Fuck you: an iPhone is not a painting

“Every time you say a computer is not a painting, I’m going to say: ‘Fuck You’.”
So says Steve Jobs to his Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak in the recent Steve Jobs film. Unless you’ve been trapped inside a spiralizer for the last month you will have noticed that two major fashion houses have taken this mantra to heart with new tech led exhibitions in London: Louis Vuitton’s Series 3 on the Strand and Chanel’s Mademoiselle Privé at the Saatchi Gallery.

What unites these two exhibitions – aside from the fashion – is their interactive foundation. They represent a culmination of a trend borne from the iPhone which revolutionised the way in which people consume, well everything, but notably in this case, art. When the iPhone landed, art – which historically was always a commodity – became a social transaction. Curated feeds full of paintings, sculpture and installations were and are used to reflect personal taste and to locate individuals within the cultured realm. In light of this revolution, it’s not entirely surprising that brands have decided to harness the power of the medium for their own gain.

Series 3 isn’t an interactive exhibition per se, more a space designed to be photographed. The curation is minimal and the flamboyancy enormous. After entering through a stark grey space, attendees are whisked through a few rooms complete with curved tunnels, large trunks spinning in slow motion and a lot of mirrors. It’s more of a theme park than an exhibition, with opportunities aplenty to selfie. There is no desire to tell a story here, it’s as if they created an ornate wallpaper to illuminate the oversized hat you’ll inevitably be wearing when you pose.

In another room, visitors can sit at desks and watch a hand sew a bag. Positioned just so, it’s as if that very limb in the video belonged to the visitor; you are placed in a position where you can imagine what it might be like to actually sew, a revolution indeed. In the last room, screens showing their recent catwalk show run on an endless loop, creating a 1984 dystopian vision of what fashion would be like in Room 101. You’ll leave with no idea what you were meant to get out of it, but probably with a couple of photos to show you were there.

Chanel’s interactive approach is more explicit. To engage you have to download an app before you’ve even stepped inside. If you don’t, the first rooms are a real mystery. Take Coco Chanel’s studio: white and plain with a staircase on one side. But with the app (!) you can spin around and see a real photo of the studio, almost as if you were standing in Coco’s salon itself. In reality, it’s a bit like looking at someone’s holiday photos. Nice, but impossible to really invest.

Unlike Series 3, Mademoiselle Privé does manage to tell a story about the history of the brand, with a few pieces of couture clothing upstairs and a fun film to enliven the mood. What the app highlights, however, is a lack of trust. Laymen must be kept at a distance in order for the brand to keep the real exclusive edge. Visitors are made to feel like they’ve been witness to something when in fact they’re just staring at their iPhone, trying to screenshot and post elsewhere.

The rise of the interactive model feeds into a wider conversation about the role of iPhones in art – Benedict Cumberbatch’s cries of despair against their use in his Hamlet is a notable example of late.

In galleries, however, there is something slightly different going on. It all comes back to the idea of the gaze. In the nineteenth century, this worked around male artists and female sitters who were perhaps coy, perhaps bold, but always the subject of the viewer’s watchful glare. However, there was a relationship between the painting and the human eye: it spoke through time, and continues to do so today, if you put the phone down.

But what the ‘interactive’ exhibition creates is a new gaze, less voyeuristic but more intrusive. We take from the art with our phones but are less ready to understand why. The element of seeing becomes redundant and instead it is the idea of capturing. What’s more interactivity becomes a narcissistic enterprise; the little screen we hold up to our faces reflects us back as well as capturing the image in front of us.

Interactivity involves placing the individual as a crucial component in the experience. It demands less of us whilst pretending to give us more.

What’s scary about these exhibitions is how fundamentally lazy they are. When there’s an extra mechanism to rely on the curators have to do less of the leg work. Fashion has arguably always been a more self-involved exercise than conventional ‘art’. These new exhibitions are only the tip of a murky iceberg. The Ai Weiwei exhibition at the Royal Academy is a festering swamp of iPhones blithely capturing the human suffering at the core of the exhibition. Similarly, Frieze this year ran as a be seen excursion for pap-happy aficionados with attendees swishing through.

Perhaps the problem is that Steve Jobs created a piece of art more perfect and so wholly interactive that all else is redundant. It’s possible that interactive exhibitions have to be the future, that the iPhone has to play a role in the creative experience from now on, because that’s just creative Darwinism.

But riddle me this: just because we have a tool which has the potential to elevate or immortalise what we see in front of us, does that mean we should compromise on the physical experience? After all, Steve Jobs got rid of the stylus because he thought we should use our fingers. Perhaps if he could see what it’s done to us now, he’d get rid of the iPhone so we could start using our minds.

First published on Imperica, 22nd October

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