Biophilia (One Little Indian, Ltd., 2011)

Why Aren’t More Artists Working in the Medium of the Mobile App?

Recently, I began looking for developers who design and publish apps with the specific intention of making them artistic. As it turns out, there's not much out there.

As an app developer, I’m interested, for self-serving reasons, in app design. But as someone with artistic pretensions, I’d like to consider apps beyond good design. What I’ve been increasingly interested in is app aesthetics in the fullest sense of that word. The other day, I did a little poking around on the intertubes in search of, for lack of a better keyword, “app as art”. I was looking for developers who design and publish apps with the specific intention of making them artistic (however they choose to define that loaded term). As it turns out, there’s not much out there.

As you know, smartphones, and accordingly, the software that makes them “smart”, haven’t been around for long. IBM made the very first smartphone back in 1992. They called it Simon. It was clunky, monochromatic, and not all that smart. It sold for US$899. The first smartphone to sell in decent quantities (at least in the States) was the Kyocera 6035, which came out in 2001. The smart part of its functionality was based on the Palm OS. It was basically a PalmPilot duct-taped to a cell phone. Setting the notorious corporate incursions of the “Crack”-berry aside, smartphone adoption didn’t explode into global consumer consciousness until the release of the very first iPhone, back in the Pleistocene epoch of 2007. The first Android device followed shortly thereafter in 2008.

Nowadays, smartphones threaten to outpace ubiquity. And along with their pervasiveness, there’s an embarrassment of riches when it comes to mobile apps. Statistica.com recently reported that there are upwards of 1.5 million apps available for download on the Google Play Store. The Apple App Store follows close behind with 1.4 million listed apps. Let’s step back for a moment and consider the implications of these Brobdingnagian figures. The Apple App Store exploded from zero to 1.4 million apps in all of eight years, a mere twinkle in the oculus of Steve Job’s eternal soul.

But of those 1.4 million bright, shiny baubles, apparently 80 percent of them or around 1.1 million, are never downloaded. Not even once. Most apps suffer a life that is, as Hobbes might have put it, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. Or rather, they persist in a rapidly decaying, neglected, and hungry state. As the parlance would have it, they exist as zombie apps.

The remainder generally serve the masters of commerce. They’re meant to generate profit or to play a role in a sales funnel that ultimately hopes to result in profit. This is due in large part to the fact that apps (unlike, say, charcoal sketches or found poems) are expensive to produce. Coding apps requires a great deal of time and effort usually from a team of specialists — a programmer (or in many cases, multiple programmers), a graphic designer, a UI/UX designer, a project manager, a copywriter. Am I forgetting anyone? Due to the expense, it’s understandable that apps in these formative years have been predominantly utilitarian.

Like infants, apps don’t really possess all that much self-awareness. Which, I’d say is a key aspect of anything that aspires to be artistic. The apps that survive the zombie curse tend to be ruthlessly customer-aware and not all that aware of their own limits and possibilities as a medium of artistic expression. That’s my impression, after an — admittedly superficial — survey of what’s out there.

In 2013, Carmen DeAmicis wrote an article for Pando.com, “The ‘app as art’ movement is just beginning”. In the piece, she discusses an app called Poetics by Seth Carnes, who got funding for the project from Fractured Atlas, a nonprofit that (breaking form in this case) usually supports artists working in more established media. Poetics lets users arrange a simulacra of word magnets into poems over the backdrop of an uploaded image. It’s simple, and perhaps derivative (remember those fridge magnet poem kits from the ’90s?), but definitely artistic, in the limited sense of not having an obvious practical purpose.

A pioneer of the app-as-art movement is Scott Snibbe, whose work got a huge boost in exposure when Björk commissioned him to build an app to coincide with the 2011 release of her album Biophilia. This description of the app is from the Apple App Store:

Biophilia opens into a three-dimensional galaxy with a compass allowing navigation between the 3-dimensional universe and a two-dimensional track list. Take a closer look by tapping on stars within the constellations and you’ll see that each is an in-app purchase that gives access to the inspired combination of artifacts for each new Björk song: interactive art and games, music notation which can be used to sing along karaoke-style, abstract animations, lyrics, and essays that explore Björk’s inspirations for the track.

However innovative, Snibbe’s app is nonetheless beholden to a commercial ethos. Through the calls within the application to make in-app purchases, which are sprinkled liberally throughout, users are steered toward fetishizing Björk as a consumable artiste.

Another noteworthy effort is the app Somebody, conceived by the performance artist Miranda July and sponsored by the cosmetics company Miu Miu. Somebody premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2014. July recently released version 2.0 of the app. Here’s a description of the app from its website:

When you send your friend a message through Somebody, it goes — not to your friend — but to the Somebody user nearest your friend. This person (likely a stranger) delivers the message verbally, acting as your stand-in. The most high-tech part of Somebody is not in the phone, it’s in the users who dare to deliver a message to a stranger. Half-app/half-human, Somebody is a far-reaching public art project that incites performance and twists our love of avatars and outsourcing — every relationship becomes a three-way.

This is a promising premise that as some have observed doesn’t work all that well within the harsh mediation of everyday experience.

We can’t blame the lack of apps-as-art entirely on production overhead. Apps are getting easier to build. I use a development platform called LiveCode. Based loosely on the venerable HyperCard app for the pre-internet Mac, LiveCode combines a UI design tool with a natural English syntax scripting language to let you design fully functional apps for all the major operating systems. My first attempt at an app-as-art I call LitFeeder. LitFeeder lets you tweet public domain literary masterpieces to Twitter in a steady, automated 140 character drip. LitFeeder’s tagline is: “Uplift the dodos on Twitter with your literary legerdemain.”

In addition to making apps-as-art, I’m interested in helping to formulate an app-as-art criticism. How do we understand and evaluate apps-as-art? What are the medium’s limits and possibilities? In subsequent posts on Moving Pixels, I’ll be reviewing apps-as-art and trying to articulate an app-as-art critical framework. I welcome your ideas on how we can talk intelligently about apps-as-art.

Also, consider this post an open call to all the developers out there who are making apps as art. Send me your apps, and I’ll have a look.