A fantastic discussion broke out recently about intuitive vs. curated experiences. Some co-workers and I were talking about the subjectivity involved in experience—how each of us brings our own ideas, memories, and personal preferences with us as we interact with the world. This is a very fertile topic in a studio that works to tell stories in which the visitor plays the most important role, the final curator if you will. Whether it’s content in museums, looking at an abstract painting, or strolling down the street of a European city surrounded by buildings that are older than our country, the question becomes: what authenticates an experience for you? What makes you feel emotionally engaged and invested in an experience? Is it your own inner, intuitive understanding that is coaxed to the surface? Or is our job as storytellers to give you the proper context to have an emotional response?
I fall very squarely on the “intuitive” side of this imaginary line. For me, what makes an experience authentic is that I am left alone to experience it autonomously, with as little curation as possible. To me, less is always more. If you create an empty space for me, my mind and heart enjoy filling it up with meaning. That’s the way I like to experience the world.
For example, my girlfriend and I went to the Guggenheim in New York for an exhibition of the Korean-born artist Lee Ufan. Sarah gravitated immediately to the audio headset area and offered me one as well. I have always had an aversion to these devices that add a layer of curation and explanation. I want to have my own experience of the art, not the one the museum staff tell me I’m supposed to have.
Another example… When I was 21, I went to the Auschwitz and Birkenau death camps in rural Poland. At the time, these sites had minimal restoration of any kind. At Birkenau, the remaining structures were left as they had been the day the camp was liberated. Weeds were growing up through the crumbled remains of the crematoria that the Germans had detonated in an effort to disguise the function of the space to the approaching Allied forces. Standing in those places—places that had in a sense been left untouched—made a deep emotional impact on me. I felt clearly that I was standing and moving through the spaces that the prisoners and guards themselves had. That the wood and bricks lying around were in fact the real thing. I was given the freedom to have my own experience and my own emotions about what I was seeing. The fact that this site had not been “curated”, re-created or preserved made the experience of it more authentic and resonant for me than my visit to the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C.
My favorite documentary films are ones which eschew “voice of god” style narration and allow you to have your own experience with the footage on screen. However, in an ironic twist, I’m also a filmmaker and I’ve made my own documentary films. And I can tell you from experience that documentary filmmaking is the practice of smart editing. And the editing (whether it is eventually dressed up with narration or not) is a huge curatorial effort. But if it’s done well, this effort often flows so seamlessly that many viewers are left feeling that they saw the whole story, when in fact they are probably just viewing 5-10% of the footage that was actually captured. Similarly, my co-worker Bruce Wyman informs me that in most museum exhibits, only about 10-20% of the content that’s been discussed or sifted through makes it into the final form. Editing and curating are always part of a finely crafted result, even if the visitor’s experience of this content feels “uncurated”.
I’m quickly realizing that there’s no tidy way to summarize this wonderful, highly personal debate about what level of curation works for us as viewers. Maybe the best way to end is to say that; whether here at Second Story, or in my own art, or sitting around the dinner table and recounting stories with friends, I take seriously my curatorial responsibility as a storyteller. Stories are powerful things. Equally powerful is the right of audiences to be told stories in a respectful, open, loving way. A way that encourages them to see themselves, their own realities and truths, within the the content they’re being exposed to.
And by the way, I took Sarah’s advice and wore the damned audio headset at the Guggenheim. And it was way better. :-)
—David Waingarten, Content Ninja