Stop, Look, and Listen: Testing SFMOMA’s Visitor App


As I downloaded the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s new visitor app to my phone, I paused to savor my final moments of one particular innocence.  In three decades of museum-going, I had never downloaded a museum app before. I hadn’t even used an audio guide.  If anything, I resented those distracted, headphone-wearing hordes roaming around exhibition spaces with reduced sensory awareness of their immediate environment. My intuition was that looking at artworks with a guide would somehow stunt the experience, like cooking dinner while playing music so loud that you can’t hear the fat sizzle.

But if there was ever a time to try out a museum app, this was it. Current ads for the museum sound their new branding loud and clear: “SFMOMA: Where Tech and Culture Meet.” Given the rapid deterioration of San Francisco into a haven for tech millionaires, I suspect this motto is frequently met by the city’s longtime residents with negative feelings, from faint waves of nausea to cries of “too soon!” But despite the off-putting social context of tech and culture somehow meeting in an art museum, I maintained high expectations for the app. It offers audio commentary for select pieces, as well as providing “immersive walks” that use GPS to track and guide users through the museum, lists of highlights, as well as information that’s not directly related to art—the historical context of the museum’s neighborhood, facts about the building’s architectural oddities, and ads for the café. You can also use it to buy tickets and memberships in advance. SFMOMA’s chief content officer, Chad Coerver, calls the app “a cross between ‘This American Life’ and the movie Her.” And indeed, as soon as you turn it on, surveillance and artificial intimacy are established as key themes.

The experience begins with a soft voice, human with a slight robotic twang—Siri’s slightly more organic cousin. “Hey there,” it welcomes you. As a piano tinkles in the background, the voice becomes bolder: “I am definitely different from what you’re used to.  First of all—I know where you are.”  Did the piano actually hit a sudden minor chord as the tone drifted from warm welcome to ominous address?  “It’s not creepy,” the voice goes on.  “I promise.”  But the app customizes the museum experience by taking personal information. Users have to log on to SFMOMA wifi—which involves making the browsing activity of their devices available to the network—and to take advantage of some of the app’s best features they must surrender their e-mail addresses and access to their phone’s camera roll. The app creates a “timeline” that users can “claim” for their own. If they elect to do so,  the museum can send them a post hoc itinerary as a memento of the art they saw and the commentary they heard, including pictures of art captured with the app’s camera function. While I was sure to claim my timeline (I mean, YOLO, right?), it never arrived, leaving me to suffer the consequences of my mediocre memory.

I started my visit by going to the seventh floor, where I knew I would see some pieces I liked. I lingered in front of Glenn Ligon’s huge neon work Double America (2006), and Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s jigsaw puzzle made from photographs of Oscar Wilde’s grave.  Neither of the wall texts for these pieces had the little chirping phone icon that signifies the availability of app content. The first work I found that did was Jeff Wall’s gigantic In Front of a Nightclub (2006), a photographic print in four sections that depicting glamorous youth in disarray and ecstasy outside a club. Another semi-robotic voice introduced the piece, before Wall’s human, Canadian voice began explaining how his intuitive approach to staging photography was influenced by cinema. Listening to Wall speak, I paced around a bit, almost ignoring the massive photograph to concentrate on his words. It was a challenge not to bump into other visitors, many of whom were also listening intently to the SFMOMA app, wistfully experiencing the meeting of tech and culture.

Next I decided to see some artworks by an artist I decidedly do not like. I recently learned that SFMOMA’s permanent collection includes several works by Carl Andre, a fact which has caused outrage and protest in the Bay Area art community (many believe that Andre murdered his wife, the artist Ana Mendieta, in 1985 by pushing her out of a window in New York). I assumed the app, which can follow visitors to the square foot around the massive new building, would have a search feature for artists and artworks, but no.  I correctly guessed that Andre’s work would be in the “Minimal and Pop” section on the fourth floor and quickly found a room devoted to his sculpture. Standing in front of 9th Cedar Corner (2007), a triangular collection of forty-five logs, I listened to Andre describe his passionate commitment to “making useless objects.” I wondered if, in the future, visitors to the museum would be able to record their own audio commentaries on artists and artworks.  I had some good ideas for what I could say about the uselessness of Andre’s sculpture. Meanwhile, I went to find the museum’s few pieces by Mendieta as a balm.

Finally, I decided to try a couple of the immersive walks. The first one took me through the museum’s collection of heroic modernist art from the early twentieth century, installed on the second floor. It was narrated by an SFMOMA curator and two actors from the HBO comedy “Silicon Valley, which the app hailed as “one of San Francisco’s favorite shows.” I’ve never seen it, but then, I live in Oakland. Their tour started in front of an iteration of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain. The two actors make jokes about urinals and about how Fountain isn’t art. The curator explains to them why, in fact, it is art. They make a few additional dumb comments about urinals and how “wacky” it is to call a urinal art.  That’s pretty much how the rest of the tour went: I stood in front of canonical works of modern art while two guys from “Silicon Valley” made inane jokes about them as the curator desperately delivered Art History 101.

After I finished the walk, I ran into some friends by the ticket kiosk. It took them a minute to get my attention, because the headphones had staked sole claim to my attention. I explained that I was writing a piece about using the SFMOMA app. One friend said: “It’s great you get to spend the day looking at art.” She was right! But walking to the train station, I wondered: Was that what really happened? I stood in front of works of art. I learned new things about some of them. I gained some useful context by listening to Jeff Wall’s voice. I got angry hearing Carl Andre. I rolled my eyes at the dudes from Silicon Valley. I let the museum harvest the data of my precious phone and they didn’t even e-mail me back in the morning. My itinerary around the museum was certainly eccentric, influenced by the app and its desire to aid, inform, and closely watch me: who and what I liked, who and what I hated, the elective spontaneous mystery of unpredictable wandering. In the end, I felt I preferred the old way of walking around the museum and looking at art, with a little more culture and a little less tech.