On Loving and Hating at MONA

As part of my current research collaboration with SLNSW, I visited the Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Tasmania last weekend, to see The Red Queen exhibition and test the much-hyped 'O' app. Instead of wall labels, MONA has 'The O' – a smart device (iPod) with an inbuilt app that provides text, photographs, audio and video material related to each work. The O uses locative/positioning technology to sense nearby artworks. The user identifies the artwork by thumbnail image on the device and chooses to read/view/listen to as much or little information relating to the work as they like. The MONA website explains:
We don't have labels on the wall. We have the O. Use it to read about the art on display and to listen to interviews with the artists. It's free. Get one from the information desk as you enter the museum and return it as you leave.
The O delivers information in a way that enhances the visitor's experience of the gallery, facilitating access to engaging multimedia via a highly usable interface. It is the first system in the world designed to replace traditional artwork wall labels.

Screenshot of 'THE O' taken from www.mona.net.au/theo

If you enter an email address The O saves your tour as you go – it remembers each artwork you view (based on what you click on the device) in the order you viewed it, and records your 'loves' and 'hates' (more on this later). A link to this data is emailed to you the following day, accessible from any computer with internet access. The result is a personalised catalogue of the exhibition as you experienced it, including access to the written and audio-visual "interpretive material", for no additional cost and with unlimited re-views You can also access information about the artworks you missed, or didn't click on at the time.

The team who developed The O for MONA have since formed the company Art Processors, to market the system – called the 'Enso Platform' – for other museums and galleries. This platform was used to create the Curio app at the SLNSW. Therefore, the purpose of my visit was to record my experience using The O on site at MONA, to reflect on ways the Curio app might be used at the Library. I took extensive notes in my journal, which I've transcribed below.

I arrived on the MONA ROMA ferry, sitting on a sheep.
Pulling into the island, sandstone wall, the couch I chose.

Rather than waiting in line for the glass Willy Wonka elevator, I wind down the spiral stairs into the cold bowels of the building, where I am given 'The O' – an iPod on a lanyard, with headphones – and instructions on how to use it – turn it on and follow the prompts. From a long hallway of mismatched seating, I choose a couch that resembles the caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland and check out the device. I'm not sure what I expected but as instructed, it is as simple as turning it on and following the prompts. For an iPhone user, the thing is unnervingly familiar.

I look at a few works without checking The O: some altered ping pong tables; Christopher Townend's light-bulb-heat-beat work which I think I've see before at the MCA, though later read this iteration was created specifically for MONA; a trampoline with bells and whistles which I soon regret not jumping on, but without caring much for the attribution details. I come to Alex Rabus' Red Riding Hood series, and find I want some context.

I arrive warned that information on The O is divided into sections: "ideas" – quotations or other texts related to the work; "art wank" – more conventional objective art-historical content; "gonzo"– unashamedly subjective pieces written primarily by MONA founder David Walsh, and; "audio" – conversations with the artists. I say warned because some find the term art wank alienating or even offensive, and the gonzo content precocious. Walsh justifies the terms and content:
 'It’s a conscious affectation,’ Walsh says. ‘I think it would be a characteristically Australian thing that might not translate into other versions of English. Calling it “Art Wank” is basically saying we are conscious of the level of self-reference here, and “Gonzo” is our reference to this American thing, where you have these people putting themselves in the experience of reality. De-objectifying. One of the great things about building your own gallery is that you can engage in salacious humour.’
—Spero, Josh 2012, 'David Walsh of MONA on Sex, Museums and the Hobart Contemporary Art Scene', Spear's, February 13: www.spearswms.com/art-and-collecting/29832/david-walsh-of-mona-on-sex-museums-and-the-hobart-contemporary-art-scene.thtml
For The Red Queen show, these labels are renamed 'Tweedledee' and 'Tweedledum'. The 'audio' content is renamed 'Jabberwocky' and 'ideas' are 'ruminations'. Tiny icons based on the original Alice in Wonderland illustrations replace the original icons of a thought bubble, wang, clenched fist and music note. I'm not offended or put off by the former, but much prefer the subtle wit of the new names and icons to the in-your-face brashness of the old. I see enough of that teaching undergraduate design students to find it boring rather than shocking.

Eclectic text fragments, taken from various interpretations of the Red Riding Hood tale, are attached to Alex Rabus' drawings via the 'Tweedledum' button – Roald Dahl (1985), Anne Sexton (1971), Robert Blackwell (1966), Charles Perrault (1697), Angela Carter (1979), Danielle Wood (2006), oral folklore (circa 1885). These text fragments (paratexts) excite me more than the drawings themselves, opening new thresholds of interpretation for the work. I examine each work with renewed interest, seeking parallels between the chosen text fragment and the drawing its attached to.
I know little about outsider art, but two lines of text haunt me as I gaze over the collection of Henry Darger's creepy-kitsch 'The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion (Known as 'in the realms of the unreal') 1950–60:
Little Henry’s heart is not in the right place.
—Doctor’s notes for 13 year-old Henry Darger
Details from a range of Henry Darger's collection of 'Vivian Girls' works
Darger's colour palette is sublime and the expressions he captures on the faces of the girls (with penises) and men are so varied and suggestive I can't stop looking. It appeals to me in the same way David Shrigley's work does, though I believe Shrigley is in control of his work where Darger seems in control of nothing. I wonder how many people 'loved' these deeply weird narrative pieces – The O gives visitors the option to 'LOVE' or 'HATE' a work. I suppose choosing neither shows indifference, which is how I feel so far – I love the text fragments attached to Alex Rabus' drawings but am unmoved by the actual artworks. I'm not sure I love this work, but I want to know if others did. The O informs me that 6% of visitors also love Darger's watercolour collages. What does that mean? 6% of all people who visited MONA, meaning loves/total visitors, or 6% of people who voted – for this particular work or any work? I hate statistics. Why can't I hate the love/hate option? The 6% is large and lit up in bright pink on the black screen of the O device, and annoys me with its pushy vagueness. Don't promise me facts and give me waffle. It might be best for me to not use this feature.
I stand in front of Tessa Farmer's 2013 installation 'The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum', uncertain what's going on but sensing things will end poorly for the possum. The vast work consumes most of a room. Swarms of bees, flies, ants and other creepy crawlies hover in space and march across the walls and floor, congregating on and around a possum, which the O informs me is 'freeze dried'. The 'ruminations' content is titled 'Happy' and a quote attributed to the artist reads:
My work keeps me saner than I otherwise would be. It's a different world I can retreat to. Most of the time, I'm happy there.
The Jabberwocky button starts an audio track, part way through a conversation. I hear Tessa Farmer talking about fairies. I look closer and realise some of the insects are in fact tiny figures constructed from twigs and ant wings. There are flying craft made of honey comb and crab claws and butterflies. Farmer is talking about the fairies as if they are real, but also recognising that this makes her sound insane. The conversation makes the work richer, in front of my eyes. I love this. O tells me "16% of our beautiful visitors loved this artwork too." I balk at the word beautiful. Last time I just got a number, this time I get a platitude. This is not a conventionally beautiful work, but I suppose more beautiful than some. I wish I could love this without being thrown a statistic.

Sections of Tessa Farmer's The Depraved Pursuit of a Possum
Rounding the corner I am now standing in a room with a slide show of still images – young men have stopped a game of basketball to feed birds, accompanied by unobtrusive but exotic music. There's a seat so I take it. My feet are cold, the concrete floor is unforgiving. This is not the sort of work I would normally sit with, but I'm feeling open to it, probably because I'm alone. I read David Claerbout's artist statement (Tweedledee) for the work, titled 'The Algiers' Section of a Happy Moment':
The succession of images of this 'happy moment' reflects a life long project to open up what I term 'the suspicious gaze'; this work investigates a recent fixation with a particular group of people. At the core of my artistic practice is the passage of time as a tool for relaxation of that suspicious gaze, and in general to attempt to reconsider what we see.
Tweedledum offers a passage from Ian McEwan's novel Atonement, titled here 'The Simple Truth' where Briony reflects on being empathetic to multiple points of view and "the simple truth that other people are as real as you." Something about the interplay between artist statement, literary fragment and artwork forms a tension that I find profoundly moving. I am entirely within this other world – a strange hybrid of the world of the basketballers, the world of the artist and the world of the novel. That this other-worldness comes through a device I have strapped to me is significant. I can stand or sit anywhere in the room to immerse myself. I am not fixed to a spot reading from the wall, jostling for space among other bodies. I am able to find a solitary space to experience Claerbout's "passage of time as a tool for relaxation of that suspicious gaze." I have only just remembered that I am cold, and my feet hurt. I'm not sure how much time has passed.
I've looked at around 20 artworks without hating anything. Standing in front of Sam Porritt's 'Carrot Shaped Stick' I ask myself – can I hate this? It's not doing anything for me, and I quite like both carrots and sticks (I have a collection of sticks that look like animals, my favourite is the giraffe stick). Listening to the Jabberwocky audio, I enjoy that Porritt bough a bag of carrots, cut them up and stuck them together to make the 'uncanny object' he later cast in bronze. I can't hate this. Nearby, I decide to hate 'Moira', a red cabinet with a gold calligraphic monogram painted on the back and a peepshow hole showing the artist performing something or other, by Brigita Ozolins. I don't really hate it. I feel indifferent to it. It doesn't engage me aesthetically or intellectually. My feet are cold and sore again. I move on, but looking down at the O, I feel a jab of something – guilt, meanness – to see HATED attached to Brigita Ozolins' work on my screen. Sorry, Brigita, whomever you are.
I watch Lindsay Seers' 'Nowhere Less Now2' dual video installation the whole way through. This is unusual for me, I don't like watching video art in public – I'm too easily distracted by things moving around (other people) when I'm watching a screen based work. I want to read Jane Clark's 'Tweedledee' essay but I've been standing here too long and I'm fidgety, cold and hungry. I decide to read it over lunch, but am disappointed that the O can't pick up/access this work from the cafe. I try about five times (turn it off and on again) frustrated because this thing is meant to be the future. Why can't I read something that I could read ten minutes ago? Luckily there are a clutch of chickens harassing people with food outside to amuse me while I eat, safely inside. With a small amount of patience, I access the essay much later from my recorded tour in the less distracted environment of my office.
Tracking back down, I locate Jan Fabre's 2008 installation work 'Zelfportrait, als grootste worm van de wereld', which I've seen in many Instagram photos, and hate it to see how many others responded negatively to a roughly 8 meter silicon worm that bears an alarmingly realistic face of the creator at one end, lying amongst a pile of granite headstones and panting/whispering "I want to draw my head out of the hangman's rope of history" in Flemish. 4% of patrons hate it. 5% love it. I click 'hate' and 'love' again, to see what happens. New versions of the statistics surface. "5124 others also thought it was an outrage". "6628 other people felt good about it too." I'm not outraged, but I certainly don't feel good about it. There is no option to unclick, or be neutral, so I click 'hate' again, as that is currently the underdog position in the popularity contest for this work. This time it's less dramatic, replacing the accusation of outrage with "5124 other MONA visitors agree with you." It's a shame you can't test how many photographs are taken – standing here loving and hating, six people have captured it, none of them show any facial expression to indicate why.
Toward the end of my 6-hour stint in the museum, I hate more flippantly and love more stingily. Next time, I will bar myself from the love/hate button. I'm too easily distracted and annoyed by this technology for my own good.

Rainbow, created by nature, 2013


Mal Booth said…
I'm still reading. I may be some time.

There is a lot of love and hate in that O device. But I'm not sure we were invited to love and hate items when I visited. It is a little interesting if there was that option, because I must have missed it completely. I think I did hate the Poo machine - is that still there? I really hated that.

Mostly I kept getting annoyed by the device itself; that it took my head out of the art space and that it reminded me how to be judgemental about art (for all the wrong reasons, e.g. someone else's opinion or an artist's popular reputation). I would rather have had an option to use my own device.

I started recording the items I liked in my tour in their O device, but if there was a Hate option, I'm pretty sure that I missed it completely. And I've also never gone back to that "tour" online. Perhaps because I know it wasn't complete and maybe also because I don't want any more of my enjoyment of that visit tarnished by others' views.

I have not seen the exhibition you saw. I visited during the previous exhibition and loved it. I also love what MONA is doing to shake up the whole museum exhibition environment and all the unwritten rules about what museums must and must not do. And how much time they need to do things and make decisions. I find that even more frustrating in universities than museums though.

I also wrote (and I do mean wrote, they are just handwritten notes) about my visit to MONA. You may already have seen them and groaned about them:
http://malbooth.com/2013/04/18/some-thoughts-about-mona-part-1/ (in two parts but you can get to both, if you are really determined, from Part 1)

I guess I am still torn between the enjoyment of exploration and discovery without all labels and (sometimes) the need for context or clues.

Thanks Zöe. You've made me think more about MONA.
Thanks for Mal – I am also torn between wanting to be open to pure play and discovery, versus needing context or clues. Worse though is I catch myself wanting to fill books – even novels – with post-it notes of project ideas, passages to share with others, notes on my reaction to the text, when really, I should just be reading. If it's an important/interesting enough idea, it will stick with me after I've closed the book, but I can't help myself.

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