What Does My Phone See?

I visited a new exhibition presented by my local art museum this weekend. While I was wandering the galleries, I overheard a small group talking about their interpretation of the meaning of different pieces. Looking at those same pieces, I had no idea where they were drawing those conclusions from, though based on the common theme in the comments I thought they might be medical professionals.

I caught up with them in one of the rooms and they asked what I thought the image in two of the pieces might be. I took a picture of one of them, but based on the museum’s policy on reproduction of images outside of personal use, I am uncertain about posting it here.

The artist had bent a grid of white lines on a black background to create a silhouetted image on a canvas. I couldn’t find the exact works on his site, but an example of the technique is seen here. Except the forms of the works in the museum were not quite as distinctly identifiable as the house in that website.

At first glance at one of the pieces, I thought the image was an elephant’s head but a few seconds later I saw it could also be an angel in flowing robes and long stole.

The other image was even less clear and I was not at all sure what the jumble was. One woman decided to point her phone camera at it and was pleased to find that the image became more distinct on the canvas….but she still wasn’t sure what the heck it was.

After a few moments, to me it sort of looked like the frontal view of horses galloping toward the viewer, similar to the statue of three mustangs on the Southern Methodist University campus seen from head on.

When we were all pondering what we were looking at, I commented that the interaction we were having would never be possible if we took a digital tour of the museum. Not only that, we probably wouldn’t have been delighted by the mystery of the works caused by the vagaries of human vision, because the unflinching eye of the camera would have stripped that away as we had already seen.

Privately, I also thought that while I am generally against people using their phones to mediate how they experienced art, in this case it added to the experience. Part of that was due to the fact they didn’t default to pointing the camera at the wall before they had a chance to consider what they were looking at. After waiting and sharing theories about what we were seeing, then they raised their phones and recognized that the camera clarified things…though still didn’t provide definitive answers.

I am not trying to distill a central moral lesson out of any of this, though I certainly feel the in-person experience provides the most benefit. If there is a central lesson we have learned in the last year of Covid times, it is that we need to moderate and re-evaluate our expectations about what interactions with art and culture are supposed to be.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker (artshacker.com) website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (http://www.creatingconnection.org/about/)

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.

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