Munch versus the machine

Fiona Shaw visits Oslo’s new museum, dedicated to one of Norway’s most famous sons, Edvard Munch.

Munch versus the machine

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The last time we were in Oslo, the MUNCH museum on the city’s elegant waterfront was a clanking building site, surrounded by hoardings flapping in the stiff autumn breeze from Oslofjord.

In fact, it wasn’t long before we first visited for Oslo Innovation Week, in 2014, that the waterfront Bjørvika district had begun to emerge. By the end of the 1990s, the city’s harbour, overlooking the fjord, was a grimy industrial site, hemmed in by the E18 motorway. By 2000, the Norwegian government had formalised its vision and funded it with money generated from the country’s oil reserves. Plans for Bjørvika began.

The motorway slipped underground and Oslo Opera House arrived in 2008, designed by renowned architects Snøhetta, who were also behind the Library of Alexandria in Egypt, the National September 11 Museum at the World Trade Center site in New York and San Francisco MoMA’s extension. The mismatched towers of Barcode followed and in 2009 Spanish architect Juan Herreros was named the architect of the new MUNCH hugging the waterfront, with his Lambda building.

It’s now one of the largest single-artist museums in the world, straddling 13 floors and 11 exhibition spaces, with 26,000 works by Edvard Munch, including 1,183 paintings – Scream amongst them.

MUNCH opened last autumn, its ‘passive house’ design giving it at least 50% less climate gas emissions than equivalent buildings. MUNCH is 60 metres tall, in contrast to the languid diagonal and horizontal planes of the adjacent opera house. It is clad in recycled, perforated and partially translucent aluminium panels; a top zone leans in to the fjord, creating sweeping view of the city and the slate grey water. The static building core is enclosed in concrete, with stringent requirements to protect the art.

Oslo is by no means a crowded, or noisy city. But still, in his part of town you can breathe more deeply by the water. A sense of calm pervades, in spite of the buzz of activity as people flit between the cultural institutions – joined by the Deichman Library – and the area’s flats, bars, saunas and restaurants.  

Given the long-term vision for the area, it’s no surprise that that consideration has been carried into the new gallery. Birgitte Cathrine Aga joined in 2021 as the museum’s Head of Innovation and Research. The role and the venue were made for each other, it seems: “Edvard Munch was a restless innovator with a curiosity for modern technologies,” she says. “We take our direction from his experimental approach and ambition to share his art with society, not just with an exclusive elite of experts and art collectors.

The job, she tells me, is about working to include users – and non-users – colleagues, and stakeholders in creating relevant and engaging experiences, perspectives and meeting points through art. “We must relate to the ‘experience society’, wherein people’s time is constantly demanded across multiple channels. To make our collections relevant it is not enough to continue in the same track.”

Reimagining the future

The team works hard to challenge what an art experience and a museum is now – and could be in the future. “To do that we need to support our experts across curation, conservation, audience engagement and education to research, generate new knowledge, collaborate, and experiment,” says Birgitte. The core of it, she suggests, is “supporting brilliant people to understand the past, so we can together critique the present and reimagine the future.”

The gallery opened its latest exhibition, The Machine is Us, whilst we were in the city for Innovation Week. It is an example of the research, development and innovation that infuses its approach, from exhibitions and engagement, to education and communication. “It’s how we continuously iterate and improve on our ambition to create a seamless journey for our audiences in our Munch universe; across our digital channels, in our building and through our exhibitions,” says Birgitte. “We know that the accelerating growth and adoption of emergent technologies not only creates opportunities for new art forms and experiences; it has also given rise to a new generation of users who expect seamless hybrid experiences. We are continuously building insight, knowledge, and technological infrastructure to meet these expectations. From the curatorial framework and the interactive and educational elements of an exhibition, to the actual conservation methods of the artworks, every detail is meticulously researched, developed and tested.”

Dr. Tominga O’Donnell is curator of the new exhibition. “Digital transformation is one of the fundamental changes of our current social reality – affecting almost everyone,” they say. “Artists have found myriad ways of responding: from enthusiastic early adopters to critical interrogators, and everything in between. The title of this edition of the Triennale is taken from A Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway, which was originally published in 1985. The term ‘cyborg’ is a contraction of ‘cybernetic organism’ and refers to a hybrid being that is part human and part machine – a blend of biology and technology. The exhibition brings together artworks that transcend any artificial division between humans and the digital devices that increasingly permeate our lives.”

The works,” Tominga says, “carry some element of this intwined duality and focus on broader social implications of technological innovations. For example, on labour relations and love lives, how we look at art and how we look at representations more generally. In the words of Haraway: ‘The machine is not an “it” to be animated, worshipped and dominated. The machine is us, our processes, an aspect of our embodiment.’ The works are playful and innovative, and provide for leaps of faith and imagination.” 

Many of the artists featured in The Machine is Us examine the social impacts of new technologies and sketch imaginative future scenarios. “Zach Blas, for example, casts AI as a judgmental god in his new work, IUDICIUM, whereas Gillian Brett shows sausages made of computer parts as the fast food of choice for vegan smart machines,” says Tominga. “Agnieszka Kurant speculates about the future of labour and creativity and blurs the lines between human and machine, between the biological, digital and mineral in her artwork and expanded’ NFT, Sentimentite (2022). Other works have a more serious, even sinister undertone: Pilvi Takala’s Admirer departs from a real life experience of online trolling and Salome Asega’s RATs (2022) explores biased AI algorithms, used for Risk Assessment Tools (RATs) which impact many layers of decision-making in US society, including bail and prison sentencing, welfare eligibility, medical benefits, and housing services.” 

Birgitte points to the work in the The Machine is Us, as examples of a critical movement of artists and curators, critiquing these new technologies – and the ways we are being transformed by them. “In so doing they make the technological systems and data-structures that increasingly infuse and direct our reality visible,” she says. “This is a debate MUNCH, as a cultural institution, has a responsibility to open up to the public. Art carries the potential as a catalyst that helps make sense of the world; from emergent technologies to democracy, politics to the environment. For humanity.”

So how, I ask Birgitte, can art help us question, challenge and understand new technologies, like AI and AR, data presentation or machine learning? “Through their work, artists offer a critical voice where such voices often are lacking; holding data and technology providers to account by making complexities, bias, exclusion and exploitation visible,” she says. “They create spaces for reflection, in the meeting between the artwork and the audience or participant, inviting speculation, imagination, mediation of debate on the implications and potential, of emergent technologies like machine learning, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), blockchain and the metaverse – or a combination of these.”

Time and space

The new space is reflective of the journey that MUNCH has been on, which is both physical – and digital. “It’s a journey, not only moving to a new state of the art museum which offer art, culture, and eating and drinking venues on 13 floors, but also a journey of digital transformation,” admits Birgitte. “It fundamentally changes how we operate and deliver value to our users.” The new building has, she says: “challenged us to think anew about who we are, what kind of art experiences we want to create and how we reach a diverse audience. We have gone from programming one exhibition space to programming across 11 galleries covering 4,500m². We have also gone from engaging around 150,000 visitors per year to 1.3 million, and on our digital channels we have reached more than 35 million unique users since opening.”

The transformation has taken time, driven, she says, by “innovative and radical leadership, with strategic investment in some of the best talent from across education and engagement, research and curation, digital content and marketing, events and logistics. At the same time, we have become more insight-driven and user centred. We are learning how to best evaluate the experiences we create, with our users, to improve and increase the impact of our programme. We have established the MUNCH Audience lab, creating engaging technology-based experiences for and with people from all types of backgrounds, and continue to employ young people (15–19 year olds), as part of MUNCH Young, to co-design a programme they find relevant and want to take part in.”

The challenge, as ever, is making sure that flagship projects like MUNCH are accessible, and can include, entertain and educate a broad range of visitors. It’s a constant work in progress. Birgitte says: “We believe that to encourage more diversity in our audiences, we must have diversity in our workforce as well as in the artists with whom we collaborate and commission. This is something we must continuously work on, challenge, and evaluate. We also know from our insight on Norwegian non-users, or people that haven’t visited an art museum or gallery the last year, that 62% think that art museums are not relevant for them, and 25% state that they would feel insecure because they wouldn’t know how to behave correctly. This is something we want to solve.

“We know that families and young adults want playful, interactive and inclusive experiences in the museum. This is itself is nothing new, but what we are trying to do at MUNCH is open up our program for audience (user) participation and redefine what an art experience could be, such as in the Brain Labyrinth. A commission by artist Jennie Bringaker, the audience is invited to write and draw on the walls, play games and explore the dark caves of a cardboard labyrinth. The installation creates a place of immersion and participation, inspired by MUNCH’s experimental working methods. We want to take participation further and involve users in the entire development process. We must challenge ourselves by creating space and agency for our users. The act of inviting our users and non-users in as participants in the development process, is not purely for the purpose of creating better experiences, but it’s also part of the program we offer to our audiences. You can experience an exhibition, interact with an installation, or take part in developing our programme.”

Questions and challenges, machines and laboratories; MUNCH is blazing a trail for future galleries.

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