“Where does this work belong?” New digital approaches to evaluating engagement with art

Jeremy Knox, University of Edinburgh, UK, Jen Ross, University of Edinburgh, Scotland

Abstract

How can digital encounters between art and place be visualised and become a story about engagement that is meaningful for visitors, gallery educators, and funders? What does it mean to be inventive about evaluation? These questions have informed the work of the Artcasting project team at the University of Edinburgh and their partners at the National Galleries of Scotland and Tate, in the context of the United Kingdom’s ARTIST ROOMS touring exhibition. ARTIST ROOMS is a collection of more than sixteen hundred works of international contemporary art, jointly owned and managed by Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. ARTIST ROOMS On Tour shares the collection throughout the UK in a programme of exhibitions organised in collaboration with local associate galleries of all sizes. ARTIST ROOMS On Tour puts internationally important contemporary artworks in many locations that do not routinely have access to such works and puts the task of making them relevant in the hands of local galleries and users. It particularly aims to ensure the collection engages new, young audiences, and this is mirrored in this project by a focus on young people (ages thirteen to twenty-five). Artcasting invites visitors to make an imaginative association between art and place and uses beacon and geofencing technology, combined with user-generated content, to create places in the world where artworks from the collection can be re-encountered—what we are calling "artcasts." At the same time, the project has developed a framework through which artcasts can be understood in evaluative terms; drawing from Arts Council England’s new "quality principles"[1] and working closely with ARTIST ROOMS and associate galleries to understand what practitioners and funders really need and want from their evaluation practices. Artcasting is an innovative digital intervention, but also an object to think and learn with, going beyond instrumental uses of technology to solve a specific problem, moving towards "inventive problem-making" (Michael, 2012).

Keywords: artist rooms, evaluation, mobilities, learning, digital engagement

1. Introduction

The Artcasting project was funded by the United Kingdom’s Arts and Humanities Research Council in 2015. It has sought to demonstrate the possibility of digital innovations in arts evaluation and practice, and to encourage broader conversations about the ways gallery exhibitions are appraised and valued, and the role technology might play in such activities. Underpinning the project has been the consideration of “mobilities” theory as an alternative conceptual framework with which to understand the experience of encountering art, and therefore how exhibition evaluation might take on new, creative, and experimental practices. The project was guided by four principal aims: to understand how mobilities approaches can enrich arts evaluation; to design, develop, and pilot an artcasting platform; to generate a new approach to evaluation that can be built upon in the future; and to influence ARTIST ROOMS evaluation practice.

The project has centred on the development of a digital “Artcasting” platform. This involved an extensive design process, led by a core team of academics and developers at the University of Edinburgh, advised by a board of key stakeholders in the sector, and guided through workshops and public engagement activities with gallery associates and visitors.

The project has sought to problematize assumptions about the way arts evaluation might be understood, but also expectations about how technology might be used in such a context. The of use of digital technology in arts evaluation practices has tended to adopt instrumental approaches, seeking to streamline existing practices and merely increase the efficiency of established data collection and analysis procedures. Attempting to foreground the creative possibilities of digital interventions, a central concern for the project has been the development of “practices” with technology, rather than mere tools for data collection. This might be understood as conceptual “objects to think and learn with.”

This paper introduces the Artcasting project, its association with ARTIST ROOMS On Tour, and the digital platform developed to explore new possibilities of engagement with art. It describes the design process involved and the current features of the mobile Artcasting app, and considers implications for evaluation practices.

2. ARTIST ROOMS

For the Artcasting project, the core research team from the University of Edinburgh partnered with the National Galleries of Scotland and Tate, in the context of the UK’s ARTIST ROOMS On Tour exhibition. ARTIST ROOMS is a collection of more than sixteen hundred works of international contemporary art, acquired in 2008 and jointly owned and managed by Tate and National Galleries of Scotland. These two organisations oversee the collection and administer its presentation across the United Kingdom. Thus, ARTIST ROOMS On Tour shares its collection of artwork throughout the country in a programme of exhibitions organised in collaboration with local associate galleries of all sizes. One of the key ideas that motivates the ARTIST ROOMS On Tour project is therefore putting internationally important contemporary artworks in locations that do not normally have access to such works and putting the task of making them relevant in the hands of local galleries and users. It particularly aims to ensure the collection engages new, young audiences. ARTIST ROOMS exhibitions have attracted thirty-four million visitors and undertaken learning programmes with six hundred thousand young people (http://www.artistrooms.org/). As we shall see below, this concern for moving the collection to different locations, making internationally important artworks visible and accessible, and increasing and diversifying the groups of people who engage with art are ideas that resonate with concepts that underpin the Artcasting project.

3. Introducing mobilities theory

Artcasting has been informed by a creative tension between the instrumental development of a mobile application and the theoretical contribution offered by the underlying ideas of “mobility” (Adey, 2009; Sheller & Urry, 2006; Urry, 2007). Rather than assuming “place” or “location” as the foundation for research, mobilities perspectives have looked to “the combined movements of people, objects and information in all of their complex relational dynamics” (Sheller, 2011, p. 1). A mobilities approach is one that views the world in terms of its movements and transitions, rather than necessarily its people, which may constitute only part of the mobilities at play:

mobilities research encompasses research on the spatial mobility of humans, nonhumans and objects; the circulation of information, images and capital; as well as the study of the physical means for movement such as infrastructures, vehicles and software systems that enable travel and communication to take place. (Sheller, 2011, p. 1-2)

It is thus an approach that draws together different disciplinary concerns, often held separate in established social science methods. This project explored how an engagement with movement, trajectory, and transition can enrich arts-based evaluation.

Established evaluation practices tend to account for audience experience in a binary fashion: either “in” or “out” of the bounded and sedentary space of the gallery. They are traditionally inclined to privilege “place” as the authentic site of the encounter with art, but this project has investigated the value of foregrounding the mobilities at play: the flows and lingerings of the people, objects, and ideas that coalesce to produce gallery exhibitions. A mobilities perspective introduces questions such as: Where have the artworks been, and where are they going? What sets of ideas and influences might they have emerged from, and where/what else have these concepts extended into? Where do attendees come from, how do they move between and through the artworks, and where do they go afterwards?

One of the key ideas is that of the “immutable mobile” (Latour, 1986): “objects” have the capacity to exact powerful influence if they are capable of moving across space and time (hence the “mobile”), and “holding together” in presentable and accessible ways (hence the immutability). Latour (1986) offers the example of a map drawn in the sand compared to a map drawn in a notebook. While the former is soon washed away by the tide, the latter is able to retain the representation of the land, travel across continents, and integrate efficiently with the apparatus of colonisation. As Latour suggests: “In sum, you have to invent objects which have the properties of being mobile but also immutable, presentable, readable, and combinable with one another” (1986, p. 7). The concept of the immutable mobile therefore presents a productive set of ideas with which to understand the activities of the Artcasting project, the development of the app, and its use with gallery visitors. As such, Artcasting manifests not just as an app for engaging audiences or gathering data, but also as an “object to think with”: affecting visitors’ encounters with art; foregrounding ideas of movement and trajectory; to develop a digital platform that captures and retains this thinking; and influencing arts evaluation in positive ways.

ARTIST ROOMS On Tour might itself be understood in terms of the “immutable mobile”: imbuing an exhibition with the capacity to be mobile, yet also held together consistently, in ways that are conducive to local contexts. The ARTIST ROOMS exhibition is able to access different groups of people and offer powerful encounters beyond the established places of international art exhibitions. Artcasting was designed in an iterative process that produced new and productive understandings of the gallery experience, based on mobilities’ perspectives.

4. Artcasting

Drawing from the themes of travel and accessibility that underpin ARTIST ROOMS On Tour, as well as the interest in mobilities theory and mobile technology that ground the project, development work centred on the design of a smartphone application. However, it is important to stress that the production and piloting of the software should not be thought of in isolation. The app was the nexus of a number of different practices, technologies, and locations, all of which were required to coalesce in order for “Artcasting” to take place in particular ways. This section outlines some of the complexity in this project, involving relationships between the design process of the app, the specific technology involved in Artcasting, and the practices that developed around its use in gallery settings.

The Artcasting app was piloted in two ARTIST ROOMS exhibitions in 2015 and 2016: ARTIST ROOMS: Roy Lichtenstein at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and Robert Mapplethorpe: The Magic in the Muse at the Bowes Museum. These pilots were crucial parts of the development process, allowing the team to test different versions of the app, align decisions with two different exhibition contexts, experience different technical infrastructures, communicate with visitors, capture cast data, and understand how different galleries interpret the value of digital interventions such as Artcasting. These factors came together in particular ways to influence the design of the app, as well as the ways visitors were able to experience and engage with the project.

The Artcasting app

The app was designed to facilitate three principal functions: firstly, choosing artwork from the exhibition; secondly, the “casting” of artwork, which involved sending it on an imaginative journey to a chosen destination; and thirdly, the encountering of previously “cast” works in “real-world” locations outside of the gallery. The following sections outline the various facets of these functions in more detail.

Using beacons in the selection artworks

The first function within the app is to select an exhibition artwork to “cast.” Underpinned by the idea that visitor movements and pathways inside the gallery were an important aspect of the gallery experience, the Artcasting app was designed to respond to the specific location of its user. This was done by foregrounding the artwork in closest proximity, placing it at the top of the list of available choices within the app. This was also partially motivated by the idea that mobile use in the gallery context may act as a distraction, diverting visitors from direct interaction with exhibits (Fisher & Moses, 2013), and a “seamless” transition from one’s encounter with the work to one’s act of “casting” within the app may alleviate this to a degree.

Foregrounding works in proximity to the user was achieved with using Estimote beacon technology (http://estimote.com/). This involved placing a number of small and discreet “beacon” devices at regular intervals on the walls of the two gallery spaces, which were able to communicate directly with mobile devices in their vicinity. In this way, the app was able to calculate which artwork was closest to its location. However, this required mobile devices to have Bluetooth capabilities enabled, and while this was a relatively simple procedure for visitors to undertake (simply agreeing to a pop-up message on their device), it presented another obstacle in the continuity of experience we were trying to create. Nevertheless, the first step of selecting an artwork was thus facilitated by the inclusion of beacon technology.

“Casting” and contributing to the world map of casts

Once an artwork has been selected, the app offers three ways of shaping the character of the cast: choosing a destination; deciding on the time of arrival and the speed of the journey; and adding a written description of the cast. Selecting a destination makes use of an embedded Google Maps window and a text box search. Not wanting the “eye from the sky” map to entirely dictate the way users choose a destination, we decided to foreground the naming of a location—both by making a textual search function and by offering a choice of names for the cast location. Users are prompted with the question “Where do you want to send your artcast to?” (see fig. 1)

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Figure 1: the “Place” tab in the Artcasting app, allowing users to search for locations, mark them on a map, and personalise them by giving them a name

The option to define the time of arrival and the speed of the journey was a feature developed in order to emphasise the movement and trajectory of the artwork, alongside its final destination. Drop-down boxes allow users to input a date format for the time of arrival (see fig. 2), and a slider is used to define the pace, from “slow” to “fast” (see fig. 3).

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Figure 2: the “Time” tab in the Artcasting app, allowing users to define the time of arrival for casts

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Figure 3: the “Time” tab in the Artcasting app, showing the option to define the speed of the cast

The inclusion of a “Details” tab provides an important opportunity to capture some of the context related to the cast. Users are presented with a text box with which they can add text to describe the cast, seeded with the question: “Why did you choose this location and time for your artcasting?” (see fig. 4) It was acknowledged that the other aspects of casting would be necessarily constrained to a reduced number of variables, so alongside providing a means to simply capture more data, the text box also presented a crucial opportunity to define the cast in unique and creative ways. Following from a general concern that mobile media simply standardise experiences, rather than foster an authentic creative response (Chen, 2015), the addition of a user-defined description was thought to include the capacity for original interpretations of the cast, which would also feature in their public display (see below).

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Figure 4: the “Details” tab in the Artcasting app, encouraging users to describe their cast

In combination, the procedures of defining a location, choosing a speed and time of arrival, and including a bespoke description were designed to inspire users to make conceptual connections between art, place, journey, and trajectory in the following ways:

  • Firstly, the identification of a location as the destination for the cast encourages the visitor to reflect on places that might be associated directly with artwork, or localities related to memories that might be aroused by the encounter. Importantly, this motivates connections between absent places and present contexts, expanding the spatial understandings of arts’ experience. In this way, the app not only supports the kind of meaning-making activity crucial to learning in the gallery context (Charitonos et al., 2012), but also encodes the associations as public “casts,” providing tangible ways of examining the ways participants were making conceptual connections between art and mobilities.
  • The options to choose the time of arrival of the cast and the speed of the journey were later additions to the app and emerged from workshop sessions and design development with the core team. Duration and speed were considered to reflect our theoretical commitments to mobility rather than “place.” For the user, this feature was assumed to provide additional ways of perceiving and creating the “cast,” focusing on the movement of the art work through space and across time, rather than simply the start and end points of the journey. This option allows casts to be associated with particular times and events, not just exclusively with locations, and encourages users to focus on the trajectory and journey they are devising for the artwork. This adds additional creative possibilities and pushes users to further imagine the effects of different cast durations and the implications of fast or slow journeys.

Importantly, casting was designed to allow gallery visitors to contribute user-generated content to a shared space. A world map of casts displays all of the cast data and is situated on the opening screen of the app, also making use of an embedded Google Maps window (see figs. 5 and 6).

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Figure 5: opening screen of the Artcasting app showing the map of shared casts, zoomed in on the UK

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Figure 6: opening screen of the Artcasting app showing the map of shared casts, zoomed in on North America

This shared map foregrounds the space of Artcasting by publically displaying the “online” status of user casts. During design workshops, the ability to contribute to this map and see one’s cast visible on the map and part of the collective data often appeared to constitute an important reward for users. The public map of casts appeared as an incentive to participate, and the act of casting offered a form of compensation for the time taken to use the app and engage with the ideas around Artcasting. This may be an important aspect of the design of digital interventions in the context of public gallery exhibitions: visitors need an incentive to participate in activities that require their time and attention, and the opportunity to generate one’s own content, partaking in a wider public space, may offer the appropriate motivation.

Using geofences to (re)encounter and (re)direct art

Re-encountering cast artwork is a crucial part of the Artcasting practice, both for our interest in and commitment to the role of mobilities theory as a set of guiding ideas for the project, and for our concern with extending visitor engagement with the exhibition beyond the usual space and time of gallery attendance. This follows from previous work with mobile apps that have encouraged an engagement with “real” spaces (Fisher & Moses, 2013) or looked to involve communities outside of the walls of the gallery (Hawcroft, 2015). Key to the mobilities’ perspectives that are being explored in this project is the idea that we can enrich our understandings of encounters with art when we examine the movements and transitions involved, as well as the points of stasis and immobility. For the gallery exhibition, this means looking beyond the fixed place of the exhibition and the specific duration of the visit—trying to examine what happens outside of the gallery building, perhaps long after the exhibition has been encountered. Therefore, the app needed to operate in this domain in some way: in a space that could extend beyond the walls of the gallery, but also into other times. In such a way, the application might then “hold together” the concepts of mobility and play some role in capturing data or influencing practices outside of the gallery visit. The app was already designed to capture some data from new users, including age range and postcode, offering some insight about the journey made to the exhibition. However, more important for our concerns were the spaces and times after the experience: where and when the encounter with the exhibition might lead to.

The use of geofences was thus a crucial aspect of the design and implementation of the app. Geofences are virtual boundaries created using GPS that correspond to real-world locations and can be triggered when those locations are visited. For the Artcasting app, the final destination of a cast artwork would automatically create a geofence, which meant that participants with the app installed on their mobile devices could “encounter” the work if they happened to travel to the right location. The geofence was designed to trigger a notification on mobile devices, so that the user would get an automatic message informing them that they had “encountered” a cast work and allowing them to open the app and view the image of the artwork itself, as well as the corresponding description of the cast. This feature was designed to work with all public artcasts, not just those cast by the user triggering the geofence.

In this way, the combination of casting artwork using the map and re-encountering using geofences was intended to extend engagement with the exhibition beyond the limited duration and restricted space of the gallery visit. Re-encountering work from the exhibition in different spaces, “out there” in the world, and at different times when they may have been forgotten, offers tangible ways of making connections between art and the wider contexts that visitors experience in their daily lives. In a sense, the re-encounter of the geofence makes the conceptual connection between art and place established in the original cast into a tangible, physical connection, as the artwork surfaces on the mobile device at the actual location, in the “real” world as opposed to on the “virtual” map. Moreover, the conceptual association formed at the point of casting has the potential to activate in response to the journey of another participant, activating the original connection between art and place created by the author of the cast, but also encouraging new relations with the discoverer and his or her own interpretation.

As such, what has the potential to extend well beyond the spatial and temporal boundaries of the gallery is not just the experience of an individual user, but also a complex amalgamation of encounters. With this notion in mind, further interactions with casts were designed for the point of the encounter, constituting the ability to redirect casts that have already arrived at their destination. This process encourages another conceptual link between art work and place. However, this time it is one that is informed, not exclusively by the context of the gallery exhibition, but rather by the actual location the discoverer of the cast might be in at that moment, as well as by the original description of the cast. This offers a significant way for Artcasting participants to interact online: not directly knowing who the sender of the cast might have been, but still able to make conceptual links with casts. Recasting therefore expands immensely the possibilities for Artcasting and also the complexity of the associations that users might make between art, place, and movement, influenced by the assortment of multiple locations, trajectories, and people involved.

Artcasting as practice

A productive way of understand the Artcasting app is to view it as a way of “holding together” the means to practice a particular way of engaging with art in the gallery exhibition context. The app sits on the personal mobile device of gallery visitors, highly accessible and available at will. It is a hard-coded means to encourage ideas of space, movement, and trajectory; provoke links between artwork and mobility; and make these connections tangible, visible, and public. As software installed on a mobile device, it is itself transportable, allowing the means to practice Artcasting in multiple places and on the move. This shifts the focus of enquiry away from the assumption of a specific and bounded place as the site of research, towards the enactment of practices (Enriquez, 2013).

As we have seen above, while casting encourages conceptual connections between artworks and place within the gallery, re-encounters and redirections carry this thinking across space and time to encourage new associations and creative responses. The Artcasting platform writes these procedures to the Web and establishes them in data in a way that records and maintains the ideas so that future experiences and encounters can take place. However, the app itself should not be understood in isolation, as simply a pre-programmed tool that functions instrumentally, regardless of the surrounding context and particular user. Artcasting might be better framed as a practice, involving relationships among the app and local technological infrastructure, the setting of the particular exhibition, and the particular individuals and groups involved. However, that might also entail a different understanding of the space of the encounter with art: as “enacted, turbulent, entangled and hybrid” (Edwards et al., 2011, p. 221).

5. Conclusions

Artcasting might be best understood as an “object to think with”: a set of practices that influences encounters with art and foregrounds the ideas of movement and trajectory, and also a digital platform that captures and retains these ideas, and also presents their outcomes in ways conducive to influencing arts evaluation in positive ways. The design of the app, the workshop and events that have supported its use, and the “casts” themselves that occupy public space, as well as resurface in different times and spaces, combine to “hold together” Artcasting in ways that are conducive to a broad and enriching engagement with art. Not only is Artcasting “immutable” and “mobile” within the gallery as an app that can be taken around the exhibition space, but it also has the capacity to leave the gallery, transport its ideas to different spaces and times, and maintain engagement in new and creative ways.

For visitors to gallery exhibitions who are users of the Artcasting app, the practices so far described offer tangible ways to make imaginative and conceptual associations between art, place, and movement. It is a set of practices through which to express encounters with exhibitions, but also to develop ways of articulating the complexities of contemporary engagements with art. As Enriquez (2013) suggests, what were once the “oxymorons” of “absent presence, public privacy and isolated connectivity” (p. 319) are increasingly reflective of current society, and both arts engagement and its evaluation need ways to respond. These are perhaps the visitor experiences that arts institutions could look to value, foster, and appraise. The data contained within the Artcasting app, derived from the shared map and the re-encountered and redirected casts, represents a significant persistence of engagement with the exhibition, well beyond the confines of the gallery and the duration of the visit. Research has often focused on the internal space of the gallery or museum itself as the site within which the most significant engagement with art takes place (Roberson, 2010), and established practices of evaluation have tended to follow this rationale. Where space might be understood in terms of “simultaneous practices-so-far” (Fenwick et al., 2011, p. 129), evaluation might look to operate within more complex spatial and temporal arrangements that extend beyond the walls of the gallery.

Acknowledgements

The Artcasting project was funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and has been made possible through partnerships with the National Galleries of Scotland and Tate, and generous support from ARTIST ROOMS: Roy Lichtenstein at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, and Robert Mapplethorpe: The Magic in the Muse at the Bowes Museum.

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Cite as:
. "“Where does this work belong?” New digital approaches to evaluating engagement with art." MW2016: Museums and the Web 2016. Published January 31, 2016. Consulted .
http://mw2016.museumsandtheweb.com/paper/where-does-this-work-belong-new-digital-approaches-to-evaluating-engagement-with-art/