Film still: view of many filing cabinets and boxes filling a room horizontally.

What Happens When a Museum Embraces Experimentation?

When the Hillman Photography Initiative first launched in April 2014, there was a certain sense of mystery surrounding the endeavor. What was the Initiative? In what ways would it address the field of photography? How would it fit into the framework of the museum? To a degree, seeding such curiosity was intentional. As an experimental undertaking—a self-described “incubator for innovative thinking about the photographic image”—the Initiative set out to investigate the boundaries of photography from a variety of social, cultural, and technological perspectives. And from its inception, the Initiative has remained experimental in its approach—from the ambitious scope and design of its various projects, to recruiting outside curators whose input fundamentally shapes the programming.

Along with Divya Rao Heffley, program manager for the Initiative, and then-CMOA curator Tina Kukielski, the four external Agents enlisted for the inaugural cycle were integral in helping the museum to realize its experimental mandate. The Agents included Marvin Heiferman, independent curator and writer; Alex Klein, the Dorothy and Stephen R. Weber Program Curator at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia; Illah Nourbakhsh, professor of robotics and director of the CREATE Lab, Carnegie Mellon University; and Arthur Ou, assistant professor of photography at Parsons The New School for Design.

Four people sit around a table, talking.
Left to right: Divya Rao Heffley, Tina Kukielski, Illah Nourbakhsh, and facilitator Nathan Martin during an idea generation session at Deeplocal in April 2013.

Laying the Groundwork

During their tenure, the initial group of Agents produced a diverse slate of projects which set the tone for the Initiative, with each Agent shepherding a different project along. The Invisible Photograph, a five-part documentary series led by Arthur Ou, investigated the expansive realm of photographic production, distribution, and consumption by way of the hidden side of photography. With films like Subatomic: The European Organization for Nuclear Research and Underground: The Corbis Image Vault, viewers were given unbridled access to little-known corners of the photographic world. By contrast This Picture, helmed by Marvin Heiferman, explored the breadth of response a single image can trigger, placing the onus of contextualization on the public. Each month a new image was discussed, from the work of Shirin Neshat and Robert Adams, to Sara Cwynar and Dawoud Bey, with user responses ranging from impassioned to comical.

The front cover, decorated with images, of a booklet entitled 'A People's History of Pittsburgh.'
A People’s History of Pittsburgh, co-published by Carnegie Museum of Art and Spaces Corners. (Image via Spaces Corners)

A People’s History of Pittsburgh, an online, crowd-sourced photo album for the city, was met with public enthusiasm from the start. Overseen by artists-in-residence Melissa Catanese and Ed Panar, the project also culminated in a print photo book of the same name, which features over 200 images of Pittsburgh past and present. Catanese and Panar, who own Spaces Corners, a Pittsburgh bookshop dedicated to photography books, also facilitated The Sandbox: At Play with the Photo Book, an installation that transformed the museum’s Coatroom Gallery into a reading room and public forum on the photo book. Orphaned Images, one of the Initiative’s final projects, was organized by Alex Klein and Tina Kukielski and addressed the increasingly widespread digital dissemination of photographs. The project consisted of two artist commissions: Antoine Catala: Distant Feel, the first solo US museum exhibition of the New York–based French artist (which also prompted the CMOA-led Gulf Tower Project); and Shannon Ebner’s Auto Body Collision book, which continues the artist’s ongoing investigation into the dialogue between word and image in a new series of more than 150 never-before-published photographs that comprise a long-form poem.

Looking Forward, Looking Back

This past August, when the new team of creative Agents tasked with developing the second cycle of programming for the Hillman Photography Initiative was announced, it signaled a moment of transition. With cycle one of the Initiative punctuated by the September release of Shannon Ebner’s Auto Body Collision, the announcement marked an infusion of outside voices and fresh ideas. This new group of Agents, which includes Liz Deschenes, Steffani Jemison, and Laura Wexler, along with CMOA’s curator of photography Dan Leers, joins the Initiative at an important time: its sophomore year. They also have the unique opportunity to build on the successes of the Initiative while being privy to the lessons learned during cycle one.

Last month the new Agents, along with program manager Divya Rao Heffley and CMOA photography curator Dan Leers, convened for the first time in Pittsburgh for conversations and strategy sessions facilitated by MAYA Design. This meeting officially marked the start of planning for cycle two, and in the months ahead the programming will be refined through an iterative and collaborative process—some of which will be documented in this space. In the meantime, to better understand the outcomes of the Initiative so far, and to best contextualize the projects executed during cycle one, we asked the outgoing Agents for feedback on their experiences. Included below are their collective responses, which offer a candid analysis of the Initiative’s inaugural year of programming at Carnegie Museum of Art.

When you were asked to become involved with the Initiative, what interested you most about the opportunity and why?

Portrait of a smiling man with glasses.
Marvin Heiferman curated the Hillman Photography Initiative’s This Picture project, which explored the breadth of response a single image can trigger.

Marvin Heiferman: With most art museums in the country collecting and looking at photography based upon the mid-20th century models, I was excited that the Carnegie was ready to see the medium with a new urgency and from a 21st century perspective as photography is being re-imagined, re-engineered, and rethought.

Alex Klein: It sounded like an amazing opportunity to think through the question of the photographic without pinning it down in a technologically determinist or medium-specific manner. 

Tina Kukielski: At the time Lynn Zelevansky asked me to become involved with the Initiative, I was working on the Carnegie International. The International has a history that is well over 100 years old. With the Initiative, here was a chance to start a project anew without that illustrious history at its back. This was an exciting opportunity for the museum and the possibilities were immense. At the same time, I was increasingly aware of an emerging conversation that seem to be pulling photography into crisis. Other museums had been organizing conferences centered on questions like “Is Photography Over?” It was clear that a significant change was afoot and I wanted to be part of the conversation about photography’s future because I have always been drawn to the media for its hydra-head of meanings.

Illah Nourbakhsh: I was and continue to be most excited about the interdisciplinary nature of our team; bringing together designers, artists, and engineering always leads to the kinds of creative sparks that I enjoy most, and I was honored to be part of the diversity quotient for this.

Arthur Ou: I was most interested in the prospect of tackling questions surrounding the future of photography in open-ended ways—speculating, wondering, wandering, hypothesizing, etc. It was exciting to be invited into a very open forum to explore how photography might evolve.

Did the projects of cycle one spur the types of discussion and responses you expected? Or were you surprised by the public reaction?

A portrait of a woman.
Tina Kukielski co-curated the Hillman Photography Initiative’s Orphaned Images project, which included the Forum Gallery exhibition Antoine Catala: Distant Feel and Shannon Ebner’s Auto Body Collision book.

Marvin Heiferman: Yes and no. I think the project confirmed that it’s the simplest of responses–a click, a like, or forwarding an image—that are the quickest and easiest responses to elicit from the public.  Promoting and sustaining discussion proved to be trickier, asking more of respondents that is customary, and of the museum, too, demanding marketing and educational outreach strategies different, I think, than it is traditionally geared toward.

Alex Klein: It was rewarding to brainstorm together as a group to begin to ask the crucial questions, and then splinter off as we began to develop our individual projects. I am sure that the impact of all of our projects will become more apparent as they begin to resonate with the future cycles—the innovation of the Initiative will be understood through a process of accrual. For now, one of the most enriching aspects of being involved with the Initiative has been the opportunity to unconditionally support the work of two artists—Antoine Catala and Shannon Ebner—whose work is asking some of the really difficult questions about the status of the image in contemporary culture, and how it affects us in our daily lives in ways that we are only beginning to understand.

Tina Kukielski: I was shocked by the appetite for the online content that cycle one produced. When you work inside the so-called “ivory tower” that is the museum, it is only a few times a day that you get to walk through the galleries and witness for yourself who is coming to see and experience the art. Now with a growing online audience an entirely new and distinct relationship between the museum as producers and audience emerges. This was especially true of the Invisible Photograph project; the numbers of dedicated (online) followers were a total surprise.

Illah Nourbakhsh: Absolutely. I found the question of ‘what is the photographic’ in a changing age to be absolutely relevant to our time now, and to our rapidly approaching future. I think the questions we ask, together, are spot-on in helping us be mindful of how the photographic is both unchanging and utterly redefined by the social and electronic dynamics of our time.

Arthur Ou: I was surprised by the amount of positive responses for The Invisible Photograph film series. The gauge for this was from the wide-range of media responses, and also the broad viewership of individual films. In my mind the substantial responses stem from the fact that photography is so much more part of our everyday lives now, and will become ever more so, that people are collectively drawn to the medium’s possibilities.

How, if at all, has your involvement with the Initiative critically shifted your own practice?

A black and white portrait of a woman.
Alex Klein co-curated the Hillman Photography Initiative’s Orphaned Images project, which included the Forum Gallery exhibition Antoine Catala: Distant Feel and Shannon Ebner’s Auto Body Collision book.

Marvin Heiferman: My involvement with the Initiative, which enabled its first set of Agents to explore multiple interests and presentation formats, further encourages me to continue creating interdisciplinary projects that explore photography’s unprecedented impact on every aspect of everyday life and culture.

Alex Klein: The goals of the Initiative were much bigger than individual authorship and it was important to step back and let ideas mentioned in brainstorming sessions develop in different ways by other people in the group. Likewise, in working with the artists it was important to go into the working relationship in a dialogic manner that allowed the ideas to gestate and develop. I learned a lot from everyone.

Illah Nourbakhsh: I have forged relationships with my peers, and this will lead to long-term collaborations that I treasure already.

Arthur Ou: The topics raised in the film series were ones I have been thinking about already in my practice. Ideas of transmission, the analog, invisibility, abstraction, and latency. However, going through the process of making the films and speaking to the experts featured in the episodes have opened up these questions in profound ways. I feel strongly that this experience will continue to feed into my practice in the years to come.

Can you identify one major success and one major challenge from cycle one of the Initiative?

A portrait of a man; behind him, a whiteboard with various markings.
Illah Nourbakhsh, professor of robotics and director of the CREATE Lab at Carnegie Mellon University, was a key voice early on during the Initiative’s visioning sessions.

Marvin Heiferman: For me, the major success was the Carnegie’s willingness to experiment and implement this project, and to challenge the first round of Agents to think big by conceptualizing projects in a variety of formats and media. The major challenge was, and remains, how to garner and sustain national and international media attention, and thereby build public awareness of the Initiative’s activities and greater ambitions. How can adventurous projects that explore how photographic images operate both inside and outside a visual culture broader than the art world be best promoted, considering how self-absorbed the art world and art press can be.

Alex Klein: I couldn’t have been happier with how Antoine Catala’s exhibition and Shannon Ebner’s book developed. Although their work couldn’t be more different, there are provocative resonances between their two projects and I wish there had been an opportunity to discuss these in public or reflect on the connections with a wider audience. As a result, I would say one of the biggest challenges was time—we worked quickly! On a more practical note, the delicate nature of the ecosystem of Antoine’s stunning aquarium cannot be overstated—that was certainly a big challenge.

Tina Kukielski: The People’s History of Pittsburgh project that was a result of our collaboration with local artists Melissa Catanese and Ed Panar was a resounding success. Over the course of three months, Ed and Melissa took up residence in the museum where they were able to launch the project. I have heard now from people in other cities who want to start a similar open-sourced photo-collecting project in their own locality and I think the model set by APHOP will and can be employed around the world.

Arthur Ou: The major success, at least from my perspective, was the film series. Being a visual artist, where the context of a public presentation of work is in the form of galleries and museums, there is a limited range to the reach of the proposed ideas. With the web videos, the viewership became much broader, reaching globally beyond the local art community.

The one challenge of the first cycle in my mind is the decreasing chance for collaboration between the five Agents as each proceeded with their own proposed projects. If time permitted, it would have been productive towards the end of the cycle to have a chance to collaborate again, like in the beginning brainstorming sessions, so that the ideas from each Agents’ projects can be explored together in some way. Perhaps the culmination of each cycle can be an exhibition, a conference, a round table, or a book, so that there is an opportunity to collectively reflect on the work that has transpired.

What advice would you give to the incoming Agents for cycle two?

Portrait of a man at a beach.
Arthur Ou curated the Hillman Photography Initiative’s The Invisible Photograph project, a five-part documentary series that investigated the expansive realm of photographic production, distribution, and consumption by way of the hidden side of photography.

Marvin Heiferman: Develop projects that collaborate with other institutions, agencies, and communities to broaden the Initiative’s reach. Work more closely with Carnegie Mellon, one of the world’s leading institutions in exploring exciting new developments in imaging technologies. And consider defining a clearer single concept or theme that, in one way or another, can better link together the next set of projects in the public and media’s eyes.

Alex Klein: Keep your mind open and be up for collaboration, but also have a sense of what your own priorities are. The field is so big and multifaceted that it is helpful to go in with an idea of what your personal stakes are and what questions you would like to try and pose. One of the biggest challenges is actually the amount of freedom that the Agents have and the responsibility to think about how to explore new formats in a way that is both groundbreaking and that can be communicated to a general public.

Tina Kukielski: Our greatest lessons from cycle one came from the ways that we asked the museum to think different. We asked the museum to adapt to new approaches to the transmission of art and its ideas. Focus on the art but think too about the ways that it gets sent out into the world.

Illah Nourbakhsh: Agents: be bold, be creative, and be as lateral in your thinking as possible. Avoid categories and embrace transdisciplinary thinking.

Arthur Ou: My main advice—besides to really have fun with the opportunity—is to find, or create, ways to collaborate with one another throughout the cycle.

To learn more about the Hillman Photography Initiative, visit the archives. Image credit (top): Film still from Underground: The Corbis Image Vault, part one of The Invisible Photograph documentary series.

The Hillman Photography Initiative is an incubator for investigating the rapidly shifting field of photography and its impact in the world today.