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In a recent article summing up the non-traditional or experiential art and entertainment events of 2016, the Los Angeles Times suggested that if there was ever an arts buzzword for the year, it would be ‘immersive’
Immersive is an adjective that best describes an experience that engages all the senses and captures one’s complete attention. In an era where so many forms of entertainment surround us, it is essential to offer memorable experiences whether it comes to art, film, design or fashion, simply for them to be able to create an impact on the audience. However, in order to attain this level of immersiveness while offering such experiences, a few other basic communicative principles must be kept in mind. These relate to the emotional, intellectual and physical demands of the work being presented, as well as the audience being made privy to the work. Essentially, exhibition design can affect communication and the following article attempts to break down the tricks of designing an exhibition by analysing the definition of the word ‘exhibition’ itself.
To begin with, the site-specific nature of an exhibition is central to this argument. Whether the exhibition concerns a public display of paintings, jewellery or books, the space is an integral physical aspect that the visitors interact with. Therefore, the space would have to be carefully chosen based on the physical demands of the work being presented. For instance, for an artist like Donald Judd, whose works are centered around the presence of light, an open exhibition space like the Chinati Foundation in Texas, USA would complement the physical demands of his artwork, as seen below.
The natural light coming in through the floor and reaching up to the ceiling windows add a layer of dynamism and motion to his minimal and structured art objects. In contrast, the same space would have to be treated differently to accommodate the artwork of an artist like Yayoi Kusama (Japanese Artist and Writer), which often requires artificial lighting. Perhaps, in this scenario, the windows can be covered up, or visitors can be requested to view the exhibition post sundown for an impactful experience.
Therefore, an appropriate space must be chosen to display and present the work aesthetically.
Only after that can one think of creating an immersive experience, which is a long process that begins with succeeding at drawing visitors to the space. According to Maria Lorena Lehman’s tips for great exhibition design, viewers’ emotional needs must be addressed first, followed by their intellectual and physical needs. This is illustrated in the diagram below:
To elaborate more on this, exhibition designers ought to design the space in a way that it intrigues the visitors enough to make their way to the exhibit and walk around the designed space. Considering varying needs of the target audience, exhibition designers must also ensure that the visitors feel welcomed once they enter the space.
For instance, creating signages and labels in different languages could help communicate better. The display text could offer directional signs, aiding the public’s understanding of the pieces displayed and/or familiarising them with the layout of the space and all it has to offer.
Exhibition designers must captivate the curiosity of the visitors using storytelling techniques to lead them into and through the designated exhibition space. This requires the designer to be selective in the information they put out, as an overload of information could bore the average visitor. Storytelling is also where interactivity comes in, and is especially important because when an exhibit is immersive, it allows viewers to attach personal meanings to it, and by default, they form a connection with the work. A 2001 museum exhibit research study uses zoos as an example of immersive design by pointing out that they place people where the animals are, letting them become a part of the experiment. According to Noah Nelson, Founder and Publisher of No Proscenium, a newsletter about immersive theatre, ‘immersive culture’ is a force that is all around the audience, and even ‘goes through’ the audience. It makes one part of the work being shown and breaks the ‘proverbial’ fourth wall, enveloping the viewer. It’s a real, experiential thing you want to take part in.
One way of creating immersive experiences is to think of the needs of the viewer – perhaps in the 21st century their focus is on documenting their life experiences on social media. Today, instead of banning photography, many curators provide ‘selfie’ opportunities within exhibits allowing people to use their phones and capture their experiences through photographs. Alexander Alberro, an art history professor at Barnard College (New York City), claims that anticipating this trend of photography has increased the impulse to make and feature artworks that will ‘smoothly slide into image-based platforms’ like Instagram and Snapchat because, this kind of art is more likely to bring in visitors that would be aesthetically introduced to the exhibit via social media.
Additionally, art is often understood by the feeling it generates – for instance, how a painting, a song or a piece of performance art makes you feel. Another method of offering immersive experiences could be an activity or a workshop corner dedicated to allowing visitors to express how the work on display made them feel. Kult gallery in Singapore concluded a toy exhibition in March 2017, where artists used mass market toys to create new works of art. A corner of the gallery featured a toy disassembly craft station, where visitors were free to dig through baskets of toys and assemble their own mini works of toy-art to take home after being inspired by the artworks on display. This fun factor also offered another way of engaging the audience and helped visitors across all ages remember their time at the exhibition.
While exhibits have to uphold a strategic position of being entertainment hubs, they also have an intellectual role to fulfill. Often this is an extension of their storytelling responsibility, and extends into their educational value for visitors. An exhibition can achieve this through the techniques of juxtaposition, repetition and presenting subliminal messages to engage the viewer.
It is known that exhibition spaces are artificial environments. Therefore, even the smallest of details that contribute to authenticating the message being put forth must be paid attention to. This may mean including stories of real people, or even publicly showing support from a larger organization through an image of their logo or a quote extracted from a legitimate source. All these details, combined with the repetition of messages that the exhibition designers intend for the audience to take away from the space have an unconscious, but significant impact.
The juxtaposition technique is a powerful one, especially because it simply presents two extremes, leading viewers to realise the meaning of the contrasts for themselves.
The image above is of Iranian artist Shirin Neshat’s work, who is known for using juxtapositions in her work to present social truths.
As every exhibition is a display of something, creating a proper flow or a walk-through is important for viewers to be able to independently discover the exhibition for themselves without being confused. Sometimes, this manifests itself in having a controlled entry and exit point – and is useful when maneuvering crowds. However, at other times, depending on the nature of the exhibit (usually when the timeline of the exhibit can be approached backwards or forwards), there can be multiple entry points, allowing the viewers more space to explore.
One of the successes of exhibition design is when visitors are inspired to explore corners and discover the journey of the exhibition for themselves. This physical aspect of exhibition design concerning the general layout of the space is perhaps even more important than having signages to direct viewers around the space, simply because it is something that cannot be fixed by the latter. This physical aspect must acknowledge that the level of lighting, the height of the floor and ceiling, the space around a specific work, the mood in the room etc., are all appropriate for the type of work exhibited.
Perhaps on an educational level, the idea of sellability is not as important as the rest of exhibition design aspects that should be considered. However, like any communication or graphic design course teaches its students to consider the needs of the clients, the same is important in exhibition design as well. Simple tricks can be applied to subtly project the true value of a work, such as the colour of the walls surrounding the work and the like. You might have noticed that as compared to museums, art galleries often present works on white walls as opposed to coloured or wallpapered ones. This is because the buyer, when picturing the work in the context of his home, might be more prone to purchasing a piece that (s)he can picture placed on the walls of his home. On the other hand, a museum doesn’t have the same responsibility of selling a work, as much as it has the responsibility of educating visitors about the history of art.
With technology, the emotional, intellectual and physical needs of an exhibition can be enhanced, making it both easier, and more challenging to achieve good exhibition design. Computers can be placed in exhibitions to provide additional information, and the internet can be used to further the message of the exhibition – almost countering the site specific ‘limitation’ of an exhibition. Feedback from visitors can be received after they have left the space, thereby optimizing on first hand feedback to improve exhibition design.
In early 2017, the Singapore Tyler Print Institute presented a solo exhibition of contemporary artist Amanda Heng’s work and used QR codes in order to engage users on their phones and connect to them more personally. The content of the exhibition concerned storytelling, and by innovating the way information was conveyed, the gallery managed to personalise visits for each of its audience members.
Considering the speed at which new releases become outdated, it is necessary to constantly update and upgrade one’s own technical knowledge and equipment. Unfortunately, there is a high probability that this can have a substantial monetary impact on the overall budget of the project.
It goes without saying that monetary restrictions do place their own boundaries on exhibition design, but there are always ways, whether expensive or inexpensive, to engage an audience. To conclude, whether your area of concern is fashion, graphic or communication design, the tricks of exhibition design probably apply to the presentation of your work. The three areas of emotional, intellectual and physical design must be considered in order to produce quality results. The strength of an exhibition is often measured not by the number of times it is frequented by an audience, but by the physical, intellectual and emotional satisfaction it offers to the visitors. It is also crucial for exhibition designers to look at other areas within communication and retail design for ideas in order to constantly innovate and engage with their audience.
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