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The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, part 2: Observations

Today we bring you part two of a three-part series of interviews and observations from The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, a project that artist Harrell Fletcher is doing this weekend with the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Today’s essay is written by curator Christina Linden. For up-to-the-minute information, including where you can join the group, you can follow @exploratorium on Twitter.

Harrell Fletcher. Documentation of The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, 2013. Organized by the Center for Art & Inquiry, the Exploratorium, San Francisco. Photo: Christina Linden.

Mount Diablo, it was explained to me today, is the most distant landmark visible from the windows of the Exploratorium offices. Closer, but in plain view, is the building across the water that houses the Treasure Island Museum. And closer than that, of course, is the water itself.

The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, a project by Harrell Fletcher organized by the Exploratorium’s Center for Art and Inquiry, comes as the result of his stint as artist in residence. It involves setting forth from the shining new Exploratorium building on a four-day venture, mostly on foot, which will culminate at Mount Diablo on Sunday. The first stretch of the journey was the exception to the on-foot rule. I met this morning on the pier at the back of the Exploratorium with a group of people clad in life vests and without too much introduction or fanfare we climbed down off the pier on a ladder, specially fabricated by museum staff for the occasion, and onto a sailboat. We pushed off for Mount Diablo. I think there were about eighteen of us.

Harrell Fletcher. Documentation of The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, 2013. Organized by the Center for Art & Inquiry, the Exploratorium, San Francisco. Photo: Christina Linden.

As we moved forward through the day, I pieced together background, content, and structure through conversations with other participants. First, I realized that most of the participants were museum staff, and that this core group was all on board for the entirety of the four-day journey. They mostly knew each other and had been at prior trip planning meetings, hence the lack of long explanation at the boat launch.

There were some notable exceptions, though. Julie Hartford, who lives in Oakley, California, read about the project in the newspaper, and called up the museum to see if she could join in. Taking the only position on the trip as a member of the “general public,” she equated Harrell Fletcher to Willy Wonka and said she felt like she’s won the magic ticket. Shannon Jackson, Professor of Performance Studies and Rhetoric and Director of UC Berkeley’s Art Research Center, was joining the exploration, as was I, just for this first day. She will be writing an essay for a forthcoming book the museum will be producing about the project. We compared notes on sailing before anything else. Hartford used to live on a sailboat. Jackson grew up in Minnesota, the land of ten thousand lakes, she explained, where learning to sail is like learning to ride a bicycle. I’m from Colorado, the land of pretty much zero bodies of water larger than rivers, and this was my first time on a sailboat. Our conversation was punctuated by moments when ducking and reclining were required as the jib or the jib sheet were employed to change our direction, sweeping over the front of the boat where we’d perched ourselves. Besides the boat’s crew, who I’ll introduce a little later, the person on the boat who seemed to know his way best with the sails was Milo Vella, thanks to his recent stint at sailing summer camp. Son of curator Marina McDougall, director of the Center for Art & Inquiry(also on board), Milo taught me the difference between tacking and gybing with a nifty diagram he drew up on the spot.

Harrell Fletcher. Documentation of The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, 2013. Organized by the Center for Art & Inquiry, the Exploratorium, San Francisco. Photo: Christina Linden.

Windows was organized primarily by Jordan Stein, Assistant Curator with the Center for Art & Inquiry and a co-founder of Will Brown. Jordan explained to me that each participant had been asked to prepare a presentation to be delivered to the rest of the group somewhere along the route. The idea for this structure was based on a previous walk organized by Fletcher from the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs to the summit of Pike’s Peak. Unlike the presentations along that path, though, all of the events along the route of Windows were made public. A small crowd from Pleasanton had travelled in (by car) to meet us on Treasure Island where Exploratorium exhibit developer Mary Elizabeth Yarbrough prepared the first presentation in the big white building she looks out at across the bay from her office windows. Anne Schnoebelen, vice president of the Treasure Island Museum Association talked about the history of the island and her efforts to preserve an archive of that history. Ron Hipschman, Exploratorium scientist, talked about radioactivity and used a Geiger counter he’d carried over to show us a bunch of radioactive stuff. This seemed to encourage everyone to shuffle back to the boat and off that island pretty quickly, which was good since the low winds in the morning had put us fairly behind schedule already at this first stop.

Back on the boat I chatted more with Rose Johnson-Leiva, an intern with the museum’s High School Explainer program, and with Eliza Gregory, a San Francisco-based student in the low-residence Social Practice MFA program Harrell Fletcher directs at Portland State University in Oregon. From Rose, I learned about a new college called Quest she’s preparing to attend this coming fall in British Columbia where the emphasis is on coming up with the right questions. This feels intellectually familiar, she said, for an inquisitive mind that has clearly been quite at home at the Exploratorium in the past few years. She explained that there are a lot of questions that seem very pressing at the moment, and she’s excited to get to college to start asking them. From Eliza I learned about a practice based in photographs and interviews, while I snapped photos and interviewed most of the people around me.

Ray Duran of the Bay Area Association of Disabled Sailorshad very kindly and patiently shepherded us across the bay explaining everything he did as we went in Orion, the largest boat in the BAADS fleet. As we approached Emeryville, he asked me if I’d like to drive, as everyone else on board who had expressed interest had already had a turn. I ended up steering us through the channel markers into the harbor, which felt wildly more appropriate for someone with experience on boats, but happily I didn’t crash into anything. Upon arrival, another member of the BAADS crew told us a bit about this remarkable organization, a volunteer-run program that makes sailing accessible to people with all kinds of disabilities, from those like the presenter (who was deaf) to the blind, or those with mobility challenges. She explained that anyone with use of just a couple of fingers could sail thanks to the efforts of people like Ray, and that anyone is welcome to join in on the organization’s weekly Sunday Sails, with or without a disability.

Harrell Fletcher. Documentation of The Best Things in Museums Are the Windows, 2013. Organized by the Center for Art & Inquiry, the Exploratorium, San Francisco. Photo: Christina Linden.

And then we really started. On foot. We began making our way along no-longer-extant train lines through Emeryville and into Oakland, led by Exploratorium staff Meg Escudé and Antonio Papania-Davis who helped us visualize and recognize traces on a “Ghost Train Hunt.” The presentations were interesting but I was most compelled, as on the boat, by the conversations along the way with fellow participants and by the possibilities for moving from one conversation to another allowed by the walking and stopping and walking again. Marina, Shannon and I talked about other long walks we’d undertaken, for recreation or protest, and the question of what might have felt different about our morning’s sail given its framing as an art project. I asked Harrell if he would give a presentation along the way and he said no, that the project was what he was presenting, that after two years’ preparation he had wanted to set it up so that along the way he could just be a participant as it unfolded.

Knowing what was to come—more walking, shared meals, and repeated nights of camping—it was clear that I was stepping out too early, before the journey had really come into being, before sunburns and blisters and sore backs from sleeping on the ground really brought everyone together. Still I was glad at the chance to have been included in the setting out, happy for a day away from emails and phone calls and other projects, grateful to all who organized and took part to be present in the increasingly rare opportunity to move through the landscape borne along only by wind or one’s own muscle, starting to know a group that had mostly been strangers at the start of the day.

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