The Curiosity Effect 

by Mark Allen 

Art gives us the opportunity to consider, get into, think about, and enjoy what’s different from what we already know. It is a vehicle for encountering difference, providing access to new forms of experience, and connecting people to other subjectivities. But in order to engage with these forms of newness, you have to be in a state of reception for it. When confronted with the unknown, people tend to either turn away or turn toward.

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Turning away comes from negative associations from past experience—not belonging, being embarrassed, feeling unwelcome, feeling put on the spot. Turning toward is connected to positive past experiences—exploring, play, interest, amazement. In my curatorial work, I often deal with content that seems far-fetched or experimental, producing work such as a butter-making aerobics class or a workshop on tranimal makeup techniques. Bringing an audience to difficult, obscure, challenging content such as this is easy, if you can figure out how to induce what I call the Curiosity Effect. The job of a curator is to make a well-thought-out container that immediately engages an audience, creating pathways of access to the work without sacrificing what’s interesting about the concepts embedded in it. The better and more accessible you make your container, the more experimental and challenging the content inside can be. A container can be anything from the arrangement and care of objects, such as an exhibition design, to the arrangement and care of ideas and experiences, like an experimental workshop or performance event, to the creation of a space of imagination beforehand, through an intriguing title or premise.

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A good container will align the work first and foremost to the newcomer. As a curator, although I enjoy deep familiarity and extensive knowledge of the content, part of my job is to step outside of this perspective and consider how I might react when confronted with something I have no prior knowledge of. I’ve noticed in my teaching that I often do best when presenting a topic I know only slightly better than my students, and this approach is helpful to consider when curating too. I find it easier to empathize with the thinking of someone who doesn’t yet know the material, and, in this way, we can share in the joy of learning it together. Once I’ve built such a container, my next task toward inducing the Curiosity Effect is to create an environment of welcome at the event that also encourages exploration. My method for this is something I call G.O.A.L.: Greet, orient, acknowledge, leave alone. When someone enters an unfamiliar space with unknown or unclear social rules, the flight response happens automatically, even if it’s on a subconscious level. People have an instinctual desire to be acknowledged and seen, but also a strong inclination toward the self-guided discovery of a new place. As a host, the trick is to greet them (“you’re welcome here,” “hello”), orient them (“grab a beer,” “here’s a flier”), acknowledge them (“thanks for coming”), then leave them alone, giving them the right amount of information to pique their interest, rather than inundating them with facts and explanations about what they’re going to see. This lets people know they are in the right place, but doesn’t force them to immediately engage with a strange person they just met. Then, it lets them align themselves toward the work, using their own inquistiveness as a guide. 

Here’s a simple script I used in a recent project that took place in a Chelsea storefront in New York: 

“Hello. This is a butter-making aerobics class led by those two guys in short-shorts over there.” Point to Jimmy and Mike. “We’re making butter out of the cream over there.” Point to cream. “Two days ago, the cream was inside those cows.” Point to video of cows. “Go see Nina over there to get your cream.”  So, within two minutes, they’ve met the host, they know what the event is, they can see who’s doing it with them, and they’ve been instructed what to do next in order to participate. From there, they are left to their own devices. 

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The next thing to induce in this process is something I call Prosthetic Enthusiasm. Think of Prosthetic Enthusiasm as a way of saying, “I attach to another person’s enthusiasm.” In other words, it triggers humans’ built-in sense of empathy—in this case, about another’s enthusiasm for a topic. The audience is confronted with a stranger talking about an unfamiliar topic in a way that is excited, effervescent, passionate, and so: persuasive. Someone comes to an event, not knowing or caring a lot, say, about aluminum, but the lecturer is making it seem like the most interesting thing in the world. The information flowing from them comes in two ways. There’s the literal information: “In Ancient Greece, aluminum was used for medical purposes, like dressing wounds.” And there’s another non-linguistic kind: affective, emotional, and through body language and gestures. If both are permeated with enthusiasm and care, they invite the audience to join in their excitement, to want to know more. The audience member starts to understand how interesting the topic is, and when she leaves the lecture, she is a new aluminum enthusiast. Prosthetic enthusiasm is one of the most exciting affects a work can produce, because it means that anything and everything—especially the difficult, obscure, and challenging—can not only be made accessible to an audience, but has the potential to become one of their passions too. One of the primary tasks of the artist is, first, to find something in the world that you deeply care about, and, second, to craft a way to share this with others, making an experience that will create a similar interest in your audience. 

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I believe in allowing complex ideas to be complex, and I want to provide access to work that 

Engages such intricacies without squeezing out what’s unique or strange. For this, I use framing devices that employ informality, hospitality, humor, welcome, surprise, and intimacy to make these ideas accessible and tangible. I think of the framing device like the icing on a cake. You can’t begin with the multiple layers of potential meanings and associations that are at work in the idea, because they wouldn’t be easily understood. You will either scare people away or confuse them into indifference. Instead, you start people on the icing, which in this case could be any manner of different engaging or surprising rhetorical methods. 

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Take, for example, a project we did at the Hammer Museum called Houseplant Vacation.   It was, on the surface, a straightforward idea: people bring their plants to the museum to be put on display for a month. While at the museum, writers read to the plants, musicians play for them, etc. From this seemingly simple hook, we were able to expand the implications of the work to multiple concepts. The work prompts thinking about alien or unknowable subjectivities, asking if and how an audience can identify with those subjectivities. It enacts the poetics of the overheard utterance, in this case, what people could overhear being read or sung to the plants. In doing this, it considered the dynamics between the primary audience (the people performing to the plants) and the secondary audience (the people watching the people performing to the plants). It was also a piece about recasting the museum as a site to which people can bring their personal stuff, proposing an expansive vision of cultural institutions. 

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A term I hear quite a lot is “transdisciplinary practice,” meaning a way of working where the artist/scientist/genius draws ideas from many diverse media or fields. This way of organizing multiple viewpoints centers on a single author as the guiding force. Instead of this, I like to think about the resonances of a transdisciplinary audience, of multiple ideas emerging out of a diverse network. If you are able to build a community out of different audiences and groups, the ideas that arise are organically transdisciplinary (and usually contain a healthy amount of prosthetic enthusiasm) and will instigate dialogue between each other, generating further connections. From this, you’ve created a space of convergence for many different topics and ways to think about them that can be engaged by many different people, which has the capacity to grow in numerous and surprising ways. 

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One way of thinking about constructing a transdisciplinary audience is by positioning ideas in different proximities of time and space. In terms of time, I think about Machine Project’s storefront space, where we host at least multiple events every week.  Through regular programming, the storefront has the opportunity to become the place in the neighborhood for experimental, fun, and interesting events. It nurtures an audience who returns again and again to it, and that audience is built out of individuals with many diverse interests. Say you come to a workshop on introductory robotics on Wednesday. While you’re there, you hear about a piece of experimental theater that will be premiering in the basement theater on Friday. You are not particularly interested in experimental theater, but, since you know the place and have had a positive experience there, you decide to give it a shot and come back to see the play. While at the play, you meet someone who excitedly tells you about a durational poetry reading that’s taking place the next day. Your curiosity is piqued, and so it begins. You start with something you are familiar with, and then your interests get carried along over the course of a week. Meanwhile, the Machine Project audience is growing to be comprised of amateur roboticists, experimental theater fans, and marathon poetry readers. 

In terms of thinking about how space can induce curiosity, let’s consider the specific example of our Confuse-a-tron event, a workshop extravaganza that took place at the Berkeley Art Museum in 2011. Confuse-a-tron featured simultaneous drop-in sessions on making kimchi, converting melons into amplified drums, plant cloning, and the application of tranimal makeup. The event was constructed around the idea of having both familiar and unfamiliar topics for everyone who came. We wanted all who attended to be attracted to it because of something they already knew about, and then, while there, encounter something totally unfamiliar. (To this end, we marketed the event in drag bars, cooking clubs, and so on.) When you produce several interesting but wildly varied events under one roof, you can let the space be the guiding factor of allowing for accessibility. Audience members can follow their curiosity from one workshop to the next, wandering into new worlds of experiences. A lot about inducing curiosity is either nudging an audience in a direction and letting them go from there, or producing a kind of joyous collision of varied content that engulfs them. 

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Audiences have a deep hunger for nuanced and complex content, and our responsibility as cultural producers is to construct pathways to encountering this. We do our communities a disservice when we dumb things down by over-simplifying or making them impenetrable by not crafting thoughtful framing devices. The work at Machine Project is certainly a result of my own aesthetic and intellectual sensibilities, but I also see the underlying strategies as having implications for many different communities and audiences. The icing on the idea cake, for example, can be used as an introductory method for almost any kind of challenging content, from a book to a play to a science class. Prosthetic enthusiasm can be leveraged in pedagogical spaces as well as cultural ones. Rethinking time and space as instruments for generating curiosity has significance for any institution that is considering how to connect to anew audience. My hope is that these concepts will expand to be leveraged outside of our walls, promoting a philosophy that advocates for curiosity and enthusiasm as an organizing principle. I’d like to live in a world like that.