Overhauling the Art Experience: Timeless Works through New-age Google Eyes

by by Maud Doyle

Google’s Art Project took the art world and digital world by storm when it premiered on February 1. The project features Google street view virtual tours of rooms in 17 museums in Europe and on the United States’ eastern seaboard, including behemoths like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Versailles outside of Paris, and the State Hermitage Museum in Moscow.
As you wander through the rooms of the some of the world’s great art museums, you can get high-res and super high-res images of over 1,000 works by over 400 different artists. The project has been hailed as a breakthrough educational tool, and as a democratizer of the art world, giving laptop owners worldwide access, from the comfort of their homes, to paintings that they may never have the opportunity to visit in person.
Art Project has also, perhaps inadvertently, created an international network of museums. After choosing a painting to study up close, the virtual visitor might check “more works by this artist,” a list which includes works from any of the 17 museums.
In addition to the high-res images, each museum has chosen one painting for mega-pixel treatment, allowing unbelievably detailed study of the canvases of works such as Bottecelli’s Venus (at the Uffizi) or Van Gough’s Starry Night (at MoMA).

Virtual Virtuosos
There has been, for some time, a rapport between museums and technology. The relationship is apt—like Google, and like the internet generally, museums could be thought of as vast repositories of discoverable information. At any given time, only a tiny portion of any museum’s collection is on display.
In 2000, the Guggenheim was developing a Virtual Museum—to be treated as another established branch, on the same level as the Guggenheim in Bilbao or the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice—in which traditional works would “hang” alongside virtual artwork in a morphing, three-dimensional architectural space.
Now, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s relatively new director, Thomas P. Campbell, is attempting to make the museum more accessible by overhauling and massively expanding the museum’s technological component, with the aim of enabling visitors to learn from handheld devices as well as from wall text. He also wants to have digital records of all—that is, over 1.6 million—of the museum’s objects.
Most of the museums featured in Art Project already have hefty online components with varying degrees of relationships to “real” exhibitions and collections. Almost all include lectures, event listings, multimedia activities, and highlights from the collection. MoMA’s online exhibitions, meanwhile, are full-blown websites, with text, scroll bars, navigation bars, and links alongside images. The Hermitage’s website includes a searchable “digital collection,” and the Museo Reina Sofia’s online collection is organized by room and comes with a floor plan of the museum. Browsing through a gallery space—one might say the principal activity of museum-going—as opposed to “searching” online collections differentiates the umbrella Art Project from the individual museums’ existing online features. The Guggenheim’s millennial idea of building a virtual space for virtual and traditional art has given way to virtual tours of traditional spaces and virtual close-study of traditional art.

The Big Picture
Art Project’s real claim to breakout stardom lies in the much-touted super zoom technology. Google has moved from imaging the topography of the earth to imaging the topography of painted images. The reproduction of Chris Ofili’s No Woman, No Cry (the Tate’s “star” painting and the only one of the 17 mega-pixel paintings painted after 1914) even includes an X-ray option.
“Zooming,” a technological marvel that’s seen applications ranging from telescopes to bombing raids, has grown mundane. Still, despite all of Art Project’s supposed novelties, commentators seem most turned on by the high-res imaging. Roberta Smith, writing for the New York Times, was thrilled to discover a group of women skinny dipping in the far background of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Harvesters, bathers whom she had never noticed while at the Met. The New Yorker, writing about The Ambassadors by Han Holbein the Younger (at London’s National Gallery) raves, “Zoom in… and read every note in the scene’s open psalm book.”
The problem with the mega-pixel technology is that as much as Roberta Smith may be marveling at the brushstrokes that define the buttocks of a nude woman poking out of the water, most of us are marveling at the technology that enables to see that at the same time, as much as if not more than the “artwork” itself. Hardly surprising––the computer user is far closer to the technology than to the art itself.

Grand Theft Artwork
Arguably, museums are already virtual spaces, if not digital spaces. They are disconnected from the world around them, not subject to its time, its politics, or its history, but instead preserve art objects in a kind of vacuum.
The “white cube”—exemplified by MoMA in this collection of virtual museums—is the most supremely plastic space, and the atmosphere in MoMA’s galleries was unmistakably that of a Thomas Crown Affair video game. On the other hand, touring Versailles, preserved intact for hundreds of years, feels equally plastic via Art Project, though it doesn’t inspire instinctual video game comparisons to the same degree—it simply, perhaps because of the detail of furniture and texture that could only exist in actuality, looks far more real. Wandering through the Hall of Mirrors and looking up at Charles Le Brun murals is a thoroughly awesome experience compared to wandering the burgundy corridors of the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery of Art.
The relationship between the virtual museums and their real locations is an uncomfortable one, even in this digital universe, despite the helpful Google Map available on the sidebar. Before realizing that only one of MoMA’s galleries is open for viewing, the inexperienced virtual tourist will be ejected from the 5th floor galleries to 54th Street at least a few times. Tellingly, this is a far more jarring experience than moving smoothly from MoMA in New York to the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid by clicking the “Next” arrow—despite their distance, the two institutions seem more closely related to one another than to their own “real” environments.
The feeling of disorientation is further exacerbated when plunging headlong into the paintings with incredible levels of zoom—you get lost. The feeling of seeing something forbidden—points of bare canvas, a hair that fell out of a brush, a lady’s bare buttocks—is at once exciting and terrifying. But I also had the vaguely illicit feeling that I was looking at Botticelli’s Birth of Venus as an objective machine rather than as a feeling human. Though the opportunity to study Rembrandt’s The Nightwatch at such a dangerously close range is thrilling, the virtual tourist still feels himself to be at a great mediated remove from the painting. A reproduction, no matter how many pixels, is still a reproduction.
The zoom is frightening because it’s addictive—the desire to get closer to the painting urges you to zoom farther and farther, down this rabbit hole in which pixels are confused with the artist’s brushstrokes. And it’s frightening because when you’re digital eye is right up against micrometers of canvas, you still feel unsatisfied.

MAUD DOYLE B’11 could be thought of as a vast repository of discoverable information.