With the determination to make it bigger and better, C4 promised to continue support, finding a small funding stream in order to improve the site and its offer. The end result is a much-improved website and new iOS app with a coverage of 16,000 works around the world – not just in the UK. From British Colombia to cities across Portugal and Latin America, a loyal band of members have been adding what they know and find to create something which still feels quite small and new, yet has history and a massive geographical spread.
The past and future success of Big Art Mob is highly reliant on good metadata. Of course, you need to know exactly where the work is in order to add it to the catalogue; you should also be aware of its title, artist, and some further information about it. However, that's not the end of it; the quality and depth of metadata clearly varies from one reporter to another, and so Dennen is hoping to directly attract galleries and collections to it, bringing their own considerable lists of works, full of rich metadata while building out the audience of the project.
As Dennen explains, while "public art" to some may mean something more official and constrained, he is not prescriptive about what public art is. Happy for things to be reasonably organic, he wants the project to find its own way in terms of what's allowed and what isn't, although it has gained some considerable use cases in the past 6 years.
"There is a focus by current users on street art. Tagging says something about a place, the location, the socio-political context, the person who made it... and as you get up to something like Shepherd Fairey's work, then [street artists] are producing post-contemporary work. They are building a new canon. It helps to frame the debate about what street art is. On the other hand, it provides an entrance point to people that may otherwise have not had access to Eduardo Paolozzi's sculptures, for example."
The Big Art Mob iOS app
As one may expect, the iOS app uses location to build a sense of discovery – the world of public art that's around you. Dennen's view is that many similar apps, particularly those focusing on street art, fail to hit the mark, because they do not have a rich database to draw on. He makes the claim that many art-discovery apps fall into two camps: looking at the world around us, which relies on a good database, or essentially displaying pretty pictures. The positioning of the project is for a wide audience to consider Big Art Mob as they may use Instagram: for location-based artistic discovery, although clearly Big Art Mob has a much more robust sense of purpose.
The Big Art Mob website
As Big Art Mob is free of C4's management, it needs to stand on its own two feet and attract revenue. Dennen is relaxed, yet honest, about the project from a business perspective, while respectful of products which are aiming to achieve similar objectives. "Advertising is broken. You need enormous amounts of users to make it viable. All of the [products] out there that support large-scale web deployments, are all based around advertising. They are all based around interactions with commercial content. That's fine, as long as advertising gets smarter than it currently is. But, how does that work when you have a maximum catchment of 100k monthly users in your niche? That's the question for me. The arts products that are there, are focused on e-commerce.
It's interesting to see ArtFinder, ArtSpotter... there's a real drive to bring art into people's lives on a daily basis. I also wonder as to how big that audience is. What is the real drive for people when it comes to art? Appreciation is a very difficult thing to master in a web/app space."
It's clear that Dennen wants to reach for those larger audience numbers, and aggregating metadata from projects and collections is a rapid way to get there. Creative Commons-licensed content such as the Wikipedia Public Art Project is something of a Godsend, allowing for thousands more entries in one swoop (Big Art Mob is itself avaiable under a Creative Commons licence). The project is also opening up dialogue with one of the Big Art Project's original stakeholder groups – local authorities – to provide ways of delivering geolocative, discoverable content in a way that doesn't require a massive spend on a bespoke app. Critical to the aggregation of further catalogues will, again, be the metadata. As there is no standard for metadata in this context, there will need to be some scraping done, with the hope being that a different routine has to be run for each collection. As The Big Art Project gave birth to the Big Art Mob, perhaps it's now the turn of this new project to give birth to something of its own – an open standard for the cataloguing of location-based artwork.
"If you search for public art online then it's a dystopic, atomised, environment as these organisations don't necessarily understand digital, but they do understand metadata. They have fantastic collections, but difficult from a UI perspective. Conversely, while they have this tremendous metadata, what people often want is just a PDF."
One of Dennen's aspirations for the project is for it to become a showcase for what's possible, and for public artists – street artists – to be more accepted as legitimate artists creating socially notable work. This is clearly the case with artists such as Banksy, who, as Dennen notes, leads a pack whose "... eventual aim is to get a gallery show and be recognised. It just happens that your canvas is on the streets." As public art broadens its definition, horizons and its possibilities, then Big Art Mob clearly aims to be part of that broadening.