Monday, February 07, 2011

The GAP in the vision
-- [Guest post by Madhu]

As someone prone to museum fatigue and precarious finances, I am only too thrilled to browse the colossal corridors of the Met or the Uffizi online. But I find the Google Art Project intriguing for other reasons. Having trawled museum websites for some time now, I am more interested in Google’s role in this ambitious project of digital curatorship/archiving, in relation to a museum.

The points of innovation in the GAP, as I have decided to refer to it, are adapting the Street View technology to digitally navigate certain partnering museums, providing an unprecedented level of detail and resolution for some selected images, and a tool that allows viewers to build their own collections on the site. I am quite a fan of online art databases so I wasn’t prepared for how underwhelmed I felt when I actually checked out the site. The super resolution images were of course very exciting – to see the cracks on old canvases that even the artists themselves would not have seen? That’s awesome. But apart from that, I admit I was initially tempted to wave it away as just a victory of numbers – this is from the press release:
The Art Project in numbers:
11 Cities, 9 Countries
17 Museums
17 ‘gigapixel’ pictures
385 gallery rooms
486 artists
1061 high res artwork images
More than 6,000 Street View ‘panoramas’

Reading the celebratory reception of the project, however, the lavish superlatives struck me as odd and I’ve been trying to figure out why. I also did find some criticism of the project, for instance, about how limited the list of museums and the available works from each museum are. But Google has been quick to assure us that the current list is only a starting point and will hopefully grow in the future. Fair enough I think – I wasn’t disappointed with the size of the archive anyway (although I am curious about some of the choices for super-resolution, like why the Museo Reina Sofia chose Juan Gris’s The Bottle of Anis del Mono instead of Picasso’s Guernica - but again, I doubt there can ever be a list acceptable to everyone).

Another point of contention was the inevitably simplistic question – is the GAP as good as the ‘real thing’? I think the question is misguided for more than one reason. Firstly, it assumes that the museum space is unmediated and neutral, with free access to the ‘real’, when it is anything but. Secondly, the questions of authenticity of experience in a digital version of a work of art are not exclusive to the GAP but common to the larger field of digital archiving and spectatorship.

The GAP, however, hinges on two things – the perception of the work of art as a primarily physical artifact, and the value of seeing more. The project’s greatest contribution is the heightened visual experience. But given that this hyper-visual experience can’t add much to, say, conceptual art, I have to conclude that the physical artifact is essential to the effectiveness of the GAP. I am also inclined to guess that by slotting painting into a fundamentally visual space, the project subscribes to the archaic pigeonholing of painting into 2D, accessed fundamentally by the sense of sight, implying perhaps that sculpture is best experienced spatially in 3D, and so on - ideas often prevalent in museum spaces, and challenged, ironically, even by the extraordinarily sensuous textures of Starry Night.

That begs my central question – what is Google’s attitude to the Museum? On the one hand the GAP uncritically legitimizes the institution of the museum as a custodian of art and arbiter of good and bad art. On the other hand, it asserts itself and subverts the museum space by turning it into an ‘artifact’ itself, with the Street View application. The works included in the GAP are selected by the museums and the accompanying information about the art is also from the respective museums. The differences I see between the GAP and online tours offered by museum websites are of course the unprecedented giga-pixel resolution in one work selected by each museum from its collection, and that it is a common space for works from different museums. The detail of the selected works is definitely a first for most of us and that specific kind of viewership of the works is greatly increased to an audience much wider than conservators and owners of the works - and hopefully this will now spawn a more complex narrative.

Dr. Julian Raby, Director, Smithsonian: Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery says, “The giga-pixel experience brings us very close to the spirit and energy of the artist…” (Eh?!) Nicholas Serota of the Tate Gallery was quoted in The Guardian as saying, “This is a second generation view of the way museums will use the internet. Ten years ago museums were obsessed with getting thousands of objects on the screen, now we're interested in getting depth of understanding of the works."

At this point I began to be puzzled by the easy equation of understanding with seeing more. It aligns the GAP with the mythology of technological coups always resulting in greater democratization of knowledge, without necessarily asking questions about whose knowledge is being made accessible and why. I realize I am no expert on the inner workings of Google-sized corporations or the technical aspects of search engine algorithms. But I am one of the millions of people, who thanks to Google, can now ‘see’ more. But what we see is still determined by Google’s partnerships with institutions whose bodies of information it deems legitimate.

I don’t see anything in the GAP to indicate that Google is structurally and ideologically poised to make fundamental shifts in the field of archiving and dissemination – not, for instance, in the way that Wikipedia seems to envision. But when I think about all the Google follies – criteria for the page ranking system, the Street View in maps, its relationship with China, and Eric Schmidt responding to privacy concerns with, “If you have something that you don't want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn't be doing it in the first place” – it’s quite consistent. And, well, icky.

* For those interested in the buzz, the NY Times has a rather lame article out here.

[Madhu prides herself on her ability to estimate both time and space, and shuns all devices that measure either. Read more here...]