Carnegie Museum lures visitors with interactive 'Oh Snap!' exhibit


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Going to a museum is a two-way experience and Carnegie Museum of Art wants to make sure you know that. Their current exhibition, "Oh Snap!," is a model of the forward thinking that art museums are engaged in to attract and nourish the curious, creative individuals who make up their natural audience.

That means potentially all of us.

"Visiting a museum is not a passive experience," said Marilyn Russell, museum curator of education. "It involves looking, reacting, acting upon the impact a work of art can have on you."

Those are exactly the responses that "Oh Snap!" is designed to feed. Ms. Russell is one of the driving forces behind the exhibition -- or, as the museum prefers, "collaborative photography project" -- and related programming that included an opening event that attracted more than 700 people on Feb. 21. Hundreds more have submitted photographs to the show's website (http://ohsnap.cmoa.org) and some of those are now hanging on the wall of the museum's Forum Gallery next to works from the permanent collection.

Still time to participate

Yours could be among them if you act by mid-April, when "Oh Snap!" closes. The process is pretty simple:

Thirteen photographs from the Carnegie collection, ranging from historic to contemporary prints, hang in the Forum Gallery and reproductions of each are posted on the website. Submit a photograph of your own that was inspired by one of the Carnegie photographs. All submissions will be posted on the website and some will be printed and hung in the gallery next to the original that inspired it. The museum plans to archive the images after the project is over.

You will be sent an e-mail acknowledging the receipt of your photograph. Should it be chosen for gallery display, you'll be sent a second e-mail when it's hung, along with a pass for a free visit to the museum.

There are a few conditions, including that the person submitting owns the photograph and is at least 18 years old. That said, teachers are working with the Carnegie to arrange a way for their younger students to participate. "We're super thrilled with that," Ms. Russell said.

Most of the photographs have come from southwestern Pennsylvania, but some are from outside the United States. Participants may respond to more than one of the 13 images, but each photograph must be individually submitted. The variety of response is testimony to the way art affects people.

For example, one of the Carnegie photographs is the 1999 "Space Ship" by Chris Shaw. The image is of a beautifully appointed revolving door from his series "Life as a Night Porter," taken while he was employed by the hotel industry.

"It has a cylindrical shape. Some could see a rocket ship shape. You go in. The door closes. You could imagine being catapulted into some other universe," Ms. Russell said.

"One visitor sent a photograph of a plain white closed closet door and wrote at the bottom 'Narnia.' It doesn't look like the [Shaw] door. The connection is not visual. The connection is metaphorical. Another visitor sent a photograph that looks more like the Chris Shaw door of a brick arch and a doorway beyond. It is a visual reaction to the curving cylindrical shape."

Such breadth "demonstrates to viewers that there isn't one correct response to a work of art. It varies with the background the viewer brings. The meaning can go in lots of different directions. Novice viewers see there is not one correct answer here. It's about opening your eyes to the world," Ms. Russell said. "The next time you go through a revolving door, you think about it. It makes us a little more alert to the world as we go through our daily lives."

Another Carnegie photograph is Charlee Brodsky's circa 1995 "Last Smokestacks at the Homestead Works," documenting the closing of the steel mills. Someone sent in a photograph of a dead bird, equating the death of the bird with that of the steel industry. Ms. Russell was in the gallery when a young boy asked why that picture was submitted since it didn't look like the stacks of Ms. Brodsky's image.

"[The project] sparks conversation about interpreting visual information, which is what the museum is about," Ms. Russell said. "In addition to that more factual information, what does it mean to me as a 21st-century viewer?"

"Oh Snap!" grew out of a six-museum consortium held at an Ann Arbor, Mich., creative think tank that Ms. Russell attended. The discussions inspired participants to think of the museum in interactive ways. For this first major project, Ms. Russell and the rest of a cross-departmental team knew they were going to use the Forum Gallery and that photography would be the medium. "[Museum director] Lynn [Zelevansky] wanted it to involve real art, not projections," Ms. Russell said.

The team brainstormed and decided they wanted to "engage people actively in the museum experience, challenge the notion that what's in a gallery is finished on the day an exhibition opens and involve visitors directly in looking at artwork."

One role of the museum, she explained, is to allow visitors to see original works of art, have those works provoke a response, and have the visitors "leave a little changed from when they entered. We're so interested in that reaction that we're making it a significant part of the visitor experience. We're showcasing those reactions in a very visible way. This time we give you a way to register that response."

Museum as fun

Ms. Russell said one of the big goals of the launch party was to "make sure that a young audience knows the museum is a fun place. [Attendees] were very much in our demographic that we were targeting, between 20 and 40 years old, the digital generation interested in sharing this information and telling their friends where they're at."

The Hall of Sculpture was darkened and equipment, such as a glowing hula hoop and LED lights, were provided for visitors to create their own light graffiti artworks with the assistance of museum staff who monitored tripod-mounted cameras. A guide posted on the Web by Illum -- Ohio friends Sean Nelson and Chuck Grimmett -- defines light graffiti as long-exposure photography using lights to create effects not actually there. Thus, unlike traditional graffiti, it doesn't vandalize property. It's also known as light writing, light painting and light art.

"We wanted to show other ways of working with photography that were experimental and inventive. You could do whatever you wanted to with the glowy stuff. People could write on air with these colored lights. They were the actors," Ms. Russell said.

The photographs have been posted on the Web at www.cmoa.org and anyone may print them. "People are now using them as their Facebook picture," Ms. Russell said.

Near the gallery, a green screen was set up that allowed visitors to strike poses in front of a choice of a dozen backgrounds that would later be superimposed upon their photograph. Subjects ranged from the museum's popular Giacometti sculpture to the fiberglass dinosaur Dippy installed in front of the Natural History museum.

While fun, the green screen also shows how a photograph may manipulate truth, Ms. Russell said. "We used it in a party way and weren't trying to be deceptive."

The launch event may have been the most celebratory, but the museum plans more events to carry the themes of "choice and voice," two words that came out of the Ann Arbor consortium.

Ms. Russell envisions as one a program that addresses "What constitutes a good photograph? The photographers represented in the museum collection intended to print the images they took. Now people have phones that take pictures of everything: The food you're eating in a restaurant, the dress you're going to buy. [The collection] photographers are skilled at what they see through the viewfinder, or where they make their crops. They're aware of the formal elements of a photograph such as a strong sense of geometry, a central focus, interesting diagonal lines ..."

Another potential of this and future collaborative projects is the building of community, in person and/or online. "You get to be part of something," Ms. Russell said. "Visitors make their contributions. They see that they make a difference. It can't be gratuitous.

"We really are interested in what people come up with. We're interested in what answers we get, interested in how they make sense of the world through art."

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Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: mthomas@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1925. First Published March 3, 2013 5:00 AM


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