If you’ve ever gazed at a giant Jeff Koons ballon dog and thought, “what the heck was Koons thinking?” now there’s a way for you to get answers to that question, instantaneously.
On Saturday, the Hirshhorn Museum, which is the U.S. national museum of modern art, launches a new smartphone museum companion called Hirshhorn Eye (or, Hi). Hi allows museum visitors to scan pieces of art with their phones, and generate videos featuring iconic artists like Koons or Yayoi Kusama talking about their work. The best part? It’s Not. An. App.
Using Hi in your smartphone browser unlocks interviews with some of the world’s most renowned contemporary artists, where they explain what they were thinking, and what went into making that particular piece. In addition to Koons and Kusama, Hirshhorn viewers can get inside the heads of Damien Hirst, Lorna Simpson, Olafur Eliasson, and other heavy hitters.
In my previous reviews of museum companion apps, I’ve had three main complaints. The first was that they were often glitchy and didn’t actually work very well. The second was that the content the apps offered was for the most part, lame, and usually just a copy of whatever was available from the museum. And the third was that nothing in the companions made the hassle of downloading an app worth it. This is the first program I’ve seen that addresses all of those complaints.
“It was important to us to remove as many barriers to using the product as possible,” the Hirshhorn’s Director, Melissa Chiu, said. “The Hirishhorn Eye is really about offering a more direct experience with the art object and the artist themselves.”
Anyone can access Hi by going to hi.si.edu, on Chrome if you’re using an Android, and on Safari if you’re on an iPhone.
Then, when you hold your phone up to a piece of art in the museum, the program will scan the work, and begin playing a video with the artist talking specifically about that work. It works with computer vision and connectivity technology from Linked By Air and Antenna International. Many of the interviews were conducted specifically for the Hi project, while some contained archival footage. Right now, Hi has 150 custom pieces of content for museum goers to explore.
The Hirshhorn hopes that other museums will adopt the technology, and make use of the platform to engage visitors in whatever way best fits the art. However, Chiu sees the program as an asset for modern art in particular.
“Contemporary art is often challenging,” Chiu said. “By creating an instantaneous, very easy to use product like Hi, this is what will give people access in a way to a work of art that they feel they don’t understand or find challenging. It offers another way in.”
Introducing a smartphone into the museum experience is tricky. Museums are some of the last places that we go for enrichment that don’t involve a screen. And integrating a smartphone with the art experience could detract from allowing a connection to forge between viewer and artwork.
Chiu acknowledges those concerns, but feels that museums should make use of the technology that’s available to them to increase people’s understanding of art, and ultimately deepen that connection.
“I think that mobile phones have become such an extension of people’s lives that it would be naive to assume that people don’t have their phones with them when they go to museums,” Chiu said. “If you accept that as a baseline, then you have to say, how can the technology help people to have a more dynamic or engaging or in depth experience than they might otherwise have.”
With digital museum companions, you can take them, or leave them. Since Hi is browser-based, that choice is even easier to make. If a piece of art piques your curiosity, now there’s actually a compelling reason to pull out your phone, that allows you to learn more.
But if you just want to stand amidst an Infinity Room, or take in the gray expanse a Pollock, that’s fine, too.