Have you ever been tempted to touch a beautiful piece of artwork in a museum? Utahns can put their own spin on artwork and become a part of an exhibit this Saturday at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art (UMOCA).

“Please Touch the Art” will feature three local artists — Tiana Birrell, Carrie Everett and Justin Watson — along with 10 national and international artists, based in places ranging from Los Angeles to South Korea. It will be hosted in the downtown Salt Lake City courtyard adjacent to UMOCA, at 20 S. West Temple, from 8:30 to 10 p.m. on Saturday.

Via a website created by The Open Room, Utahns will have the opportunity to resize, recolor, draw on and even erase digital versions of the artists’ paintings, photographs, drawings, digital and CGI works, as they are projected on the side of UMOCA building.

The Open Room is a small group of artists who focus on “post-internet art practices.” The edited pieces will be posted to UMOCA’s website and printed in a catalogue.

Artist Justin Watson, 35, said the event offers viewers “new perspectives.” Watson’s piece in the exhibit is a compilation of protest pictures, which appear in animated layers.

As the photos move, they reveal the layers beneath in chronological order, starting from recent police violence protests back to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.

“I like to critique U.S. systems,” Watson said in an interview, explaining that he studied sociology and had started the piece before the recent demonstrations that followed the killing of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis.

(Photo courtesy of Justin Watson) Justin Watson, one of the artists in the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art's "Please Touch the Art" exhibit.

The piece is part of a series, made in a similar format, that examines the breakdown of social systems in the past and in the present, he said. His main objective with this piece is to inspire viewers to contemplate their place within the current social system, he said, and to realize a system can only change through waves of smaller historical moments “that actually unify into a larger movement, resulting in permanent change.”

He said he donates money raised from his artwork to social causes, including Black Lives Matter Utah.

Artist Tiana Birrell, 31, submitted manipulated digital photographs that show her working with software as she looks for the source of water that the National Security Agency uses in Bluffdale.

(Photo courtesy of Tiana Birrell) For the "Please Touch the Art" event at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art, artist Tiana Birrell submitted manipulated digital photographs that show her working with software as she looks for the source of water that the National Security Agency uses in Bluffdale.
(Photo courtesy of Tiana Birrell) Artist Tiana Birrell

As the Silicon Slopes tech industry has exploded in Utah, companies have needed an increased number of data servers, Birrell said. And it takes millions of gallons of water a day to cool the servers, her research showed.

“I started thinking about how problematic that is in an area where we are constantly battling water wars in such an arid climate,” she said. “I hope Utahns become a little bit more aware of these issues and become a little bit more politically minded around water, because if we don’t, we will continue to just drain our resources.”

Other themes artists will explore in the show include the internet as an art space; the dullness of the internet in our daily lives in comparison to its initial novelty; and the extent to which human experiences are impacted by the internet, especially during the pandemic.

International artist Marisa Olson, who is credited with coining the phrase “post-internet art,” will join Saturday’s event through video chat.

Zachary Norman, a spokesman for UMOCA, said the showcase aims to make art accessible to viewers during the coronavirus pandemic, and it gives them a new way to participate.

“Please Touch the Art not only embraces the virtual experience of viewing art,” Norman said, “it also challenges the typical limitation placed on this experience by encouraging participants to manipulate or ‘touch’ the art.”

Staff from UMOCA and The Open Room will sanitize keyboards, computer mice and tablets between uses. Masks will be required at the event. Signs will encourage social distancing. A maximum of 30 visitors will be allowed into the courtyard at one time, which staff will monitor.

Watson said he believes it’s especially important to attend art events during the pandemic.

“Even if they’re social distancing,” he said, “it still allows you to have an opportunity to interface with someone else; even if it’s a painting, you’re still interfacing with that person’s ideas or their emotional experience.”