This article first appeared in the June 2005 Walker Calendar.
New interactive tools put power in the hands of visitors
“ We want everyone to come to the table,” says Marek Walczak. While he’s talking figuratively, his words are inescapably literal: along with Michael McAllister, Jakub Segen, and the Walker’s New Media Initiatives staff, he created Dialog, a tabletop computer interface that enables visitors to learn more about works in the Walker’s collection. But metaphorically, the idea applies to an array of new interactive tools, from a cell phone–based audio tour to an intelligent digital dolphin that converses with gallerygoers–all designed especially for the Walker to put the power in the hands of visitors who want to enhance their experience.
The table, winner of an international design competition held by the Walker in 2002, was inspired in part by Walczak’s observation that when in galleries, people rarely speak to each other at all, much less about the art on view. To facilitate conversation, Dialog‘s creators conceived of an oval table that puts its users face to face. As many as 14 people can retrieve information at the same time simply by pretending to grab objects on a pair of screens. Two cameras mounted above the table are synched with gesture-recognition software, so an actual shadow of a visitor’s hand is visible on the screen. “ If you can pick chocolates, you can use the table,” Walczak says. For example, by grabbing a tiny digital man and dropping him on an image of Spoonbridge and Cherry, you can watch a video of the massive sculpture arriving on a flatbed truck in 1988 or hear commentary by Claes Oldenburg. With Dialog, access to the Walker’s extensive archive of images, audio interviews with artists, texts, and video files is, quite literally, within your grasp.
Similarly, the new audio resource Art on Call–for which visitors use their own cell phones–provides portable access to a wealth of information previously unavailable to Walker guests. Using code numbers found on selected artwork labels in the galleries, they can hear curators and artists discussing works on view, such as Yoko Ono speaking of the sky as her “ security blanket”: “ In my life, I could not rely on one thing or one person because it was changing all the time; but the sky never changed.” Other highlights include Charles Ray talking about the origin of his idea for Unpainted Sculpture (1997) and Sheela Gowda telling how India’s rise of Hindu fundamentalism forced her to rethink her painting practice. People can also call in on any phone before or during a visit to hear Mary Lucia, host on Minnesota Public Radio’s The Current, give information on daily Walker events and upcoming exhibitions or details about dining, shopping, parking, and buying tickets. With Art on Call, visitors can set their own pace, direct their own tours, animate an artwork using the artist’s own voice, or plan a step-by-step day of art.
Dolphin Oracle II encourages dialogue in a different way: with a computer-animated dolphin. Something of a high-tech Magic 8-ball, the Dolphin is an artwork by Piotr Szyhalski and Richard Shelton that remembers conversations and expands its vocabulary with each discussion. A visitor can use a keyboard to type questions, simple or complex, that will then appear on-screen–”Who is Matthew Barney?” “ What is virtue?”–and the creature responds, sometimes accurately, sometimes esoterically. Unlike the information-gathering tools mentioned earlier, Dolphin Oracle II‘s purpose is less concrete. It’s about modeling a way of interaction with contemporary art: “ There’s an exchange going on,” says Sarah Schultz, the Walker’s director of education. “ You’re asking questions. It’s asking you questions. It surprises you. You try to understand how it works. You try to outsmart it.”
The commission and presentation of these three technological projects were influenced by a committee of Walker staff members and consultants who examined research on the many ways that people acquire knowledge and experience the world. The Walker expansion was designed to provide a full range of involvement, from information-gathering to open-ended questioning, “ social learning”–based group interactions to one-on-one encounters. And Dolphin Oracle II serves as an important reminder, says Schultz. “ It’s about learning to have fun and not expecting that everything has a specific answer, understanding that sometimes things are confounding, and maybe just relaxing a little and enjoying that element of ambiguity and play.”
Dialog was commissioned by the Walker with generous support from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Bush Foundation. Art on Call is made possible by generous support from the Institute of Museum and Library Services. Dolphin Oracle II was commissioned by the Walker with generous support from the Bush Foundation.
Try it: The Dialog table is located in the Best Buy Info Lounge. Try Art on Call by dialing 612.374.8200 (to hear Yoko Ono, enter 1013; for Charles Ray, enter 1032; to hear Sheela Gowda, enter 1028). Dolphin Oracle II is installed in the Best Buy Arcade, between the Peggy and Ralph Burnet Gallery and the Linda and Lawrence Perlman Gallery.