MCN Field Trips Open up Dialog With Host-City Artists

by Marty Spellerberg

MCN is all about facilitating connections for museum professionals. For the 2018 conference in Denver, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to help introduce a new format, MCN Field Trips, that opened up opportunities for spatial and dialectic exploration.

The day before the conference has always been an opportunity for attendees to tour cultural sites or take a deep dive into a topic in a workshop. This year, museum pros also had the chance to venture out into the community to engage with local artists in their home venues. By introducing visiting cultural technologists into an established discussion series favored by Denver practitioners, the Field Trips program facilitated the exposure of these communities to each other’s concerns and points-of-view.

Denver’s two Field Trips took place on Tuesday, November 13 2018. About half of the attendees came from MCN, and half from Tilt West, a Denver non-profit that promotes critical discourse on arts and culture. Each discussion dealt with aspects of our relationship to the internet, as individuals and cultural workers.

“Proud To Be Flesh”

The first Field Trip, Proud to be Flesh: Cultural Spaces After the Internet, took place at Next Stage Collaborative, an interactive gallery space located in the Denver Performing Arts Complex and administered by the University of Colorado Denver and Denver Arts & Venues.

I wrote and delivered the discussion prompt, which can be read online. In it I attempted to survey the contemporary relationship between online and offline cultural spaces, motivated by the question:

“As much of the world moves online, what’s next for engaging, enriching, in-real-life experiences of art and culture?”

The discussion, which was recorded, grappled with the structure of cultural organizations digital departments and their engagement with social media influencers, as well as the effects of online networks on artist communities and new forms such as Instagram-ready selfie spaces. It was complemented by the environment in which it took place, an installation / performance venue titled Special Guest, presented by Meow Wolf and created in collaboration with local artists.

Following the discussion, Tilt West commissioned a response from Meagan Estep. Her piece, which can be read on Medium, expanded on my question to ask:

“With both digital and physical experiences blended in a museum setting, can we even distinguish one from the other? Are they even separate?”

“Nightmare Machines”

The second Field Trip, Computer Lib / Nightmare Machines: Technology’s Impact on Cultural Communities, took place at  Emmanuel Gallery, a non-profit art facility housed in Denver’s oldest standing church structure and situated on the Auraria Campus.

Sarah Wambold prepared and delivered the prompt, a version of which can be read online, examining the broken promises of digital technology utopianism. The discussion, which was recorded, grappled with cultural organizations’ complicity with an online culture of frightening user tracking, and user’s changing expectations of privacy. It, too, was complemented by the environment in which it took place, artist Aram Bartholl’s exhibition, Your Shopping Cart Is Empty, which presents work created at “an interplay between internet, culture and reality.”

How do our taken-for-granted communication channels influence us? Bartholl asks not just what humans are doing with media, but what media is doing with humans. Tensions between public and private, online and offline, techno-lust and everyday life are at the core of his work.

— Emmanuel Gallery

Following the discussion, Tilt West commissioned a response from Matt Popke. His piece, Nightmares of Our Own Making, examines the event’s themes in relation to The Cluetrain Manifesto, an essay that has had influence within Silicon Valley.

A Foundation for Growth

The 2018 Field Trips were developed at the intersection of MCN and Tilt West. This intersection was manifested in the person of Sarah Wambold, the Clyfford Still Museum’s Director of Digital Media, an MCN 2018 Local Committee member and Tilt West founder. The success of the program is in large part a credit to her vision and organization. As well, our appreciation extendeds to Jeff Lambson, Director of Emmanuel Gallery, for facilitating use of the venues.

In my view, the Field Trip format adds depth to the MCN offering, directly supporting the organization’s mission and expanding its reach. I hope that its success in Denver paves the way for the program to grow in 2019 and beyond.

About the Author

Marty Spellerberg is a designer, developer and curator based in Austin, Texas. He has twenty years of experience, with over a decade working primarily with museums. He presents regularly at industry conferences and is co-lead of a study of museum visitor motivation published in the Journal of Digital & Social Media Marketing. In 2016 he founded Spellerberg Projects, a cultural space and contemporary art gallery with two locations in Lockhart, Texas.