The O in MONA: Felicity’s take on The O

December 10, 2012 | By Felicity Cull

I went to Hobart last week. I went up Mount Wellington, I drank wine at Sidecar, I ate avo on toast at Pigeonhole, I went to the Salamanca markets and I threatened to move there (I was looking at real estate but I stopped when I realised that a) I have $1.50 in my savings account and b) people there drive like Perthians…I did that for 30 years thanks, I’ll stay in Melbourne a bit longer). And of course, I went to MONA. And yes, it was amazing. I was both enchanted and pissed off.


I have been thinking of how I would review my experience at MONA for a week and I’ve decided that there is actually very little point in my reviewing artworks, or dissecting my own reflections with intellectual vigour. This is not only because their own blog and site does this beautifully (I think Elizabeth Mead who writes a lot of MONA’s content is the only woman who has ever written about whether or not she should call herself a feminist and then answered in the negative without making me want to scream loudly) but because it’s something you should see for yourself.

Really, it’s an experience that is best explored without too many preconceptions and it’s a challenge to write about an affecting experience without stealing someone else’s ability to be similarly affected.

What I’m going to talk about here is The O, a device that is possibly the most interesting intersection between technology and the consumption of art I have ever experienced. The O is an iOS app on an iPod touch, complete with Audio Technica headphones. When you pay the price of admission, the device is a part of the package, not an optional extra like at most museums. This is interesting in and of itself. It’s not an opt-in system; it is necessary to have an O to experience the museum. As the MONA website states ‘we don’t have labels on the wall. We have The O.’ Nowhere on the walls of MONA is anything but artwork. The usual small texty black and white signs are absent. The O was developed by Art Processors, who claim that traditional on the wall labels ‘are barely useful tools for learning, much less free thinking, or a private appreciation of the objects they describe.’

When you are given the device, a staff member tells you that it is best to start from the bottom of the museum and work your way up. After a few pop up instructions, The O works by locating where you are in the museum and giving you a list with thumbnails of the art around you. You click on a thumbnail to view information about that piece. There’s also ‘Art Wank’ and ‘Gonzo’ commentary, and you are given the option to ‘Love’ or ‘Hate’ the artworks. You are also asked if you want to record your experience for consumption at a later date. After you leave, your tour gets emailed to you and you can revisit your experience in a way that lets you explore your own responses. As Seb Chan writes on his blog about digital media and its use in museums, The O “sets a new benchmark in terms of integrated interpretive devices.” The O means there is less of an option to stroll about casually glancing about you while thinking about the overpriced cake you’re going to have in the café afterwards.

Personally, I love museums and I am happy to read signs on the wall that tell me about artworks and artefacts, their context and their history. However, I know it can be a deadening experience for some, and it can be done really really badly. In 2011, I visited the Tutankhamun exhibition at Melbourne Museum and was completely underwhelmed. I was looking at some of the most spoken about archaeological finds in the world and I could just as easily have been looking at the ‘art’ at Thingz. It felt fake and dead to me. I got more sense of discovery from consuming old National Geographics on the subject as a kid. Seeing it close up, I couldn’t have cared less. There was no impact. I went to the bar instead.

When I was finished with The O I needed to go to the bar too, but for entirely different reasons. There are artworks in MONA that I would have been impressed by regardless of the mundanity of their presentation. But as I said, I’m amazed and I am pissed off and that’s mostly to do with The O, and here are some of the reasons.

What was amazing

The option to Love or Hate. If I could ‘love’ this option, I would. I think what was particularly interesting was that when you ‘loved’ or ‘hated’ a piece, the device told you how many other people had shared your opinion on that piece in the past, which made me think about the other people who had stood in front of this piece feeling similarly. I wanted to take those people for a drink so I could talk about it with them. How often have you seen something in a gallery or a museum that takes your breath away only to look up at some school kids standing in front of the same piece picking their nose, bored but happy to be out of gym class? ‘Loving’ something and being told about other people who loved it meant I was connected to that feeling for longer. And that was amazing.

The 3D tour. This was emailed to me afterwards. Seeing a graphic representation of my trip down the rabbit hole that is MONA had a bigger impact on me than I thought it would. Oh, look at me going back to the Damien Hirst piece after not looking at it properly the first time! Look how I accidentally missed that! Look at how many times I returned to the Basquiat! Look at how many things I hated/loved in that section! Etc etc etc. I have never been able to revisit my experience in a museum and this has certainly had an impact on my feelings about the place. I feel like my visit was the beginning and MONA is waiting for me to come back and experience it again. I keep pondering how this collected data will impact how the museum is set out in the future. That’s pretty amazing.

What pissed me off

Going back to the home screen. Quite often, when I searched for the art near me, The O was unable to find it, returning to the home screen. In one room this happened so often that I stalked through annoyed, thinking “FFS I hate it when people get too bloody clever I JUST WANT A SIGN ON THE WALL.” My 3D tour shows clearly where The O worked well and where it didn’t. Some of what I missed, I didn’t really miss, I just wasn’t able to make The O comply with my wishes. That pissed me off. Disclaimer: Both my partner and I had similar problems, but his son who is 14 did not. He claimed that our problems with The O were directly related to our age. He may be right.

What I still can’t decide about

The Look Down Generation. Futurist Faith Popcorn once wrote about a Look Down Generation, which I think I’m in (I once saw a fellow Gen Y walk into a pole while checking their phone on the go… look up occasionally or you’re going to get hurt kids). I think The O plays upon this, and I have mixed feelings about it. I still can’t decide how I feel about the fact that I was communicating my likes and dislikes and feelings to technology, not the people around me. I don’t want to be a Luddite, but I am conflicted about how individual the experience was, which it would not have been without The O. I went with my partner and his son and we all saw different things and felt different things. This both amazes me and pisses me off.

Writing of her disappointment with a 2004 exhibition on WA music, academic Tara Brabazon argued that “Museums are never about objects, they provoke ideas and discussion.” MONA does this in spades and I think The O is central to this, preventing boredom and enforcing engagement, making you review your revulsion or ask yourself why you walked past that artwork without a second glance. When it didn’t work, it made me want to kick something, but when it did, it made me engage with art like I haven’t for a long time.

When The O’s good it’s very very good, and when it is bad it is horrid.