Does 'slow art day' work online?

Saturday was 'slow art day', and the Getty Museum (@GettyMuseum) shared a Robert Hughes clip that really resonated with me:

'We have had a gutful of fast art and fast food. What we need more of is slow art: art that holds time as a vase holds water: art that grows out of modes of perception and whose skill and doggedness make you think and feel; art that isn't merely sensational, that doesn't get its message across in 10 seconds, that isn't falsely iconic, that hooks onto something deep-running in our natures. In a word, art that is the very opposite of mass media.'

I was tied to my desk writing that day so I wondered how I could have a similar experience: can you 'do' slow art online? Assuming you can switch off all the other distractions of email, social media, flashing ads, etc, and ignore the fact that your house, office or library is full of other tasks and temptations, can you slow down and sit in front of one art work and have a similar experience through an image on a screen, or does being in a gallery add something to the process? On the other hand, high-resolution images and reflectance transformation imaging (RTI) mean you can see details you'd never see in a gallery so you can explore the artwork itself more deeply*. And to remove the screen from the equation, would looking at a really good print of a painting be as rewarding as looking at the original? And what of installations and sculpture?

Related to that, I've been wondering how to relate online collections (whether thematic, exhibition-style or old school catalogues) to audience motivations for visiting museums. I've just been reading a great overview of people's motivations for visiting museums in Dimitra Christidou's Re-Introducing Visitors: Thoughts and Discussion on John Falk’s Notion of Visitors’ Identity-Related Visit Motivations. Christidou summarises Falk and Storksdieck's 2005 research on 'museum-specific identities' reflecting visitor motivations:

  1. Explorers are driven by their personal curiosity, their urge to discover new things.
  2. Facilitators visit the museum on behalf of others’ special interests in the exhibition or the subject-matter of the museum.
  3. Experience seekers are these visitors who desire to see and experience a place, such as tourists.
  4. Professional hobbyists are those with specific knowledge in the subject matter of an exhibition and specific goals in mind.
  5. Rechargers seek a contemplative or restorative experience, often to let some steam out of their systems.
Once I'd gotten past the amusing mental image of Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg's head exploding at the concept of 'big' and 'small' online identities that change according to context, interests, motivations, etc**, I thought the article provided a useful framework for returning to the question of 'what are museum websites for?'. We can safely assume that most gallery sites consider the needs of 'professional hobbyists', but what of the other motivations? Some of these motivations are embedded in social experiences – do art sites enable multi-user experiences online, or do they assume that 'sharing' or facilitation only happens via social media? Does looking at art online go deep enough to count as an 'experience'? And how much of the 'recharging' experience is tied to the act of getting to a particular space at a particular time, or to the affordances of the space itself and its physical separation from most distractions of the world?

What new motivations should be added for online experiences of museum exhibitions and objects? What's enabled by the convenience, accessibility and discoverability of art online? And to return to slow art, how can museums use text and design to cue people to slow down and look at art for minutes at a time without getting in the way of people who want a quick experience? (And is this the same basic question I'd asked earlier about 'enabling punctum' or 'what's the effect of all this aggregation of museum content on the user experience'?)

* Assuming you don't look so closely that you slip into 'inappropriate peering'.
** I'm sure Zuckerberg knows people have different identities in different situations, it's just more convenient for Facebook not to care. Christopher 'moot' Poole opposed this push quite well in a series of talks in 2011.

10 thoughts on “Does 'slow art day' work online?”

  1. Curiously, the first image that came into my mind from your title was of creating some art over a day, and sharing snaps of it online at regular intervals, so people can see it appearing in real time.

  2. Hi Mia,

    I posted the Robert Hughes’s video. I really like his description of “slow art;” it gets to the heart of the complexities of both the process of creation and the experience of appreciation/perception. Art is filled with immanence. An engaged viewer confronts the work and is rewarded.

    I don’t believe slow art or slow looking is defined by length of time but by quality of experience; one need be mindful, curiosity piqued. Not casual, but attentive. I think you can have this type of experience digitally. A great deal can be gained by looking at something at leisure on your own device.

  3. Janet – I think the reminder that art takes time to create is a good cue to spend more time thinking about the personal investment and decisions represented in the final piece (or as Maria said, the complexities of the process of creation).

    Maria – thanks for tweeting that link! I think engaged attention is key, and I love the concept of immanence.

    I've realised that sometimes being required to spend mindful time looking at an artwork (whether through a gallery talk, lecture, tv show, app or just needing a few moments on a bench nearby) makes me find my own way into the work. As a non-art historian it's easier if someone/something else guides me into it by pointing out things to notice, but if I'm left to my own devices I'll eventually start to find things to be curious about.

    I'm also reminded of 'noticings', 'a game played by going a bit slower, and having a look around you. You got points for just noticing things, and bonuses for interesting coincidences'. I don't think I ever played it but just knowing it existed was a reminder to mark the odd little things I noticed as I buzzed around town.

    Perhaps one of the most interesting challenges for art museums is placing 'art that is the very opposite of mass media' in a world that runs at the hectic tempo of mass media. (Though it's entirely possible that I only feel that because I have a To Do list longer than my arm and other people already have more time to sit with art.)

    On a whole other level I appreciated Hughes' call for 'art that isn't merely sensational, that doesn't get its message across in 10 seconds', as I recently saw one of those shows where the label was more interesting than the artworks. But perhaps even that art would have rewarded more focused attention and deeper thought about how it came to be…

  4. Thanks to a conversation with Cath Styles (@CathStyles) and Alli Burness (@alli_burnie) about the role of conversation and solitary or social reflection in slow looking, I've discovered a whole bunch of related posts including Alli's Reacting to Objects: Mindfulness, Tech and Emotion which makes an important point:

    "is it possible many visitors are not expecting emotional experiences when they visit a museum and so are not listening out for them? Is it possible visitors turn their emotional volume down when they enter the museum, expecting instead a cognitive space for learning?"

    Perhaps (depressingly) most people expect to be dictated to, or come looking to be given the right answer? Have museums left enough visible room for questions, emotions and wonder? Or are expectations set by the museums people encountered as children or in the dim dusty past and museums have to work to disrupt those expectations to make room for new ones? And at what point does the most appropriate format stop being a museum and start being a book or a tv show or a walk in the park?

    And in general, we museum professionals are probably the wrong people to ask about any of this, expecting as we do to have critical engagement with the content of a museum and/or personal relationships with its people. We wouldn't be in this field if we didn't think museums had something amazingly valuable to offer the world…

    (And finally, am I only asking rhetoric questions because I'm putting off transcribing research interviews? Probably!)

  5. 'Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.' Brian Eno quoting Roy Ascott, itself quoted in a Brain Pickings post, 'Music Pioneer Brian Eno on Art'

    It's interesting to think about what this means for art experienced online (as opposed to art designed to be experienced online?): '[W]hat makes a work of art ‘good’ for you is not something that is already ‘inside’ it, but something that happens inside you — so the value of the work lies in the degree to which it can help you have the kind of experience that you call art.'

    And 'reproductions vs originals' thought in turns leads me back to a 'thinking aloud' post I wrote with Suse Cairns on 'A Reply to “On the Opportunities and Challenges of Reproductions”' for the Center for the Future of Museums blog

  6. Hi Mia,

    Thanks for the post.

    I share many of your questions about the experience of looking at art, and about the online experience.

    As a young art student I often felt a sense of rushing around during visits to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. It was hard for me to really "open up" to a given painting, with all of the busy museum activity around me.

    As far as online viewing goes it seems to me that the Internet can (and should?) be a tool for communicating with others by way of art and design.

    I work as a web designer, and have recently set up a new site of my own, under the title of "holistic visual communications". My premise is that the visual composition of a web page can make a difference in the site visitor's experience.

    If you have a (slow) moment I hope you can take a look at the site:

    If you have a little bit more than a moment, I'd appreciate your response to the brief essay on the Blog page of the site. The essay itself is a little bit off the beaten path, but I think it relates to the questions that you bring up here.

    1. And hello! I’m afraid I didn’t find a slow moment until now, could you post a link to the specific post you were talking about on As an HCI/UX researcher I’d say visual composition is definitely powerful, even if web designers generally think about it in terms of reading patterns, visual prominence or the gestalt principles of visual perception.

      [Re-posting after migrating as my 'reply' got out of sync.]

  7. Cath Styles @CathStyles tipped me off to the online component of the National Museum of Australia's slow art day event

    The NMA's slow art day event was unusual for two reasons. Cath's post points out that as a social history museum rather than an art gallery, some of the objects weren't created as 'art', and they also worked to include online experiences for those who couldn't attend the gallery.

    The instructions for participating digitally were 'At any time during the week before Slow Art Day, take an hour or two to look slowly at the five works above'. I didn't have that long to spare but managed half an hour or so over coffee this morning.

    I've collected my tweets under the #slowartnma tag:
    #slowartnma spent some time with objects on rewarded slow looking w appreciation of process and the way it captured the essence of the animal. Also appreciated the work that went into the nightdress which made the related story even more poignant. The love token started a conversation about the context that might have prompted that particular text and twitter [i.e. how much can you convey with limited characters?] also looked a work on @Your_Paintings High-res images. Photos from multiple viewpoints, different light really help slow viewing. Finally, looking at art on an iPad does seem more engaging, there's something about directly manipulating images with your hands

    Links to the works I looked at more slowly: Crocodile Crocodile totem, by Yirawala Nightdress made by Muriel McPhee Convict love token by Wm Scott Still Life by Henry Scott Tuke

    Tweeting about it was almost the reverse of slow looking – it made me condense my thoughts, which in turn forced me to think about which of my impressions went deepest. Returning to the 'museum-specific identifies' outlined above, this was definitely a recharging moment – I was able to forget the stresses of the week and simply delight in the lines of the crocodile and lose myself in contemplation of the stories behind the other objects.

    Overall, my experience today reflects Maria L. Gilbert's wise observation: 'I don’t believe slow art or slow looking is defined by length of time but by quality of experience; one need be mindful, curiosity piqued. Not casual, but attentive.'

  8. I keep coming back to this post when I see other things related to slow art.

    Mike Murawski posted 'How We Experience Art: A Reflection on 2 Recent Books', including a summary of Ossian Ward’s Ways of Looking

    So how does Ward propose we cut through the verbose jargon and allow for better experiences with contemporary art? His central foundation is to “start from zero” and wipe the slate clean — tabula rasa — using the first word TABULA as a mnemonic device for the approach he proposes. While I don’t want to give away all the details (after all, you should read the book yourself and explore this approach), here is a very brief summary:

    Time: Always a good idea to start with a few minutes of calm contemplation, looking, and exploration. Take stock.
    Association: What is the personal resonance or ‘hook’ for you? This can be a visual attraction or a connection with a memory or experience you’ve had. Make some associations.
    Background: Use some basic ways to learn a bit more about the backdrop of the piece or the artist — using the title, label, press release, museum brochure or website, etc.
    Understand: After looking, connecting, and learning a few basic background facts, the piece is more likely to sink in a bit more. What might be some broader messages at play here?
    Look again: Simple as it sounds. After a bit of pondering, go back and look or engage with the work even more. Did you miss a detail?
    Assessment: After these first four steps, you’re now in a better place to decide whether you think the work is good or not. But Ward reminds us not to hastily jump to this step (which we all do far too often).

  9. What happens when slow art meets book groups (and wine)? Te Papa are holding a 'Stop and smell the paintings' event.

    'Join a floortalk on selected Natalia Goncharova paintings, then discuss them at leisure over wine and nibbles. Te Papa curator Chelsea Nichols leads a "slow art" evening focusing on the work of the avant-garde artist.

    We begin by walking up to Ngā Toi Arts | Te Papa, where Chelsea discusses three of Goncharova’s art works in depth. Take your time contemplating the paintings.

    Back at Espresso cafe, we break into groups and discuss the works book-club style. Chelsea provides conversation starters as we indulge in a glass of wine and finger food.'

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.