Kusuma Yayoi has been on Instagram accounts big and small over the last year. Her exhibition Infinity Mirrors has been selling out faster than THE concert of the year. Her work has been hailed as “the perfect art experience for the social-media age.” Kusuma’s work has become coupled with the national addition with self-promotion and narcissism. The exhibition’s success is due to the national desire to be “seen” at the exhibition by virtual voyeurs/ Instafollowers. Press alludes to the superficial isolating nature of the experience. The criticism of the popularity of Kusuma misses the essential reason for the popularity of the exhibition; being there puts the viewer in an infinitely unrealistic, transcendent space.
Transcendence is the kind of feeling that is easier to experience than describe. You can use words like awe, intense, time-suspending, and rapturous. In a truly transcendent experience, you lose something—your sense of time, space, or reality. In return, you gain the change to have an experience that feels unquantifiable and irreplaceable. This transcendent state is special and different from mundane existence.
Transcendent experiences break with the mundane in important ways, often with an orientation moment, as accessibility designer Alastair Sommerville notes. The ideal orientation to something transcendent requires a complete break with the “real” through a disorientation state and into a completely different but meaningful state. User Experience consultant and scholar Elizabeth Buie shares a number of transformative effects in this state: change in beliefs, acceptance, openness, unburdening, comfort, open-mindedness, joyfulness, release, and peace.
Nature is a particularly noteworthy transcendence-trigger. In a 2014 study, students spending time in a eucalyptus grove report feeling less self-centered and satisfied. These students also left the experience with higher levels of the bonding-promoting hormone oxytocin. In other research about transcendence, scholars highlight the important of self-loss. The most affecting moments transcend one’s own self and make you part of something bigger. In other words, transcendent experiences align you with forces outside yourself.
Walking into that Infinite Mirrors, you are outside of anything you know, as such suspending reality, and itself transported into a completely new space. Within that sphere, you can construct something unlike what you know anywhere else. While the selfies seem superficial, taking one places you with many, many others. A shared community is another situation that fosters transcendent experiences, as scholar Elizabeth Buie notes. Shared experiences foster collective, intimate moments aimed at communal purposes. You might be posting pictures of your beautiful face on your Instagram account, but it isn’t because you are a narcissist. You are posting an account of this moment that you can’t even begin to describe in words.
Flow VS Transcendence
Whereas transcendence is one amazing moment, flow is a series of good, solid moments. Transcendence is one insane, mind-blowing love and flow is your solid, steady partner. Both are good, but for different reasons. A good flow builds a movement in space, towards a solid completion. In ideal flow situations, as Stimulant CEO Darren David describes “the act of doing itself is pleasurable, not the outcome or the payoff. We must get people curious about something that’s novel or unusual, but comfortable enough that they won’t instantly opt out because it looks too hard or confusing.”
The flow state is like knowing you can walk across a rope bridge because it is only a few feet over a beautiful calm creek. The trip across is worth it, but you also know if you trip, you won’t get hurt. Flow is about movement; it can vary from fast to slow. Flow is when you can solve a problem but without too much stretch of outside your comfort zone (Buie, #UXWeek17). Flow experiences are rewarding and replicable activities. Flow fosters knowledge creation supporting meaning-making in safe but challenging ways.
Designers can increase flow through good choices. Intuitive navigation, such as simple signage and systematized pathways, serve as the backbone of flow. Basically, the physical space should help them with overwhelming them; it should be a space that makes them feel in control of their experience. Spaces can be “designed to favor exploration or engagement or energy to achieve certain outcomes.”
What Flow and Transcendent Design Mean for Museums
Here is where the challenge is. Flow should be the bread and butter of museums. They should design spaces that feel comfortable and easy for visitors. If they do, visitors will be willing to take up the challenge of experiencing the spaces (though even then they want self-directed challenges). Yet, museums often focus on collections over visitors. In other words, museums don’t think enough about flow.
Transcendence, on the other hand, is like lightning in a bottle. It is hard to make happen in the exact same way again. As such, no one installation will be the next “Infinite Mirrors.” Sure, there are lessons that can be learned:
- Make it something totally different.
- Make sure there is an orientation that breaks with reality.
- Foster dissonance and suspension of reality.
But, there are infinite ways to get to that state, and yet, there is no one way to get it right.
Much of the backlash against Kusuma is missing an important point. Visitors crave transcendence. They find it all over, in travel, outdoors, in concerts. They want to find it in museums. But, that doesn’t mean that they don’t crave flow. If those visitors of Kusuma don’t convert to museum-goers, it’s not their fault. We don’t spend enough time on flow and then misunderstand awe. In the end, if we don’t spend more energy on both, people will stop coming for either.