The Box Project

This is a post from one of my brilliant advisors, Eliza Gregory, about a fantastic project she’s created with another of my advisors, Ingrid Voorendt to celebrate domestic creativity. It’s so simple you know it must be good.

What are you able to build with your blocks?
Castles and palaces, temples and docks.

Let the sofa be mountains, the carpet be sea.
There I’ll establish a city for me.

–       Robert Louis Stevenson, Block City, 1913     

There is a wonderful version of that poem, illustrated by Ashley Wolff and published in 1992, that I often read to my daughter. Whenever I think of this project, I picture that first line—What are you able to build with a box?

The Box Project is an artwork and experience I created to bring parents and children together while playing and thinking about play, at a museum.

The Lowdown

The Box Project gathers a bunch of used bike and refrigerator boxes into a large space at a museum, and then turns the public loose on them with instructions to play. There is an aspect of it that focuses on parenting and creativity, and providing resources to parents of young children about how we can nurture creativity in our kids. And there’s an aspect of it that turns the normal museum-audience relationship on its head, and lets the audience be the artists while the museum becomes the audience.

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The first iteration of the project took place at the Portland Art Museum last June (2014). Ingrid Voorendt, who helped me design and execute this project, and I rented a U-Haul truck and drove around Portland scavenging boxes that were unusually large. We wanted to be giving people the opportunity to do something very normal—altering a cardboard box as a way to play with your child—but on a grander scale, so that it felt a little bit exciting. The museum had given us a ballroom to stage the project in, which was spectacular, and Ingrid works in performance, so she knew how to leverage that to truly make a spectacle.

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We got the room all set up. We had piles and piles of boxes, and we had tools of various kinds tied on ribbons so they could hang around people’s necks. (Nothing like bringing a bunch of giant box-cutters into a room full of toddlers—we were really nervous about that! But participants did a superb job of keeping everything under control.) During the day we had specifically advertised the project for parents, and we had parenting expert Nancy Gnass, who teaches at San Francisco City College, come up to lead some discussions and provide information about parenting and creativity.

And then, over about eight hours, we basically just built a magnificent, fantastical, weirdo cardboard world.

And the museum listened

For adults, the workshop made people feel as though the museum were listening to them, for maybe the first time. Their creativity was important, not just other people’s creativity. The project seemed to make people feel satisfied and valued in a way they don’t normally, because they came in and stayed for a long time and really got into making things, and what they produced was totally incredible.

One family came in and talked to me, and was very hesitant. The mom said, “We feel a little nervous about being creative in public.” And I responded by saying, “Don’t worry—there are no expectations. Just do what feels good or interesting or fun.” And I turned around, and when I turned back, a little while later, POOF! This family had made a PIANO. An exquisite, finely detailed, cardboard piano. And the younger daughter was sitting on an overturned box as the piano bench, pretending to play, with the project handouts as her sheet music. It felt like magic! And so ordinary at the same time. That tension felt interesting.

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Stephanie Parrish, who facilitated the project on behalf of the Education Department at the Portland Art Museum, was interested to see the project reposition the museum as a site of production.

“The Box Project opened up a space of possibility for museum-goers of all ages,” she said. “Art museums are typically only thought of as sites of exhibition and display, but experiences like the Box Project point to the museum as also a site of production where artists and communities can meet to create something new together.

“The Box Project was refreshing in its free form arrangements, spontaneity, and creative energy which threw it into contrast with the more prescribed experiences that typically come with visiting art museums (although that is changing slowly but surely). It was a delight to see kids, parents, and young adults find their own creative outlets through the repurposing of hundreds of cardboard boxes.”

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A true museum experience for young children

Creativity is like a fingerprint, and works of art as showing off different creativities, essentially, which we find satisfying to experience (that’s where we find the inspiration, the ideas, the wonder). A museum mostly relies on visual perception to let people experience those creativities, but for children–who move through the world with a developmental mandate to integrate their senses and not just use one sense at a time—not just vision, for example–it’s hard to really engage with something like a painting (DON’T TOUCH THAT. NO LICKING!), an exclusively visual representation of creativity.

The boxes, however, can be physically experienced, and each adult/parent clearly has a different approach to “the box” as a form. For kids, roaming through the cardboard creations gives them an experience much more akin to an adult’s normal museum-going experience. We could see the kids getting excited to be in boxes built by people other than their parents, and just sort of generally reacting differently to the different creativities on display.

The parenting discussions we were hoping to facilitate were around the importance of play and our understanding of it; trends in early education that are moving away from play-based models, which research shows is destructive to development; how to encourage ourselves as parents to move away from needing and wanting so much stuff for our kids; and how to build an awareness of screen time, toys tied into pre-scripted narratives like movies or tv shows, and what it actually looks and feels like to nurture creativity in your child.

Nancy Gnass gave a couple of short talks that touched on those ideas, and she curated a series of handouts that provided research and context with which to examine those ideas. You can follow along with her San Francisco City College class and find more resources about these topics via her blog: http://parentingwithteachernancy.blogspot.com..

The museum is usually a place we go to receive ideas, inspiration, and a feeling of wonder. I thought it would be interesting for a museum to work this magic around the themes of parenting and play. Those subjects are not the normal focus of larger, encyclopedic museums, but I see a lot of potential in those topics for museums to demonstrate their usefulness and relevance to the communities that surround them.

I wanted to try to leverage the museum’s ability to communicate with a large audience and provide resources to people to specifically provide parenting support to families.

The subtext here is some institutional critique within contemporary art which asks, Why do we assume museums are good for society? Are they? Whom do they serve? Whom don’t they serve? How do they control access to art? And how do they impact the way we think about—and benefit from—art, as a society? Do they separate us from art more than they connect us to it? Do they help to build a healthier, more equal society? Or not? This project is a way of both asking and experimenting with answers to some of those questions.

Next up: Building Cardboard Neighborhoods at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, March 1st, 11 am – 2 pm.

So now we are lucky enough to be activating this project again, in San Francisco, at the Asian Art Museum. Once again, we have a ballroom so we can create an epic cardboard city. Nancy Gnass will be on site to curate and vet the resources we distribute to participants. And admission is free to both the event and the museum, so families and individuals can enjoy a wander through the Asian before or after scrambling around in boxes. Hope to see you there!

Please feel free to reach out to me with questions. info [at] elizagregory.com.

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