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When is an app art?

People walk into the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) on April 11, 2013 in New York City. 

The Museum of Modern Art in New York added the first downloadable app to its collection this month: Björk’s Biophilia, which the singer released in 2011 along with an album of the same name.  

The app opens to a swirling constellation with a brightly colored star for each song from the album. In a recent demo, Paul Galloway, who manages MoMA’s Architecture and Design collection, selects a song called “Virus,” the screen of his iPad filling with gently jostling pink cells

“It’s like looking in a microscope down at cells,” he says, noting that Björk is using the virus as a metaphor for love.

 As the song progresses, small green virus cells come into view and start to attack the existing pink cells.

“Like a virus needs a body, soft tissue, as soft tissue feeds on blood,” Björk sings. “Someday I'll find you, the urge is here.”

If Galloway flicks the green virus cells off screen, the vocals stop.

The whole display is oddly beautiful and mesmerizing. Each song has its own unique design and way for users to interact with it.

“You now becomce a part of the team that’s creating Björk’s music,” says Galloway. “That’s a really powerful thing to enable your users to do.”

Beauty and interactivity – these are two elements of Biophilia that make the app art, says Galloway.

“[What] we also look for is this something that’s moving the field forward,” he adds. “Is it a masterpiece? Because we aspire to be a museum that’s chock full of masterpieces.”

Galloway thinks this is Björk’s equivalent of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.

While it’s the museum’s first downloadable app, it follows other digital acquisitions in typography and video games like Tetris.

It’s the latest example that museums are taking digital art seriously, says Heather Corcoran, the executive director of Rhizome, an art and technology organization. She says it’s natural for artists to work with technology as a medium given its current impact on culture. But even still, she notes this app is part of MoMA’s design department.

“I think that design within museums has a lot more freedom to push boundaries,” she says. “It’s not quite as attached to this really established canon of art history, so a lot of the most adventurous collecting is happening within the design departments.”

Corcoran says digital art can also present new preservation challenges for museums, as technology becomes obsolete very quickly -- much faster than a painting would need restoration.

It’s something MoMA is very aware of.

“This iPad is going to look hilariously dated in five years,” says Galloway. “That’s really soon, so how do we make sure this thing lives and continues to impact people? It’s a headache.”

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