In 2007, Seth Carnes arranged his poem in magnetic words on a large steel plate in his art gallery in the Meatpacking District. Then he stood back and spent the day invisible to the visitors, watching people come and go. Some stopped, and dragged letters and words around, restructuring the poem and building their own phrases, changing the lines created by people who came before them.
At one point someone built the phrase “beating child.” Another changed it to, “if one can dream of beating a child who wants.” And later a little boy came up and spent a while rearranging before leaving the phrase, “if one can dream of beating a child, who wants to do it ?!“
Seth Carnes is not a poet. Not traditionally at least. He’s an artist who uses a variety of visual mediums to explore specific concepts. Lately, he’s become obsessed with the written word and the power of symbols. After doing his magnetic art project for three years in New York City and then Sweden, Carnes decided to experiment with the ephemerality of mobile.
He’s bringing his art project into your phones. Carnes has spent a year and a half crafting an app called Poetics, available for download only in the iOS App Store. Users can take pictures on their phone or work with a few images already in the app. Then they can add little chunks of text, stretch, shrink, or tilt them, and arrange them on top of the photo. It’s simple, intuitive, pretty, and a tad pointless for anyone who want their apps to have practical purposes.
Carnes sees it as a creative, visual way of journaling. “With the Apple Store, anyone can download it,” Carnes says. “Who knows where it could go or how it could impact someone? I like the idea of that.”
Carnes is part of a growing movement of artists who are exploring mobile apps for experiments. The mindset is very different from a startup. It’s not about baking in viral hooks, growth hacking, or customer acquisition. It’s also not about money. It’s about using new forms of communication to play with the line between material and dematerial.
Marshall Weber, curator of non-profit artist organization Booklyn, advised Carnes during his creation of the Poetics app. “Mobile: It’s another palette. It’s like another stage. It brings a whole new technology but also a whole contextual terrain for artists,” Weber says.
Poetics also treads virgin ground for app monetization. Poetics costs $1.99 to download in stores, but that pittance is Carnes’ attempt to break even and allow the app to sustain itself. To supplement the costs of developing it, Carnes turned to a finance model practically as old as art itself: patron funding.
Fractured Atlas, a non-profit that offers services for artists, accepted him into its fiscal sponsorship program, granting Poetics non-profit benefits. The organization selected it, because despite the fact that it’s an app, they see it as artistic and non-commercial. It’s not meant to have a mass appeal. It’s been downloaded by 3,000 people so far, a good chunk of whom are in Saudi Arabia strangely enough.
“In my experience VCs… want everything to go big or go home and have that longshot potential for being wildly profitable. If your app fits that investment profile maybe the VC model is the way to go,” Fractured Atlas executive director Adam Huttler says. “But for something like Poetics that is not necessarily seeking the broadest possible audience but is seeking to provide an intimate artistic experience for a smaller group of people, it could be a good fit.”
Poetics treads fresh ground in the art-app world. There are plenty of apps that artists can use to take pictures, draw, or edit their works. And there are plenty of apps for finding art, interacting with your favorite gallery, or even imagining how art would look on your walls.
But Poetics is rare in that it’s an app meant to be an artistic experience, akin to going to a gallery and seeing an exhibit, only on your phone. It’s the only so-called “app as art,” or at least, I couldn’t find any others on Google. Huttler, Executive Director of Fractured Atlas, says his organization has never sponsored an app that’s in and of itself art. “Hopefully it’s the first of many!” Huttler says. If you come across any others, please leave them in the comments section.
If Poetics is the ground breaker, it’s not particularly revolutionary. It looks like Instagram with better options for adding text. I couldn’t see myself using it for journaling, messaging, or any other purpose. But perhaps there are souls out there more creative than me who would.