New York Internet Week

Are Apps Art? Some More So Than Others, Judging By This Exhibit

In which Betabeat ventures forth to a gallery opening.
download Are Apps Art? Some More So Than Others, Judging By This Exhibit

A few of the featured apps.

There’s clearly quite a lot of creative talent being devoted to the creation of iOS apps. Even hipsters are flocking to the craft. But does something like Path really rise to the level of art? Yesterday, Betabeat ventured downtown to the Internet Week-pegged gallery opening for “The Art of Apps,” to hear the argument out.

By the time Betabeat arrived at the Soho Gallery for Digital Art (the name stencilled sternly in white against a revolutionary red background), the party was winding down. We stepped inside to find a dimly lit gallery studded with high-definition flat-screen televisions, each offering up some element of iOS user design, attempting to recontextualize it as art, not just app.

The first screen offered a note from gadget blogger and host Peter Rojas, which explained a bit about the curatorial philosophy at work: 

Great apps often feel complete and polished in a way that websites often don’t, sometime which obscures the process of experimentation, iteration, and (sometimes) failure that goes into making them. Creating an amazing user experience for an app–one where the device itself almost melts away–requires a thoughtfulness and cleverness that can be hard to find.

It concluded by laying out the exhibition’s mission: “We wanted to showcase examples of some of the smartest, best-designed apps we could find, as well as give a peek into how they get created in the first place.”

Some apps benefitted more from this treatment than others.

Up close and magnified to the size of a dorm-room poster, Path looks lovely. You can see the subtle textures of its red welcome screen; the moon-filled sleep screen looks gorgeous rather than oversharey. Meanwhile, Tweetbot’s interface serves basically the same function–serving up the content created by moment-to-moment status updates. But place them side-by-side, and it’s like comparing Anthropologie and Old Navy. Whatever the latter’s virtues, the aesthetics are underwhelming.

Further back were the creativity-facilitating apps. You know, the ones that are almost painfully calibrated to the Platonic ideal of the Apple user: Young, hip, design-savvy. Here the presentation was scattershot. Some displays, like social collage social collage iPad app Mixel, privileged art produced on their platform. Social video-making app Cameo (currently in beta, as per its website) injected a little whimsy, explaining the process with arrows stuck to the wall space between its two allotted screens, labeled “this” and “make.” Repping for creativity suite Paper was a borderline motion-sickness-inducing POV video of the app in use.

After browsing the screens, struggling with whether to view what we were seeing as artwork or giant advertisement, we decided to investigate a sign pointing downstairs, which promised a Mixel. Given the app’s display had some of the most eye-catching images upstairs, we bit. The display that greeted visitors at the foot of the stairs definitely landed on the commercial end of the spectrum: A table on which sat a great big washtub full of the hangover cure Berocca. Beyond that was the bar, stocked by a sponsor pushing a fluorescently lit liquor. (It looked like the type of thing that would require a hangover cure.)

In between was an enormous floor-to-ceiling screen, clearly connected to the demonstration. We finally found it nestled under the stairs, in prime opposite-the-bar real estate, we found the Mixel demonstration. A rep was explaining the concept to the lone holdout, demonstrating on an iPad connected to the aforementioned enormous screen. When the fleet of bartenders began breaking down the room, we felt it best to take our leave.

Upon arriving home, this reporter explained the concept of Internet Week using the event as an example to her boyfriend, who responded: “Oh, so it’s like Fashion Week, but for the Internet?” Pretty much.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com