If good art can be used as a medium for connection, for common ground sharing, a bridge of empathy between us and others (as said by Tolstoy), what can we do to facilitate this process in the modern art world? is an interactive system which installs in front of an artwork in exhibition in a modern/contemporary art museum and encourages more visitor engagement with the art on display. At the start of the interaction, the viewer sees on a digital display a printout sliding out of a virtual printer, prompting the viewer to type in his commentary about the artwork he is viewing. When the viewer submits his response, the printout slides back into the virtual printer. After pausing for a few seconds, a thermal receipt printer nearby produces on paper a piece of commentary about the same artwork from a previous viewer or the artwork’s creator. The user is invited to take away the physical printout from the printer.

The Provenance

Ultimately, this project dates back to the moment when I first finished watching Simon Schama’s fascinating documentary about Mark Rothko on a tired night. Every now and again I would walk into a museum and pass by one of Rothko’s huge panels of color, and I was always hoping I could find something positive to say but I never could. The documentary finally brought me insight into Rothko’s real intention with his creations: he was searching to express and evoke “basic human emotions” through painting, “tragedy, ecstasy, doom, and so on, ” as referred to by Rothko himself in the documentary.

I walked away from the documentary with two things: one was the ability to finally appreciate Rothko’s richly colored rectangles, and the other was the desire for a platform for modern art museum-goers to exchange their knowledge and reactions about the (often bewildering) artworks on display. I wanted to recognize the problem that modern art, with extensive use of abstraction and increased emphasis on conceptual art, has made the task of absorbing and resonating with the artworks difficult. At the same time, I wanted to propose a design which alleviates this problem, one that breaks the silence in the white cube and stirs empathy between the artist and the viewer as well as among viewers themselves; one that opens a dialogue about the relationship between the gallery space and visitors.

The Design

I revisited this idea when I took the Advanced Interaction Design art studio course at Stanford and was prompted to create a “disruption” in a social space.

The final design I arrived at is a “retromodern” interface that spans the physical and digital world. On the technical side, I used a web server that talked to an Arduino connected to a thermal printer to generate printouts. I personally find the idea  of pulling stuff off the internet and putting it on paper intriguing — to me there is a poetic aspect at play when the virtual and physical printer seem to be “talking” to each other. (As a side note, with the rise of digitizing everything, I’m actually more interested in seeing about healing the digital-physical divide by pulling bits back into the world of atoms.) The perceivable pause after viewer submits his response before thermal printer starts to print, as well as the unhurried pace at which thermal printer spits out paper, are intentional reminders that it requires some patience to reach other people (including the artist). In class we talked about how feedbacks were important to interactive systems — here the participant is rewarded with new information, for his willingness to share his experience, that he can walk away with physically. I once considered making all viewer responses available for reading digitally, but later decided to remove this feature since it might destroy the incentive for viewer to make an effort to input.

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Public Engagement

A critical part of this project was to test the design in the real world to see if the public resonate with the idea and how they actually engage with this work. To this end, I put the system on a show at SFMOMA on the bench in front of one of Rothko’s famous color field paintings, No.14. 

On View: SFMOMA,  San Francisco, CA. May 6, 2018.


Sample viewer responses gathered for Rothko’s No.14 at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (click to enlarge images):

On View: Anderson Collection at Stanford University, Stanford, CA. May 11, 2018.

This system was again exhibited at Anderson Collection at Stanford in front of Joan Mitchell’s abstract painting of 1985, Begin, Again IV. In addition to being the most visible artwork in the gallery and recommended by the staff at Anderson, it was also a highly abstract piece of work that I had hard time deciphering at the first glance. It came with an equally incomprehensible title, and minimum information about it on its art label.

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In the process of searching for artist quotes for it at Anderson’s library to feed into my database, however, I was moved by its backstory that added a lot of weight and depth to this painting:

As art historian Patricia Albers wrote in her biography about Joan Mitchell,

“The Between paintings date from the period between her hospital stays…In 1984 Mitchell was referred to a Paris hospital, where, as she had long dreaded, she was diagnosed with advanced cancer of the jaw….They constitute an affirmation of life and a defeat of the inactivity of death: instead of responding submissively to the inevitability of death, Mitchell lashes out in a frenzy at mortality, with powerful strokes and bold colors that attest to her continued and undiminished vigor.” Also in the book was Mitchell’s own recount: “When I was sick, they moved me to a room with a window and suddenly through the window I saw two fir trees in a park, and the grey sky, and the beautiful grey rain, and I was so happy. It had something to do with being alive. I could see the pine trees, and I felt I would paint a painting.” 

And then there was her quote about being not understood: “All the people in the world said about my work — Oh, how lovely, all gay and bright — but I do not think it is at all. I don’t think people know what they are looking or that they know what they are looking at.”

I decided this would be a good piece of art to use to provoke empathy. Without knowing about this painting’s backstory, it is so easy to have a surface appreciation of its technics only.

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Visualization of artist statement and view response database for Joan Mitchell’s Begin, Again IV. May 11 2018, Anderson Collection at Stanford University (click to enlarge images):

Field Observations

In both museums, I secretly watched people’s reactions to the presence of this device. It was fun watching people reading the prompt, contemplating on the art and looking back to the prompt, writing, reflecting, reading the prints, and taking photos of the device itself. It was more exciting when some people cared to take away the prints with them or interact with the system multiple times. After observing for a while how the system performed in the wild, I would actively approach the viewers and talk to them to gather feedbacks about their experience. In both museums the people I talked to explicitly mentioned that they resonated with this project’s mission. Some mentioned what they read on the prints enabled them to appreciate the artwork more.

It was interesting to note that at SFMOMA, where the system was casually sitting on the bench without any explicit label explaining its intent, people seemed to demonstrate more curiosity and genuine interest in the system itself when they discovered its presence. Clearly, it took a bit time before they decided to interact with it, but to my surprise people seemed to show more willingness and spend more time in general to interact with the system when they discovered it in this serendipitous manner. On the other hand, presented as a more formal exhibition at Anderson, its presence seemed to evoke less interest in voluntary user interaction, as I found myself needed to “sell” the work a little bit — perhaps the project label made people think they were being monitored with their input? Regardless, most people appeared to show care about the quality of what they wrote – they would take time to look at the art, ponder on it as they typed up their thoughts, proofread and revised their writing.

The prompt on the screen needed some careful design: With Rothko’s painting, I was trying to provoke open-ended responses about people’s unique personal experience of the painting, which was aligned with Rothko’s hope with his art; hence the prompt used a vague wording “what brings to your mind”. On the other hand, with Mitchell’s painting, my main goal was to reveal to public the backstory of the work — there was some element equivalent to solving a puzzle about the artist’s true intention, therefore I presented the question “how would you interpret the title”. Before the viewer contemplates on the more abstract meaning of the art, my first question “what do you find to be the most remarkable aspect of this painting” serves to invite the viewer to just take some time to give the art a closer look. That said, one viewer I met at Anderson did mention to me that the prompt wasn’t immediately clear to her what she was supposed to do, and subsequently suggested changing it to something more generic like “please take a close look at the art and write down your commentary about it”. I tried this prompt for a while then decided to switch back to the original prompt because it didn’t get people to look beyond the surface of the painting and contemplate on its deeper meaning (i.e. why it’s titled as such).

Overall, the system seemed to evoke the reactions I had hoped for. What didn’t quite happen as much as I wanted to see was repeated interaction cycles with the system after people read the prints and viewed the art through a new lens. For example at Anderson, most people commented on the colors of the painting and sent this as their initial input; then they would read about the backstory of the painting about mortality. Now what? I observed only one viewer typed into the system for a second time after reading her print. What would inspire people to explicitly input more about what’s on their mind after reading the prints? This is left for thinking and future development.

Final Words

Interestingly, both of the two paintings I tested on happened to have an emphasis on emotions when the artists painted them. Hence this project is my examination of the question that if we can dive deeper into not only the context and history of art, but also other people’s feelings. If good art can be used as a medium for connection, for common ground sharing, a bridge of empathy between us and others (as said by Tolstoy), what can we do to facilitate this process in the modern art world? That said, the project opens possibilities for engaging the public with artworks that don’t necessarily emphasize on emotions but are otherwise open to wide interpretations or conceptually deep or complicated or hard to decipher.

Finally, special thanks to Matt, my professor in Advanced Interaction Design and all staff members at SFMOMA and Anderson who showed strong support to this project.