The newest exhibit at the Bowdoin College Museum of Art (BCMA) consists of one room with couches, chairs, bookshelves, two iPads and a chalkboard. “Reading Room: Experiments in Collaborative Dialogue and Archival Practice in the Arts” is a social practice art exhibit, part of an art discipline that views the creation of a social situation as art in its own right. The exhibit encourages visitors to make the space their own and engage with the exhibit’s material and immaterial artifacts, such as an online archive of texts, books and writings.
Functioning as both a community space and an exhibit, “Reading Room,” which opened March 29, explores the interaction between museum space, text, technology, perception and the individual. Curators Hailey Beaman ’18 and June Lei ’18 hope to create a communal space within the museum, spark public discourse and challenge visitors to rethink the role of museums in society.
“We want to open up the museum space and make it more of a communal, social space on campus,” said Lei. “We took inspiration from people sitting in Smith, for example, where people are comfortable, but that’s not necessarily the case in the museum.”
Each week, a new question will be posted on the chalkboard and visitors will be encouraged to share their responses on the board. The first question, and the central theme of the exhibit, is “How can art act as a mechanism for social action?”
“Social change is open to interpretation,” wrote Lei in an email to the Orient. “We are hoping that people can consider what art can do to improve/change society, whether this be in service of community, policy or representation.”
“We wanted to play with the idea of visualizing political and social change and community discourse formation over time,” said Beaman. “We wanted to find something that would allow for an opportunity of collaboration within the Bowdoin community, [for] people to be able to contribute and have a part in this.”
The books in “Reading Room” were chosen by Bowdoin students, faculty and staff. Beaman and Lei emailed the Bowdoin community asking, “What is a book or text that has been foundational in the formation of your ‘practice,’ however you might define that?”
Beaman thinks of practice as “an intellectual practice, defined either by your major or, if you’re a professor, then by what you research and study. Or just as your personal practice … something that has been formational.”
The curators received over 50 responses and were able to acquire nearly every book submitted. They did not vet the reading list, a process which they felt would have counteracted the communal goals of the exhibition. Every week, 16 books will be on display, each with a placard inside explaining its importance to a Bowdoin community member.
“The books are everywhere. Professors tended to choose books that were relevant to their fields of study … students picked novels, classics, children’s books, theoretical books. It’s really across the board,” said Lei. “The pluralism of Bowdoin really comes out in something like this.”
Though the exhibit itself has a neutral tone, some of the books have a political bent. “These come from people’s personal experiences, so naturally some of the books have perhaps an explicitly political charge, but that’s based on the individual, and that was something that we wanted to encourage,” said Beaman.
The exhibition is a product of two years of conversations between Lei, Beaman and Byron Kim, a renowned abstract artist and senior critic at the Yale School of Art. In 2016 the curators met Kim at an event for the museum’s exhibit “This Is a Portrait If I Say So: Identity in American Art, 1912 to Today,” which featured his work. Since then, Lei and Beaman have explored myriad topics with Kim, ultimately deciding to create a space focused on community and social dynamics.
“A lot of our conversations were in reaction to some of the polarizing social events that were happening two years ago [such as the gangster party],” said Lei. “That sort of discourse around difficult, controversial issues was something that really fueled the need for a space like ‘Reading Room.’”
The pair aims to keep discussions alive inside and outside of the museum. The exhibit’s website contains process documents from the creation of the exhibit, weekly snapshots of the chalkboard, documents from related programming and the evolving personal reflections from the curators. Visitors are encouraged to browse the site on museum iPads and their own devices, and to comment and suggest prompts for the chalkboard.
The curators were especially interested in using “Reading Room” to combat the concept of the exhibit, the viewer-object dichotomy and museum hierarchies.
“We thought a lot about the museum space and the museum as an institution and what kinds of power dynamics and traditions are coded within the space of the ‘white cube,’ as it’s often called,” said Beaman. “We wanted to challenge those traditions of exhibitions and create a very comfortable, seemingly democratic space.”
“How can we personalize the museum space?” added Beaman. “How can museums function in that role of bringing people together as opposed to perhaps reinstating or reifying certain hierarchies that exist outside of the world, recontextualizing them in the space.”
Lei lamented that many seniors have never been to the BCMA, and yet every student matriculates and graduates on the museum steps.
“I think that everyone should feel comfortable [in the museum]. We really want student representation and for ‘Reading Room’ to be a student space inside the museum,” said Lei. “But at the same time, once it’s in the museum, all these questions about art are raised.”