Access, Comfort, and Time: The Enduring Mission of Museum Publishing

The Jack Goldstein retrospective, Jack Goldstein x 10,000, now at the Orange County Museum of Art and moving to the Jewish Museum next year, has been widely and rightly praised. Goldstein’s critical reception as an artist has been growing stronger in recent years, and this show cements that reputation and introduces his work to a much broader audience than who have known him previously.[1] Some of Goldstein’s work was in painting, but perhaps an even larger and arguably more interesting part of his work (and of the current exhibition) was in videos, audio recordings and writings. The exhibition brings together this important material, but engaging with it in the exhibition gallery, despite smart exhibition design at OCMA, proves problematic.

Installation of Jack Goldstein x 10,000, OCMA

Image courtesy of OCMA and Chris Bliss Photography.

The videos of Goldstein’s which are included in the show are playing, in full, in various groupings within the exhibition. While relatively short individually, watching each of the couple dozen pieces requires an extended amount of time. More time, certainly, than the average museum visitor is usually willing to spend.

In audio, Goldstein created a number of artworks that consist of groupings of vinyl records of various sounds and music. In the exhibition, these works are presented with the records themselves (some with hand-painted labels) in vitrines and on the walls, and with headphones available for listening. The headphone audio is played with all the recordings of a given group of records in a loop, with no telling what audio, from what record, you’re listening to at a given moment. This, on top of the general discomfort of having public headphones on, with a four-foot wire attaching your head to the wall, makes for a less than ideal experience of these works.

And finally, in writings. Goldstein started and ended his career using words as a medium for his work. Writer Carol Cheh gives a smart and rare account of this part of Goldstein’s oeuvre, focusing in particular on the 17 type-written and photocopied and bound volumes of his final work, Selected Writings 1994–2000. In the exhibition, these volumes are displayed together in a vitrine. All but one are closed to show their covers only. A photocopied facsimile of one of the volumes sits on a nearby bench. Though the single facsimile is probably a fair enough representation of the whole and adequate for most visitors, it is, in the end, only 1/17th of the total work. Would we accept seeing only 1/17th of one of Goldstein’s paintings in the adjacent gallery?

I have written before about my frustration with books in glass vitrines, but in the Goldstein exhibition there are some fundamental issues with the written, audio, and video works as a whole. These issues boil down to three fundamental things that the exhibition’s visitors lack to varying degrees in viewing these artworks: access, comfort, and time. Digital publishing has the power to mitigate all three.

IDEA 1:
Create a digital catalogue.

IDEA 2:
Make the catalogue accessible for free within the museum.

The lovely printed catalogue of the show does great justice to Goldstein’s until-now-uncollected body of work.[2] While the artist’s paintings, his early wood sculptures, and his studio (in a very special series of images by photographer James Welling) are wonderfully reproduced, the catalogue of course only includes stills of the video works, images of the vinyl records but no transcription (or really even description) of the sound, and only a handful of images of his written work. An exhibition and multimedia body of work like Goldstein’s is a perfect candidate for digital publication.

Cover of Jack Goldstein x 10,000 catalogue  Video in Jack Goldstein x 10,000 catalogue  Vinyl LPs in Jack Goldstein x 10,000 catalogue  Writings in Jack Goldstein x 10,000 catalogue

Publishing in e-book would allow the catalogue to include not only static reproductions of the paintings, but also dynamic reproductions of the many video and audio works—not just video stills, but the video itself; not just images of vinyl records, but the actual audio. For those that worry about reproducing audio and video and the associated rights issues that might arise, I would ask this: Why should a small-sized, web-quality .m4v of a video work be any different or more problematic in terms of rights and reproductions, than a small-sized paper-quality .jpg of a painting? We need to start thinking differently about what’s possible, and we need to start making these arguments to rightsholders. Including active video and audio can make a catalogue like this much more representative of the exhibition and more meaningful and useful to readers. And that, ultimately, is our goal.

In the case of written work like Goldstein’s Selected Writings 1994–2000—normally shown in sealed vitrines in exhibitions and as flat images in catalgoues—space and page count is no longer a publications issue so why not include the work in its entirety? A digital transcription embedded within an e-book is clearly not the work itself, it is merely a copy, but one that allows the reader to better access the content. And with better access comes better understanding and increasing cultural relevance.

Putting these things—audio, video, artist’s writings—in a portable, digital catalogue format, gives readers the access to the works, from the comfort of their homes, with more time to consider them.

Further, making this digital catalogue available for free within the museum can assist and engage exhibition visitors and can become an integral part of exhibition design. Whether on in-gallery iPads, or through special web pages visitors can access on their smart phones, giving them access to this material in the space they most need it (in front of the art) helps them better access the work but also deepens their relationship to it.[3] Of course, taking this idea beyond being simply a digital version of the nearly ubiquitous printed-catalogue-chained-to-a-bench in a corner of the exhibition space, requires some customization. Instead of including the entire catalogue as a download or on an iPad, you can give them just the relevant chapter for the artwork they’re in front of, or even just the relevant page. Split the book into sections throughout the show and make them all free and easy to access. One of the great powers of digital publications, especially those based on a simple HTML like that used in the EPUB e-book format, is that they’re easy to customize, reappropriate and rerelease as needed. And in the end, if a visitor starts watching catalogue videos, or reading essays in the museum, chances are good that many of them will decide to buy the digital catalogue in its entirety to take home and be able to continue their study and enjoyment of the show.

None of this should sound all that new to museum publishers. Access, comfort, and time are exactly what traditional print museum publications have offered readers for decades. It only takes our remembering what is possible now and letting go of outdated notions of the supremacy of one particular form (print) over another (digital). The fundamental mission of museum publishing has always been to help readers better understand and enjoy art. Digital publishing is a powerful new tool in accomplishing this mission, we need only use it.

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[1] Disclaimer & Plug: My publishing house, Hol Art Books, published the e-book version of the great autobiography Jack Goldstein and the CalArts Mafia, and I will profit (at least a little) from the many copies I hope you will now go buy.

[2] A Coincidence: Shortly after completing the first draft of this post, I was informed by OCMA, over Twitter, that after tweeting about the show, I’d won a free copy of the Goldstein catalogue! I happily accepted, and though I do argue for a digital version here and believe they didn’t do enough in describing the video and audio works in print, can also say that the museum and their co-publisher Prestel, did a nice job overall with the design of book and it’s definitely worth picking up if you’re a Goldstein fan.

[3] Further Reading: I spoke more about this idea in a presentation, Beautiful Art (Books), given at last year’s Books in Browsers conference. It’s available for free download in EPUB format from our website.