THE GOOGLE ART PROJECT, ARTSY AND OCULUS VR.

How can their vision contribute to the presentation of art within the 21st century?

The art and its institutions of the 21st century are currently facing a paradoxical challenge. There has been a rapid increase in the development of technological options for presenting works of art and yet attempts to adapt to this growth have been cautious. Even the most important museums and collections have failed to sufficiently adapt such developments due to their commitment to preserving the traditional notion of the museum which only allows a slow pace of modernisation. At this point, it is essential to look at developments in the virtual global domain, Web 2.0, as well as the ongoing technological development and mobilisation in our everyday lives and question their impact on the cultural awareness of observers of art and what possibilities this could open up. The issues addressed in the context of museum-based presentations are directly relevant to the integration of the observer into the modern-day virtual world of culture. Our expectations of a museum visit are changing in a similar way like our purchasing behaviour and media consumption. The problem of the museum is highlighted by its spatial and temporal limitations and its canonised exhibition approach – the museum has to compete with the modern-day media which market themselves in 140 characters or with a simple click. Thanks to the endless expanse of the internet and social media observers can now devise their own independent, virtual, well-being zone which is defined by everything from individual requirements to the collective exchanging of ideas. This gives rise to an enormous range of interactions which can be used to bridge the apparent limitations of a museum.

The Google Art Project can be seen as a pioneer of this development. It was launched in 2010 and was brought back into the spotlight at the Museum and you conference in collaboration with the Momai. The volume of content included in the projectii demonstrates the awe-inspiring force of such collaboration. However, analysing the possibilities of viewing art immediately reveals the specific features of such platforms. Observing art outside of its institutional context is possible within the boundaries of the observer’s private area. Visitors can establish a direct connection to the work without being subjected to the demands of public participation and the associated conventions of a museum or gallery. They can also view the works independently of the time constraints usually imposed during a physical visit.

A construct of this nature could serve as a virtual reproduction of a collection, offering interactive access to key items. This would create a virtual, cultural reality which transcends physical boundaries and forms a comprehensive presentation platform for artworksiii. However, the ability to observe works of art without any time constraints would make it possible to focus on details which would be impossible to see to the same extent with the naked eye. In terms of observing the virtual imageiiv in art, Grau noted that the meaning of any virtual depiction involves drawing the observer deeper and deeper into the imagev. He describes the futuristic state of complete immersion in virtual reality with all senses – a state which cannot be achieved at present. Grau’s assumption is therefore best seen from an unbiased perspective, based on the latest technological developments.

The concept of revolutionary, large-sized glasses for entering a virtual gaming area, as designed by the company Oculus VRvi, would reinforce his theory. This special technology is already being hailed as the precursor for the new internet and could facilitate such a complete immersion in a virtual environmentvii. This would enable users and visitors to online art platforms to stand opposite the work within an illusionistic space and to experience and analyse the work just as if they were in a physical setting. This breakaway from the usual museum standards through the introduction of a virtual domain offers plenty of scope for critical reflection on the analysis of artwork, the significance of the original in art and the associated democratisation of the observer. There is no denying that this democratisation is fuelling more transparent processes because it is facilitating more extensive access to museum exhibits and forcing museums to reconsider their presentation policies. At the same time, museums will be able to fulfil their educational role in terms of making the art experience accessible to the public. Private access to artwork could also lessen inhibitions about approaching works of art, especially modern art.

Private access to artwork could enable these individuals to observe the works in their own way and avoid any feelings of tension or exposing themselves to ridicule. Technology should therefore not be seen as a sublime hero of modern art presentation but rather as a mediator, which when applied skilfully, could continue to break down the borders between sophisticated and popular culture.

Weibl raises an important aspect of this discussion; the revolution in curatorial practices through the ongoing technologisation of our everyday lives.viii He even goes so far as to say that the integration of new media into the presentation and preparation of artwork could break down the selection mechanisms in art industry. Social media and virtual platforms enable curators to look outside of their institution and distinguish Weibl’s Noah’s Ark Principleix by incorporating transparency into their selection of artwork. It would be simple to host virtual exhibitions featuring young artists who would be selected in accordance to the curators and then offered a public space for their exhibitions, without any higher financial expenses being incurred. Concepts which would be impossible to implement in reality due to costs or other issues could easily be achieved in the virtual domain. However, this expansion of curatorial practice does bring the problem that curators would have to operate outside of the museum environment and therefore would be unable to comply with their indoctrinated obligation of implementing the institute’s own collections. Therefore virtual presentations are feasible due to a partial conformity with museum guidelines but would not offer much in the way of innovation, aside from an extended access to artwork for the visitors. For this reason, it is possible to justify the adaptation of virtual forms of presentation and establish approaches based on new technologies and forms of art in order to facilitate such projects for expanding presentation space. Aside from the collection and museum objects, reference must also be made to the various works of artists who have not been accorded presentation space due to their status. Since art is often lost or damaged over time and only a fraction of all artwork can be archived in cultural institutions virtual concepts might define new standards for collections in fulfilling their social obligations.

This approach would tie in with Weibl’s Noah’s Ark Principle while at the same time not contradicting with the museum collection policy.

Progressive refinement of the resources available will show whether it will be possible to add another field to the institutionalised canon and centralised control of art as a cultural commodity which will facilitate the archiving of artwork with minimal restrictions and allow free participation in culture. While a new development of this nature would involve innovation due to the web space required, this would also tie in with the view that in the 21st century we should provide artwork with a platform in line with technical, social and artistic demands.

The direct integration of the observer into this virtual world is a somewhat futuristic notion. From a modern-day perspective this would simply involve an additional development of available online capacity such as that used in the Google Art Project. Suggestions of a virtual exhibition concept and artwork presentation should not be expected in the next 30 years and instead be considered as the logical equivalent to the institution-based art landscape in the near future.

If museums, galleries and collections are presented to the public in a more transparent manner by projects like the Google Art Project or companies like Artsy, a clear integration of culturally motivated visitors will be the logical consequence of the already existing process. The possibilities offered by virtual reality in a curatorial, organisational or artistic context would be endless. Virtual art platforms of this scale (which are already in existence) offer a long overdue democratisation of the observer’s role. Observers are able to explore the artwork privately, in their own way and without any constraints or physical restrictions and can look through all of the virtual content as they wish without being subject to any social obligations. Artistic expression, like social norms, strives to achieve its implicit task which can be deduced from the paradox addressed at the outset: the technologisation of everyday life will go on and it is not the role of cultural institutions to preserve fragments of the past like an ark but rather to strike new paths which do justice to the exhibited works and facilitate a period of reflection which is suitable for the technological developments of the 21st century.

// Daniel Lippitsch

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i Unknown (2011): ‘The museum and you – creating multiple experiences for each visitor’, Conference Düsseldorf 6th – 8th July 2011, pp. 14-16. 
ii 321 collections and 63,376 objects. www.google.com/culturalinstitute/browse/?c.projectId=art-project&v.view=room&v.filter=items&hl=de&projectId=art-project 
iii Note: Companies like Artsy and Larry’s List are already working on such ideas in the field of private collections. www.artsy.net/about and www.larryslist.com/ 
iv Grau, Oliver (1999): ‘Into the Belly of the Image: Historical Aspects of Virtual Reality’, in: Leonardo, Vol. 32, No. 5, Seventh New York Digital Salon, pp. 368. 
v Grau, Oliver (1999), pp. 368. 
vi www.oculusvr.com/ 
vii Note: Heeter emphasises the status of the social presence of individuals within the virtual domain. Heeter, Carrie (1992): ‘Being There: The Subjective Experience of Presence’, in: Presence: Teleoperators and Virtual Environments, Vol. 1, No. 2, pp. 264 et seq. 
viii Weibl, Peter (2007): ‘Web 2.0 and the Museum. The Noah’s Ark Principal’, speech by Prof. Peter Weibl at the MAI Conference 2007, pp. 4. 
ix Note: The Noah´s Ark Principle was used by Weibl to explain the current aim of museum’s collection as they intend to save and present just a small amount of artworks made. Therefore he claims that this strategy does not consider all the remaining art which can´t be integrated in a museum collection. 
xi Sommerer, Christa / Mignonneau, Laurent (2011): ‘Cultural Interfaces: Interaction Revisited’, in: Grau, Oliver (2011): ‘Imagery in the 21st Century’, Cambridge: MIT, pp. 206 et seq. 
xii Author unknown (2010): ‘Osmose’, www.immersence.com/osmose/

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