Hammer App: Pretty but Shallow

The Hammer recently released its iPhone App.  When I went to the museum last, I think it must have come out that morning because the girl behind the counter was very excited that I try it.

The app looks beautiful.  It’s exactly what you’d expect from a hip art institute.  The graphics look great and even the navigation is very smooth, though it did take me a long time to click those three button in the corner.

Each exhibit has a section where you can swipe through the images.  It’s seamless and informative, like having a little magnifying glass for each wall text.  I loved swiping through the images, especially after having left the museum.  What I really wanted, though, were some sharing options and when I finally got around to clicking the three buttons, I was presented with some familiar icons:

The star is a great idea.  As I go through the exhibit, or afterwards, revisiting the exhibit on my phone, I can easily star images I particularly liked or wanted to know more about.  Creating my own collection is the kind of opportunity for visitor-curation that can work really well for a lot of visitors.  Unfortunately, the collection of my starred images, available from the homepage navigation, seems a little broke:

I think certain information about each piece needs to be available from this page: the name of the work, an image, and the name of the artist at least.  Once you click on an image, the detailed information from the wall text, which shows up now, is great.  I can imagine after going to many exhibits, I’d want these images to be sortable and searchable, too.  Sortable by created date, visited date, and alphabetical by artist would be good for starters.

The Facebook and Twitter shares were also a let down.  I’d wanted to tweet out a piece I liked or post a particular piece on a friend’s wall.  I don’t know what kind of restrictions are on the images, but if the museum has enough authority to put them in an app, I’d think they could at least link to them as well.  Instead, the tweets and shares seemed to be about the app itself — “download it now!” kind of phrasing.  Neither the post nor the tweet actually worked for me anyway.

These kinds of shares — pieces of the exhibit that I’m really excited about and want to share with my friends — create the kinds of viral loops I’ve spoken to before.  If museums want to create social buzz, they can draw directly from this strategies of startups.

One exhibit, the really nice Paul Thek “Diver” retrospective, included an audio tour and additional videos to watch.

I was horrified to realize the Audio Guide did not come out of the phone speakers, but rather the main speakers.  You’re supposed to wear headphones.  I scrambled to turn off the volume as the guide starting playing — loudly — in the quiet hallway.  Does anyone know if it’s possible to play audio through the phone speakers so that you could hold your iPhone to your hear without needing headphones?

While it’s great having the audio guide with me and on my own equipment, and the videos are actually a nice addition — better than huddled around a small screen with other members or waiting around for communal headphones — I was disappointed to find that they were really the only extended information about the exhibit.  What can you do with a phone that you can’t usually do with exhibits?  Where do the Wikipedia links in the exhibit lead?  With the Ed Ruscha show, I immediately wanted to know more about the connection between the paintings and On the Road.  What if each image linked to the part in the book so you could read where in the book the painting “takes place?”  What if they linked to a map of the book so you could see where in America the characters were and how it compares to the setting of the painting?

The themes of Thek are maybe more obtuse, but his use of Catholicism or tar babies could lead to any number of different explanations or images.  The wall text of the exhibit often mentioned the ephemeral nature of his exhibits and how the curators didn’t want to try and recreate something that had been intended for a different time.  Maybe, though, the app could be a good home for images or renderings of the original exhibit.  The Thek show included scenic designs he’d done for Robert Wilson — it would be awesome to have seen stills or scenes from the actual production.

The app also has a map, which is another great idea in theory, but again seems only half finished.

The maps are images which don’t refocus after zooming.  The text is really small at full size and so doesn’t really work as a guide.

Seeing all the galleries is cool, but, again, because they’re just images, there’s no interaction.  When I’m using a map in a museum, it’s usually to find a particular gallery (or a bathroom).  If the numbers of the galleries were links that took me to explanations of what was inside, I could easily navigate the museum and use the map as, well, a map.  The links would be update-able.  I wonder if there’d be any desire to link to past exhibits from here, too (there is a link on the Exhibits screen of recently closed exhibits), for those of us with spatial memory.

All in all, the app looks great and works well.  It could benefit so much, though, from taking an extra step towards interactivity between the artwork and the visitors.


All of This and Nothing, Hammer Museum

The current exhibit at the Hammer has a lofty and somewhat general intention: to encompass all of life, and nothing of it.  That is, the artwork is to touch on daily and personal ideas while also focusing on form and process.

It was the focus on process that caught my attention.  Process could be a very good focus for an exhibit when the artwork itself might be more elusive, harder to understand at first.  Unfortunately, the process of these artists was presented either vaguely or in a way that was so separated from the artwork itself, it was hard to follow.

For the first time, it was very clear to me how disconnected the wall text in an exhibit can be.  Looking at artwork and looking at words to describe the artwork, especially in terms of the artistic process, was very hard for me to follow.  Dianna Molzan’s canvas sculptures stood out.  The work itself was interesting and clearly process-heavy.  She had cut intricately thin strips out of a typical artist’s canvas to create three-dimensional, deconstructed sculptures.  The text that accompanied her work, however, was just too hard to follow.  Maybe my brain just isn’t quick enough, but if i’m looking at sculpture and then being asked to read in great detail how it was made, I can’t make the leap.  At the very least, I need a diagram.  ”We are visual creatures,” my high school math teacher used to say and when else are we more attuned to looking, not necessarily reading, than in a museum.  I don’t think that a step-by-step explanation with each stage of the canvas laid out would be always necessary, but for a show to focus on process and then make it so hard to follow doesn’t make sense.  I’m curious now how we can make a successful visual description, as opposed to a textual one.

I found myself drawn to the more narrative pieces in the show: they were easier to get a hold onto before pulling yourself in.  I was particularly taken with Fernando Ortega’s N. Clavipes Meets S. Erard, Movement 3. His three photographs depicted a harp whose strings had been replaced by a spider’s spun web.  And the little spider was there, sitting on top, posing for his picture.  Here, the work’s process is very clear in the work itself.  All I needed to be told was that he actually put a real spider in a room with a real, empty harp.

Mateo Tannatt’s movie set sculpture was similarly pleasing.  The found objects told a clear story — what that story was, I’m not sure, but the recognizable objects were familiar and reminded me of creating hours and hours of stories with dolls and pillows and a deck of cards and my brother’s Matchbox cars.

Kerry Tribe’s The Last Soviet was outstanding.  The ruleset around her film was so clear and her storytelling so compelling that the two — form and narrative — worked seamlessly together.  Part of it was a great story and part of it was fascinating visuals and juxtapositions.  The descriptive text for her work was similar to that of Molzan’s and I wonder why it was easier for me to read about a film than about a sculpture.  Perhaps it was the words of the voice-over?  I think actually it was because the film takes up time in a way different from sculpture.  I was able to read the description and almost follow along with the film as an example of itself.  With the sculpture, I had to stop and switch and look at/for something I wasn’t sure about.

Karla Black’s white sand and plaster sculptures were really interesting.  Like Molzan’s, Black’s work is very process- and form-driven.  I missed the same kind of visual description and understanding I looked for with Molzan’s work.  At the same time, Black’s serene desert of white sand brought such an emotional reaction on a gut-level for me personally, that the description, visual or textual, didn’t seem as necessary.  Part of it, admittedly, was smelling something so sweet and peering over and being convinced that she had used Lush bath bombs and then being so giddily surprised when I read the materials used.  The aroma and the brightness of the sand created a truly environmental experience.

It was only as I was leaving that I caught Charles Long’s interactive piece: a plexiglass box of real leaves with instructions printed on each one.  Maybe I would have felt differently had I picked up a leaf on my way in instead of out, but I couldn’t get into it.  The printing was dark and smudged and besides being hard to read, the disconnect between the leaf and the words made me feel icky.  It was this very permanent text on a very ephemeral, natural object.  And you weren’t even supposed to take the leaves with you… The instructions themselves felt forced and condescending: think about your body in the space of the exhibit, think about your day from morning until now.  It’s cute, I guess, but nothing I actually want to do.  I wonder what would’ve happened had the leaves directed you to interact with other people in the gallery.  Or given you space to draw.  Anything but read.


Hammer: Outside the Box

I usually love the Hammer.  I was there last night for a screening of Zidane.  A haunting and exhilarating portrait of the French soccer player during a Real Madrid game five years ago.  The movie was fantastic, if hard to watch at times.  If you get the chance, I highly recommend it.

We had some time before and wandered into the “Outside the Box” exhibit.

First.  How can anyone actually title a show “Outside the Box?”  Even if it’s somehow ironic, which unfortunately this usage wasn’t anything near, it’s still maybe the lamest title possible.  I admire how prominent the Hammer’s banners around town are–Los Angeles museums do an excellent job of advertising–but this campaign stirred very little interest.  Only after reading through a lengthy interview with Jacob Samuel can I be certain the the title referred to the way he packaged series of prints: in a box.


Maybe the title had steered me clear of researching but I had no knowledge of the show before walking in.  As I usually do, I read through the significant amount of wall text before walking into the first gallery.  I understand I am to see a series of prints made by different artists at the same studio and with the same master print maker.

Each book is displayed in a glass case with an explanation of that particular artists’ work beside it.  Each page from the book is then framed and hung on the wall.  Overall, the frames look beautiful and give the prints a true artistic agency.

This is about where my admiration stops.  As important as it may be to see the prints in a place of prominence on the wall, I am completely overwhelmed by the never-ending walls of frames.

I  know very little about printmaking.  And herein lies the shows greatest fault.  I could be a target audience member and yet instead I feel overlooked, overwhelmed, bored, and confused.

Let me back up.  While some of the prints are really interesting, it is clear the exhibit’s focus is on the process of making the prints, as opposed to the content or output of the print.

this one was kinda cool

The only explanation of the printmaking process offered is in the textual explanations sitting next to each book.  Again, though I consider myself fairly well-versed in art and art history, I know very little about print making.  I do not know what white-ground aquatint is. I’m sorry.  And I wouldn’t usually care except that it seems to be the anchor of each series.  Because the emphasis is on the process, and I have no clue how the process worked, I can’t appreciate the exhibit as much as I would want to.

What a great opportunity the museum has here to teach me about printmaking!  I keep picturing Instructables-style illustrations or GOOD-esque infographics.  There are so many vocabulary words that could get a cool, graphic, design-y illustration.  Each artist has her own method and, granted it could be a lot of work, but even one overview of the basic steps to printmaking would be incredibly helpful.  I think about having an actual printing press, too, but it doesn’t seem to fit with the overall aesthetic of the show.  Illustrations would maintain the sleekness given off by the glass and frames.

This could also be an excellent place for a mobile app.  Going back to the Hammer’s website, I can see a few photographs of the artists creating their prints.  Even there, though, there isn’t enough.  I want to have the option of really understanding what I’m looking at.  With a mobile app, each artists’ process could be explained–through illustration or photographs, I think; there’s enough text as it is.  Again, on their site, the Hammer has posted a series of videos depicting Jacob Samuels as he describes the various artists and their work.  It’s a step in the right direction, though I still want more of the basics of printmaking.  I want to understand exactly what they’re doing and why (something I’ll address further below).  Why has printmaking survived for hundreds of years?  What were the first uses?  How are there so many different techniques with one medium?  What are my “ins” to printmaking–Shepard Fairey?  Photography?  How can I be guided from there to here, to understanding what I’m looking at.

This doesn’t mean I don’t like some of the prints.  Some of them are really cool.  (I’m not actually supposed to be taking pictures inside the gallery, so there are only limited illustrations below.)  John Baldessari’s series of cropped film stills from his earlier work and Matt Mulligan’s split personality series are fascinating and really visually interesting.

Meredith Monk has a series of musical notation and another artist creates images of theater seating charts from London.  Both are really interesting compositions, but I don’t understand why they were prints.  What about the printmaking process makes it useful for these artists to create these specific kinds of works?

I think this idea is why I see Baldessari’s series as successful.  I already understand film  as an iterative medium and going from film to printmaking (somehow) makes more sense.

I should have known from the title that this show wasn’t going to thrill me.