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Beer, Ruth, Emily Carr University of Art and Design, Vancouver, Canada,

We will present, Catch + Release: Mapping Stories of Geographic and Cultural Transition (2009-2012), a research and creation project funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Council of Canada. It is a case study of a collaborative, interdisciplinary digital new media practice in community engagement and informal learning. It looks at local/global environmental, socio-cultural and historical interplays related to multi-cultural community perspectives, including First Nations, on changes due to the demise of the fishing industry. Historically, fishing was one of the primary reasons for the multi-cultural immigration that helped to foster the settlement, economic development, and social growth on the west coast of Canada.

We will discuss our interactive digital new media exhibition Catch + Release installed in The Gulf of Georgia Cannery Museum National Historic Site, a social history museum in Steveston, British Columbia, a small city on Canada’s Pacific coast. The exhibition proposes to advance an encounter with history as critical inquiry into contemporary life of the region. The researchers’ backgrounds in new media art, new media education, cultural theory, and interactive design, come together to explore how research and creation contributes to informed discourse that engages with the region’s cultural history and social, cultural and ecological present. Our new media exhibition that uses sensor technologies and immersive interactivity to overlay stories from the community together with those of the museum, is intended to foster a sense of belonging and deeper understanding of historical and current circumstances. While our study is localized, these conditions and stories resonate in other coastal communities that once relied on fishing, thus, our project addresses cultural and marine environmental sustainability in many similar contexts.

This project draws on qualitative inquiry informed by practice-based research methodologies in education and visual art and is impacted by the fields of new media art, cultural studies, museum studies and the history of art as a discipline vital to the analysis of how history, including the past and just-past, is mediated through images, objects, and experiences (Benjamin 1968).

Our project at the intersection of socially-engaged interactive new media art and pedagogy, views the museum as an essentially social institution that requires interdisciplinary analysis as an informal site of learning and as space for promoting critical thinking. The Gulf of Georgia Cannery Museum National Historic Site, a museum since the closing of the cannery in 1970 and that still features the intact production line, is an important pedagogical space for school groups, tourists and local visitors, and subsequently a major source of regional identity.

For the Catch + Release exhibition, we designed situation-specific, new media interactive art experiences for contributing diverse perspectives; catching and releasing stories that challenge the seamlessness of those historical narratives typically represented by museum displays of artifacts and information panels. The exhibition is intended to generate polyphony of diverse voices to make viewers feel a part of their regional museum, and exposes them to multiple viewpoints about their (local) relationship to the (global) ecology-making visitors more aware of their relationship to and impact on the local ecology and history. In this way, the project did not seek to create an exhibition in the space, but rather used the space to exhibit the place in which it is situated.

Our presentation will describe the conceptual basis and rationale for the inclusion of the new media artworks that comprise the exhibition. They include: interactive projections of live-stream visualization of data from underwater sensors of Canada’s ocean observatory; clusters of light and sound digital sensor activated interactive sculptures that reference the marine geoscape and communication devices used by fisherman; and a montage of video interviews with people whose stories expose sometimes oppositional views on the fishing industry. The polyphony of multiple and diverse voices argues for a more open-ended and complicated way of dealing with the representation of history. We will discuss how immersive technology can provide unique opportunities for teaching and learning experiences and embodied ways of knowing through a rich multi-sensory environment that engages the viewer with how culture and memory come together in new forms.

Our study is also intended to stimulate interest the historical role of the museum by inviting the community to participate in the creation and complication of historical narratives. Cultural and heritage museums, specifically, have become multi-purpose, spaces where museum professionals strive to expand their programmes and define new communication approaches capable of engaging broader publics (Prior 2008). In this context, recent interactive technologies are seen to offer museums an ability to create a sense of spectacle and excite audiences (Hemsley, Cappellini & Stanke 2005). Increasingly, however, the reification of technologized display raises concerns about the type and quality of museum experience (Griffiths 1999). Despite the potential of multi-media displays to address the diverse needs of different audiences or audience members by combining information and physical spaces and presenting interactive storytelling, there is still a tendency to rely on basic interactive terminals with mouse, keyboard and monitor. While this may be an efficient way to deliver information, our project contributes aesthetic and expressive possibilities for actively engaging audiences. Recent discourse around new media art practices and new museums has encouraged an interest in technology beyond fixed modalities of story authoring, to sensory-driven, interactive processes of learning that allow visitors to engage with interactive art forms and digital technologies to construct their own learning experience in the museum (Henry 2010; Rogoff 2010). However more research is needed to assess new models for establishing and maintaining dialogues with visitors and new ideas about how to connect these dialogues with the broader audiences (Cutler 2010). Contemporary new media artwork that invites users to interpret or experience content and function through a range of physical and sensorial interactions are seen to be extremely promising (Hornecker & Buur 2006). Their ability to author embodied, responsive engagements are well suited to the museums’ pedagogical programs.

As contemporary art is transformed through the incorporation of new media practice, works like Catch + Release offer a potentially innovative approach to learning. If as Ellsworth (2005) contends, new digital media contribute to pedagogic disruption and call for new ‘routes’ of relational thinking, they establish the ground of shared social interest drawing together artists, museum professionals and educators to discuss how the public becomes co-creators of meaning (or active learners) through experiential, participatory engagement (Bishop 2006).

Social history museums have begun to invite artistic inquiry, presenting temporary digital new media art exhibitions such as Catch + Release that advance the idea of a complex cultural and social history, challenge conventional displays and provide alternate modes of visitors’ participation, meaning making and knowledge construction (Bishop 2006), in these new spaces of artistic exchange or encounter.


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