I long for an art gallery with non-white walls. I’ve never heard of 90% of the artists I see, maybe more. How, then, am I supposed to understand their intentions, their message? I wish that museums gave more than a blurb’s worth of background information. Nobody picks up Shakespeare, starts reading halfway through, and considers it an informative experience. If you do, you're missing out on a lot.
I understand the inclination. You want to house art in a way that doesn’t interfere with it. Any attempt to convey the art’s meaning also has the effect of interpreting it. Nobody wants that.
This is the jumping off point for PDL’s Unauthorized Tour of the Portland Art Museum (PAM). PDL is a performance troupe from Seattle trying to make contemporary art more “refreshing, accessible, and fun” for the public. An audio tour is ideal for this purpose. It can be informative and lively without being overbearing. Armed with a personal headset and dorky earphones you can view a piece, form an impression, and subsequently hear more about it.
The tour itself is more of a companion than a guide. It’s like taking a friend along to the museum with you—unfortunately, one who won’t shut up.
To make the Unauthorized Audio Tour of PAM, a four-person contingent from PDL spent three days touring the museum and recording material at night. The result is 32 tracks corresponding to selected works in PAM’s permanent collection. It runs about an hour and can be conveniently downloaded from website to ipod. (Check June 1st at vital5productions.com/pdl/pdl_PAM.html.)
My major gripe with the tour is that they play down the history of the pieces in favor of reactionary skits and gut responses to the pieces. There is a misconception that the way to educate people on unpopular subjects is to 1) hide the learning in a more appealing entertainment vehicle (think Wishbone the time-traveling dog) or 2) use slang to make it seem cool. Sadly, the PDL tour succumbs to both of these easy outs. History and context are snuck in amidst goofiness and dramatic voices. It left me confused. Of all groups, why would pro-art PDL think that the way to sell people on visual art is to repackage it?
One of the more ludicrous tracks attempts to place Van Gogh in modern context by describing the painting “Charrette de Boeuf” (Ox-Cart) as the most eco-friendly way to get around. Another describes the scene and symbolism in “Volumnia Before Coriolanus” by Gebrand van den Eeckhout but feels the need to do it in homeboy voice. They “kick it all Dutch master style.” That is a direct quote.
The tour was at its best when it let the work speak for itself. My favorite track is the one accompanying the room of English silver. Press play and you hear people at a dinner table passing around the various pieces of dishware you see in front of you. The voices get louder and louder. Silver flatware and bowls chime and bang together until you feel like you’re overhearing an English feast. It was a clever way for PDL to put the pieces in context without delivering a lecture.
I really, really wanted to like the PDL tour. I still really, really like the idea. Unfortunately this incarnation of it was so diverted by trying to entertain that it actually lost my interest. I give them credit for keeping it light, and upbeat, and sometimes teaching simultaneously, but overall I was unsatisfied.
The best lesson from this whole experiment is that for better or worse, anyone can make an audio tour. There are no restrictions on how to enjoy artwork and almost limitless downloadable tracks on itunes to help you out. Next time you go to the museum, pick whatever soundtrack you want to hear, whether it’s a dance mix, informative podcast, or a book on tape. As long as it makes the trip more enjoyable, I’m sure PDL would approve.