Sensational Information – a quest to make art and information more accessible

This is the first audio interview of Sensational Information. This year I will interview people about how we can increase meaningful access to exhibits. Please leave comments and questions below. Let me know what kind of information would interest you. Thanks for listening.

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Piggyback Website

Transcription of the audio file.
Today I’m talking to Pete Brown. He’s a multi-sensory artist, and creator of Piggyback-app, an app designed to make art exhibits more accessible.

If you would like to follow along as we talk about the features, you can download it for free onto your computer at Click on the “Download The App” button. Or, go to your app store – it’s available for iPhone or Android.

I’m Pete Brown, creator of Piggyback App. I’m a tactile artist, and I created a mobile app and web platform called Piggyback. ASH Interactive is the company name, and Piggyback is the flagship product.

What I was hoping we could do today is talk to you about your art, and your motivation, as much as Piggyback. Because they seem to be intertwined.

Yeah, absolutely. So, I started out as an elementary teacher in Michigan, and relocated to Indianapolis about 10 years ago. And at that time I started working in arts administration for the Eiteljorg Museum, which is a Western and Native American, art history, and culture museum in Indianapolis. I started doing public programming, and consulting for education there. And then I eventually moved into new media production, and marketing, web, social media, those types of things. So, I had a pretty diverse experience there, and really got to learn a ton about the way arts administration works from the inside. I admired art in college during my Bachelor’s, and was actually really interested in ceramics originally. And as soon as you graduate, and all of those free resources are gone, it just was gone. I couldn’t afford a wheel, or a kiln, or clay, or any of that. So, I kind of got away from art, as far as being an artist and creating, for quite a while. And about two years into my time at Eiteljorg, I met a Native American artist named Douglas Miles, who happens to be Apache. And he was doing a bunch of really interesting, contemporary work that really caught my eye. And so, in the museum’s collection, we had several skateboards that he had painted on. And I kind of got, like, really excited about that. I’m like, “Wow, that’s pretty cool,” you know, because a lot of stereotypical things that you would assume that Native American artists are making…we had a lot of real traditional things in the collection, but the contemporary was something that I had never really put together in my mind before I started working at the museum. So, I started learning about him and his style. And at that time I had developed an Artist-in-Residence program, and selfishly – but also in a really cool way – brought him out with some other artists. And so I began kind of meeting him and other artists he was with. He was really gracious in telling me about his style. I learned that his technique was all stencil-based. So he was drawing images and then taking an X-acto knife and carving out these pieces and then layering them with spray paint. So that really triggered in me a sense of renewal, in that it made me want to go learn how to do something new. So, I got into stencils, just really a lot of pop culture, really just kind of my background. I’m a product of the 80’s – born in the 70’s, but a product of the 80’s for sure. So anything pop culture is like a real fascination that I have. And I think a lot of Americans, like Gen X and Millennials, we really identify, I think, with pop culture, more than even our historic culture. And that’s as a general American. And this is a tangent, but I was always really kind of jealous and fascinated with the Native American artists that I met, that had a real strong tie to a cultural influence. Because I felt like I didn’t really have that. You know, my ancestors are traced back to England, sort of. But there’s really no like, “You’re Irish”, or “You’re English”, or “You’re German”. My family never really embraced that in a big way. So I feel like my culture that I’ve embraced is just American pop culture. Anyway, that’s a little tangent about my art. So, I started doing art, and I kind of quickly started exhibiting, kind of on the down-low, I didn’t really want anybody to know about it because I was nervous about it. And I had a good response, and things just kept rolling and rolling, so I’ve been doing that for 6 years now. Just showing, selling, exhibiting, curating. I have a small gallery space in Indianapolis where I host shows. Usually group shows, and they’re more programmatic, they’re more event-based. There’s bands, and DJs, and food trucks, all that kind of stuff. And in 2010, I got approached by an organization called Bosma Enterprises, they’re an organization in Indianapolis that serves people who are visually impaired. They do rehabilitative service, job training, education, even general counseling in preparing families and educating families. And so, I had a neighbor who worked there, and had been involved in donating artwork and things in the past. So I was approached by one of their VPs about putting an art show together with their mission in mind. And that was in 2010. And in 2012, we debuted the exhibition which was called “Visualize Without Your Eyes”. It was a profound experience for me artistically because I was creating artwork for people who normally – at least from my understanding at that time – who normally do not really venture into traditional arts environments, right? I mean, being a product of arts administration I was very like, “Oh, nobody’s allowed to touch art”. You’re not allowed to touch it, there’s all these rules, it’s kind of stuffy. That’s the perception. You know, how am I going to create an exhibition, in a really great gallery in Indianapolis. The Arts Council Of Indianapolis runs this space called Gallery 924. Very traditional, I was very proud to be exhibiting there. But I went into that first meeting with them and I said, “Hey guys, we’re going to let everybody touch all the art, how do you feel about that?” And what was cool was that the gallery was really open to that. Shannon Linker is their Director, and she’s always like willing to take a risk, which is really awesome. So it was an awesome experience. I made 45 pieces for that show, ranging from 3×4 feet pieces of Helen Keller that were larger than life, to a Stevie Wonder piece that was based off a really great black & white photo from the 70’s, and in our images right now, his hands are way up front in the foreground, and his head’s back so it looks small. And then I switched it out from a keyboard to him playing on iPad apps. So he’s kind of back, and there’s plexi-glass iPads in the foreground. It was kind of cool. So anyway, that kind of got me hooked on tactile art, you know? It made me rethink about how I can build my art, how I construct it, the materials. I mean, I spent so much time trying to fake texture, trying to fake shadows, trying to fake all these things. And so, while it was a big challenge to try to make art to be experienced by someone who couldn’t see, it was also very freeing in a lot of ways, because it was now like, oh, if you want that to be soft, then go buy something soft and incorporate it, you know. Or if you want something to feel like sandpaper, then go get some sandpaper and use it. So, it was cool. And I’ve never really been able to go back. Because I worked super flat, two-dimensional, like, forever. You know, very into street art, very inspired by graffiti and stencil artists. And part of that comes from growing up in Detroit and being exposed to a lot of that for a long time. And I never really thought about moving 3-dimensionally. So that was what really kicked it off. Then I met Ann, and got invited to come out to the NFB Conference in Orlando, got to show some work there, and get feedback. And that was also the next step in this transformational concept because when I did the exhibition, I hadn’t met Ann, I was doing research on my own looking for other artists who were making tactile artwork, touchable artwork, and couldn’t find them. I mean, it was impossible for me to find anybody even near me. And let alone Ann, I remember it was like, “Oh my gosh”. And actually, I forget the gentleman’s name…

Kevan Worley.
Yeah, yeah. They were having the NFB Conference and he invited me to come out, and it didn’t pan out, but he said, “oh, you need to talk to Ann Cunningham”. And so that was the introduction there. And I was like, “Oh man, there’s somebody else doing it”? And then it turns out that not only is there somebody doing it, but she’s an awesome artist, she’s been doing it for decades, and there are other people like me. It was like this weird moment, you know? So the balls just kind of kept rolling. I mean, I really don’t work like, totally flat anymore.

Well, you also don’t work entirely visually, or tactually. You’re a multi-media artist.

That’s a good point, yeah. For that show, you know, when I was thinking about how to make an art exhibition accessible, my first thought was touch, and my second thought was that it’s got to have an audio/video component. You know, a descriptive component. So at that time we were using QR codes, because QR codes were kind of hot at that point, and they were free. Which – the price was right. So it was a lot of work, but I did it. Every single piece in that show had a QR code, it had a descriptive video, not only describing the piece in a very literal sense, like, “Oh, this is in the lower right corner, and it’s red, and it’s made out of this,” but also giving more insight into the artistic, you know, “Here’s why I chose these colors, here’s why this person or thing was inspirational in making me want to paint about it”. So that was a big component in that first exhibition and as a transition into today which is Piggyback. And I primarily designed it to be a self-guided, multi-media tour tool. So that a museum would be thinking, “Oh, we have a special exhibition, let’s interview the artist or the curator, let’s have them talk about a bunch of pieces. And then when a visitor comes in, they download the app on their phone or their tablet, and then they hook up their earbuds, and they go on a little tour. They don’t need to wait for an expert because they expert’s in their phone,” right? And that would also enliven a lot of the perception that the permanent galleries never change, you know? You could get more people re-exploring permanent gallery spaces by adding little tidbits, and adding stories and things, right? That’ll get people revisiting. So that was my original intent. But what we found is that people are using it for all kinds of different things. They’re using it for selling tickets, selling memberships, they can accept donations through the app. They can put all of their general information up. We’re fully integrated with Google Maps, to where if I was going to Denver for the weekend, and I needed to know how to get to Museum X, I could open up Piggyback and touch on a button, and it would give me turn-by-turn directions, or a bus route, or walking directions, cycling, whatever. And another huge thing with museums is getting feedback from their visitors. So we’re integrated as well with like SurveyMonkey, so you can create surveys, you can start collecting real-time data and feedback from the visitors while they’re there, and you don’t have to say, “Hey, can you take a survey?” and post up an intern by the exit, and beg everybody to fill out a piece of paper. They’ll do it on their phone because it’s fun, and it’s right there, and it’s instant. They can even do it from home if they forgot to do it. We have an organization with the Indianapolis Irish Fest who uses us. And we basically turned into a digital version of their program, so instead of getting the paper programs, they’re able to save on those expenses of printing all those color, beautiful brochures that end up in the trash or the recycling bin, and cut it down to about half as many, and then plan on all the younger people, or people who are moving into the phone realm, having it all on their phone. So you can go in and you can find out, day by day, what are the activities, what band is playing on what stage, how much does it cost to get in, when are the sheep herding demos, you know? And the same thing is true for Indian Market at the Eiteljorg, who uses us. So, a lot of festivals and programmatic applications are there as well. We’re getting into some web-based game development as well. We have a client that is a classical music radio station, and they’re using us to heighten awareness of classical music in elementary students, younger kids, getting them interested in classical music. So, my team and I have an arts admin and education background, so we’re developing worksheets, characters, curriculum, that will be used in elementary classrooms. And that applies to museums too, because you think about the fact that the Eiteljorg Museum is in Indianapolis, but there might be a school in South Dakota that has an interest, you know? You can actually start to create curriculum and tie it in with the app. It becomes a marketing tool as well. Like the last tactile exhibition we did, it was called “Art On Music”. And it’ll be up for a year or so. People can still explore the artworks in that show and learn about the artists. But we also offer and have full analytics, so what I do for our clients is I’ll go into Google Analytics, I’ll take all their data, and every month they get a report of how many people looked at it, where were they from, how long were they on certain pages, and that sort of information. And what’s amazing is “Art On Music”, which was curated by a guy in Indianapolis, had 19 artists but half were from Indianapolis, and the rest were from all over the U.S. And our number one hit wasn’t even from Indianapolis, we were getting more hits from like, Texas. One of our artists was from Texas, he’s very good about promoting what he’s doing, and people in Texas were responding. And were able to get those analytics so now, when you’re thinking about your marketing money, and you’re thinking, “Oh, I’m going to spend $1,500 or $3,000 on a billboard in my local market for a couple months,” you know, for the price of a billboard, or the price of all the programs you’re going to print, you can have Piggyback, which now is accessible worldwide. I mean, we’ve been hit on 5 different continents, 20 different countries, 35 different states. And that’s anybody with a phone, with a tablet, with a computer now – because we just released a web-based version – anybody, anywhere in the world with internet or a data plan, can access this information. So the reach is just nuts.

So, are you anticipating that you’ll start promoting your own activities over Piggyback? I mean, like for your next show, “Art On Music”?

Yeah, absolutely. Well, my piece is a little different, but in general, most organizations do, so whether it’s the Eiteljorg, or the Arts Council, or Vanderbilt University, when they have their next show coming up, and you look at their Twitter feed, or you look at Facebook, or their website, they’re saying, “We’re starting with the release date on Piggyback, get a little preview of the show on Piggyback,” you know? So people are starting to do that. And it’s just automatically going to become part of your marketing concept.

So how can you distribute from here? Say, how would I, as an artist, be able to use Piggyback as my platform? How would that work, and then how would I distribute?

That’s a good question. The way that it works is, on Piggyback, when you get down to what we call the ‘Stop Level’, meaning you’re in front of something, and you want to learn more about it, the little ‘Play’ button is actually two-fold. It’s either for video or a URL. And what we normally encourage our clients to do is to create a YouTube page, and actually, Vimeo is also a really great, free service. So we encourage people to use Vimeo or YouTube, and then drop in the URLs. Because then again, what that does is it takes people back to your page, your content, all the videos you’ve uploaded, and that will track your number of views as well. But that’s also where any other URL gets dropped in, so any website you want to plop in there, you can drop in your website, you can drop in the SurveyMonkey link, the Google Maps link, the ticket sales link, the donation link, your Facebook, your Twitter, whatever you want. You can drop anything in there.

So you can have a full menu in each of the 4 buttons?

Well, in each one of those buttons, you can only put one chunk of content in there. So, under the ‘Text’, you can put one brick of text.

We can’t post numerous documents? It’s got to all be in one document?

Only in the ‘Still Images’. In the ‘Still Images’ you can have up to five still images that can be swiped through and zoomed out. Then in the ‘Video’ or ‘URL’ button, you can post one link, but that is kind of endless. There are different strategies for how you want to use it. I mean, a lot of these organizations will have a tour that is all about their history and their mission, and then they’ll have a tour that is all selling and buying tickets and memberships, and then they’ll have tours that are exhibition tours – multi-media, self-guided stuff. So they’re basically bringing all these different corners of the museum together at one table. They go, “Hey, we have this tool, how does Marketing want to use it, how does Curatorial want to use it, how does Education, how does Development”? And everybody can go, “Well, we want to sell through the store. Well, we want to sell memberships. Well, we want to promote our rental and banquet things”. So they can do all that through the one spot, without having to go spend $30,000-$40,000 to get a custom thing done, or hire somebody to do it.

They get their Piggyback app, they do a tour, and then PR can come in and say, “Okay, this is how our stop is going to look”. And then Marketing can say, “Well, this is our stop”. And then the art tour, each image can get its own stop. I mean, you make as many stops as you want, right?

Right. And another strategy is just that maybe Marketing doesn’t care, but they do want to make sure that the brand is consistent. So, it’s like, “Oh, we don’t need a whole tour, but be sure to use orange #72, and use blue #11,” you know what I mean? And we’ll crop those photos for you the right way. When I was at the museum, we would sit down, and we would go, “Okay, we’re bringing in this exhibit”. And people from all of the different departments would go, “Okay, well, here’s what I need, and here’s what I need to contribute”. And it would be the same thing. Piggyback would just become a part of that meeting. Where you’d go, “Okay, we’ve got the images, we’ve got the art, we know what’s happening, now what are we putting on Piggyback”? And that’s just the way that I would envision it being built into the automatic discussion of the culture of the organization.

Right! Well, this sounds like it’s already evolving, and it’s going to continue evolving. And it sounds like it’s so flexible that each organization or individual is going to be able to decide how it works best for them.

Yeah, absolutely. That’s the idea. And one more thing that I’m not going to mention unless I do it this second – because we were talking about the different areas of the organization – we also have built-in sponsorship recognition. Some organizations choose to use it, others don’t. For example, let’s say that Hewlett-Packard sponsors Denver Art Museum’s next exhibit. There’s a spot in there where they can recognize that sponsor right away. And some choose to do that, so when you touch on the exhibit, there’s a little slide that pops up, and it’s timed out after a couple of seconds, and then it pulls back down, and then you get all the content. And other organizations have created a tour that is all about sponsors. At my last exhibition, the “Art On Music” exhibition, we had 4 main sponsors, and we just created a sponsor tour that had links, talked about the mission of each sponsor, dropped in a website. So, I really try to think about every job in that museum, and what they’re going to want out of something like this. And what that allows – again, from my perspective – is if you’re able to recognize your sponsors right in here, that it’s exponentially easier to approach a sponsor, and say, “Hey, look – Ann has got this exhibition coming up, and she needs $1,500 to get this app going, so do you want to sponsor it for $1,500, and we’ll put your logo in front of every single person who opens up the app, and opens up that tour”? And so, it not only pays for itself, but if you play your cards right, you can actually use it to generate money. And from a museum perspective, a museum has, let’s say 5 galleries. And let’s say you have a $1,000 sponsorship for each show that comes in that year. So you just brought in $5,000, and maybe Piggyback cost you $3,000. You know, so you just made $2,000. And I don’t know a single organization that can say “No” to making money. At least in this day and age. So I wanted to drop that in there, because that is a concern, “How do we pay for it”? I wanted to be intentional about making it accessible to organizations to use it, just as much as I want it to be accessible for someone to use it. And that, therefore, piggybacks onto the concept of ADA-accessibility, which the app is. It is coded properly, to the point where if someone is totally blind, and uses their iPhone or Android phone as an accessibility tool, everything is coded where the buttons will tell you what buttons they are, it speaks to you so you can navigate through it. And actually, I was recently told that we were too descriptive. So we actually went back to Bosma Enterprises. One of their employees helped me with our developers to make sure that things were coded properly. And I went back and met with another group, for them to possibly use it for some educational purposes. And one of the people trying it out, who’s blind, said, “You know, you almost overdid it”. Because everything is so well-described.

It seems like you haven’t found anything even close to the limits of what you’ve gotten yourself into.

And it’s been just a crazy adventure, you know what I mean? I’m learning so much through this whole process. I mean, I resigned from the museum in 2012, and we launched Piggyback in April, 2014. So really, we’ve only been going since April. And it’s been kind of a really soft launch. I really want to get a year of data, a year of kind of grassroots, under my belt. And then really take a look at it in 2015, and go, “Alright, what’s the next increment? How do we go”? And there’s so much potential, so many different possibilities. It’s fun, it’s an adventure.

It’s great! It’s already evolved so much since we talked about it last summer. So it’s really great to catch up with you again.
Yeah, thanks!