Behind a Museum Treasure Hunt

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Joe Marianek, Pentagram.
Joe Marianek, Pentagram.
Unless you're a Dutch-ophile, Aernout Mik's name is weird. When I've tried to pronounce it frequently over the past few weeks, it always comes out different. At the MoMA, you can hear tourists awkwardly trying to sound it out under their breath. Everytime I write it, I have to triple check the spelling: Airnout Milk. Aeronot Mike, etc. The appearance is disorienting like an alien language, even when typeset is Arial.

Organized by curator Lawrence Kardish, the Aernout Mik exhibition at the MoMA attempts to casually subvert the normal gallery experience with eight distinct time-based pieces dropped around the museum in both gallery and non-gallery spaces. MoMA's website describes Mik's creations as work that " interrogates the nature of reality and subverts the traditional relationship between viewer and viewed." Much of Mik's work is staged using high production value footage with actors and events that appear real; conversely, some pieces are composed of real video (journalistic refuse).

Following this logic, the exhibit appears to be impulsively dispersed throughout the museum, interrupting the normal placid and calculated flow of the visitor experience. Though in reality, each piece is tactically placed to relate to its specific location, taking into account the visitor flow in the museum—and almost casting onlookers as part of each piece.

I interviewed Ingrid Chou and Samuel Sherman, of MoMA's in-house design team, about their process and rationale.
It seems that this exhibit has unique wayfinding challenges because of the organizational principle. How was that problem solved?

MoMA: The artist's intention for this exhibition is to "intrude" on the museum unexpectedly by installing his videos throughout the museum in various locations. Wayfinding and making connections among these video locations was our first challenge.

We came up with a simple yet extremely functional approach to solve the problem. We decided to overprint our existing museum wayfinding Floor Plan—which is heavily utilized by visitors—with an unique visual identifier, a big "green X," indicating all the video locations. Furthermore, we carried that 2D visual identity into the environmental space at a larger scale—creating the connection between the map and the actual installation.

Treasure-hunting is by nature human—and treasure-hunting within the museum context added a level of the prankster, which appealed to the artist's intention.

How did you approach the design process?

MoMA: Three principles:
1. Problem solving (wayfinding challenge)
2. Communicating the artist's intention (making connection between the videos)
3. Allowing the form (design) to follow the function (the "X" icon)

MoMA has been using a printed map already, which includes all the floors and galleries in the building. In an early meeting, we received one of these maps from Laurence Kardish, the curator and Kelly Sidley, the curatorial assistant with X's directly over the locations. We all really like the directness of the marking, and how we might be able to continue to use the existing map by simply marking on top of it. The process was very direct as well—each decision leading to the next logical one.

Were other devices/shapes considered?

MoMA: The "X" is a universal icon for indicating locations and for signifying danger—and it's also part of the flag of Amsterdam, which touches upon the artist's identity. The "X" seemed so entirely appropriate that other devices/shapes were not seriously considered.

What is the rationale for the use of the green color and logo typeface?

MoMA: The logotype was custom drawn with a harsh, brutal quality. We felt this relates to the subject matter of the videos and the vernacular of industrial/emergency vehicles. We used the intense green color for similar reasons. It is a fairly alarming color in the space.

It appears that the exhibition, website, environmental and print components were developed with tight coordination. Did one come first?

MoMA: The map was the first component to be designed. We later used all of the elements in the map, to expand throughout the museum.
Were the various touchpoints developed by separate individuals?

MoMA: The identity, navigation system, exhibition graphics, map, labels, and motion graphics were developed by Ingrid Chou and Samuel Sherman. The website was designed by Shannon Darrough in the Digital Media department.
What type of feedback have to received to the exhibit itself—from the artist, visitors, staff, etc?

MoMA: The artist and the curators love it because the exhibition design solved two things—the wayfinding and communication—in one form. The form (design) follows the function.

Was this an engaging project to work on?

MoMA: The challenging aspects were the fun parts of this project for us. We were given this seemingly difficult and unique problem and we came up with the idea within the first ten minutes of the initial conversation. The vision was clear and strongly supported by the artist, Aernout Mik—as well as by the curator, Laurence Kardish, and the curatorial assistant, Kelly Sidley.

The production was fairly complicated. We used many more materials and substrates than on a standard exhibition, including paintmask, silkscreen, cad-cut vinyl, digitally printed floor graphics, offset printing (map), wall paint, and video projection. Just getting the green to match on all of these very different materials was quite a challenge.

For more, visit the exhibition site. Aernout discusses the exhibition in this video.


Joe Marianek is a designer at Pentagram and teaches at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
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