About four weeks ago Rhonda WIlson from Rhubarb Rhurbarb, a photography agency based in Birmingham, asked me if I’d come over for a chat. She had a new project on the go and thought I might be interested in getting involved. It turned out to be Obama’s People, a series of 53 portraits of Barack Obama’s core team taken in the weeks after the election and published in a special edition of the New York Times magazine for the inauguration. On seeing the photos Rhonda inquired about showing them but it turned out there were no plans to tour, so she put together a team and the world premier is currently taking place in Birmingham UK. Which is pretty neat.
Rhonda had an inkling that this should could generate a fair bit of debate, not just about the photos (which, when printed and mounted, are amazing) but about the issues surrounding Obama and America in general. She wanted to see if there was a way we could capture this discussion from the gallery and the wider Internet. And so I came up with a plan.
Since we were working to a tight deadline (the show went live on Saturday) it had to be kept simple. I was also keen that the online activity run throughout the 5 months of the show and not just fade after the launch. So after discussing with Rhonda what she was willing and able to do we went for a blog, the idea being it can tell the story of the show and easily evolve and react to anything that comes along.
The site launched on Friday, scant hours before the exhibition opened the next morning. I’m happy to say it looks pretty damn good, because I’m rather surprised it does. Recently I decided I would never build another website again because, to be honest, it’s not my strong point, but given the budget and timeframe I sort of had to do this one. Thanks to a rather good WordPress theme as a base and lots of help from people on Twitter (I cannot overemphasise this – the site would not have happened without my ambient support unit) my meagre web design skills came through. Which was a relief but, no, never again. Next time I’ll hire someone to do in a day what took me a week (and, again though Twitter, I’ve found a few reliable people I can depend on for this.)
The other challenge was setting up a Mac in the gallery in kiosk mode so people could view the website and type their comments directly into the system I’d developed. Again, Twitter helped me find the options (starting with identifying the word “kiosk” as the search term required) and I ended up using the Parental Controls on the Mac to lock down the computer and the Saft plugin for the Safari browser for a secure kiosk mode. To be honest you don’t even need the Parental Controls as Saft does all the work but since I don’t want to be on call for this I figured better to be safe than sorry.
Visitors to the gallery are greeted with this page where they’re invited to type in their comments. This form is connected to a Google Spreadsheet which automatically updates as comments are left. This spreadsheet can be shared with anyone who has a Google account so Rhonda and her team can check in and pull out any interesting comments. The idea is we share these on the blog to hopefully spark and frame discussions. How this will actually happen I’m going to decide on Monday once I’ve got a better sense of what sort of feedback we’re getting and whether they need their own forum or can be included in the general blog.
The other main part of the strategy is tracking the web for mentions of the show so I’ve set Rhonda up with a few Google Alerts to track news outlets, blogs and so on across a number of keywords. What’s been immediately fascinating is how often the phrase “Obama’s People” appears and in what contexts. Here’s the Google Blogsearch which currently gives us the following:
- Here’s hoping Obama’s people understand that.
- Part of the reason Obama’s people have started to play up positive news is that they recognize that psychology is a player in this game.
- Obama’s people just let it be known that unlike Bush they will not be available to the Israeli Prime Minister at the drop of a hat.
- Obama’s people recognize how big a deal this is.
- Obama’s people talking about how he will talk bipartisanship but basically there isn’t much he can do if the other side doesn’t agree with them and change their current stance.
And so on. It hadn’t occured to me before but “Obama’s People” is a character, an entity, which means as well as a series of portraits of individuals the show itself is a portrait of a single thing. The same thing happens on the Twitter Search, naturally, so I’m wondering if we can use Twistori desktop to cascade them in the gallery. It probably won’t fit in aesthetically (and we’d probably need another Mac) but I love the idea that people around the world are talking about the gestalt character of Obama’s People in real time.
As you might have gathered I’m kinda making this up as I go along, but that’s not a bad thing. My job, now the technical stuff is running smoothly, is to help Rhonda and her team connect the show in Gallery 20 of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery with the world outside, and not simply in terms of driving an audience there. I see what I’m doing here as making connections, or putting in place systems which enable Rhonda to make connections, and then providing an environment (the blog) for those connections to take on a life of their own. Or something. Whatever I’m doing it’s more than simply providing them with a nice looking website and it’ll be really interesting to see how the process affects how Rhubarb Rhubarb dealt with the five months of the show, not to mention what sort of resource is built up on the blog.
In the meanwhile, if you’re in Birmingham do check out Obama’s People. Nadav Kander’s portraits really are spectacular and the jpegs on the website don’t do them justice.