For this exercise, I decided to observe people in an art museum. I was hoping to study the way people engage with art and the physical space of the gallery. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, I went there on a Thursday afternoon, at a time when the gallery had very few visitors. This impacted my observations and is reflected in my writing.
In my first stylistic approach, I attempted a heavily reflexive style that emphasized the anxiety and boredom that I felt while conducting ethnographic observation in such a quiet and empty gallery. The piece is written following a chronological timeline and reflects my entire experience at the gallery. It is also an attempt at a more poetic style with a story arc that has an ironic end. My second stylistic approach is, by contrast, entirely void of reflexivity as well as of a chronological timeline. It is an amalgamation of similar observations clustered into paragraphs. This piece seems more typically ethnographic because it is wrapped up decisively: the last paragraph offers a conclusive research finding about the gallery and its effect on people. It presents my findings as obvious facts, despite the anxieties I felt throughout the process, and which I describe in the first piece. Together, both pieces prove that it is possible to describe the same two hours in entirely different ways.
I had decided to go to the Art Gallery. As someone interested in Visual Arts I had been there many times before but only to look at the art, never the people. I remembered taking a tour of the gallery years ago to learn about the architecture of the building. At that time, I learned how the architect designed the building to fit into its surroundings, and how he attempted to create a “lightness of being” in the visitors to ease such an intensive and intellectually demanding experience of engaging with the artworks. I wanted to see how the space affected people, if it had its desired effect.
Upon arriving, I realized that I had made a mistake in choosing that time of day. No one was around but the security guards. I debated coming back again, but decided to see where things went. After asking a young lady who worked there which exhibit was most frequented, I immediately set out for the special photography exhibit. No visitors could be found. The security guards were all congregated in one room in a lively discussion, passing the time when there was nothing to guard. I was excited to chance upon someone but upon entering the room they all dispersed and resumed their guard in other rooms. I would need to go elsewhere to find people.
I was growing rather discouraged and impatient as time passed and decided to just move to the gallery’s library and archive. People were seated at a table curled over the book they were studying. Four people in modest attire were working behind a desk on some rather old keyboards and were busy carrying stacks of books and papers to be filed. The quiet atmosphere was broken up by the sounds of shuffling feet, rustling papers, a beeping photocopier and whispered voices. I could see people at work, and observe their research and studying habits, but I began to grow even more bored and discouraged than before. Although I had found people in the midst of an activity, they did not seem active enough. They did not talk enough, they did not move enough, they did not interact enough and I felt that I was quickly running out of things to observe. On top of that, I felt rude staring for so long and disturbing people at work. I obviously did not belong there with no books or laptop being used. I found myself struggling to notice anything and would note the time, note the furniture, note the scenery and note the books in use.
Eventually, I felt that I needed to go. I needed to find more action. Entering the contemporary exhibit, I was glad to hear some real noise for the first time in the gallery coming from one of the video art installations. The building had sound proofing everywhere and the silence had been deafening. I was beginning to get a headache to match my boredom. I realized over all this time how little people and circumstances cooperate with your intentions to do research and how disheartening this process could be. It occurred to me that perhaps most initial outings to the site of research were just like this with seemingly little to notice.
Finally, I found some visitors. They did what I hoped they would do, they did something worth observing, they cooperated with my research as they pulled out their phone and snapped some selfies in front of the works. I excitedly began to note down their actions only to find that, as visitors do, they were moving on to another room. I refused to be left without a subject to study so, naturally, I followed them. Then I found another couple and followed them. I continued to follow a couple until a new one appeared until I realized that there were only a handful of people in the exhibit and I was trailing all of them interchangeably. It occurred to me that I was acting incredibly conspicuous in the way I jotted notes in a booklet, in the way I walked quickly, in the way I skipped the art, and in the way I followed the visitors. With immense boredom and a migraine, I admitted defeat only to find a flood of people entering the gallery as I left it.
The rooms are quiet despite the faint sound of laughter, classical music, and wind sound effects from a film projector. Shuffling footsteps of the guards walking back and forth between each exhibit room seem loud in the quiet of the gallery. The vague scent of carpet cleaner and dust permeates the halls. The senses in the art gallery are numbed by a general nothingness, a lack of stimuli. The visual senses face an absence as well with white walls, light grey carpets and hardwood floors. But amongst the white expanses of wall there are lots of paintings. Zones of overstimulation.
The gallery is designed to keep people in their own space. Showing up in pairs or alone, they walk solo from piece to piece in a circular fashion around the room at a very slow pace. Between sections, they look around searching for the next object of focus. The absence of sound, touch, scent and excess visual stimulation focuses each person on the visual aesthetics of each artwork and keeps them in a sort of trance. Each observes in their own way. One sits cross- legged in front of a piece to stare at the figures in action on the canvas. Another reads the descriptions intently. Another stares closely at each piece for a prolonged period of time before moving on.
When the reverie is broken by an excitable friend or a crowd, talking begins. A mother and daughter take a selfie in front of a piece as proof that they were there. An elderly couple sit down complaining about how much more of the exhibit must be left. The less serious art enthusiasts succumb to this distraction earliest. They excitedly break into chatter and their thoughtful trance is broken. The tired visitors who have been at the gallery for a long while are next to fall out of the zone. Perhaps now that this period of concentration is over, the visitors will leave the gallery soon. For now, they all make their way to the clearing in the middle of the contemporary exhibit where there is a balcony overlooking a garden. Each of them takes a break looking over the edge and then sitting down. Interestingly enough, they look over the balcony in the quiet, focused way in which they had previously looked at the art pieces. Despite these examples of distracted and tired visitors, the exhibit’s labyrinth-like design, quiet security guards, sound-proofed rooms and absence of stimuli all actively work to create this sense of trance, to keep visitors in their state of focus, to prevent any kind of distraction. When the visitors are distracted from their trance, they will either take a break, or leave.
The only people who seem entirely immune to this effect, are the security guards. They drag their feet, shaking their keys as they walk straight through each room. They lean against the walls and shift their weight lazily. They meet up and engage in lively, friendly conversations in French when the rooms are near empty. They are bored, evidently. A long empty Thursday with little to oversee. They are obviously uninterested in the artwork; they’ve seen it all before.
This suggests that the hold the gallery has on its visitors depends on the visitors’ intent. Should the visitors want to view the art and immerse themselves in it, they will allow the gallery to hold them. They engage with the gallery to create a sort of a reverie in which they exist in their own little world alone with the art. Should the visitor not have this intention, as is the case of the security guards and the less interested visitors, the gallery and the art will not be able to have such a hold. In this case, the visitors are free to walk at whatever pace they like, move on from each piece at whatever pace they like, to talk, to sit and to wander. Just like classrooms, libraries and theatres interact with their visitors, the gallery is a space designed to have a particular hold on its visitors.
This exercise made it clear that the same information and experience could seem entirely different depending on how it is portrayed in writing. It also proved that ethnographic writing is difficult and requires active decision-making on the part of the writer. The pieces that were read throughout this course all were written with different stylistic approaches. Some were sensorial, some were reflexive, some were dialogue-based, some were poetic and some were factual. These stylistic decisions helped me determine what aspects of my writing I was able to play with, and which styles and formats I preferred. When making decisions regarding ethnographic representation, we should take into account both our desired audience and the message we want to convey. Lastly, this exercise showed that readers should remain skeptical of writings because everything is written with intent and with an agenda. Being an active rather than passive reader is necessary in order to obtain the most out of a text. When writing and reading ethnographies, it is important to remain engaged with the text itself.