode, to a more lyrical and imaginative "right brain" mode. This is more true with those of my creations that involve both imagination and a certain amount of engineering. If you've visited Mindport, "Marbellous Indeterminacy" and "House of Unborn Saints" are just two of my pieces to which this applies. There's a strong element of sheer imagination in these, but also quite a bit of practical engineering involved, not only to get the things to work, but to make them easy to disassemble and to repair. That in itself is a skill that's taken me the full duration of Mindport's existence to refine to a semi-satisfactory level.

Pipe Organ
Some of the exhibits I've built didn't require much imagination. They were mostly engineering challenges, and, in the case of the pipe organ, I relied heavily on information found on the web, posted by pioneering organ makers who had gone far deeper into the subject than I had. The finished organ was an example of what's lately become known as "mission creep." For some years I'd had it in mind to build one or two large organ pipes, which would generate very low tones. The purpose of those would be to demonstrate how organ pipes work. After considering that idea for a spell, I thought, why not make an octave-worth of smaller pipes that would allow someone to play a simple tune. That proposition expanded to two octaves, then to two and a half, with all the sharps and flats, thirty pipes total. That sent me on a web search which turned up the website of Raphi Giangiulio, who has built a truly impressive organ. He had posted full dimensions for complete sets of several types of pipes, without which I might never have attempted building an organ at all. To make a long story short, or a short story longer, you can find a detailed description of my version of the organ project here.

Most exhibits I've built turned out to be a lot more work than I anticipated, and not all of them ended up being good exhibits. Some were maintenance nightmares that eventually had to be retired because, in the case of a couple of them that included water, they stubbornly leaked, or, in the case of one that included a large volume of sand, the latter had a way or migrating into other exhibits, much to their detriment. There is even an unanticipated difficulty with the organ, which is otherwise a good exhibit: it's a lot louder than I expected it to be. When Mindport is crowded, we sometimes must levy controls on its use.

We still harbor one maintenance nightmare, which is Marbellous. We keep maintaining her because she's a fascinating character who represents much of what Mindport is supposed to be about. Also, there's a paradoxical rule that truly interesting exhibits almost always require more maintenance than their ho-hum compatriots. In order to minimize the need for maintenance we've gone to lengths to encourage our visitors to treat exhibits gently, and I must gratefully acknowledge that 99%  of them do so, and guide their youngsters in that direction as well.

One challenge, when a new exhibit is completed and ready to be installed, is to write comprehensible instructions for it. This task usually falls to me, mostly because I'm interested in the way people interact with, not only our exhibits, but with any sort of tool or technology. I find it fun to imagine encountering any piece of equipment as though I was seeing it for the first time, and attempting to anticipate what questions might come up in connection with its operation. The question with exhibits is, how much I can leave to the viewer to discover for him or herself, and how much has to be documented in some way. Some of my work experience previous to the advent of Mindport involving technical writing has come in handy in writing documentation for Mindport's interactive exhibits. If you visit Mindport, you'll find quite a bit of information about various exhibits, including their history  and the process of creating them, posted inside the accompanying white notebooks.

Thus far, I've focused on practical aspects of Mindport's exhibits. The question, Where do your ideas come from? is more difficult to answer. You may find hints in the aforementioned notebooks. Often I can't exactly identify the sources of exhibit ideas. At core, they arise from my long-term interest in science and art, which dates back to pre-teen years. Reading and experience with these subjects have been roiling around in my brain for decades and mixing in often unexpected ways. Sometimes I see some sort of equipment or artwork created by someone else, imagine it's one thing, only to discover that it's actually something other than what I'd imagined. . . but that what I'd imagined had some merit of its own as an exhibit possibility. It's little like imagining faces in an Oriental carpet, in driftwood on the beach, or cloud forms. My imagination has a way of projecting itself on outer forms, and sometimes what I project plays a part in creating an exhibit.

One thing that keeps me interested in creating exhibits for Mindport is that doing so is always a learning experience. Even exhibits that turn out to be a bad idea teach me something worthwhile: Like, don't do THAT again, or if I'm going to do it, do a better job, make it easier to fix, or don't make it so complicated that nobody can figure out what to do with it.  One thing I've observed is that someone, usually a smart kid, will do exactly the thing to an exhibit that I hoped it would not occur to anyone to do. The corollary wisdom is, if I can figure out a way to screw it up, so will someone else. The name of the game is, design an exhibit which encourages creative experimentation without including hidden vulnerabilities.

Kevin Jones

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