Your cell phone. Skype. Email. Imagine each device as an impediment to communication, not an aid. That’s the idea behind Cole Lu’s exhibit SMELLS LIKE CONTENT at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.
“Most people use text messages and that’s one of those things where you don’t get a voice intonation and you don’t read body language,” said one of the show’s curators, 18-year-old Scout Sale.
Sale is part of the Teen Museum Studies group that chose Lu from a batch of artist submissions to be featured in a solo show. The group consists of so-called digital natives, people born in a time when digital technology is prevalent, and critiques the common assumption that more communication is better communication. Body language, tone and complete visual context are either eliminated or reduced when fit into a specific digital format. Whereas this criticism may have sent some millennials screaming for the hills, the Teen Museum Studies group embraced Lu’s work.
Lucy Barrios said the show highlights one of the most fundamental changes brought on by increased technology use.
“A lot of communication is nonverbal and that’s really changed the way the world works,” she said.
Sarah Butler, 17, said the work draws attention to the gaps left by casual technology use and a reliance on that nonverbal communication. She said working on the show helped her understand her own relationship to devices.
“I’m going to text somebody later, and I just do it, and not have any deeper thinking, and just take a step back and look at it and look at how much is lost through communication.”
That examination began when the student curators selected Lu as their artist, but the selection process began earlier. Students were presented with a slide show of work from artists' submissions. They reviewed selections, chose images they found intriguing, and were presented with binders of information on the artist behind selected images.
Students then gathered to create proposals for exhibitions based on each artist’s work. These proposals were voted on, Lu was selected, and the students made a visit to her studio and began the process of building out the show. The entire process was overseen by the museum’s Director of Education Tuan Nguyen.
“The most exciting part is watching the students come to the realization of how much control they have over the whole process,” he said.
According to Nguyen, the student’s largest obstacles were the same as those facing most art exhibits, meeting deadlines and working within budget. He said this was the second group of students to come in under budget in the past six years. His approach to time management is considered and allows for failure. Some deadlines weren’t met, which meant certain ideas just didn’t happen.
“It gives them a sense of urgency and a sense of real ownership of the whole process,” he said, “It’s not something where they’re coming along for the ride, they’re actually doing the entire thing.”
The students said the process provided insight into the resources and skill needed to produce an art exhibit.
Ellie Bennett, 16, said she’s hoping to pursue a career as an artist, and the program helped her realize what curators will be looking for in terms of practical advantages to showing work.
Madeline Vincent, 17, was interested in curation or preservation work and felt she better understands those responsibilities.
Alex Williford, 18, said working with Lu taught her the importance of presentation for an artist, even outside a gallery setting.
“I got the vibe from her that you know, not only did she know what she wanted, but she was confident in it. And confidence is key, if you’re not confident in it, nobody else will be confident in it,” she said.
Artist Lu was impressed by the student’s level of engagement with her work.
“For the millennial generation, which is the curators of this show, they rely a lot on technology, different devices to communicate, and that for me is essentially the build-up of miscommunication," she said.
For her, involving millennials in the curation process renewed her own interest in presenting the work.
“Usually I consider them the pioneer of whatever’s coming next so I appreciate that a lot.”
The exhibit opens July 31 at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.