Getting a Better Sense of the Terrain: Machine Project at the Hammer Museum

This post is part of a series I am writing this week to explore the role of artists and artistic practice in the experimental work occurring in art museums across this country, and beyond.  In order to more effectively examine the ways in which art museums have become sites for socially-engaged practice and new forms of artist-driven public engagement, I’m interested in taking some time to showcase three telling cases that have been developed in museums at a parallel moment these past few years:

Selected from more than a dozen examples of this type of practice, these three projects each have stretched and pushed their institutions in new and productive ways, opening up unanticipated, thought-provoking, exciting, and even uncomfortable ways for visitors to experience an art museum.

To help get a sense of how many arts enthusiasts, museum professionals, and educators are aware of these types of experimental museum projects, I’ve been asking readers to please take a few seconds and complete the poll below, if you have not already.

Thanks for responding to the question above.  Now onto the second telling case of great work being done in this area of museum practice.

Machine Project at UCLA’s Hammer Museum

“Almost every day now I think about the power that intimacy can have, and that we don’t need to serve a thousand people with each project. We’ve talked often about how you measure success: it’s not just the number of people that come through; quality is part of it.”  Allison Agsten, Machine Project Hammer Report

Machine Project’s Live Museum Soundtrack at the Hammer Museum. Guitarist Eric Klerks improvises music for each artworks this visitor views.
Machine Project’s Live Museum Soundtrack at the Hammer Museum. Guitarist Eric Klerks improvises music for each artworks this visitor views.

In 2010, the Hammer Museum at the University of California, Los Angeles, invited the artist/performer collaborative Machine Project to produce a year of programming which proposed new, alternative, and experimental ways of presenting work at the museum. This decision came out of a process in which the museum worked with a newly-created Artist Council to address many of the visitor services issues the museum was struggling with. Striving to be a truly artist-driven institution, the museum received funding from the Irvine Foundation to create its Public Engagement Artist in Residence program, with Machine Project being the first. Over their residency, twenty-six projects were implemented, including personal soundtracks for visitors, staff pet portraits, table tennis, printmaking workshops, micro-concerts, and a giant animatronic hand that pointed people to different areas of the museum.

The Hammer’s Public Engagement Artist in Residence program specifically sought to bring the creative process of artists into the museum, setting out to utilize artists as problem solvers for visitor services and operational concerns.  As Mark Allen, Director of Machine Project, discusses in his introduction in the Machine Project Hammer Report (2012), however, this became a point of tension between the museum and Machine Project artists:

“When people at an institution speak of a problem, it is often to indicate something that interferes with their operation. From the artist’s perspective, a problem is a provocation or a site to which the artwork responds by creating something that engages the problem and makes it visible in a different light. The problem is aestheticized, framed, or reconfigured; it is seldom erased or resolved.”

micro-concert as part of Machine Project's residency at Hammer Museum.
micro-concert as part of Machine Project’s residency at Hammer Museum.

The Hammer Museum and the artists working with Machine Project have been transparent about these tensions in a unique way that spotlights how productive it can be for visitors to think critically about the museums they visit. While bringing in artists to “fix glitches” may not be a successful goal for experimental practice like Public Engagement, having artists collaborate with museums does work toward more process-oriented goals of having critical conversations about creative negotiation, of building capacities for collaboration, of encouraging museums to cede more control to their communities, and of reconsidering how these institutions engage their publics.  Reflecting upon the project in 2012, a year after its conclusion, the team at Machine Project observed:

“A year later, what seems most interesting about this project is not just what the public experienced, but everything that took place behind the scenes – the conversations with artists, the challenges inside and outside of the museum, the logistic and philosophical issues involved in attempting to suggest other uses for a major cultural institution.” 

This single example of the Hammer Museum’s Public Engagement Artist in Residence program clearly indicates the value of artist-driven visitor engagement, and their work has served as a guide for other institutions to have “a better sense of the terrain” in pursuing similar endeavors.


Possibilities for Evolution: Artists Experimenting in Art Museums

Blurring the Lines: Walker Art Center’s Open Field

Rethink What Can Happen in a Museum: Portland Art Museum’s Shine a Light


Towards an Even More Participatory Culture in Art Museums

Participate: Designing with User-Generated Content (book review)

Doing, Not Just Viewing: Working Towards a More Participatory Practice

‘Getting in On the Act’: Exploring a More Participatory Arts Practice


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