September 27, 2010  |  Behind the Scenes, Rising Currents
Rising Currents: Looking Back at Putting Process on Display

ARO team in the midst of installation. Photo: Ingrid Chou

As the first of five exhibitions in the Issues in Contemporary Architecture series, the unprecedented nature of Rising Currents presented a number of firsts, including some novel moments in MoMA’s exhibition-making process: the first time producing an exhibition without a checklist of objects well in advance of opening; the first time exhibition content and exhibition design developed so closely in tandem; and the first time our modest, minimalist model platform held the weight, intellectual and actual, of five whole teams of architects, planners, ecologists, and their well-intentioned installers. (We really put that poor thing to the test, but I think everyone is the better for it).

I’ll admit I was a bit worried at first. The process was a mere eight weeks. Not only were the teams developing solutions to address a cataclysmic event of global proportion, they were simultaneously imagining ways to represent their ideas in an exhibition, including a series of open workshops. As the Exhibition Design and Production Manager, it seemed to me an alarmingly short amount of time to turn the wealth and complexity of ideas, represented by five distinct projects, into a visually clear and cohesive exhibition. However, as I journeyed to MoMA PS1 in those critical December weeks for studio visits, I gained confidence and insight into their processes, and saw that the mere fact of sharing the same space had caused cross-germination, giving a unity to the individual textures of their projects. It was inspiring.

Still, we were faced with five diverse and richly layered proposals, a gallery with a giant model platform that had been designed for a previous exhibition, the mysterious unknown of what the presentation materials would actually turn out to be, and a shorter than usual amount of time to figure out a way to unify all that innovation and present a coherent story. There was also the practical problem of equitably dividing up the space—a gallery of four walls and a four-sided model platform—between five teams. Since the architecture of the space did not lend itself easily to division by five, we thought at first of more obvious delineation techniques: each team would have its own color, or perhaps we could literally draw lines on the floor. But the rising water level provided a powerful metaphor, and in the end it was the color of a threatening immersion into a murky sea that provided visual continuity. The projects asserted their own individuality—in their materiality, the hues of their drawings, the form and fabric of their models—and, amazingly, they all came back to the color of the rising tide. As for the platform, we were a bit more invasive, cutting into it to provide equal spaces for the yet-to-be-made models.

The teams responded beautifully to their spaces, and in surprising ways. ARO anchored their distinctive central slice of the model platform with the tallest bit of glowing cool minimalism to represent the density of lower Manhattan, while the natural knitted fibers of SCAPE‘s model evoked the ecologies of the South Brooklyn coastline. They made good neighbors.

SCAPE and ARO models on the gallery platform. © 2010 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Thomas Griesel

I realized at the end—once the art handlers had cleared all the carts away, after all the engineers had emerged from under the tiny two-foot-high crawl space beneath the platform, once the A/V technicians had downloaded the last MP3 file and the carpenters had wheeled the last A-frame out of the gallery—that the collaborative process thriving in the MoMA PS1 studios had made its way into the crates of unknown models, presentation panels, and media pieces that came to MoMA for installation. It had given rise quite naturally to the much sought-after visual unity. I had worried needlessly. The solution was inherent in the process. It tells its own story.

This is not to minimize the unbelievably hard work, productivity, and thoughtfulness of the teams, the dedication of the MoMA staff and their willingness to get behind the process, the nights spent meticulously color correcting wallpaper with MoMA Graphic Designer Ingrid Chou, and the faith of MoMA Registrar Steven Wheeler to safeguard objects before knowing what they were. The e-mail chains regarding A/V equipment alone were epic!

As we prepare to take the exhibition down in a few weeks, though I will miss the way it challenged our regular installation practices, it is encouraging to know that the conversation, the thinking, the collaboration continues. It is this spirit, engendered by Rising Currents, that I am hoping to see more of in future shows from this series.

Finished gallery installation. © 2010 The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Thomas Griesel