The putting together of “Picasso 1936. Traces of an Exhibition” was a very special challenge. There we were, an art museum, proposing a show containing no original work of any kind: in the words of the curator of this radical venture, Sílvia Domènech, it was a question of creating an exhibition of documents rather than with documents, in order to conceptualize the significance of the Picasso Exhibition held in Barcelona, ??Madrid and Bilbao in 1936 through analysis of the archives.
Interview with Silvia Domenech, curator of the exhibition
Starting from this premise it was decided to use the archive as a primary articulating element, with a view to explaining more fully and accurately both the actual 1936 exhibition and the network of individuals and interests that was formed in order to make it happen. We felt that visitors would be interested in having this chance to interact directly with the contents of the period documents, to get inside the archive, and that the best way to achieve this was to use technological tools.
The whole process was a work in progress involving the museum’s in-house team and the team of designers and programmers, an experimental undertaking based on an expository discourse rather different from the usual, these singular features meant that the ‘making of’ the exhibition was similarly unconventional. The word that perfectly describes the work done during the eight days of the montage is ‘artisanal’, because the whole show was put together on the basis of objects and programming specifically in the service of the curator’s thesis.
Touch screen of the exhibition
In order to explain the discourse of the archive we laid out a special mapping room, based on the correspondence of ADLAN (Amics de l’Art Nou, or Friends of New Art, the group that organized the show), to show the genesis of the documents and their relation to one another.
The designers of the exhibition suggested to the curator that the information be structured in terms of ten key concepts that would be materialized on ten cards: when these cards were introduced into a table specially designed for the show they would project onto the mapping wall specific items of content (consisting of copies of letters, newspaper clippings, photographs and graphic material from the time),setting out key facts about the 1936 exhibition and bearing witness to the importance of the network of intellectuals involved in organizing it and at the same time allowing the visitors to interact with the information.
This was a complicated but also a very interesting process. One of the most debated issues had to do with the length of the projections. The curator’s knowledge of the subject was evidently very extensive and an effort would have to be made to summarize this mass of information. At first we considered the possibility of 15 concepts, but in the end the two teams decided that the best option was to reduce the number of cards so as to make the experience more fluid. In fact, this is a very representative instance of the ongoing collaboration between the two teams.
Cards that generate projections
Another element that was constructed out of the joint work of the two teams was the ontology: the explicit formalization of a shared conceptual scheme. The purpose of this ontology was to provide a detailed understanding of the relationship between Picasso and the individuals and agencies involved in putting on the exhibition, and their relations with one another.
The first part of this two-part process was based on the work of some of the programmers with the curator. Having established the identity of the individuals and agencies, the categories and the types of relationship, as the basis of the ontology, the museum team began to enter all of this information into a database to which we had online access. We then thought about how this database was to be visualized and a specific software application was created to visualize the ontology dynamically. We had two metal tables made, with built-in touch screens to allow the user to navigate directly through the different themes of the ontology. In order to structure and refine the information in the ontology, it was decided to set up different conceptual groups that would make navigation easier. The creation of these groups was a gradual process: the curator proposed a type of group and relationship and the programmer set it up, but we couldn’t be sure that this relationship would be permanent until we had seen the result. The fact is that all of the changes were decided one by one by all of the members of the exhibition team.
Curator and visitors to the exhibition
As you can see, this very untypical ‘making of’ was based on a joint effort in which an interdisciplinary team worked together to enter inside an archive with the aid of technology.
Coordination “Picasso 1936. Traces of an Exhibition”
We’ll be talking about the archive at the round-table ‘Documents, archives and artistic processes’ on Thursday, 26 January at 7.30 p.m. If you’d like to find out more about how the archive tells stories, come along!