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Photograph: Courtesy of Object Design LeagueObject Design League Bags Workshop participants, 2010.

We Are Here at the Museum of Contemporary Art

MCA design director James Goggin tweaks the museum’s performance-art series.


“It takes a lot to make people raise their eyebrows in a contemporary art museum,” says James Goggin, the Museum of Contemporary Art’s director of design, print and digital media, but the logistical demands of “We Are Here” have challenged even the MCA’s staff.

Goggin, 36, has tweaked “Here/Not There,” the summer performance-art series that former curator Tricia Van Eck began in 2008, to showcase (as its new subtitle indicates) “Art & Design Out of Context.” From Tuesday 5 through July 31, Chicago’s Object Design League collective, the West Loop gallery/bookstore Golden Age, designers Jessica Charlesworth and Tim Parsons (a SAIC professor), and Sonnenzimmer’s Nick Butcher and Nadine Nakanishi—who create art as well as their signature gig posters—will each take up residence in the MCA’s 12x12 gallery for one week. So, Goggin and his colleagues are trying to figure out how the ODL can manufacture actual products in the gallery without injuring visitors, and how Sonnenzimmer can screenprint without making a mess.

“Michael Darling, our chief curator, asked me to consider a more design-driven version of ‘Here/Not There,’ ” explains the design director, who joined the MCA in August 2010. “I asked myself, what if I were to ask designers and artists to use the gallery space as their workspace for the week?” He expects visitors to assume they’ve stumbled upon performance art, at first. “It seems exotic, but actually you’re watching someone do what they do every day. It’s the same thing you would encounter if you walked into their studio.”

Golden Age cofounders Martine Syms and Marco Kane Braunschweiler intend to use the MCA’s RISO stencil printer to publish Reference Work, a “conceptual business textbook.” (The museum will sell the book, along with other items made through the series, in its gift shop.) Goggin tells me the new RISO printer has already helped the museum reduce its environmental impact, one of his goals as director of design. “It’s low-energy. There’s no heat involved. It uses soy-based inks,” he says. “Now we can print on demand.”

Parsons and Charlesworth’s “American Ad-hoc” project invites visitors to make their own pins, using materials salvaged from the MCA. Goggin, who’s English, knew about some of the “We Are Here” contributors before moving to Chicago, which he often visited as a teenager. The four groups in the series seem to share “a connecting spirit, or just a way of operating—a kind of DIY approach that I recognized and admired from Europe,” he says.

A former art director of The Wire, Goggin in 1999 began running his own graphic design studio, Practise, in London, where his clients included the Design Museum and the Tate Modern. He was teaching at a graduate school in Arnhem, the Netherlands, when the MCA contacted him. “The prospect of being given a blank slate to create a new identity for the museum, to be heavily involved in the publishing program…and to have a dialogue with curators here was too great an opportunity to pass up,” he recalls.

The MCA won’t finish revamping its visual identity until fall 2012, in part because Goggin and his staff are talking to “all the departments in the museum about how they work,” he says, considering questions like, “How does ticketing operate? How does the website work? How can we make the collection accessible for our audience?” He promises the new identity “won’t be just simple window dressing, which is something you often find with institutions. They change the logo and expect that to drive everything.”

“We Are Here” opens Tuesday 5.

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