Exhibition Review: “Orbits of Known and Unknown Objects: SFAI Histories/MATRIX 277″ from the San Francisco Art Institute

Exhibition Review: “Orbits of Known and Unknown Objects: SFAI Histories/MATRIX 277" from the San Francisco Art Institute

Exhibition Review: “Orbits of Known and Unknown Objects: SFAI Histories/MATRIX 277″ from the San Francisco Art Institute

Library Exhibitions Review, Issue 1, March 2023

Reviewed by
Rebekah S. Boulton, Public Service and Instruction Librarian
Hirsch Library, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston
DOI: https://doi.org/10.17613/t34d-kh24

Orbits of Known and Unknown Objects: SFAI Histories/MATRIX 277 is an online exhibition hosted by the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) as a response to impact that the coronavirus pandemic and pervasive racial injustices had on museums and art institutions. The exhibition was coordinated by Becky Alexander and Jeff Gunderson, both SFAI librarians and archivists; and Nina Zurier, artist and SFAI alum.

This exhibition is the latest installment in the long-running MATRIX series that was developed at BAMPFA in 1978. Utilizing the experimental spirit of this series, MATRIX 277 employs a webpage-style format to showcase the interconnections between seventy-five primary sources that represent the history of the SFAI.

MATRIX 277 is a richly illustrated webpage with interactive and intriguing graphics and informative object labels, but the design somewhat falls short. The color, font, and design pay homage to early 8-bit computer graphics, but the colors and image contrasts can sometimes detract from the viewing experience. The main exhibition page offers 10 “wall” variants based on different themes, such as political activity and racial justice, that mirror the traditional exhibition design in a physical gallery space. If one wall is unappealing, the viewer can simply click the blinking “New Gallery Wall” banner at the bottom of the page for a new one. To view more information about the work, the viewer clicks on an image that represents the object. While this approach is clever and interactive, the over the top vibrance of the colors chosen, while on theme for the nostalgic, early internet culture aesthetic, can be jarring and detract from the overall enjoyment of the exhibition.

The exhibition design offers other ways to group the works through its index. The index page loads all the images into the window, and the viewer scrolls down to continue to load images until all have appeared. This browsability allows for a broader exploration of the material within the exhibition, but the viewer does have to scroll a lot to get to the end. The index also allows the viewer to curate their own connections by theme or creation date. The tags are reached through a pop-up window via a link at the top of the page and consist of words or phrases that highlight a myriad of topics, ideas, or media, such as chairs, photography, sustainability, and pedagogy. The works can also be grouped by the decade that the object was created, ranging from the 1870s to the 2020s. These options allow for an interactive curation of objects that continues the wall approach from the main exhibition page but with more input from the viewer, which creates a more robust and educational experience for the viewer. The categories allow for distinct connections to be made at a more granular level and in more configurations, which encourages more in-depth knowledge of the works than could be accomplished in a traditional, stagnant gallery setting.

The object pages provide more than would be available in a physical gallery space. Each one features the primary source document, tags, detailed education text, additional primary source materials, videos and/or audio clips, links for additional resources, and images to other connected objects in the exhibition. These resources are rich and help expand the knowledge of the themes beyond the exhibition, but the execution could be better. The videos are embedded, but many are listed as unavailable, private, or under parental controls. The number of links is impressive, but it can be rather exhausting to scroll through on each page. The connected exhibition items are relegated to the bottom of the page, which seems counterintuitive if the goal of the exhibition is to show the interconnections between objects.

The exhibition essay and catalog are available on the “About” page, which is linked on each page throughout the exhibition. The essay is well-written and informative, providing extensive details about the creation of the exhibition, the history of the MATRIX series, and the motivation behind the curation of objects. The digital catalog is available as a multi-page PDF and contains the essay and a few selected objects from the exhibition. The information and graphics of the catalog mirror the aesthetics of the webpage down to the fonts and tags while also providing visualizations of some of the thematic connections between objects.

Overall, this exhibition is well curated and nicely executed. There is so much information provided that it can be used for research and exploration. It also provides a great example as to how archival collections can be thematically curated in a nontraditional and exciting way that will benefit scholars and viewers alike.

Image Credit:
Matrix277 Screenshot RSB. February 4, 2023. https://matrix277.org/Random-Set-03

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