Physical Objects and Pandemic Anxiety
Against the backdrop of the global pandemic, we held the M+ Online Hackathon—City of Objects over two weeks in August 2020. M+ Hackathons are design thinking workshops during which participants develop creative projects within a time limit. This edition focused on ‘personal museums’, encouraging participants to explore the concept of objects through the lenses of everyday life, personal and cultural identities, and virtuality.
In this first of a two-part series documenting the Hackathon’s roundtable discussion, organiser Kate Gu, facilitators Christian Marc Schmidt and Chun-wo Pat, and judge Ikko Yokoyama unpack ideas around objects, the physical versus the virtual, and pandemic anxiety.
- Kate Gu, Producer, Digital Special Projects, M+
- Christian Marc Schmidt, Principal and Founder, Schema
- Chun-wo Pat, Founder and Owner, Whitespace Integrated Design
- Ikko Yokoyama, Lead Curator, Design and Architecture, M+
The physical vs. the virtual
Kate: This was the first Hackathon that happened entirely online. Yet you designed a theme focused on everyday objects—particularly the physicality of objects—to facilitate concept development for participants. Why did you choose this theme?
Christian: This has been an evolving conversation for Pat and I over the years. My own interest was captured by the idea of the collection. When you collect objects, that collection says something about you. I became interested in the metadata around objects and collections, and what that could tell me.
Physical objects are, on some level, initially neutral, and then take on meaning. They become blanketed in personal and cultural contexts. You can start to interpret a culture through the lens of objects and the relationships between them. That is something that I've always had a strong interest in: how we can look at what a culture produces and holds dear, and understand a little bit better who we are.
Pat: The duality between the physical object and the digital image of an object is that of the human and the machine. The object has a life. You can break it. The digital image has an immortal presence. It lives forever in the digital world, but you can't touch it. That captured my feelings about touching the object as part of a process of what I call humanisation. I think that sensory experience is essential for understanding an object and our relationship to it.
Kate: How does the digital medium change our relationship with objects?
Christian: Objects imbue a sort of permanence. Digital information is fleeting. But if you're able to look at information in an 'object-oriented way', it can become more permanent. Rather than a constant stream, we can deconstruct information into objects, along with their attributes and relations. This gives us a way to make sense of the connections between them.
Kate: I do feel the tendency of gravitating towards more analogue items because they are more like anchors in my life.
Christian: We all crave permanence.
Pat: The experience of time is different when you're dealing with a physical versus digital object. Online, you can very quickly travel in time. As I'm talking to you now, it's almost like there's no time between us. And that sense of timelessness, I think, really challenged the Hackathon participants to consider how they experience digital space. You don't really need to understand the physicality anymore. It's all become a mental intellectual space. And, in some sense, that removes you from the emotional.
This is something I always argue with Christian about. Not that I'm anti-technology, just to make that clear. I love technology. But when you look at an object, you have the power to manipulate your interaction with it in a physical sense, which has an emotional quality that you can't deny.
Christian: But what I'm interested in is, how can we move digital media closer to that? How can we actually capture some of what you're talking about: the tangible sense, the emotional sense? I want to believe that it's possible. What inspires me about the digital space is the idea that we can shape it. And there's something very powerful about that.
There was one project in the Hackathon that exemplified this. It was the team of architects that were talking about a ‘city of objects’, literally interpreted as objects of different scales that you could walk through. That's sort of what I'm referring to: these kinds of digital spaces that are unbounded.
Ikko: It was interesting that the Hackathon participants started to see information as exhibits, not the physical objects they had chosen to share. They were using the objects as triggers for information-sharing.
Kate: I feel the younger generation, including many of the participants, might already be very accustomed to living in a virtual environment. They can imagine physical objects out of digital representation. So the difference between a real object and digital representation might not feel as big.
Christian: I think of the virtual experience as more of a cerebral or intellectual space. We saw that in the workshop as well. We asked Hackathon participants to bring along objects with a personal meaning and merge them into collections with other participants. Participants talked about their actual objects in quite abstract terms. That abstraction was only reinforced by the way that we structured the Hackathon through the online format.
On the one hand, I think it made a conceptual discussion easier than it might have been if we had done this workshop in person. The fact that it was online made it easier to take the leap to conceptual questions. But on the other hand, it made it harder to get at the personal element.
There was one participant who had several digital cameras in his collection. The discussion very quickly went into some of the ideas that could be derived from these objects, but it was harder to see the personal significance. To me, this is an example of the trade-offs between the physical and the virtual.
Ikko: In one way, I'm very grateful that this Hackathon happened in a digital format, because it’s a good time to think about our audience and what M+ is. It was a great opportunity to see what visitors are thinking, how they're looking at the museum, and their relationship with objects.
Kate: Anxiety is one of the main themes that surfaced in the projects, essentially providing clues to how people felt back in August. What are some of the anxieties that came up in relation to the current situation?
Christian: All the projects, on some level, dealt with the changing reality that we find ourselves in. The Hackathon was embedded in this new virtual world. The pandemic was always there. The theme of travel, for example, consistently came up, at a time when travel is difficult or impossible.
Ikko: We are not trained to be performing in front of a camera. I recently had a meeting with a local architect, and he was so frustrated because usually when he pitches his works, he can bring people to his beautiful office. Personal encounters have been an essential part of building relationships with clients. He felt that his ability to communicate and express his creativity was reduced in front of the camera. But we have to start getting used to it, and even start to see the positive parts of it too. This is another new source of stress!
Christian: I had not even thought about that, but it's so true. There's such a performative aspect to this that I think can be very anxiety-inducing.
I also think anxiety can come from a lack of a sense of belonging. It feels like our lives have been upended because of the pandemic. Everything has been disrupted, and the result is that you feel uprooted. This is one thing that the physical objects we introduced into the Hackathon represented: getting back to something physical, something that can anchor us.
Pat: The greatest fear that we have at this moment is mortality. Life is uncontrollable and unpredictable. Technology is constantly changing, becoming outdated, and out of our control. And that is a source of anxiety. All these unruly elements cause the experience of mortality to shift and change in this digital space.
The physical object reminds us of our mortality in a way. They embody the memory of a person. Sometimes objects can outlive us. And the museum will live longer than any of us. Museum objects embody the collective memory of a culture.
Christian: Timelessness and the elasticity of time is also something that can characterise the physical museum experience. Recently, I had the opportunity to go back to the Seattle Art Museum. I hadn't been to a museum in nine months or so. Sharing the space with others felt strangely foreign. There was a sense of a shared experience, but I also felt that I was alone in some sense, taking in the works. That ‘alone but together’ concept is something that applies to the online space as well.
It made me think of the museum as a kind of respite; a moment outside of time. I was able to think about myself on another level—my role in relation to culture, relationships, society. That is what museums have to offer, right? They can put our lives in perspective.
Ikko: It was interesting that many of the Hackathon participants saw the museum as a place for well-being. That sensitivity didn't get lost in their virtual museum.
Kate: We sense that the anxiety of the audience should feed into museum work. But how do we actually approach that? Do we just sit with the idea that we're going to open our physical doors and welcome the audience back to the museum when the pandemic is over? Or do we take actions to make a change?
Christian: I think the first thing to do is address anxiety. It's possible to think of the museum as a kind of antidote to anxiety. I do believe that this idea can translate online.
At the moment, life is online, but life also goes on. Even though the time will come when we can get back to 'normal', the new normal is going to look different from the world that we remember.
Part two of this roundtable discussion is coming soon!
Learn more about the M+ Hackathon on M+ Labs, our behind-the-scenes museum blog.
Image at top: Glitch view of a Hong Kong cityscape. Photo by William Andrew/Moment via Getty Images