Australia's Museum of Old and New Art is a world of contrasts. A modern museum space that reframes the definitions of visual art, it also pushes the boundaries of digital interactivity, thanks to the app-based visitor guide that forms the very centre of the MONA experience, known as The O.
The artworks at MONA are certainly provocative -- here a pinball machine modified with X-ray cables, dubbed the "Deluxe Suicide Service", sits down a corridor from a room dominated by the sight (and smell) of a machine that replicates the human digestive system. It poops daily.
But for a museum so concerned with corporeality and the human condition, and one that fills its halls with divisive representations of sex, death and defecation, one of the greatest achievements of MONA has been in the digital realm.
The Story of the O
MONA is an outlier in more ways than one. After an AU$80 million renovation of the old Moorilla Museum of Antiquities conducted by owner David Walsh, MONA exploded into the art world in 2011, bringing with it a first-of-its kind iOS app experience designed to guide guests through the space.
Known as The O, this app is presented to every single visitor on a dedicated MONA iPod Touch when they arrive, providing proximity-based guidance to artworks.
The O is the brain child of Art Processors, a mobile content delivery company that counts Walsh as its founder, alongside software expert and CEO, Tony Holzner, who has been involved with the MONA project from the ground up.
While The O makes for a handy visual tour guide, its effects on the gallery space are far more significant -- with a geo-locating app in every guest's hand, MONA has been able to eliminate gallery wall labels and turn the long-established experience of visiting a museum on its head.
According to Walsh, The O was conceived before MONA itself and is completely integral to the way the museum was designed.
Speaking about the original Moorilla Museum of Antiquities that sat on the current MONA site, Walsh said it "looked like every museum on Earth" all because of one simple factor: wall labels.
"I decided that museums didn't have that look by design," Walsh told CNET. "The need for interpretive material generates white cards, and the white cards need a white wall to avoid clashing. Wall labels, I decided, blocked innovation in aesthetic development. They had to go. To transfer that experience to technology, the technology needed to know where the visitor is within the museum."
For Holzner, wall labels don't just "disturb" the space: they also limit what you can say about individual artworks.
"David really wanted to talk about the works on display, and he wanted to provide personal background stories to why he liked that work, or why he decided that he no longer liked that work," he said.
"With those limitations in mind, it seemed fairly obvious to us that a mobile touchscreen device would be one way of delivering additional multimedia content about the works -- audio, video and essay length material."
But while an app frees up wall space, it also has its limitations -- among them, Art Processors didn't want guests to have to navigate long menus or complicated maps to find artwork. They wanted the process to be "frictionless".
The team solved this problem by first cataloguing the full collection of works in a database and then mapping this artwork catalogue on to a 2D gallery floorplan. Using built-in Bluetooth connectivity on the iPod Touch in conjunction with the Bluetooth LE beacons dotted throughout MONA, the visitor is then located within this spatial model in real time through the app.
"We constantly scan for the presence of those beacons," said Holzner. "So when the iPod Touch does a Bluetooth scan, it gets the signal strength of all the beacons that it can see and we then use that to determine an approximate location in the gallery via signal strength analysis."
The result, according to Holzner, is a proximity-ordered list of artworks that changes as you move around the museum.
"It means that the visitor doesn't have to think about how to find the artwork on display," he said. "If they're near an artwork that implies that they're interested in it, and it will be at the top of the list of artworks on the mobile device."
For Walsh, the success of MONA has entirely depended on The O -- in his words, "The O works, or there is no museum".
How The O works
Once they've navigated their way to the nearest artwork, visitors have a whole new world of content about the work on their iPod Touch.
There's the basic info on the piece -- artwork name, artist bio -- but then it gets interesting. Navigating through a row of icons, visitors can choose "Ideas" to see evocative quotes relating to the piece or go to "Audio" to hear interviews with artists or reflections on the work by museum staff. You can also click on a phallic "Art Wank" icon to read essays or short works ruminating on the piece itself as well as life, the universe and everything.
Visitors also have the chance to up-vote or down-vote the artwork with the "Love" and "Hate" icons, as Holzner explains.
"It sounds so simple, the binary of love and hate...but the act of asking for their opinion actually changes how they interact with the space," he said. "You're basically saying, 'We're not sure what we think of these artworks as a museum authority, what do you think?'"
The most loved work is "bit.fall" -- an installation that uses an algorithm to take meaningful words from the internet and render them in rain drops every few seconds ("ebola", "confronted", "answers"). The most hated work is "Cloaca Professional" -- the giant 'gastro-intestinal machine' that defecates everyday at 2 p.m. It's also one of the most viewed.
By letting visitors guide themselves through the museum, choosing what they see and deciding on the importance of each artwork, The O strips away prescribed routes and narratives and challenges the notion of a museum as a "didactic" cultural institution.
"Most museums have a very linear structure; MONA is the exact opposite and was designed to be entirely non-linear," said Holzner. "It's an adventure and it's designed for you to let go of whatever you were thinking [before] entering the museum. It's almost a child-like experience."
Importantly, the app data isn't just useful for visitors. Putting a Bluetooth activated device in everyone's hands also gives the museum unparalleled access to tour analytics, thanks to anonymous data logged on each user.
MONA staff get a daily report on the number of visitors that day, how many works were viewed, the most visited works, dwell times, and the most loved and hated pieces that day.
Art vs Technology
Despite the complex technology behind The O, the greatest achievement of the app is just how unobtrusive it is.
The experience of using the iPod is almost immediately intuitive, and it seems to be universally accepted by guests. While younger visitors pick up the interface quickly it seems to be just as instinctive for older users. While walking through the space, I spotted countless older visitors happily chatting over their screens or flicking quickly through pages to find what they were after.
For Holzner, the app is successful because the technology is largely invisible.
"We really wanted the technology to take a back seat and we wanted the content and the artworks and the architecture of MONA to be at the forefront," he said. "Even though there are a lot of technologies behind the scenes running the visitor experience, the technology certainly never gets in the way of that experience."
More importantly, in a world where art and technology are often positioned at odds with one another, Art Processors has worked hard to break down those barriers at MONA, allowing art and technology to "fuse".
"You have to look at the technology in a fairly holistic manner across the organisation and how it interacts with the art, the architecture, the staff, the visitors, all of those things need to actually be thought of as one."
By making the experience so seamless, Holzner says The O acts as "a conduit for free thought" and allows visitors to engage with works in a way that may not be possible in a more conventional gallery.
As Walsh puts it, MONA tries to "empower the reader by exposing our humanity, rather than pontificating from the intellectual high ground".
And it seems to work. Whether you're watching a 30-screen video of die-hard Madonna fans singing the "Immaculate Collection" album a cappella, or admiring a red Porsche Carrera wrapped in rolls of fibreglass fat, you're welcome to admire the work on face value or go deeper.
That urge to dig deeper is certainly there for Walsh, who is already looking beyond MONA.
"One day I'd like to build a science museum. If I do, I like to impose on the visitor to switch modes between seeing the skin and seeing under the skin. But MONA isn't an x-ray machine. It is just bones."
And here we return to the nexus of art vs technology, the natural vs the man-made. For Walsh, the final argument doesn't come down to the individual dominance of one of these disciplines over the other -- just like the museum itself, he eschews labels.
"MONA isn't an art museum, art is used as a vehicle to illustrate a philosophy. When one thinks about Rembrandt, one might think of the paint. But when thinking of Kant, I don't think it likely that anyone thinks of the technology through which they acquired their opinion. No one thinks about electrons when they watch a drama on television.
"Technology works when it is seamless, like a pen, or a fork, or a toilet, or an iPad. So if the O is doing its job, there isn't any technology. And if it isn't, you can always look at the pictures. Or go somewhere else."