Never ask someone who just wrote a dissertation on the topic in question–you can’t shut us up. Here are excerpts from the tome:
Excerpt from the Introduction
“For the purposes of this study, I am using the term “engrossing” to refer to an art encounter that can be described as an intense, absorbing mental episode—phenomenological or cognitive—in front of a work of art, one that produces a sense of deep satisfaction or pleasure that is self-defined by each viewer. It is, in effect, an aesthetic experience broadly defined. . . .”
Excerpt from Chapter 2
“. . . . At its most basic, such an [engrossing art] encounter can be understood as an absorbing experience prompted by a work of art. It occurs in a specific place (a museum) during a particular interval of time. Its duration can vary from a moment to minutes to months (the latter consisting of a reoccurring engagement with a work not dissimilar to reading a book over time); more importantly, it has a beginning and an end. It is a special place/time event. It is an ecstatic experience in the original meaning of the term: ex stasis—a break from the status quo. It stands apart from the business of daily life and the practical concerns of work, bills, and what’s for dinner. As one writer aptly observed, “there cannot be any experience of the ordinary. . . . The ordinary is what is there when there are no experiences going on.” Despite the fact that this special place/time event has duration, the sensation is more akin to timelessness: time itself seems to change or stop, one floats in a precious, insulated bubble of nowness. During this heightened sense of being in the moment, the viewer’s somatic self slips away—one loses oneself to the experience. It engenders deep personally defined satisfaction which is its own reason for being. Csikszentmihalyi refers to such experiences as autotelic: “The term ‘autotelic’ derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self and telos meaning goal [and] refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.”
It is not necessary to be dogmatic and insist that every art experience possess each of the characteristics described. Nonetheless, the four distinct ways of engaging with art described above all share multiple aspects of an engrossing art encounter [four different art encounters are described at the start of the chapter]. Each is an intense, absorbing, place/time event prompted by a work of art. Often time stands still; the past, the future, even one’s own sense of self temporarily evaporate. All of them culminate in a mental episode—phenomenological or cognitive—that produces deep satisfaction or pleasure that is self-defined. It is the experience of art as an ontological event.
[The dissertation then goes on to demonstrate how engrossing art experiences have very similar characteristics to play experiences; this similarity led me to then look at some of the major tenets of game design thinking to see if they might offer some clues for designing high engagement experiences in museums–and it does.]
. James S. Hans, The Play of the World (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press 1981), 30.
. Being “marked out from what went before and what came after” is what makes experiences noteworthy according to John Dewey. Dewey, Art as Experience, 36 (see chap. 1, n. 21).
. Philip Fisher, Wonder, the Rainbow, and the Aesthetics of Rare Experiences (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998), 20.
. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (NY: Harper & Row, 1990), 67.
Best example of a high engagement museum experience that I’ve seen was the following:
. . . a work by the sound artist Halsey Burgund, Scapes (2010), that was on exhibit at the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, from July 13 through December 31, 2010. Burgund uses open-source platforms, GPS technology, and interactivity to engage visitors as they walk through the Museum’s sculpture park. Using their iPhone (or one borrowed from the Museum), visitors stroll through the park listening to a “spatially related musical composition” that changes depending on their physical location; an algorithm ensures that the tour is never the same twice. Visitors have the option to listen to the soundtrack or add to it by answering one of five questions in forty-five seconds or less:
1. Scapes is an excuse to talk to yourself about anything at all. Go for it.
2. Ask a question of those who come after you.
3. Tell a story inspired by something you see or feel here.
4. Look straight up and describe what you see.
5. Tell us about someone you wish was here with you right now. Talk to him/her.
The visitors’ spoken words are added to the soundtrack in real-time. Visitors have called it “absorbing and hypnotic,” and “profound [and] exciting.”
. I am indebted to Nancy Proctor, Head of Mobile Strategy & Initiatives at the Smithsonian Institution, for bringing this sound piece to my attention.
. Decordova Sculpture Park + Museum web site, http://decordova.org/art/exhibitions/current/ scapes.html.
. “Not Your Father’s Audio Museum Tour,” a recorded interview by Adam Ragusea with Halsey Burgund for Radio Boston, http://www.wbur.org/media-player?source=radioboston&urll=http://
MuseumMobile Wiki, October 21, 2010