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O’Keeffe gone digital

It was just a matter of time before Georgia O’Keeffe went immersive. Around the world, artists like Van Gogh, Monet, and Kahlo have already been given the full-on high-tech treatment. These increasingly popular installations, The New Yorker recently observed, “range in finesse from sophisticated new-media installations to animated retrospectives of Impressionist painters.”*

“Music for the Eyes: A New Georgia O’Keeffe Experience,” an immersive exhibit by the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in collaboration with Electric Playhouse, runs through November 27, 2022, at the Electric Playhouse, Albuquerque.

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Regretfully, I won’t be in Albuquerque to catch the exhibit, so I asked Liz Neely, Curator of Digital Experience at the O’Keeffe Museum, to tell us about “Music for the Eyes.”

 How did you get started in the digital world?

Ha! I’ll try not to make this a long story!

My dad designed computers and voltmeters, and there were always electronics and devices around the house — even ‘make your own computers’ — from this company called Heathkit. This led me to think about computers as something that could be tinkered with creatively. Years later this aligned me with the maker movement, where I got into 3D printing and wearable electronics. I designed an interactive dress for the Canadian Museum of Human Rights.

As for digital in museums, I worked for years at the Art Institute of Chicago during a time when technology was emerging as a storytelling and engagement mechanism. It was exciting to be part of a new field and help define and move it forward. Technology is always changing, so there’s always that sense of new discovery and opportunity!

There’s this project, and I know you are working to digitize the O’Keeffe catalogue raisonné. What other kinds of things do you do as Curator of Digital Experience at the O’Keeffe Museum?

As the Curator of Digital Experience, I think about how the museum can use media and technology to share the life and art of Georgia O’Keeffe with various audiences. This leads to a wonderful range for the kinds of projects I envision and help bring to life. For example, many researchers want to access information about all of Georgia O’Keeffe’s artworks, not just the works in our collection. The digital catalogue raisonné aims to meet that need. With “Music for the Eyes” we are hoping to make the work and story more accessible to a wider audience through the playful interactive space that serves cocktails and pizza. I also collaborated with the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian to co-produce a beautiful short dance film featuring predominantly native artists. There are a lot of other things that are probably too functional to mention here, but I get to do a lot of pretty cool things!

Who designed the exhibit? How long did it take?

I worked closely with Ariel Plotek, Curator of Fine Art, as well as with Liz O’Brien, Digital Experience and Rights Manager, and Yari Pule, Curatorial Assistant, to develop and refine a theme and stories. We would hand over these ideas and images of artwork to Electric Playhouse, and it was a little like a game of exquisite corpse. The creative team there, led by Eric Yakley, would take the ideas, and creatively respond. It was quite iterative as then our team would come in, give feedback, refine the ideas, and learn from each other. The team at Electric Playhouse would sometimes surprise us with a new idea that they felt was in alignment. When it works, this kind of collaboration is greater than the sum of its parts — even when the parts themselves are pretty great!

How long did it take? We had talked a while about it but started working in earnest in July 2022. That was quite quick for the work that was done.

What should the viewer expect to find when entering the exhibit? What’s the setup?

Electric Playhouse has a signature illuminated portal that leads from the lobby area into this other world. Your first stop on this journey is an orientation experience which is a bit like an immersive (and even interactive) film in five chapters. These chapters focus on key points in O’Keeffe’s inspiration and experience as an artist: “Materials as Language,” “Wideness and Wonder,” “New Perspectives New York,” “The Universe in a Flower,” and “Abstract Landscapes.” The chapters have different treatments inspired by O’Keeffe’s works – animations, re-imaginings, or enlargements. The experience has an accompanying soundtrack to set the mood. One wall is dedicated to the artwork inspirations, such that a guest can see what inspired this re-imagination. You can find the texts, quotes, inspiration images, and the musical playlist, on the credits page

Moving on from the orientation experience, there is more of a self-guided exploration through several large spaces and smaller nichos. The spaces focus on O’Keeffe’s inspiration and the process driving her creation. There are also O’Keeffe-themed cocktails and other food and drink.

All texts in the experience are in English and Spanish.

What’s your favorite thing about the exhibit?

On preview night I saw kids playing and laying on the interactive floor, a small child jumped up and exclaimed ‘train!’ when a delightful animation of “Train at Night in the Desert” (1916), moved across the wall. A colleague brought her 88-year-old mother, who had the widest smile in the orientation experience. And a couple hung out with their ‘Abstraction’ cocktails in the slow looking room for a nice long time. I most love that this can be fun for all ages and a for a variety of people. That’s a dream!

Are there plans for the exhibit to travel?

We designed this specifically with Electric Playhouse. That collaboration works well, because they have a space, have the projectors and sensors, and have the building staffed. We are all learning a lot and will better understand the next steps and projects when we hear from guests about the experience.
“Music for the Eyes” at Electric Playhouse

5201 Ouray Rd NW,
Albuquerque, NM

Thru November 27, 2022

* There’s also: “O’Keeffe: One Hundred Flowers” at Illuminarian in Atlanta and AREA15 in Las Vegas.

Ann Daly PhD is an essayist specializing in women and women's history. She is working on a book about Georgia O'Keeffe.

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