Today's museum apps make museums seem quaint.
In the 70s, Brian O'Doherty described the experience of the "modern" gallery space as being
I would argue that in the electronic age, we are now experiencing art in a new way, because we are using APPS inside the bright brick--the smartphone and the tablet.
The Device Is OURS
Unlike a gallery or a museum, the device is OUR OWN. It seems to reflect our whole life.
When we buy, we PERSONALIZE the hardware.
Originally, we could choose our own color, as long as it was black or white.Now, with the Apple iPhone 5c, we can pick green, blue, yellow, pink or white. Or, to show our sophisticated (read "rich") taste, we can go for silver, gold, or space-craft grey in the 5s.
As soon as we hold the device in our hand, we personalize our SETTINGS, adjust PREFERENCES, and add APPS oh, and those may happen to include some museum apps.
The device reduces the museum to a square ICON in the viewport or, perhaps, inside a folder quite a reduction from the magnificence of the steps of the Met, for example.We are losing reverence, awe, and "otherness" as the app gets tucked into the grid, aligned with its equals, moved around, and occasionally opened.
The brick itself forms a shiny BACKGROUND and FRAME surrounding whatever appears on the screen. And inside the app, the art itself is framed within a USER INTERFACE, subject to our manipulation through menus, buttons, searches, and gestures. The hardware and software, then, surround and shrink any image of the art, devaluing it, while proclaiming the triumph of the technology itself.
But it is not purely the electronics we enjoy. Instead of entering a physical space, we pick up the smooth object that fits easily into one hand. We caress it, nudging it into action with our thumb. And in response, it LIGHTS UP.
No more recessed ceilings, with indirect lighting, or subtle spotlights casting a halo around artworks. The device itself GLOWS from within.
We enjoy LOOKING at this screen. Like any computer display, it has no perspective built in, no coulisses, no repoussoirs.We cannot easily tell exactly where the text is floating on the screen: Is it near us? Far away? Our eyes must constantly adjust, like the auto focus on a camera, moving in, moving out, but never quite getting a fix on location. Meanwhile, we absorb the light. Like moths, we go into the light.
Back in the 70s, O'Doherty described the modernist gallery in this way:
Unshadowed, white, clean, artificial--the space is devoted to the technology of esthetics.
Today, the smartphone and the tablet carry this devotion way beyond white-washed walls and polyurethaned oak floors.
But the POWER RELATIONSHIP has shifted. Now, with an app, we hold the whole collection, the whole museum in our hand.
The museum is just one app among many
It is on OUR territory now; we are not in its space.
It is subject to our SCHEDULE and WHIM, because we can look at it any time, anywhere.Asynchronous and ubiquitous thanks to the device, the app gives us a strong feeling of CONTROL.
O'Doherty lamented the way that the art gallery tended to isolate the artworks from life.But with a smartphone, we can carry the app out onto the bus, into the subway, through the actual museum if we like.Now art accompanies travel; art entertains us as we wait in line; art livens up dull moments.
Whenever we feel like it, art APPEARS.
But think about what the app does to the museum, and the art.
The App Does Content Marketing
Why do museums create and give away this valuable content? To attract customers.
BASICALLY, CONTENT MARKETING IS THE ART OF COMMUNICATING WITH YOUR CUSTOMERS AND PROSPECTS WITHOUT SELLING. IT IS NON-INTERRUPTION marketing. INSTEAD OF PITCHING YOUR PRODUCTS OR SERVICES, YOU ARE DELIVERING INFORMATION that makes your buyer more intelligent. The essence of this content strategy is the belief that if we, as businesses, deliver consistent, ongoing valuable information to buyers, they ultimately reward us with their business and loyalty.
--The The museum app, then, provides free, helpful information about the collections, the architecture, the exhibitions. But the true product is the museum experience, which, like the building itself, sits behind the screen, waiting for you to realize that you want to interact with it, buy it, see it, tour it.
Yes, each museum app lists ticket prices, hours, directions, encouraging us to come but to buy an actual ticket, we are sent to the web site to carry out the e-commerce transaction.To avoid technical snafus, and to keep the marketing low-key, the app does not actually issue tickets.
O'Doherty said that a key sign of postmodernist art was the effort to examine the market through which the work of art passes.
With museum apps, we are now BEYOND postmodernism.
Marketing has triumphed. As customers, we accept an implicit bargain. We use the content, we consume it, and if it nudges us to decide to spend real money at the museum, so be it.
Like Amazon customers accepting the convenience of 1-Click purchases and recommendations based on what other people have bought, we enjoy the apps, while subconsciously agreeing to consider gracing the sponsor with more cash--sometime.
The App Turns Art Into Content
Distancing us from the PHYSICAL, the app manages to turn individual artworks into chunks of CONTENT.
Just as a content management system assembles web pages from a set of content elements (product name, product picture, sku number, price, and so on), the app pulls together bits of content that relate to the artwork:
* Images of the artwork (thumbnail, enlarged view, zooms)
* Tombstone text about the artist and the artwork
* Artist bio
* Curatorial comments on the artwork (text, video, and audio)
* Video or audio interviews with the artist
* Lists and links to other artworks by the same artist
* Links to related artworks (same movement, for example)
Each artwork acts as the CENTERPIECE, the main record in the database, but it is related to records in other tables, such as Artists, and Images.The artwork itself cannot appear directly in the app, so we get a collage of content circling around it, pointing to a real original, claiming to "represent" that artwork.
The Artwork Is Gone.In Its Place, We Have The Image.
The image, this chunk "stands for" artwork that exists somewhere else on a wall in a museum.But it is not itself art. It is not a unique object.
No grain, no bite, no canvas.
The image has no depth; it is not separated from a wall.
In fact, there is no wall.The image floats in space. Even when the designers add drop shadows, to give the illusion that the image is in front of a wall, we do not believe that there is a wall.
The app removes the cues that the image represents an actual physical object.
The photographer usually homes in on the picture, eliminating the frame.And, because the image is so small, we can only sense texture, impasto, raking light, when we zoom in on a particular patch, in a high-res picture.
The images, then, become thin, clean, pure, ideal far away from particular canvases with sand and hair and blood in the paint.
Scale Is Removed.
Every image is SMALLER than the original, and every image is EQUAL to every other image.In thumbnail grids or timelines, each image is equal in size, shape, and therefore value.
Yes, we can read the dimensions.But numbers do not help us envision the relative sizes of two neighboring works.
Yes, occasionally, we get an app like MoMA's Ab-EX NY that manages to show us the works to scale on an imaginary wall but even that just helps us compare sizes It is not the same as walking into the room with Barnett Newman's red canvas, or ascending the staircase to Tiepolo's Triumph of Marius.
The Aura Of The Individual Artwork Fades To Black.
No gold ropes, no guards, no hushed worship in front of the sacred relic, the Mona Lisa, or the water lilies.
And less interpretation.
Even though we get text from the curators, we absorb much less of their interpretation because we cannot so easily compare three, five, nine paintings by turning around in a room.
Limited to a bunch of thumbnails, or one enlarged image at a time, we have more trouble seeing the parallels, the contrasts that the curator built into the hanging.
We See Artworks As Interchangeable Parts Of A Set
The thumbnail images fill in the cells of a grid, identify each item in a list of artworks, or highlight each search result.
The images act as OBJECTS in a set, and we are often more aware of the pattern than the individual instances.
Most of these sets are organized around intellectual CATEGORIES such as period, style, group, type of art, exhibition, or nationality. The database records contain fields for these categories, so that queries can pull them out, and show us the set.
The SORT ORDER, though, is often a challenge.If you have, say, ten records showing images of artworks by the same artist, you can easily sort them by date.But what if you have a hundred results for a search on Impressionists?
* Should the system sort by artist, and then, within each artist's set, organize the records by date?
* Should an app allow the user to choose a particular sort order?
In an app, we are interacting with a database, and we are subconsciously being led to think in sets.
Compare the 19th century Salon, where each artwork was isolated from the others by aggressive, richly detailed, fascinating frames. As O'Doherty says:
Each picture was seen as a self-contained entity, totally isolated from its slum-close neighbor by a heavy frame around and a complete perspective system within.
Where galleries unify all the artworks into a single show, the app goes farther, unifying all images into sets within its database.
Artists Are Just Another Kind Of Content Provider.
Names are just part of the FUZZY TEXT hanging off the images.
All names are EQUAL in value because they appear in the same font, in the same location, in the same size, as part of the buzz of flies we usually ignore.
Photos of faces add reality; interviews let us hear real people behind the names.But ultimately, an artist is just another person who has created content that the app serves up.
That's part of what the app says: artists, too, are just CONTENT PROVIDERS.
Text Has More Power
In most museum apps, words surround the images.
* What curators say
* What the tombstone text says (artist, dates, media)
* What the menus and buttons say
* What the anonymous writers say about the artist, the period, the artwork
This VISIBLE TEXT is often self indulgent, self justifying, academic, and subtly arrogant.But there it is.It takes up more space than the image.Like the audio scripts, the text chunks guide us, offering some categories to think with, and not others, describing the choices we can make, and interpreting everything. Text carries so much content that it often outweighs the images.
The artwork succumbs to the words.
And those words appear in the affordances we use to navigate:
* Menu items
* Banners above the content
When text becomes a tool to use, we absorb its message even as we tap and go.
In collage, Braque thought that words gave people "a feeling of certainty."
Clearly, users agree.
Moving Through All This Content Is A Pleasure In Itself
The app is a field of play for our ATTENTION.
We can scroll down and up, left and right; we can expand or contract; we can zoom or retreat; as we browse, we "go down" the menu hierarchy; as we link, we "jump" across levels, without any sense of the intervening structure. The space is indeterminate, malleable.
The actions we can take, following the slightest wisp of association, the draw of a term, an artist, an image, get us moving And the movement, quite aside from anything we might learn, MASSAGES our mind.
Like an hour spent clicking links in Wikipedia, our taps, pinches, pushes, and swoops let us explore, learning a little along the way, but enjoying, really, the opportunity to follow the chain of associations, the leap of ideas, the detours that lead to areas we never thought we wanted to enter.
Interactivity is just the sign of the movement of attention.
But it is ACTIVITY.
You feel in control. You are indulging your mind at its most monkeyshines. You have become a user.
The User Replaces The Spectator, The Observer, The Viewer
In the past, many artists talked about deliberately challenging the viewer, mystifying this imaginary being, trying to shake the spectator's habitual perceptions, transforming the observer.
But with an app, the USER gets to manipulate the art, passing quickly by some pieces, selecting others as favorites, exploring, searching, scanning, zooming in and out, posting images to Facebook, tweeting from the app, commenting online.
In the past, the artists often attacked the audience. And the audience had to "appreciate" the insults, and transcend them or walk out.
In the app, the goal is to be USER FRIENDLY. Art is secondary.
The App Applies Its Own Esthetic
The app subsumes the artwork into its look and feel.
Graphically, the image is just part of the layout; a pawn in the navigation; a fraction of the user experience.
The App Is The Artwork
It is an electronic collage.
We move through its space on our individual paths, so we each see different pictures, read different texts, view different videos.Even before personal interpretation steps in, we each "see" a DIFFERENT APP.
In this way, an app offers us a much more individual path than we would get in meandering through different rooms in the Met.
The App Is The Artwork Of Today
The app makers are what Marjorie Perloff calls "unoriginal geniuses."
Instead of isolated romantic figures trying to express their personal experience, these folks collaborate to move information around, re-presenting it.They conceive of, design, build, and publish machines that let us play with content that reproduces old artworks, and reduces them to data.
The app is "uncreative" in the way that many of our mashups are.
The emphasis is not on doing something radically new, something that expresses the thoughts or feelings of a unique individual; instead, the app recycles, realigns, repurposes, puts the existing content together into a variety of sets.
The app lets us sample, plunder, and steal. We "curate," that is, we edit, select, accept and reject.
We assemble our own set of FAVORITES. We BORROW images and publish them to our own social networks. We APPROPRIATE and RECYCLE. We lose ourselves in the electronic space, indulging in content for its own sake, letting our attention ramble from tap to swipe.
How we make our way through this forest of information, how we manage our moves, how we make sense of it, organize it, distribute it--that's what makes the app OUR OWN.
The app is the result of collaboration; it articulates, expresses, reveals, the assumptions of many groups, from the marketing department down to the design team, from the curators out to the agencies doing the code. And then we load the app onto our device, and RE-USE the content for our own pleasure.
The app, then, is art, even though it violates the idea that art must be made by an individual, must be original, must be rare, expensive, a product, not a giveaway.
FOR MORE OF MY RANTS ON MUSEUM APPS:
I'm Jonathan Price, an information architect, writer, and artist.
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