I am delighted to have been awarded an A-N Professional Development Bursary to help me explore how the use of a mobile phone app might benefit my practice. I currently create collaborative drawings by asking volunteers to undertake walks whilst carrying GPS handsets. The data from these journeys is then reinterpreted by drawing-machines to produce cumulative maps. I’m hopeful that by including the use of an app in the process, it will help me to reach a wider audience and produce work of greater complexity and scale. This blog will document my experience of learning about the development of apps and how they might be useful to me as an artist.
I am starting my exploration into mobile phone apps by attending a 2-day workshop at Blast Theory in Brighton. I have some existing knowledge of coding, which I use when programming my kinetic drawing-machines – however, I have no experience of working with apps and mobile phones, so I am attending the workshop to learn about platforms and processes. It is specifically aimed at developing apps for art and artists, rather than more general uses, giving practical advice on how to progress from the initial ideas, through to creating the final app.
From the outset, this workshop has proved to be invaluable – breaking down all the stages of development from the initial consideration of whether an app is the right tool to use and, if so, how do I want it to look and feel – what will be the essence of the user’s experience?
The workshop brought together a wide range of artists and art practitioners, all of whom had different needs and wish-lists of what they wanted to gain from using apps, but which raised very similar issues and considerations, thus allowing us to have positive discussions and gain possible resolutions.
It’s made me realise that I have been approaching this development of my practice with pre-conceived ideas of the final outcome, rather than allowing the process to evolve and then interrogate it along the way. I’ve received great advice on how to initially explore the concept of the app by playing around with ideas in a much simpler way – eg using text messages, audio players, cameras, gps handsets and even pen and paper, to simulate functions and interactions. Coding of apps can be time-consuming and expensive, so pre-testing processes by creating prototypes out of existing technologies and having ‘dry-runs’, is a more efficient way of gaining an insight into how well the final app might operate and highlighting any issues that might be problematic.
These playful interactions have also allowed me to think outside of the processes that I currently employ, as an app will allow me to expand the relationship I can have with the user. This has advantages as well as disadvantages – I can increase the audience participation and scope of projects, however, this raises the likelihood of a greater sense of detachment caused by the use of technology and possible complications of data protection and privacy. The more complicated a process becomes, the greater the opportunity for malfunctions and therefore user frustration. In my current practice, I have a lot of control over the user’s participation, but with the use of an app, I am handing over a larger proportion of this control to the user and thus inviting a higher likelihood of chaos and unexpected results – something I am drawn to, but also something that could cause total failure of the process and so therefore render it useless.
Over the two days, we covered in detail the practicalities of using off the shelf solutions, versus bespoke – what to consider when deciding on whether to learn to code yourself, or employ a developer. It looked at the specifications of the different platforms, along with their respective advantages and disadvantages. It looked at the cost and time implications of all of the above and at times, it seemed daunting to even think about embarking on this process, but the encouragement I received and the straight-forward practical advice on breaking down everything into smaller steps, makes it feel more achievable.
In addition to this, being able to listen to other artists and arts organisations talk about how they want to use apps to engage with their audiences was a very positive experience. I think sometimes we are afraid of new technologies and how we can use them, so it was great that there was such a variety of projects under consideration and included so many people, with varying degrees of trepidation, who were being courageous in overcoming their fears in order to investigate them.