Just what is "visual velcro"?

Courtesy Steffenz

Courtesy Steffenz

A couple of years ago, Peter Samis (museum interpretor par excellence at SFMoMA) coined the term “visual velcro” to describe the goal of museum interpretation:

The work of interpretation…is to give cognitive hooks to the hookless, and assure that these hooks are sufficiently varied so that they can successfully land in the mental fabric of a broad array of visitors. Once visitors have a framework, all kinds of sensory impressions, emotions and reflections can weave themselves into the fabric of perception. In fact, the more you know about a subject, the more you can learn about it (presuming the mental model you are working with accommodates the new information).

But in the last week or two I started wondering, just what is visual velcro? How do you identify it while you’re creating interpretive materials?

I found myself thinking about this question in the last week. I volunteered to do an “alternative” audio-guide for Barbara London’s upcoming exhibition, Looking at Music Side 2. Barbara organized three conversations — each with two artists in the exhibition. I recorded the audio and Barbara and I both prompted our guests with questions. But since this was my first time doing this, I had no structure to offer as “best practices” — so it was pretty free-form. Each conversation lasted about an hour. I thought they would be shorter, but when you get people talking and reminiscing (especially people who haven’t seen each other in a while), it’s hard to cut them off sooner than that, and anyway, their conversations were fun and enlightening.

I started editing last week. Needless to say, editing one hour down to 3 minutes is a lot of work, but what I found myself most aware of was the choices I was making about what to select and what to omit. In the first conversation we did, James Nares talked about his short film (made with Seth Tillett), Game, which shows a grid on the floor (tiles), and two sets of hands on either side — like players on opposite sides of a chess board — taking turns moving rocks back and forth repetitively across the grid. When Barbara told me about the film it seemed strange to me, what could this be about? and I immediately imagined my students saying “this is not about anything” and “this is boring” and “why is the artist being difficult?” Indeed, I found myself wondering what that kind of repetitive motion had to do with art in NYC in the 1970s.

During the conversation, James talked about Game, and explained that a significant aspect of the film for him was the rhythm that emerged from the placing of the rocks, and he talked about how a kind of raw music scene seemed to express the desperate feeling of living in a bankrupt New York City in the 1970s better than anything else. Ok, that helped a lot. That felt like velcro – historical context almost always does. But what felt MOST like visual velcro was when Colleen Fitzgibbon talked about how repetition was important in her work as well, and for other artists from the period too. And she explained that during that time there was a feeling of being bombarded with messages from broadcast media — much of which was delivering messages that seemed, well, just wrong in terms of politics.

And there was the velcro!

For me, the loop that attached was to something that was already on my mind – I had been thinking about the one way delivery of content that was the broadcast TV of my childhood compared with the two-way conversations that are possible with new media, with the read-write web (or even the choices that are possible in terms of media now, with rss, TiVo and fast forwarding and time shifting). When Colleen said what she did, I remembered how repetitive and monolithic broadcast media felt then. Suddenly I could put that repetition into the context of my own childhood – in the hours I spent watching reruns of I Love Lucy and other sitcoms, remembering how powerless I felt before the 7 or so channels there were to watch.

Courtesy Andy Connelly

Courtesy Andy Connelly

We need more interpretation…and more places for conversation around an exhibition

So these are the sections that I kept in the audio. And I hope that they work as velcro for others, but what are the chances of that? Maybe other people’s velcro will be very different from what worked for me (though I feel like decades of teaching has made me attuned to what works for students). But I also wonder if this connection, the story that I tell in the audio, needs to be spelled out more explicitly? The audio now feels somewhat incomplete… we need a website, a place for hyperlinks and tags, a place where people can talk about what repetition meant to them in the 1970s, about what it was like to live in New York city at one of its lowest moments, about what it meant to be an artist then, about the special power music had at that moment in time, a place where we can expand the possibilities for velcro, so that there is something that attaches for everyone who comes to the exhibition. Peter Samis has written about these possibilities here.

Thanks to Barbara London for giving me this opportunity, and for her openness and collegiality, and thanks too, to Sara Bodinson and Nancy Proctor for their help and support in creating my first MoMA audioguide.

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One Comment

  1. We always hope that the things that work as velcro for us work for others as well, and to the extent that we can act as a virtual “Everyperson,” bracketing our art knowledge and sharing what lit us up, we can certainly help.

    In the case you mention above, the velcro is a bridge between what it’s like to “consume” this piece as a viewer and what it would be like to make it–or to want to make it. It comes from an identification with the artist.

    There are lots of other kinds: the gut emotional impact we get in front of certain works due to their color or scale, the fascination or empathy we have in front of certain portraits, a desire to inhabit a landscape and let our mind wander through it, and so on. But especially in contemporary art, where many of those classic “hooks” are missing, identification with the artist’s intent or process can count for a lot.


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