The first rule of visiting a museum is do not touch the art. At "speechless: different by design," now on view at the Dallas Museum of Art though March 22, the museum expects – even demands – visitors to touch, lean against and sit on the art.
The interactive exhibition combines science, design and aesthetics to create a sensory odyssey in an octopus-shaped museum setting. For Sarah Schleuning, the museum's Margot B. Perot Senior Curator of Decorative Arts and Design and Interim Chief Curator, the roots of this exhibition are personal.
"I have a child who has special needs and has a communication disorder and I am deeply vested in this idea of how to use my superpower which is to use design as communicator," Schleuning said.
Schleuning convened artists, scientists and professors to discuss how an art exhibition can explore human beings' ability to use their senses to connect with the world around them. She calls the idea "squishy" and is impressed with the innovative response.
"They took an idea I quite literally couldn't put into words and made it something magical and wondrous and really, in the end, I believe made art come alive," Schleuning said.
Six installations branch off a central room, allowing visitors to navigate the exhibition freely. Multidisciplinary designer Ini Archibong's "theoracle" uses design elements to create a soundscape. Visitors rotate large pill-shaped light fixtures to create distinct tones. By rotating the fixtures slowly, visitors begin to understand their role in creating the music of the room. A pool reflects the changing tones of the communal orchestra.
In a darkened, sound-proofed room, Yuri Suzuki's "Sound of the Earth Chapter 2" explores a world of sound in whispers. A large black sphere represents a globe. Visitors lean against the globe to hear crowdsourced audio emit quietly from inside the sphere. Sounds vary depending where a visitor is listening. Visitors pressing their ear against the top half of the sphere will hear sounds from a specific spot in the northern hemisphere. It's a wordless world with lots to say.
Steven and William Ladd created "Scroll Space," a brightly colored tactile room filled with fabric scrolls. The scrolls were created by 1,700 community members in Dallas and Atlanta participating the Ladd brothers' Scrollathon, a program that brings the arts to underserved populations. Individuals put their initials in the center of the scrolls and the installation features a photo mural of the people who created the scrolls. With scrolls of varying textures covering the floor and walls, the installation begs to be touched and photographed.
Misha Kahn created a landscape that breathes. His creation, "*(T3)* (8)* (J~) * ([..") * (7^) * (4=) * (F]) * (llii.) * (A) * (!s) * (11) * (‘.v:')*," is a series of plywood and mixed media sculptures encased in vinyl and painted silk bags. The bags gradually inflate and deflate as a visitor moves through them. When the bags are deflated, the sculptures look like they are covered in protective, multi-colored drop cloths and visitors may sit on certain sculptures. As the bags inflate, the paths to navigate through the room narrow and change the experience of the installation.
Two installations focus on the creation of "speechless: different by design." "Glyph" turns words into images. Filmmaker and designer Matt Checkowski filmed interviews with the artists about empathy and their work for this exhibition. A computer selects words from those interviews and translates them into images based on the most popular search results from internet. The images selected change as fast as the search results, reflecting how technology changes society's understanding of language.
Laurie Haycock Makela is creating the publication about the exhibition. She chronicles the development of the installations, explores the meaning of the word "speechless" and interviews the artists about their process. The room's walls feature the layout of the book and with multiple chairs, it is designed a space for sensory de-escalation.
This exhibition, co-organized with the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, challenges the museum to reconsider its role in the community. "With this ambitious exhibition, we really hope to push the boundaries of what people think about art museums, how to the explore the role of art and aesthetics and how that plays in our daily lives and the power creativity and design can have in creating empathy and new ways of understanding the ways we exist," Schleuning said. "Through this expressive, interactive and deeply joyful presentation, we want to illustrate the connectivity we have through our differences, whether they are defined as disability or not."