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L.A.'s Best Arts & Culture Apps 

Thursday, Jul 5 2012

As I stroll the flats of Beverly Hills, nodding my head to dreamy electronic soundscapes, the sound of a magic wand sweeps somewhere between my ears. I stand there on Rodeo Drive and L.A. artist Nzuji de Magalhães begins narrating the scene I'm witnessing: a slowly moving street populated by hypnotized tourists in rental cars.

This is the Hammer Museum's "Made in L.A." app (free), created for its biennial featuring emerging young artists. In the same way the biennial is distributed among three locations (the Hammer, LAXART and Barnsdall Art Park), the app consists of 75 "hot spots" across the city. When you approach a hot spot, one of 75 artists or curators in the show begins narrating a story about the work and how the place you're standing (or driving by) inspired it. The rest of the time, it plays fantastic music curated by the local DJ collective dublab.

One day I knocked out four hot spots on one bus ride and I was ebullient. Another day I found myself going out of my way to catch artist Meg Cranston's hot spot outside the Beverly Center. And that's what a good app should do — tug you down alleys, beckon you into buildings, turn the city into a game.

click to enlarge ILLUSTRATION BY FRED NOLAND
  • ILLUSTRATION BY FRED NOLAND

I'm interested in the kinds of apps that help me discover something I may not have known about the Los Angeles that's unfurling before me. What apps work like a kind of cultural augmented reality, exposing me to the hidden, the secret, the unknown?

I started my art and culture hunt with the major institutions. Of all the local museum apps, LACMA's (free) is the best. You can use it to find out when Chris Burden's Hot Wheels machine Metropolis II is running, make reservations at restaurant Ray's or type in a code to get more information about any work of art.

But you can browse only 30 pieces from its permanent collection without knowing the codes. And unless I was already thinking about going to LACMA, or wanted to check an event time, I probably wouldn't use the app at all. To discover new art, I need an app that is helpful outside museum walls.

The Getty hypes its "Getty Goggles," which uses Getty-specific content in conjunction with Google's Goggles app (free). Google Goggles, if you haven't used it yet, is pretty sweet: Take a photo of anything and Google gives you a list of results related to the image. The Getty recently expanded its partnership with Google Googles, with 60 percent of its objects now recognized.

It's a great app to have, but it doesn't make as much sense when you're in a museum, standing just feet from a label that proclaims an artwork's title and artist. It's more fun outside of the museum, where you could feasibly use it to identify art in the wild, like in a book or on the streets.

I tried without much success to use Google Googles to identify buildings in L.A. (It got Capitol Records but didn't know the Eastern Columbia Building.) Even as an architecture writer, I admit I sometimes lapse when it comes to knowing the histories of important buildings around me.

This is the great strength of Fan Guide Tours Los Angeles Modern Architecture ($4.99). This app not only highlights a few dozen modern landmarks across the city but also provides excellent audio narration and driving itineraries so you can tour a handful of buildings in the same neighborhood. I discovered a Frank Lloyd Wright house in Brentwood I had never seen before. Win.

Is there an art app that could lead to that same sense of discovery? While on the Sunset Strip on a Saturday morning, I tapped the ArtConcierge app (free). Created by local art magazine Fabrik, ArtConcierge was developed for the 60-museum L.A. art history initiative Pacific Standard Time, and when it launched, it featured robust listings of exhibitions and events.

Since Pacific Standard Time ended, however, the listings are no longer updated, even if the venues are still there. So although the app was able to remind me that I was close to the always fun Prism gallery, after that, the page was a dead end. I had to go online to figure out the opening time (11 a.m.) and that there was a Barry McGee show waiting for me inside.

It became quickly apparent that a list of every institution in the vicinity wasn't always helpful — curation was key. On an afternoon in Glendale, I launched the Know What app ($1.99) to try to find a new-to-me destination in the area. A pleasantly designed interface suggested the Niscience Foundation Sanctuary, a sweet little pastel chapel with flared eaves, like something you'd find in Disneyland's "It's a Small World" ride. I had passed it many times and never noticed it.

I wanted another gem, but as I tapped deeper into the app, I realized that for more architecture, I needed to buy a guide written by the Los Angeles Conservancy for an extra $2.99. The guides are indeed awesome, like Boing Boing founder Mark Frauenfelder's list of L.A. oddities, the tour company Esotouric's noir-ish destinations and an incredible list of 28 local hikes by Modern Hiker, the best hiking blog in Southern California. But each one costs a few dollars extra.

I have no doubt that the street-art list curated by L.A. Freewalls would be worth every penny of its $1.99 for an awesome Arts District stroll. But to fill in the gaps and make the Know What app a truly comprehensive guide to the city, I saw myself shelling out at least $10.

I began to wonder why Los Angeles — with its wealth of young, talented developers and smart, civic-minded startups — doesn't have better apps for discovering local culture.

We could start with a more comprehensive app about architecture. My dream is that this will be possible when Survey L.A., a citywide census of the built environment, completes its research. Imagine being able to filter every building in L.A. by year built or style and setting out on a Victorian or Googie scavenger hunt.

And speaking of buildings, I want filming locations. I'd love to know when I'm living on the street where Chinatown was filmed, as I did for the first three years I was in L.A. There's a global app called TheMovieMap (99¢) that does an OK job, but it's sparse. I want one with lots more movies, plus television shows, and one that's more L.A.-specific. Or, to keep tourists occupied, what about a Star Maps app? (Maybe you could still buy it on Sunset, with a QR code.)

And how about a way to use Metro's excellent new app (free) for urban adventures? The app already plans trips, maps transit stops and gives real-time arrivals in a smooth interface.

Ideally, the Metro app could have an option to import guides, like the locations featured in KCET's new regional-art series Artbound or — plug! — L.A. Weekly's own app of its listings (free), working like an overlay of curated, transit-accessible culture: As you transferred buses or exited a Metro station, the app would let you know that an experimental dance troupe was taking the stage right around the corner.

That kind of stumbled-upon adventure is key when it comes to experiencing L.A.'s vast expanse. And that's why the "Made in L.A." app will be awesome even after the show ends in September. On the map, as I zoomed out on the 60 or so hot spots I still needed to tackle, I noticed one dangling off the southernmost coast of the city, by Long Beach. It's artist Mark Hagen talking about how he's inspired by Sunken City, a San Pedro neighborhood that mysteriously slid into the Pacific and is now a tumble of buckled, graffiti-flecked streets and sidewalks.

I'd never heard about Sunken City before, and now it's all I can think about. And it's all because of that interaction between art and place: I can visit Sunken City, then go to the "Made in L.A." show and see Hagen's work, and think about how it connects to my Los Angeles. I'm planning my trip now. And I'm wondering how many more hot spots I can check off my list on the way there.

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