Jake Barton, Local Projects

Can local storytelling enrich our communities and our futures? Local Projects founder Jake Barton shares his approach to designing collective meaning and memory in public space

Jake Barton is the Principal and Founder of Local Projects, a New York-based experience design and strategy firm for application in museums, education, architecture, and memorials.  Known for their groudbreaking multi-media work, Barton uses storytelling and engages audiences through emotion and technology to redefine experience in public space. Creative States spoke with Barton about his most recent projects including 9/11 Memorial and Museum, Gallery One in the Cleveland Museum of Art, and changeby.us to uncover the essence of his approach to collective meaning-making and memory.

CS: You started doing interior architecture for museums. How did your focus change from communicating the museum’s message to the audience to capturing the audience’s message for the museum?

JB: Before doing interior architecture for museums, I worked in the theater. One of the big influences on me was Anna Deavere Smith, who did a series of different amazing and influential theater pieces around similar techniques. Her first big piece was called Fires in the Mirror and was about riots that happened in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, very close to where I grew up. She interviewed people involved in the event itself and then performed each character one by one, so that you got this very complicated, conflicted portrait of the overarching event through singular points of view. She did it with an incredible amount of empathy and personal connection, so that it wasn’t a portrait of who was right and wrong, but a larger demonstration of how these intertwined lives were conflicting but also very similar. It had a huge impact on me and sparked this idea that an exhibition could be enriched by tapping into the experiences of many of the visitors; that these could be captured to create a space not just for storytelling but also civic engagement.

CS: A lot of the projects that you do leverage technology to be able to extend their reach far and wide. What is the meaning of“Local” in Local Projects?

JB: Local comes from former U.S. House Speaker, Tip O’Neill ’s quote: “all politics is local.” The basic idea for us is that we don’t have a house style, set approach, or preconfigured technology; everything is about the local conditions of a client and an audience, and the unique opportunity to make a new engagement. We occupy the overlapping space between things that are meaningful and things that are innovative. We don’t really make things that are only one of these; we don’t just do website or signage work for a new museum and we also don’t do innovative work for brands or companies that aren’t doing really interesting things—it’s really about the overlap between the two. It used to be that people would watch things on television just because it was on. Now you have to fight to be relevant. Relevance comes both out of the stories you have to tell and how you choose to tell them. In many ways, museums have led the charge in terms of user experience and physical space, because they have rich stories to tell and oftentimes are looking to differentiate themselves by being visionary. But more and more brands are recognizing that they need to leverage technology in interesting ways to build engagement: that’s the name of the game.

CS: You have talked about “future-proofing” and the importance of creating things that will endure in a rapidly changing field. How do you go about achieving this?

JB: Even as we make things that are innovative and new, we never rely on the novelty to produce engagement. We actively steer clients away from new technology that they just like because they are gizmos, because that stuff ages very poorly. The nature of today’s technology cycles means that no flat-screen that you buy is going to be so thin that it won’t look like a toaster oven in a year or two. But if you build something with an emotional connection, with storytelling, and you actually deliver a new experience to people that has relevance and meaning; that ages very well. Timescapes, the first orientation phone for the Museum of the City of New York, is a project that we did a decade ago, but it still feels relevant and interesting.

CS: You have said that longterm innovation is about the emotional connection. Is this because things that touch us emotionally stay relevant despite changing technology?

JB: Emotion has yet to be fully understood, but it very clearly plays a role in memory. The portion of your brain that deals with emotional gateways also deals with orientation and memory, so these three things are keenly intersecting to inscribe things in your mind. You can say that museums are in the memory business; that they are trying to engage you, to create memories with you and for you. How well they succeed depends on the extent to which they can heighten awareness and make it a deeper more impacting experience.

CS: Who do you think is doing that well?

JB: You can look at a filmmaker like Spielberg; he really understands that capacity to make an emotional connection through amazing stories. I think that there are some people who try to replicate what he does by adding special effects that dont work particularly well. I think that it is interesting how newer filmmakers try to leverage authenticity by being offbeat, as well as creating an emotional connection. Another person that inspires me is the architect Santiago Calatravahe has problems with his budgets, but the work is awe-inspiring. You didnt think those things were possible before but they have meaning and inherent symbolism. I think there are a lot of different ways to get there, and you can draw inspiration from many places.

CS: Your designs for the 9/11 Memorial and Museum and Gallery One have sparked discussion around the idea of the generative museum, and how the viewer is no longer simply the receiver, but also the producer of the narrative. What do you see as the 21st century role of the museum and the curator?

JB: Across the board you are seeing conversations about the role of the curator, or the equivalent of that person; whether that is the superstar journalist being supplanted by online journalism. Over and over again you see that the wisdom of the crowd is potentially going to supplant the previous gatekeeper, critic or expert. It is a race for attention. Whatever you do to utilize and leverage participationby offering your audience an opportunity to offer their own thoughts or point of viewis going to lead people to be more curious and interested in the topic at hand, which only makes the curator and the artworks more important. Ultimately the curator becomes more important, provided that they engage the audience. There is no longer such a thing as a platform that gets attention just because. Across the board, whether you are a curator or the New York Times, participatory media makes people far more likely to care about your work. There were decades when curators did not think about the audience: they made exhibitions for colleagues, scholars and other institutions; the audience was a byproduct. Curators can no longer exist like this; they have to pay attention to their audience and figure out new ways to involve them.

CS: Is the emergence of new interactive platforms such as changeby.us, SeeClickFix and giveaminute.info changing what it means to be a socially and civically engaged citizen?

JB: That would be the hope. I think that the government has been surprisingly challenged to pair the democratic (and anarchic) tendencies of the internet with the structure of actual democracy. Here in New York City I think things like 311 have actually gone pretty far in terms of building in some semblance of a feedback loop between residents and city government. There has been a lot of experimentation around civic engagement and technology, and I dont feel like anyones gotten even close to cracking that, just because unlike brands that might use social media to have people compete to design the next product, civics are really complicated. Nobody has found the right balance between engagement that is meaningful and impactful from a governmental standpoint, and viable and interesting from the populations standpoint. There is something inherently valuable there but we have not yet figured out how to tap it. 

CS: What would you like to see nexton either a global or local level?

JB: The thing that I would love to work on, that I have yet to found time to do, is something about climate change. I believe that in ten or twenty years, all of our problems are going to boil down to that. There is something very strange about the fact thateven as more people accept it as an issueit is still the lowest priority across the board. The solution is very, very murky. I am not sure how to tackle it, but that would be my ideal next big thing challenge.

Image Credit: Local Project, Creative Bloq