“A little bit more mysterious…”: Ambience and Art in the Dark





museum, ethnography, screen art

How to Cite

Radywyl, N. (2010). “A little bit more mysterious…”: Ambience and Art in the Dark. M/C Journal, 13(2). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.225
Vol. 13 No. 2 (2010): ambient
Published 2010-03-09

A Site for the Study of Ambience

Deep in Melbourne’s subterranean belly lies a long, dark space dedicated to screen-based art. Built along disused train platforms, it’s even possible to hear the ghostly rumblings and clatter of trains passing alongside the length of the gallery on quiet days. Upon descending the single staircase leading into this dimly-lit space, visitors encounter a distinctive sensory immersion. A flicker of screens dapple the windowless vastness ahead, perhaps briefly highlighting entrances into smaller rooms or the faintly-outlined profiles of visitors. This space often houses time-based moving image artworks. The optical flicker and aural stirrings of adjacent works distract, luring visitors’ attention towards an elsewhere. Yet on other occasions, this gallery’s art is bounded by walls, private enclosures which absorb perceptions of time into the surrounding darkness. Some works lie dormant awaiting visitors’ intervention, while others rotate on endless loops, cycling by unheeded, at times creating an environment of visual and aural collision. A weak haze of daylight falls from above mid-way through the space, marking the gallery’s only exit – an escalator fitted with low glowing lights. This is a space of thematic and physical reinvention. Movable walls and a retractable mezzanine enable the 110 metre long, 15 metre wide and almost 10 metre high space to be reformed with each exhibition, as evidenced by the many exhibitions that this Screen Gallery has hosted since opening as a part of the Australian for the Moving Image (ACMI) in 2002.

ACMI endured controversial beginnings over the public funds dedicated to its gallery, cinemas, public editing and games labs, TV production studio, and screen education programs. As media interrogation of ACMI’s role and purpose intensified, several pressing critical and public policy questions surfaced as to how visitors were engaging with and valuing this institution and its spaces. In this context, I undertook the first, in depth qualitative study of visitation to ACMI, so as to address these issues and also the dearth of supporting literature into museum visitation (beyond broad, quantitative analyses). Of particular interest was ACMI’s Screen Gallery, for it appeared to represent something experientially unique and historically distinctive as compared to museums and galleries of the past. I therefore undertook an ethnographic study of museum visitation to codify the expression of ACMI’s institutional remit in light of the modalities of its visitors’ experiences in the Gallery.

This rich empirical material formed the basis of my study and also this article, an ethnography of the Screen Gallery’s ambience. My study was undertaken across two exhibitions, World without End and White Noise (2005). While WWE was thematically linear in its charting of the dawn of time, globalisation and apocalypse, visitor interaction was highly non-linear. The moving image was presented in a variety of forms and spaces, from the isolation of works in rooms, the cohabitation of the very large to very small in the gallery proper, to enclosures created by multiple screens, laser-triggered interactivity and even plastic bowls with which visitors could ‘capture’ projections of light. Where heterogeneity was embraced in WWE, WN offered a smoother and less rapturous environment. It presented works by artists regarded as leaders of recent practices in the abstraction of the moving image. Rather than recreating the free exploratory movement of WWE, the WN visitor was guided along one main corridor. Each work was situated in a room or space situated to the right-hand side of the passageway. This isolation created a deep sense of immersion and intimacy with each work. Low-level white noise was even played across the Gallery so as to absorb the aural ‘bleed’ from neighbouring works.

For my study, I used qualitative ethnographic techniques to gather phenomenological material, namely longitudinal participant observation and interviews. The observations were conducted on a fortnightly basis for seven months. I typically spent two to three hours shadowing visitors as they moved through the Gallery, detailing patterns of interaction; from gross physical movement and speech, to the very subtle modalities of encounter: a faint smile, a hesitation, or lapsing into complete stillness. I specifically recruited visitors for interviews immediately after their visit so as to probe further into these phenomenological moments while their effects were still fresh. I also endeavoured to capture a wide cross-sample of responses by recruiting on the basis of age, gender and reason for visitation. Ten in-depth interviews (between 45 minutes and one hour) were undertaken, enquiring into the factors influencing impressions of the Gallery, such as previous museum and art experiences, and opinions about media art and technology. In this article, I particularly draw upon my interviews with Steven, Fleur, Heidi, Sean, Trevor and Mathew. These visitors’ commentaries were selected as they reflect upon the overall ambience of the Gallery–intimate recollections of moving through darkness and projections of light–rather than engagement with individual works.

When referring to ambience, I borrow from Brian Eno’s 1978 manifesto of Ambient Music, as it offers a useful analogy for assessing the complexity within subtle aesthetic experiences, and more specifically, in a spatial environment generated by electronic means.

An ambience is defined as an atmosphere, or a surrounding influence: a tint…Whereas the extant canned music companies proceed from the basis of regularizing environments by blanketing their acoustic and atmospheric idiosyncrasies, Ambient Music is intended to enhance these. Whereas conventional background music is produced by stripping away all sense of doubt and uncertainty (and thus all genuine interest) from the music, Ambient Music retains these qualities. And whereas their intention is to ‘brighten’ the environment by adding stimulus to it… Ambient Music is intended to induce calm and a space to think…Ambient Music must be able to accommodate many levels of listening attention without enforcing one in particular; it must be as ignorable as it is interesting. (Eno, "Ambient Music")

While Eno’s definition specifically discusses a listening space, it is comparable to the predominantly digital and visual gallery environment as it elicits similar states of attention, such as calm reflection, or even a peaceful emptying of thoughts. I propose that ACMI’s darkened Screen Gallery creates an exploratory space for such intimate, bodily, subjective experiences. I firstly locate this study within the genealogical context of visitor interaction in museum exhibition environments. We then follow the visitors through the Gallery. As the nuances of their journey are presented, I assess the significance of an alternate model for presenting art which encourages ‘active’ aesthetic experience by privileging ambiguity and subtlety–yet heightened interactivity–and is similar to the systemic complexity Eno accords his Ambient Music.

Navigating Museums in the Past

The first public museums appeared in the context of the emerging liberal democratic state as both a product and articulation of the early stages of modernity in the nineteenth century. Museum practitioners enforced boundaries by prescribing visitors’ routes architecturally, by presenting museum objects within firm knowledge categories, and by separating visitors from objects with glass cabinets. By making their objects publicly accessible and tightly governing visitors’ parameters of spatial interaction, museums could enforce a pedagogical regulation of moral codes, an expression of ‘governmentality’ which constituted the individual as both a subject and object of knowledge (Bennett "Birth", Culture; Hooper-Greenhill). The advent of high modernism in the mid-twentieth century enforced positivist doctrines through a firm direction of visitor movement, exemplified by Le Corbusier’s Musée à Croissance Illimitée (1939) and Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum in New York (1959) (Davey 36). In more recent stages of modernity, architecture has attempted to reconcile the singular authority imposed by a building’s design. Robert Venturi, a key theorist of post-modern architecture, argued that the museum’s pedagogical failure to achieve social and political reforms was due to the purist and universalist values expressed within modern architecture. He proposed that post-modern architecture could challenge aesthetic modernism with a playful hybridity which emphasises symbolism and sculptural forms in architecture, and expresses a more diverse set of pluralist ideologies. Examples might include Hans Hollein’s Abteiberg Museum (1972-1982), or the National Museum of Australia in Canberra (2001).

Contemporary attempts to design museum interactions reflect the aspirations of the ‘new museum.’ They similarly address a pluralist agenda, but mediate increasingly individualised forms of participation though highly interactive technological interfaces (Message). Commenting about art galleries, Lev Manovich greets this shift with some pessimism. He argues that the high art of the ‘white cube’ gallery is now confronting its ‘ideological enemy’, the ‘black box’, a historically ‘lower’ art form of cinema theatre (10). He claims that the history of spatial experimentation in art galleries is being reversed as much moving image art has been exhibited using a video projection in a darkened room, thereby limiting visitor participation to earlier, static forms of engagement. However, he proposes that new technologies could have an important presence and role in cultural institutions as an ‘augmented space’, in which layers of data overlay physical space. He queries whether this could create new possibilities for spatial interaction, such that cultural institutions might play a progressive role in exploring new futures (14). The Screen Gallery at ACMI embodies the characteristics of the ‘new museum’ as far as it demands multiple modalities of participation in a technological environment. It could perhaps also be regarded an experimental ‘black box’ in that it houses multiple screens, yet, as we shall see, elicits participation unbefitting of a cinema. We therefore turn now to examine visitors’ observations of the Gallery’s design, thereby garnering the experiential significance of passage through a moving image art space.

Descending into Darkness

Descending the staircase into the Gallery is a process of proceeding into shadows. The blackened cavity (fig. 1) therefore looms ahead as a clear visceral departure from the bustle of Federation Square above (fig. 2), and the clean brightness of ACMI’s foyer (fig. 3).

Figure 1: Descent into ACMI's Screen Gallery


Figure 2: ACMI at Federation Square, Melbourne


Figure 3: ACMI’s foyer


One visitor, Fleur, described this passage as a sense of going “deep underground,” where the affective power of darkness overwhelmed other sensory details: “I can’t picture it in my mind – sort of where the gallery finishes… And it’s perfect, it’s dark, and it’s… quiet-ish.”  Many visitors found that an entrance softened by shadows added a trace of suspense to the beginnings of their journey. Heidi described how, “because it’s dark and you can’t actually see the people walking about… it’s a little bit more mysterious.”  Fleur similarly remarked that “you’re not quite sure what you’re going to meet when you go around. And there’s a certain anticipation.”

Steven found that the ambiguity surrounding the conventions of procedure through Gallery was “quite interesting, that experience of being a little bit unsure of where you’re going or not being able to see.” He attributed feelings of disorientation to the way the deep shadows of the Gallery routinely obscured measurement of time: “it’s that darkness that makes it a place where it’s like a time sync… You could spend hours in there… You sort of lose track of time… The darkness kind of contributes to that.”

Multiple Pathways

The ambiguity of the Gallery compelled visitors to actively engage with the space by developing their own rules for procedure. For example, Sean described how darkness and minimal use of signage generated multiple possibilities for passage: “you kind of need to wander through and guide yourself. It’s fairly dark as well and there aren’t any signs saying ‘Come this way,’ and it was only by sort of accident we found some of the spaces down the very back. Because, it’s very dark… We could very well have missed that.” Katrina similarly explained how she developed a participatory journey through movement: “when you first walk in, it just feels like empty space, and not exactly sure what’s going on and what to look at… and you think nothing is going on, so you have to kind of walk around and get a feel for it.” Steven used this participatory movement to navigate. He remarked that “there’s a kind of basic ‘what’s next?’… When you got down you could see maybe about four works immediately... There’s a kind of choice about ‘this is the one I’ll pay attention to first’, or ‘look, there’s this other one over there – that looks interesting, I might go and come back to this’. So, there’s a kind of charting of the trip through the exhibition.” Therefore while ambiguous rules for procedure undermine traditional forms of interaction in the museum, they prompted visitors to draw upon their sensory perception to construct a self-guided and exploratory path of engagement.

However, mystery and ambiguity can also complicate visitors’ sense of self determination. Fleur noted how crossing the threshold into a space without clear conventions for procedure could challenge some visitors: “you have to commit yourself to go into a space like that, and I think the first time, when you’re not sure what’s down there… I think people going there for the first time would probably… find it difficult.” Trevor found this to be the case, objecting that “the part that doesn’t work, is that it doesn’t work as a space that’s easy to get around.” These comments suggest that an ‘unintended consequence’ (Beck) of relaxing contemporary museum conventions to encourage greater visitor autonomy, can be the contrary effect of making navigation more difficult. Visitors struggling to negotiate these conditions may find themselves subject to what Daniel Palmer terms the ‘paradox of user control’, in which contemporary forms of choice prove to be illusory, as they inhibit an individual’s freedom through ‘soft’ forms of domination. The ambiguity created by the Gallery’s darkness therefore brings two disparate – if not contradictory – tendencies together, as concluded by Fleur: “The darkness is – it’s both an advantage and a disadvantage… You can’t sort of see each other as well, but there’s also a bit of freedom in that. In that it sort of goes both ways.”

A Journey of Subtle Cues

Several strategies to ameliorate disorienting navigation experiences were employed in the Screen Gallery, attempting to create new possibilities for meaningful interaction. Some reflect typical curatorial conventions, such as mounting didactic panels along walls and strategically placing staff as guides. However, visitors frequently eschewed these markers and were instead drawn powerfully to affective conventions, including the shadings of light and sound. Sean noted how small beacons of light at foot level were prominent features, as they illuminated the entrances to rooms and corridors: “That’s your over-whelming impression, because it’s dark and there’s just these feature spotlights… and they’re an interesting device, because they sort of lead your eye through the space as well, and say ‘oh that’s where the next event is, there’s a spotlight over there’.” The luminescence of artworks served a similar purpose, for within “the darkness, the boundaries are less visible, and… you’re drawn to the light, you know, you’re drawn to those screens.” He found that directional sound above artworks also created a comparable effect: “I was aware of the fact that things were quiet until you approached the right spot and obviously it’s where the sound was focussed.”  

These conventions reflect what Trini Castelli calls ‘soft design’, by which space is made cohesively sensual (Glibb in Mitchell 87-88). The Gallery uses light and sound to fashions this visceral ‘feeling’ of spatial continuity, a seamless ambience. Paul described how this had a pleasurable effect, where the “atmosphere of the space” created “a very nice place to be… Lots of low lighting.” Fleur similarly recalled lasting somatic impressions: “It’s a bit like a cave, I suppose… The atmosphere is so different… it’s warm, I find it quite a relaxing place to be, I find it quite calm…Yeah, it has that feeling of private space to it.” Soft design therefore tempers the spatial severity of museums past through this sensuous ‘participatory environment.’ Interaction with art therefore becomes, as Steven enthused, “an exhibition experience” where “it’s as much (for me) the experience of moving between works as attending to the work itself… That seems really prominent in the experience, that it’s not these kind of isolated, individual works, they’re in relation to each other.” Disruptions to this experiential continuity – what Eno had described as a ‘stimulus’ – were subject to harsh judgement. When asked why he preferred to stand against the back wall of a room, rather than take a seat on the chairs provided, Matthew protested that “the spotlight was on those frigging couches, who wants to sit there? That would’ve been horrible.”

Visitors clearly expressed a preference towards a form of spatial interaction in which curatorial conventions heighten, rather than detract from, the immersive dynamic of the museum environment. They showed how the feelings of ambiguity and suspense which absorbed them in the Gallery’s entrance gradually began to dissipate. In their place, a preference arose for conventions which maintained the Gallery’s immersive continuity, and where cues such as focused sound and footlights had a calming effect, and created a cohesive sensual journey through the dark.

The Ambience of Art Space

Visitors’ comments acquire an additional significance when examined in light of Eno’s earlier definition of what he called Ambient Music. He suggested that even in relative stillness, there exists a capacity for active forms of listening which create a “space to think” and generate a “quiet interest.” In addition, and perhaps most importantly, these active forms of listening are augmented by the “atmospheric idiosyncrasies” which are derived from conditions of uncertainty. As I have shown, the darkened Screen Gallery obscures the rules for visitor participation and consequently elicits doubt and hesitation. Visitors must self-navigate and be guided by sensory perception, responding to the kinaesthetic touch of light on skin and the subtle drifts of sound to constructing a journey through the enveloping darkness.

This spatial ambience can therefore be understood as the specific condition which make the Gallery a fertile site for new exchanges between visitors, artworks and curation within the museum. Arjun Mulder defines this kind of dynamism in architectural space as a form of systemic interactivity, the “default state of any living system,” in the way that any system can be considered interactive if it links into, and affects change upon another (Mulder 332). Therefore while museums have historically been spaces for interaction, they have not always been interactive spaces in the sense described by Mulder, where visitor participation and processes of exchange are heightened by the conditions of ambience, and can compel self-determined journeys of visitor enquiry and feelings of relaxation and immersion.

ACMI’s Screen Gallery has therefore come to define its practices by heightening these forms of encounter, and elevating the affective possibilities for interacting with art. Traditional museum conventions have been challenged by playing with experiential dynamics. These practices create an ambience which is particular to the gallery, and historically unlike the experiential ecologies of preceding forms of museum, gallery or moving space, be it the white cube or a simple ‘black box’ room for video projections. This perhaps signifies a distinctive moment in the genealogy of the museum, indicating how one instance of an art environment’s ambience can become a rubric for new forms of visitor interaction.


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Author Biography

Natalia Radywyl, University of Melbourne

Natalia Radywyl is an Honorary Research Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, and has completed projects in the areas of curating, theatre and visual media. Her research draws together ethnography, cultural theory and policy analysis to examine new forms of cultural governance. She is currently in Kyiv documenting the cultural advocacy role of Ukraine’s emerging third sector (radywyln@unimelb.edu.au)