The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is really, really big. Despite the interior, and entire viewing experience feeling relatively compact the building and its collection are massive. Due to its ongoing popularity as a destination, last year SFMOMA opened its new Snøhetta designed expansion, essentially doubling the size of the building. This included new approaches and outlooks for the building. Actually, what’s cool about the old and new parts of the building is the clear line on all floors where you can see the join. Built to kind pop out in the case of an earthquake (touch wood), once you know about it you don’t really want to stand on it. On one level there are two small windows in the join that were added well into construction by the team creating the interactive audio tour led by Head of Web and Digital Platforms, Keir Winesmith who takes me on a whizz around the building. I totally love the idea that the digital engagemant team had the opportunity to affect the bricks and mortar to such great effect. Actually, there are some really great additions straddling the digital and physical that have arrived in the building under Keir’s tenure. On the third floor are a suite of installs that complement the photography collection. Two extremely large flatscreen sit side by side with accompanying pedestals for operation. By turning one large mechanical dial on a pedestal you can scroll through photographic content and with the other larger dial you can drill in deeper to particular points of interest – I dug into some partiucalry harrowing panoramas of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake which devastated the city. This level has been really beautifully designed with a bar/bench that extends from the cafe and hugs its way around the room. Also here is a collaboration between Keir’s team and Adobe – Self Composed Image, a kind of play on the selfie where you can use a camera and a digital table top that creates soft mattes from whatever you place on it and mixes it with a photo of your self from an incorporated camera. Once you’re happy with your creation a thermal printer prints out a low res image (which is really nice in itself). The print out is also combined with a URL and a unique ID which you can use to access and share a hi res version of the image.
Self Composed Image.
But what I’m really keen to try on this visit is the much-touted audio tour. Developed in collaboration with fellow San Franciscans Detour the app pledges a truly hand free experience with an immersive soundscape and audible wayfinding that responds to your position in the gallery. And goes what? It totally works! You can select from a series of audio tours to be taken on. I initially selected ‘German To Me’ – an “immersive walking tour” led by German-American radio producer Luisa Beck in an unashamedly This American Life-esque walk through many of SFMOMA’s works by German artists including Gerhard Richter and Sigmar Polke who were grappling to come to terms with the aftermath of WW2 and an extremely problematic national identity. Beck gently guides us through the works and ponders her own identity while pulling in interviews with her German speaking mother, grandmother and young cousin. The soundscape gently underscores her comments as Beck effectively guides you from room to room with her voiceover. The voice over itself, on a technical level is “floating” on top of the score in that she tells you where to go next and, as the soundscape plays out you find your own way in your own time. Soundscape gradually changes as you move and the voiceover automatically kicks back in when you’re in the right spot. This worked seamlessly. The directions have an additional, if unintentional effect of putting you slightly on edge – you don’t want to miss anything or get it wrong. This results in a slightly heightened presence of being which really opened me up to her voice, where I was standing in space and the things she was telling me to look at. There’s even a cool functionality that allows you to sync your audio with your fellow travellers, creating a more communal experience. This whole experience was so well conceived and quite moving without overpowering the artworks themselves.
SFMOMA – interior (click to explore)
Once this tour was completed I opted for something quite different – a tour called ‘The Insider’ by novelist Eli Horowitz. This is a factious tour intended to bring the gallery to life with an invisible and entirely made up layer. It introduced a character who allegedly is stuck in the gallery and is unable (or unwilling) to leave, using cultural objects as his morning mirror or workout apparatus. The whole thing is quite silly and not nearly as effective as my previous tour. Despite this, the technology works brilliantly and I did have some laugh out loud moments as the voice implied al the people around me were in some sort conspiracy against me. This gives you a sense of how far you could go with such an experience, becoming a rich artwork in itself.
I finished my day at SFMOMA taking in some of the many Richard Serra pieces in the gallery which, despite being harsh, elemental and industrial objects are like seeing an old friend in what was a really satisfying experience and almost worth my whole trip to San Francisco.