The idea behind exhibitions is simple: an organized collection of stuff composed in order to produced something in the spectator’s eye. They are centers of curiosity, linking a wide variety of semiotic elements as invitations to explore, seek and interact with all kinds of devices and artifacts. I have always been interested in exhibitions, all kinds of them since I am obsessed with collecting and classifying things, and from a broad academic perspective too. This post is the beginning of a series of reflections on exhibitions whose final goal is to experiment with exhibitions as multimodal ethnographic methods.
Regardless if it is a map, an installation, or a showcase, exhibitions are spaces of otherness. They are interactive, multimodal, and experiential abstractions of reality that have the capacity of multiplying reality itself. An exhibition is an epistemological tool with many possible usages and meanings. Following a logic of simultaneity, they organize, display, hide, store, sell, inform, preserve, and communicate all kinds of elements gathered by any kinds of rationalities. We have, thus, a broad spectrum of fields and disciplines, from art to marketing, using exhibitions to produce knowledge. Also, “the exhibition is ontologically defined by its split identity: it is both a form (as artists and curators shaped it) and an apparatus (as critical discourses revealed it).” (García and Normand, 2019, 14).
Nevertheless, the goal of knowledge production is preceded by an attempt to communicate a previous set of produced (or stored) knowledge. Exhibitions are, thus, mediated media, devices of representation and reproduction of information. The being, more than the role, of exhibitions as media is based on their social performance. Exhibitions “employ technical arrangements in order to give receivers access to significant elements. [In other words] they are the spatial and technical arrangements through which artworks are publicly realized.” (West, 2019: 45)
Exhibitions should not be conceived as neutral and infertile spaces of representation. They are complex political structures that, among other things, have the capacity to reproduce ideology. The shape and organization of an exhibition, what it is showing and what is discarding, its endeavors on linking publics, are the result of either vertical or horizontal political decisions as well as semiotic strategies shared with other media products and modes of knowledge production. There are, however, two differences between exhibitions and other media that West (ibid.), quoting Davallon (1999), highlights:
“First, exhibition creates a separate symbolic space, but one featuring “real” objects rather than representations. Unlike an image or a film, whose elements are fully integrated and reduced to one semiotic level, the exhibited objects always retain a connection to their “external” reality, transcending their adherence to the exhibition’s symbolic dimension. […] Second, the spectator is physically present in the space of presentation, to some degree participating—through her movements and her shifting attention— in the definition of its semiotic arrangement. The exhibition’s significance is therefore not simply determined by its production, but is internal to its reception.” (Ibid.: 45).
As particular interactive media products, and even having in mind the multiplicity of their ontologies, one could say exhibitions share a sort of semiotic guidelines at the moment of acting as media. This, especially in terms of relating signifier and signified. Bertron, Schwarz, and Frey (2012: 7) propose to divide those guidelines into three general categories: “ Information must be presented. The communication of such information relies more or less on objects and the statements and explanations accompanying them.  The form the presentation takes is decisive in determining how the content and objects involved are perceived and understood by the public.  The task of the design concept is to define the aesthetic criteria and technical specifications relevant to the execution of a project. These specifications take the form of precise descriptions accompanied by explanatory sketches, depictions, drawings, models, and prototypes.”
Notwithstanding, and despite the efforts of exhibitions to hold and enact external realities on their produced spatialities, their theoretical and liminal status as media may result turned into a problematic situation in terms of being in relation with that primary reality they want to project. Precisely, the central tension regarding their liminality is that exhibitions turned into nodes in between realities could be considered as zooming devices (Latour, 2012) by supposedly enacting multi-scale realities in a sort of local (small) containers of global spaces.
The problem with conceiving exhibitions as multi-reality bridges is that, inevitably, one will fall into the trap of believing that those spatial devices are, in fact, allowing us, the spectators, “to circulate freely through and every scale, from the most local [the logics and spaces of the exhibition] to the global (in space), as well as shuttle about back and forth from the briefest instant […] to the longest period.” (Latour, 2014: 121). To understand exhibitions as zoom devices is a tricky movement with epistemological consequences in terms of downgrading those external realities we think are being contained inside exhibitions, just reducing and stabilizing them into a cartoonish copy of themselves.
My point with this text, and it is perhaps what I find the most interesting about exhibitions, is to understand them as the spatialization of an extended —and unfinished—horizontal network, a space of rhizomatic connections, instead of just hubs for augmenting and contracting realities. Exhibitions as spatializations, commonly temporal and limited —and following what was proposed at the beginning of this post— could also be understood as abstractions of reality, always in terms of assemblage and composition. Due to their interactivity and multimodality, they could be metaphorized as strong accents in our daily life of structural entanglements of discursive flows.
The following post on exhibitions proposes an empirical decomposition of those devices to speculate and explore their epistemological features to construct an ethnographic method on exhibitions focused on interaction and multimodality.
Bertron, A., Schwarz, U., & Frey, C. (2012). Project Scope: Exhibition design. Basel: Birkhäuser.
Davallon, J. (2000). L’exposition à l ‘œuvre. Stratégies de communication et médiation symbolique. Paris: L’Harmattan.
García, T. & Normand, V. (Eds.) (2019). Theater, Garden, Bestiary. A materialist History of Exhibitions. Berlin: Sternberg Press.
Latour, B. (2012). Introduction: Paris, Invisible City: The plasma. City, Culture and Society, 3(2), 91-93.
—. (2014). Anti-Zoom. In Contact, catalogue de l’exposition d’Olafur Eliasson. Paris, Fondation Vuitton.