Screens as Visitation: Send Me SFMOMA

In June, the San Fransisco Museum of Modern Art went live with a new project called “Send Me SFMOMA.” By texting the phrase “Send me….” and then a word or an emoji to the number 572-51, you’ll receive an image of a piece from their collections keyed into that phrase. From their website:

When you say “Send me a landscape” you won’t get 791 landscapes, you’ll get a landscape chosen just for you. You may one day be able to visit your landscape in SFMOMA’s galleries, or you may be the only person to see it for years to come.

You can, if you want more information, then check SFMOMA’s website, for things like if the piece is on display or not, and when it was acquired, which I think is fun. It’s a minor thrill, to see something is not on display, but it’s right here on your phone, like this simple text has let you in on a little secret.

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Sometimes this doesn’t quite work. My two favorite emojis return no results, and “Send me monsters” or “Send me a monster” returned the same piece three times, showing a stark lack of monster content. But my quibbles concerning my intense love of bats and monsters aside, this is a great project.

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In their article explaining Send Me SFMOMA, Jay Mollica notes that, to see the entirety of SFMOMA’s collection, “you would need to walk the equivalent of 121.3 miles to see each piece.” For me to get to the SFMOMA right now, to see even a fraction of this 121.3 miles of art, I would need to walk over 1,200 miles (or drive, but you know, symmetry). Send Me SFMOMA is a little bit of accessibility. I don’t have to go to San Fransisco to see some of the museum. With 34,678 pieces in their collection, I can’t realistically sit and text them words over and over until I’ve seen everything. But I can see a part of it, and that’s fantastic.IMG_2593.PNG

I love that this museum embraces the use of new technology and the dreaded smart phone to share it’s collections, especially in the age of so much Millennial-bashing and hand-wringing about The Youths. It’s reads like a gentle push back against all the chest-thumping about “kids these days” that happens anytime someone touches their smartphone within, I don’t know, 1,200 miles of a museum. Like what happened when that photograph of school kids on their phones in front of a Rembrandt painting went viral, like they hadn’t been looking at the paintings probably moments before, the photographer just chose that moment to photograph and interpret, like the kids weren’t using their phones to access a museum app, to like, y’know, learn about art. Technology is not antithetical to museums, to art, to art appreciation, to learning, and Send Me SFMOMA is just more proof of that, facilitating the appreciation of art through technology. The fact that the project has “gone viral” is praiseworthy, rather than damning.

There’s also important interpretive work going on with this texting program that I appreciate a lot as someone who occasionally doesn’t really “get” some modern art.

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What should I feel or think, looking at ‘Static Field 3?’ I probably wouldn’t feel or think a whole lot about it normally. If I was in a physical gallery space, ‘Static Field 3’ would be the kind of work that I either gave a passing glance to, or walk past entirely. But it came up with the word “clouds.” I like clouds. How is this clouds? How does static become clouds? Would the artists agree with this assessment, this linkage of static to clouds? Yeah, I can totally see this as clouds. Suddenly, I’m interested in this piece, I have emotions and questions about it, because someone decided it should come up under the term “clouds.”

On some level, Send Me SFMOMA is giving me an indicator (a tiny one, a single word) of how to read and interact with a work that I might normally be more dismissive of or lost in. In my opinion, that’s good interpretive work and good museum work, giving the museum viewer a lens on how to interact with a piece that they might otherwise have no context for.

Sarah Cascone in her article for Artnet news (linked here again) notes that “love, happiness, flowers, dogs, cats, ocean, San Francisco, food, and music,” are the most frequent requests. I’ve noticed some trends for what pieces appear for what kind of words in my own texting. Texting an emotion seems to result more often in photographs or film, literal representations of people that can easily be read and construed as that emotion. This can easily be read as fright:

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The second image can easily be read as grief:

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Incidentally, I texted “Send me death,” (which I know is not an emotion) and got Robert Frank’s “Car accident – U.S.66 between Winslow and Flagstaff, Arizona” from 1956, which is a black and white photograph of four people standing in a field in front of some houses, looking at a body covered with a blanket. I didn’t want to post the picture because I’m think it’s a real body under there, and that seemed a rude surprise to some of my readers. But Send Me SFMOMA sent me a depiction of literal death.

Colors and nouns tend to get a wider range of mediums, as opposed to emotions:IMG_2598IMG_2592 (1).PNG

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It would have been interesting to have been offered more of a subjective and interpretive response by whoever curated the images and the words that go with them, like if Robert Rauschenber’g “Catastrophe” had pulled up under death or grief or joy, rather than cat.

IMG_2590These search terms are already not wholly objective; again Kamau Amu Patton’s ‘Static Field 3’ was pulled up with “clouds,” not “static.”

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Perhaps this cowboy is pensive, not sad. I don’t know how closely these words follow the artist’s intended meaning. So subjectivity is already part of the text, and I maybe wanted a little more subjectivity, a little more interpretive work. This is not really a criticism, as it is a subjective thought on subjective categories, but it’s still a thought I had.

What is a criticism is that I cant find who curated and put together this project, and how words were assigned to pieces on the museums website. I’d really like to know, that’s almost more interesting than the art itself, to me.

At the end of the day, I think Send Me SFMOMA’s great triumph is simply, that it’s fun! It’s like a little game. There’s a brief, heady rush of anticipation in the 5 to 10 seconds it takes the program to run through its catalogue and find you art to fit your words. Your mind rushes as you try and guess what you’ll get back. Will you get art at all, or an apology text that they couldn’t find anything matching your word or emoji? Will you get a literal representation of what you want, an actual cat hidden among a collage and a pun, or something more metaphorical, like static becoming clouds. What kind of art will I get? A photo, a painting?

It’s a lovely buildup and release, anticipation and art. Texting the phrases “send me joy” “send me laughter” “send me sadness” is deeply satisfying in some psychic way. Please, SFMOMA, send me happiness.

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One Response to Screens as Visitation: Send Me SFMOMA

  1. Monica says:

    Oh that’s really cool! I’m excited to try it! Also mildly excited because this is sort of about emoticons, which I’m writing about this week too.

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