Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Conceptualizing Exhibits Part 2

Yesterday, Michael Forster Rothbart, Sergii Mirnyi and Irina Leonenko joined my class to discuss how to conceptualize an exhibit of Michael and Sergii's work documenting communities affected by Chernobyl. Sergii gave an overview of the disaster within the context of other disasters; Michael then shared photos of his work. We gave the students, working in small groups, the tasks of developing a big idea for the exhibit (and now I noticed my students, when speaking in Russian or Ukrainian, use the English phrase, Big Idea--perhaps my contribution equivalent to Internet or mobile phone). They also had to edit a group of about 50 photos into a the big idea, think of 2-3 subthemes, and develop one interactive for their theme. We then discussed the exhibits using a simplified form of the Excellent Judges exhibit framework.

They did an amazing job! Four different, thoughtful ideas all surfaced.

My Last Day at ChAes (the Chernobyl plant): Oksana. Alexander, Nadya
This group chose a group of photos to personify a worker on his last day working at the plant. They used a set of photos to take him through the day, with the soundtrack by Kraftwerk, "Radio Activity," which one student managed to download on their cell and play during their presentation. Most interestingly, they ended the exhibition with a computer station linked to the most popular job-hunting website here, and a poster with tear-offs with the "hero" of our story looking for a job. Unemployment is a critical issue here, and they effectively tied the story of one man's time at Chernobyl to a broader contemporary issue.

Chernobyl: A Wave to Life: Anna, Katia, Anna, Maria and Katerina
This presentation used different levels of layering. On one level, it used a time line to explore the effects of radiation and the accident--from an older person with cancer to a young person just beginning her life now. At the same time, they layered it in concentric circles, as radiation spread out from the site itself. And a wave to life? A nod to waves of radiation, and to hopefulness. One class member questioned the time line within the context of Michael's photos--because they are all taken within the last year, rather from the last twenty-plus years. But others felt the photos were appropriate because they showed the consequences and the future within the time span.

Chernobyl: Not What You Think
: Anna, Miriam, and Katerina
This group, who also had a sound track (which I can't remember the name of) took a compare and contrast approach. Beginning with a photo of Michael's showing tourists posing on an excursion to Chernobyl, the first section was Tourists' View, with photos and words saying radiation, threat, tragedy, forgotton cities, abandoned homes. For the Residents' View, they used the photos that showed village life; the everyday life of people who live and work in the Chernobyl region. Interestingly, they used markers to embellish these photos, in a way, using highly simplified versions of motifs found in Ukrainian folk arts.

Dead Zone Alive: Yana, Julia, Irina, Alyona
This team also used the concentric circle (which Sergii had drawn on the board for his presentation) but started with a foggy picture of a house at the center--which they described as far, at at the same time, near. Theirs was not necessarily a circle of radiation, but rather a way to show that those affected by Chernobyl were tied together, but at the same time spread out. They used the first person for their presentation, making labels for the photos that included, "We want to move on," "We laugh and love," "We care about our health," "We can be happy," and "We have annoying guests," (those tourists again). The interactive idea: tour guides in the exhibit dressed and presenting as actual villagers.

What were the take-aways for our exhibit team from my students' great work? One, that the story works best when it is personally compelling, rather than just a broad narrative. We all can connect to human stories of both tragedy and everyday life.

Second, that there is a difference between the way Ukrainians view Chernobyl and the way outsiders do, and that exhibits here and in the US might be very different. Michael had one photo of a Holomodor observance and asked the class if they thought it should be included. Holomodor, for those like me, who had never heard of it before beginning to learn about Ukraine, is the Great Hunger of 1932-33. A famine, but not just any famine, but a famine created and enforced by Stalin, intentionally starving millions of Ukrainians. One student thought it should not be included, but another strongly felt that it should, because both Chernobyl and Holomodor represent two tragedies caused by the Soviets. In the US, that's alot of explaining to do (there have been Holomodor exhibits at at least one Ukrainian museum in the US in the past year but I still think it is unfamiliar to most).

And third, that a big idea is always a tough thing to write and that it's work best done in a group process, using the skills and ideas of many. Special thanks to all my students for their creative, passionate, enthusiastic work in a process new to them.

Class photos by Irina Leonenko


Anonymous said...

Hi, Linda. Our yesterday's class was a real experience. It is a pleasure now to read your evaluation of our work.
However, I've got some remarks on some details that should be corrected.
First, names of participants of our group. My name is spelled Miriam, not Mirian, then Nadya, not Nada, Yana, not Jana, Alyona, not Alona.
Second, as for the project of our group, the purpose for illuminating the photos which refer to the part Resident's View was to enhance the live flow of life in the region - in order to enhance contrast with Tourist's gloomy view; since the majority of the photos provided were black&white, such improvement was inevitable for the proper presentation of the idea. I have to say, the drawn scenes which appear among the photos for the same purpose - to represent Living, - actually, have no relation to folk arts. These are, in fact, cartoons in schematic style which I use in my own pictures.
By the way, the horses are not a mere decoration, their appearance on the poster is not accidental. It is an illustration to the fact told to us by Anna Kupinska: Przhevalsky's horses (Equus przewalskii) have widely spawned in Chernobyl region recently. This interesting fact is itself a vivid evidence of real life, that is why we decided to add a picture of it to the poster.
Perhaps, I should have spoken more when presenting our project in order to make this and other details which refer to composition more clear.

miriamfeyga said...

One more remark.
The soundtrack in our presentation was The X-files main theme, available on YouTube.
Since The X-files series are devoted to mystical, paranormal, dubious, minacious phenomena, the soundtrack from these series was relevant for depicting Tourist's View as the one which sees Chenobyl as the locus of threat and horror, in pasticular, the dead zone, source of diseases and genetic mutations.

Linda Norris said...

Miriam--Thank you so much for your comments. First, I can see in my name corrections that my single Russian lesson so far did not stick in terms of pronounciation and that I have more work to do to connect consonants and sounds. I'm afraid yours was just a late at night mispelling.

And I really appreciated your lengthier explanation of the intent and presentation. Like all visitors, I made a set of my own assumptions--which is part of the challenge of designing exhibitions--and it's great to have fuller details.