Still life, selfie life

Herald on Sunday - - EDITORIAL - By Adam Seuss and Kylie Budge Grif­fiths and West­ern Syd­ney Univer­si­ties

With 800 mil­lion users and grow­ing, it was per­haps in­evitable that In­sta­gram would shake up the art world.

The so­cial photo plat­form has been ac­cused of fan­ning a nar­cis­sis­tic selfie cul­ture. But in gal­leries, re­search is show­ing the pos­i­tive as­pects far out­weigh the neg­a­tive. In­sta­gram is chang­ing the way we ex­pe­ri­ence and share vis­its to ex­hi­bi­tions, and per­ceive art.

Arts in­sti­tu­tions are now ac­tively court­ing In­sta­gram users. The Mu­seum of Ice Cream in the US is con­sid­ered one of the most In­sta­grammed ex­hi­bi­tions, with over 125,000 hash­tagged posts. The show in­cluded such In­sta-friendly dis­plays as gi­ant cher­ries, sus­pended ba­nanas, and a rain­bow sprin­kle pool, invit­ing the vis­i­tor into a colour­ful space of neatly guided photo op­por­tu­ni­ties.

The Tri­en­nial at the Na­tional Gallery of Vic­to­ria in Aus­tralia fea­tures large in­stal­la­tions with vis­i­tors in­vited to pho­to­graph them­selves among them.

In­creased vis­i­tor pho­tog­ra­phy at gal­leries and mu­se­ums has proved con­tro­ver­sial at times.

Re­cently a vis­i­tor to Los An­ge­les popup art gallery The 14th Fac­tory de­stroyed $200,000 worth of crown sculp­tures. The sculp­tures rested on top of a se­ries of plinths, and, while at­tempt­ing a selfie the vis­i­tor fell, knock­ing the plinths down in a domino-style chain re­ac­tion.

In an­other in­stance, vis­i­tors dam­aged an 800-year-old cof­fin at the Prit­tlewell Pri­ory Mu­seum in the UK. The vis­i­tors had lifted a child over a pro­tec­tive bar­rier into the cof­fin in pur­suit of the per­fect photo. Their ac­tions caused the an­cient arte­fact to be knocked off its stand re­sult­ing in a large piece of the cof­fin break­ing off.

Many ex­hi­bi­tions still place re­stric­tions on pho­tog­ra­phy, and most gal­leries still pro­hibit selfie sticks. Ban­ning pho­tog­ra­phy be­cause it in­ter­feres with the vis­i­tor’s ex­pe­ri­ence could be cul­tural elitism; ex­press­ing a view that art can only be ap­pre­ci­ated in an ortho­dox man­ner.

It also ig­nores the po­ten­tial of In­sta­gram to bring a new di­men­sion to artists, cu­ra­tors, ex­hi­bi­tion de­sign­ers and vis­i­tors. Re­cent re­search at Queens­land’s Gallery of Mod­ern Art Ger­hard Richter ex­hi­bi­tion showed that vis­i­tors use In­sta­gram as part of their aes­thetic ex­pe­ri­ence.

An­other study at the Mu­seum of Ap­plied Arts and Sci­ences’ Rec­ol­lect: Shoes ex­hi­bi­tion in Syd­ney found that au­di­ences used In­sta­gram pri­mar­ily to en­gage with ex­hi­bi­tion con­tent; not by tak­ing self­ies.

This find­ing was echoed in a larger study that fo­cused on Syd­ney’s Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art. Far from the nar­cis­sis­tic selfie-ob­ses­sive be­hav­iour, In­sta­gram of­fers vis­i­tors au­thor­ity and agency in shar­ing their ex­pe­ri­ence.

As re­searchers work­ing in this emerg­ing area, we see much value in cu­ra­tors and ex­hi­bi­tion de­sign­ers mak­ing use of In­sta­gram to in­form how they plan ex­hi­bi­tions. It could help build new au­di­ences and strengthen con­nec­tions with ex­ist­ing vis­i­tors.

While re­mov­ing all vis­i­tor pho­tog­ra­phy re­stric­tions is not pos­si­ble, vis­i­tor ex­pec­ta­tions and ex­pe­ri­ences have now changed. The fu­ture of cul­tural in­sti­tu­tions needs to in­clude In­sta­gram.

In­sta­gram is chang­ing how we see art.

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