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The ‘Speechless: Different By Design’ Exhibit Uses Brain Science To Inform Art


by PBS Newshour 20 Feb 2020

The exhibition at the Dallas Museum of Art is a collaboration between designers and brain researchers.

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At the exhibition “Speechless: Different by Design,” touching pieces of art is actually encouraged. As Jeffrey Brown reports, the Dallas Museum of Art show — created as a collaboration between designers and brain researchers — explores how people interact with their surroundings and how they communicate with each other.

Read the Full Transcript

Judy Woodruff:

And now a museum exhibition created by designers and brain researchers that challenges our senses demonstrating how we all experience art differently.

Jeffrey Brown reports from Dallas, as part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown:

It’s a kind of playground inside an art museum, large room-sized works in which exploring the different ways each of us experiences the world around us is as important as the art itself.

Now at the Dallas Museum of Art, the exhibition is titled Speechless: Different By Design. It’s unusual, in that touching and much more is encouraged, even required.

Sarah Schleuning:

I became interested in, what happens if we do an exhibition where it’s interactive, where we encourage people to use all their senses?

Jeffrey Brown:

Unusual, too, in how it began, in a very personal way for curator Sarah Schleuning, when her now 6-year-old son Vaughn was first diagnosed with an expressive language disorder.

Sarah Schleuning:

Speechless is really quite literal, in that he was speechless for the first several years of his life. And as we were navigating that as a family, we were trying to figure out — I’m a hyperverbal person.

Jeffrey Brown:

Yes.

Sarah Schleuning:

And what happens when I — the words that I use and how I express and communicate is no longer valid?

And I think that led me into these ideas of, what is disability? What does that mean? I didn’t think he was different. His sister doesn’t think he’s different. But he gets out in the world, and people didn’t know how to communicate with him, and it was very frustrating.

Jeffrey Brown:

And that led her to also re-think her work as a curator and how we all interact in different ways with art.

For this exhibition, she asked artist-designers to bring those differences to life.

Ini Archibong,a California-born, Switzerland-based designer, created an installation title The Oracle. It’s made up of 10 pill-shaped synthesizers crafted of blown glass.

Museum visitors can move them, subtly altering the sounds in the room, even the color and vibrations of a pool of water. The console controlling all this, “Wizard of Oz”-like, is behind a wall.

Yuri Suzuki, Tokyo-born and London-based, created Sound of the Earth Chapter 2, a large sphere that requires the visitor to experience it up close.

Suzuki gathered audio by crowdsourcing on Instagram, with people around the world sending in clips of sounds of everyday life. Here, sound substitutes for visual imagery we might expect in a work of art.

And if I stay here long enough, I’m going to…

Man:

Yes, then you will get a nice — get sort of hug.

Jeffrey Brown:

OK. Yes. Yes.

Most playful of all, Misha Kahn, a Brooklyn-based artist and furniture designer, who filled a large room with strangely shaped sacs of hand-painted silk over vinyl, each covering a wood sculpture inside, and all of it constantly inflating and deflating, so the whole room seems to be breathing.

Misha Kahn:

Everything’s touchable and you can kind of explore it. And, for me, I wanted to find a way to sort of embed these sculptures and humanize them by having them breathe and sort of shy away from you.

Jeffrey Brown:

Not only that, you can jump in and take a seat. And so we did.

Because sitting is the idea here, right?

Misha Kahn:

Yes. Well, I think…

Jeffrey Brown:

I mean experiencing it.

Misha Kahn:

Yes.

Jeffrey Brown:

You wanted to know if this would be perceived as a place to sit?

Misha Kahn:

Yes. And then, like, if you sort of think of it as a chair, then what else is going on? And so it sort of pulls you into a different area. It activates your brain in a slightly different way.

Jeffrey Brown:

And that is what Dan Krawczyk brought to the exhibition. Krawczyk is a brain researcher and deputy director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas, Dallas.

Dan Krawczyk:

We’re essentially seeing how active the brain is. It’s a heat map of areas that are particularly active for some kind of process.

Jeffrey Brown:

In 2018, before the artists got to work, curator Sarah Schleuning brought them together with scientists and medical researchers who study brain function, autism and dementia and much more.

Dan Krawczyk was one of them.

Dan Krawczyk:

I was excited by the possibility, because we don’t often have these opportunities to have a science-meets-art kind of conversation.

And I have long thought that especially visual arts has a very clear link within the brain. And when you’re a neuroscientist, you tend to always think, how does the brain become active in different ways?

Jeffrey Brown:

The artists then did their thing. The design team of brothers Steven and William Ladd created this room from hundreds of rolled-up, colorful scrolls of all sizes, each made and initialed by a resident of Dallas or Atlanta.

The room entices the visitor to touch and feel or sit and meditate. Neuroscientist Krawczyk was able to explain to the artists how their work alters perceptions.

Dan Krawczyk:

I think that the major message I tried to inform them about is how dynamic the brain is, that we don’t just perceive. We’re constantly perceiving with a goal to act.

And the brain is constantly cycling between perceiving and then acting. And so I thought there was a lot of exciting synergy with the way the brain really works, because we always want to take the next action.

Jeffrey Brown:

Why would this kind of art be more accessible to someone who we would call disabled, in terms of what’s going on in the brain?

Dan Krawczyk:

It’s changing the inputs pretty dramatically, right? And that’s going to change the brain state quite dramatically.

So the range of options — if you’re more of a touch-based, exploratory person, you’re likely to get something very different out of these exhibits.

Jeffrey Brown:

And that, of course, is the point of this exhibition, which even includes a so-called de-escalation room, where visitors can relax, with a weighted blanket, after all the sensory stimulation.

Curator Sarah Schleuning hopes the exhibition can be part of a new model for museums.

Sarah Schleuning:

When we can offer experiences and opportunities that may change the way that they see and perceive what art is, what a great thing to be, to not be locked in a box.

It’s OK to be different in the space, and you can still be surrounded and engaged in the experience.

Jeffrey Brown:

The exhibition Speechless: Different By Design was a collaboration with the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, and travels there next.

For the “PBS NewsHour,” I’m Jeffrey Brown at the Dallas Museum of Art.

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