Tag Archives: Walter Benjamin

Google Art Project vs the Delirious Museum

31 May
Now you see it, now you don’t. Henri Rousseau and friend on Google Art Project

Now you see it, now you don’t. Henri Rousseau and friend on Google Art Project

Google Art Project uses ‘Street View’ technology, but the street ends where the museum begins. Step over the threshold from Millbank into Tate Britain and you leave the world of pedestrians and traffic behind, entering an eerie and deserted gallery space devoid of fellow visitors or even staff, where crude arrows take you from silent room to silent room. You are invited to respond by conducting a series of imaginary art heists to assemble your own fantasy art collection.

It’s a cliché that modernism privileges visuality, but start exploring the MoMA with Art Project and there are some paintings you literally cannot see; works that due to the exploitability of their image rights elsewhere have been rendered fat with pixels like innocent faces in a cop-stop-action show on Channel 5. They exist, and occupy their rightful space in the museum, that you can be sure of; you are merely not allowed to look at them.

It shouldn’t really be a surprise that this particular vision of the museum as a visually portable feast of pick’n’mix delights is more than eighty years old. In 1930 Frederick Kiesler imagined it like this:

The Telemuseum. Just as operas are now transmitted over the air, so picture galleries will be. From the Louvre to you, from the Prado to you, from everywhere to you. You will enjoy the prerogative of selecting pictures that are compatible with your mood or that meet the demands of any special occasion. Through the dials of your Teleset you will share in the ownership of the world’s greatest art treasures.

This dream of the Telemuseum is realised perfectly by Google Art Project: a device that negates the distance between the remote user and the museum and removes in the process everything but the flat, visual surface of gallery space. Modern painting, historically obsessed with the visual field, canonically displayed in the Modern museum, is teleported to the viewer to experience it in visual purity.

Kiesler’s fantasy is quoted (p59) in Calum Storrie’s The Delirious Museum, a book with a very different approach to the idea of the museum. Storrie begins with the contention that ‘museums should be a continuation of the street’ and that a museum should not only form an accessible part of the city, but also form a continuation of the city itself. In twelve chapters leading from the Louvre to Las Vegas, Storrie develops a history and theory of the ‘delirious museum’ that takes in theft of the Mona Lisa by an Italian nationalist; Benjamin’s Arcades; Marcel Duchamp’s museum-in-a-suitcase; Shwitters’ adventures in personal mythology and museology; Chris Burden’s Samson (a work in which a museum entrance turnstile ratchets timbers outwards, warping and potentially destroying the fabric of the museum itself); Daniel Libeskind’s totemic, increasingly self-referential architecture; and ends (nearly) with the Museum of Jurassic Technology, a Culver City storefront outfit that is at once both oddball Wunderkammer and critique of the idea of memory. This is an underground history of museums that, if you like, runs parallel to the second half of Karsten Schubert’s The Curator’s Egg.

The Delirious Museum is, in art and architecture, all that attempts to broach the classical facades of institutions of art and antiquity and inject something of lived life back into the museological space. Some of these sallies are nakedly political, like the Situationist assault on the spectacle; others are merely concerned with the artistic; once or twice we cross the dreary river of ‘institutional critique’, the gallery’s attempt to reify theory; and three chapters on museum architecture serve only to convince that the yolk of a museum remains infinitely more interesting than the shell. Impossible to realise, the Delirious Museum (like Malraux’s ‘Museum without walls’) is something that can only exist in a book; but it’s a guidebook that also offers us an idea of what we should be demanding from museums.

Storrie goes nowhere near the digital: his delirium remains grounded in the spatial and personal experience of the museum environment. But these tendencies to critique, and more importantly to the expansion of the museum into everyday life are not without their online manifestations. It’s true that net.art remains the great unrealised promise of the internet setting art free, a promise that over-sponsored pixel-pretty shows like Decode fail to redeem. But when with even modest technological means at their disposal museums are capable of opening up photographic archives to the public, teaching science through games, making curatorial processes transparent through blogs and asking the public to contribute to exhibitions years before they open, it seems odd that Google Art Project should feel so like a CD-ROM, the kind of representation of a gallery that those of us who work with museums online for a living had abandoned before the first dotcom bubble even burst. Why has the world’s leading technology company delivered us a ‘virtual museum’ that belongs to the 1930s?


Core course week 8: Digital museums

29 Nov
Videogrid by Ross Phillips (detail)

Videogrid by Ross Phillips (detail)

Staying close to home, Nick Lambert introduced ‘Museums in the age of new media’ for the eighth week of the core course (week 6 was reading week and the tutor for week 7 was unavailable). As the scope of the interface between digital technology and museums would hardly seem to fit into a single lecture, it made sense to break it down into three distinct areas:

  • Interactive displays in traditional object-based museums
  • The digitisation of collections
  • New Media Art, and its commissioning, display and preservation by museums

Nick posited new media in the museum as located somewhere in the contradiction between Andre Malraux’s desire for a museum without walls and Walter Benjamin’s awareness of the reduction of aura of reproduced works (I think this is an unnecessarily negative reading of Benjamin – he talked about film and photography in the context of a ‘renewal of mankind’).

Nick’s own background is in work with Birkbeck’s Vasari Centre, a digitisation research centre and lab, which collaborated with the National Gallery on the high-resolution and colour fidelity electronic scanning of paintings in its collections. As well as digitisation, Vasari staff have also worked on various data repositories and research databases, including the National Inventory of Continental European Paintings. The Computer Art & Technocultures project, an AHRC-funded collaboration between Birkbeck and the V&A, is investigating and archiving the history of computer-generated art; its predecessor, CACHe, an ‘archive of pioneering British computer art’ produced the book White Heat, Cold Logic.

Nick took the roots of interactivity in the museum space back to Alfred Barr’s 1939 invitation to the public to involve themselves in MOMA (“The Museum of Modern Art is a laboratory: in its experiments the public is invited to participate”). There was some discussion in the class about the nature of museum interactives and their (in)accessibility to older people or those unfamiliar with technology (I put the case that museums in fact create this divide by fetishing large piece of ‘technology’ as distinctly separate entities from the object displays, rather than more subtly enhancing the latter with available technologies).

Nick also discussed New Media Art as such: art that uses electronic technology (and the mapping of familiar technological culture such as Sarah Cook’s application of the Gartner Hype Cycle onto forms of digital art, and Curt Cloninger’s ‘Nine times of New Media’; we looked at Tate’s acquisition model for New Media Art.

We discussed the V&A’s recent Decode exhibition which largely consisted of interactive artworks. Reactions from those who had seen it were not all positive: one class member said that the crowded museum meant that in works which recorded the viewer and the re-presented images of him/her, your image was never left for long before it was erased by a newer viewer/participant (I thought this was an interesting measure of a work’s interactivity – how long it bears your impression). There was also a rave review of Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Recorders show at Manchester Art Gallery.

Though there’s a lot to gather together here, in the ‘study skills’ session after the course three of us considered Nick’s own essay questions for this term, which seeks to relate Alfred Barr’s quote about the museum as laboratory to contemporary New Media Art exhibitions. One of us was considering an extensive participatory website in its light; I’m thinking of drawing out the implications of participation and the laboratory to the V&A’s Decode: in some senses New Media Art invites literal, physical participation in the creation of its aesthetics, and the public museum space provides an egalitarian, social space in which to do this; on the other hand, as art objects, interactive artworks are still subject to essentially the same disciplines and control as artwork in Barr’s day; in that sense the revolutionary spectre of net.art has failed to transform art as a whole.