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Sunday, 29 May 2016

SMARTIFY the Great British Graphic Novel

A few weeks ago, to celebrate Museums at Night, we headed to Bloomsbury's Cartoon Museum (one of our favs) to check out the celebrations around their new exhibition: The Great British Graphic Novel. While art, culture, and a bar have been known to lure us just about anywhere, on this particular evening we had something more particular in mind. The exhibition is also playing a part of an important live run for a new museum-y app called Smartify. We were invited to chat with one of the founders and see what its all about. 

I think first of all we have to say that the Cartoon Museum's exhibition is definitely worth a visit on its own merit. Drawing a link between the classic works of 18th century cartoonist William Hogarth, through the graphic novels of the 1980s and 1990s and right up to the present with unpublished sneakpeaks at new works, the exhibition is a celebration of the British contribution to the graphic novel genre. Unlike the British Library's recent comic book exhibition (a spectacular effort which ended up being a tad overwhelming), the Cartoon Museum's rendition is punchy and finely tuned. From the Victorians to Neill Gaiman, the exhibition definitely makes its point about the importance of British artists to the world of the graphic novel. We particularly loved the new works by Birmingham based-artist Asia Alsafi, whose perspective as a Libyan immigrant to Britain, tackles present day issues around cultural integration with a Manga inspiration. 

Panel from an upcoming Alsafi graphic novel
But, what's even more exciting is that the exhibition is also the first live trial of a new art app called SMARTIFY (smart, art- get it?!). A combination of a virtual tour and instagram, the app is aiming to be a platform for a more personal, emotional interaction with art. We met with Anna Lowe, the Partner Development Manager, to tell us more. Anna is a museum education professional who, in her spare time, decided to work with a small team to develop a new piece of technology to change the way we interact in galleries and commercial art exhibitions. Makes you feel lazy right? The concept of the app is deceptively simple: using your phone camera, you scan the works and the app bring up information about it onto the screen. Having a play around in the Cartoon Museum, we can testify that the image recognition software is on point, and even works through glass cases.

Tank Girl, obvs. 
But acting as a digital tour isn't enough for Anna and the SMARTIFY team. The idea is that you can add images to a personal gallery (think like your Instagram) and then add your own comments and reflections. These will then be tagged to the images, so the next person along can read them and add their thoughts. So when you wave your phone in front of a piece of art, not only do you get the gallery-standard interpretation, you get to interact with other visitor's responses. The potential here is incredible. What about a guided tour from a celebrity? Anna is particularly keen on working with artists to record their perspectives on their work - something which is in progress for the Great British Graphic Novel. Well, with the living artists at least!

An new acquisition for the museum- an annotated draft from Alan Moore's Watchmen
We all talk a lot about technology and museums, and apps seem a natural way forward to try to do something different in the gallery. We have to say though, we haven't met too many people like Anna who are actually out there doing it, and have actually implemented it in an exhibition! Hats off to the Cartoon Museum for being so supportive. We hear that SMARTIFY is already talking to several other London galleries who might be interested in the technology.

The idea behind SMARTIFY raises some interesting museological questions. Who gets to speak for a work of art? Is it the museum (so when the app brings up the caption on your phone)? Or is it the artist? How about the exhibition curator? Or is it you? How would a gallery handle people leaving comments (digitally) all over their art? We love the democratic visitor-centred vision of SMARTIFY, although we are interested to see how the internal museum politics play out in different institutions. Personally, we think that the curator, the artist, the institution, the visitor, all play an important role in what we can learn from a work of art. How you collate and then explore that information is the tricky bit. But with their sleek platform and branding, we think SMARTIFY might be up to the task. 

So far the museum world has had a pretty start and stop approach to app. Sometimes a particular institution will get a little funding and develop one for their own collections. But (and stop me if I'm wrong) I've not seen anyone developing a platform that could be used across collections, from temporary to permanent exhibitions, and even commercial art. You might just soon be seeing the SMARTIFY logo in other London galleries so we recommend heading down to the Cartoon Museum and being one of the first to give it a go!

SMARTIFY is available for free download from the iTunes store. The Great British Graphic Novel is on at the Cartoon Museum until July 24th. 

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