How to make great art out of an emoji

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - ARTS&BOOKS -

Art mu­se­ums can be in­tim­i­dat­ing, which isn’t sur­pris­ing when you think of their ori­gins. The Lou­vre in Paris was once a royal palace, while the Uf­fizi in Florence housed the of­fices and ju­di­ciary of the rul­ing Medici: hardly places de­signed to put you at your ease. For al­most 200 years the de­signs of those in charge col­luded with the build­ings to put vis­i­tors in their place. Art is some­thing you whis­per in front of. It is ex­pen­sive, nay price­less, and it shows just how pow­er­ful and cul­tured our rulers are.

Even our newer-build mu­se­ums were at it. If as­cend­ing to cul­ture via steep stone steps is in­tim­i­dat­ing, it’s got noth­ing on pris­tine white boxes for art: the type of places where you feel un­tidy just walk­ing in.

Things have changed. Vis­i­tor num­bers are key and outreach is ev­ery­thing, which is un­der­stand­able when you have tax­payer-funded sub­si­dies to jus­tify. But is any in­ter­ac­tion worth it, or does qual­ity count when it comes to putting peo­ple in front of art?

In Ire­land we seem to ex­cel at sem­i­nars, work­shops and talks, and at­ten­dance fig­ures bear out their ap­peal, but they are preach­ing to the con­verted. Where we fall down is when it comes to more in­no­va­tive and in­ter­est­ing ways to open up the rar­efied art world.

This isn’t a ques­tion of dumb­ing down: in­stead it’s about mak­ing art fun, turn­ing it from a valu­able, dis­tant ob­ject on the wall into some­thing that stays in your mind, some­thing cen­tral to your life.

It’s about pay­ing more than lip ser­vice to the idea of the value and im­por­tance of cre­ativ­ity in ev­ery­thing we do, and there are some bril­liant ideas out there to get our own in­sti­tu­tions go­ing.


Imag­ine wak­ing up with di­nosaurs? New York’s Nat­u­ral His­tory Mu­seum hosts sleep­overs. With sep­a­rate events for adults and chil­dren, you can curl up in your sleep­ing bag and let the pres­ence of the col­lec­tion seep into your dreams. Imag­ine do­ing some­thing sim­i­lar with the Craw­ford’s lovely Lav­erys.

As Euro­pean Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture in 2011, the pro­gram­mers at the Fin­nish city of Turku came up with cul­tural pre­scrip­tions. A visit to your GP could re­sult in the pre­scrip­tion of tick­ets to cul­tural events. It’s a gor­geous idea, and one which fea­tured in the Three Sis­ters’ (Kilkenny, Water­ford and Wex­ford) bid for Ire­land’s 2020 Cap­i­tal of Cul­ture des­ig­na­tion (which was even­tu­ally awarded to Gal­way). Per­haps this is a project for Cre­ative

It’s out pay­ing more than lip ser­vice to the idea of the value and im­por­tance of cre­ativ­ity in ev­ery­thing we do, and there are some bril­liant ideas out there to get our own in­sti­tu­tions go­ing

Ire­land to pick up.

The most ge­nius idea of all came from the San Fran­cisco Mu­seum of Mod­ern Art (SFMOMA) last month. Send Me SFMOMA uses text mes­sag­ing to open up the mu­seum’s col­lec­tion of around 34,000 works of art.

All you have to do (though un­for­tu­nately you have to be in the US) is text 57251 with the words “send me”, plus a word or an emoji, and the mu­seum will text back with an im­age from its col­lec­tion.

The project quickly went vi­ral: in one week more than two mil­lion text mes­sages of art were de­liv­ered as peo­ple re­quested images re­lat­ing to ev­ery­thing from ro­bots to love, cats to rain­bows, fam­ily to horses, sad­ness to that emoji of a pile of poo.

Some of the con­nec­tions are ob­vi­ous – a Jim Dine im­age of a heart ( Blue Clamp) sent in re­sponse to the heart emoji.

More oblique

Some are more oblique. As Jay Mol­lica, the mu­seum’s cre­ative tech­nol­o­gist who con­ceived the project de­scribes it, “send me the ocean” might get you Pirkle Jones’ Break­ing Wave, Golden Gate; “send me some­thing blue” could re­sult in éponge (SE180) by Yves Klein; and “send me flow­ers” might re­turn Ya­sumasa Morimura’s An In­ner Di­a­logue with Frida Kahlo (Col­lar of Thorns).”

The beauty of it is that you won’t al­ways get the same im­age. An­other re­quest to “send me flow­ers” could just as eas­ily re­sult in Hiroyo Kaneko’s Pic­nics #1.

For Mol­lica, Send Me is a way of open­ing up the col­lec­tion, in­clud­ing the works in stor­age, and do­ing it in a way that is ac­ces­si­ble, friendly and per­son­ally mean­ing­ful.

“In a world over­sat­u­rated with in­forma- tion, we asked our­selves: how can we gen­er­ate per­sonal con­nec­tions be­tween a di­verse cross-sec­tion of peo­ple and the art­works in our col­lec­tion? How can we pro­vide a more com­pre­hen­sive ex­pe­ri­ence of our col­lec­tion?” He also asks, how can we turn art into a habit – which is an im­por­tant set of ques­tions for any mu­seum.

The most re­quested Send Me terms are, un­sur­pris­ingly, love, hap­pi­ness, flow­ers, dogs, cats and the ocean. In­ter­est­ingly, the cac­tus fea­tures among the most pop­u­lar emo­jis.


Search terms be­come more in­ti­mate at night, ac­cord­ing to Keir Wi­ne­smith, head of web and dig­i­tal at the mu­seum, giv­ing an in­sight into how peo­ple are ac­tu­ally re­lat­ing to the art works they re­ceive by text, and how even though a text can never match up to the real thing (in re­la­tion­ships as well as art), per­sonal con­nec­tions are nev­er­the­less be­ing made.

The code it­self is open source, and SFMOMA is work­ing on mak­ing it ac­ces­si­ble from other coun­tries. But wouldn’t it be won­der­ful if we did it our­selves? Let the ideas, and the art, move away from the rar­efied, in­sider whis­pers, and flow.

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