Thursday 17 February 2011

The Google Art Project

My notes from today's radio spot ...

What is the Google Art Project?

At its heart, the Google Art Project allows you to explore art museums around the world the same way that Google Street View allows you to explore streets. You can zoom and fly around the galleries, and get close-up to individual works with high-resolution digital images.

Currently it's made up of 17 partnering institutions – mainly European and American – and contains 1000 images of artworks, by 400 artists. Participating museums include The Metropolitan Museum of Art and MoMA in New York, The State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Tate Britain & The National Gallery in London, Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, the Uffizi Gallery in Florence and Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam.

Each of the partnering museums has selected a hero work, which has been photographed with gigapixel photo-capturing technology. Each of these images contains around 7 billion pixels, around 1,000 times more detailed than your average digital camera. This allows extreme close zoom: more detail than you can achieve with the naked eye. The hero images include Hans Holbein’s The Ambassadors, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, Brueghal’s Harvesters, Botticelli’s Birth of Venus.

Accompanying the artworks are various pieces of information, including written texts, audio tours and videos of curators talking about the works.

Genesis of the Project

Google is well-known for its 20% time policy, whereby staff are encouraged to spend one fifth of their time working on projects of their own choosing, rather than allocated tasks. It’s not a new way of doing things, but it does act very effectively in terms of research and development. New features for existing products, and entirely new products, have emerged from this.

The Google Art Project is one of these 20% projects. Amit Sood, project lead:

It started when a small group of us who were passionate about art got together to think about how we might use our technology to help museums make their art more accessible—not just to regular museum-goers or those fortunate to have great galleries on their doorsteps, but to a whole new set of people who might otherwise never get to see the real thing up close.

The project builds off existing technology, like Google’s Picasa photo technology and its App Engine, which allows people to build and host web apps using the same systems Google uses.

The key to it was working with the Street View technology. Remember how those cars drove around New Zealand, taking the images that turned into Street View, so we don’t need to own paper maps anymore?

The Street View team adapted this to a trolley that can be used indoors, either pulled behind a bike or pushed by a person. The trolley took 360-degree images of the interior of selected galleries in the museums. These were then stitched together and mapped to their location, enabling smooth navigation of more than 385 rooms within the museums.

Using the website

You can do a bunch of things inside the website:

You can move through the galleries the way you do on Google Street View. It’s kind of like driving a robot – you’re clicking buttons to push the ‘view’ forward on the path. You can also open up a floorplan view that lets you quickly access the different rooms that have been filmed.

When you hover your mouse over a painting (they’re almost all paintings) you can click to pull it into focus.

Clicking on the little plus-sign next to an artwork opens up a special view for it, where you can zoom into a high-res copy, and open up information about the work, the artist, find more works by that artist, jump to more works in that museum’s collection, and watch videos where they’re available.

If you create an account, you can select works to add to a personal collection, add comments, and save specific close-ups, then email or distribute links. So, for example, you might want to show people a specific detail of a painting, so you zoom in, save it, add a comment, then tweet the link out.

Reactions to the Project

I’ve read quite a few articles by art critics and journalists who have played with the Art Project.

Some, like Roberta Smith in the New York Times, are pretty positive. Yes, this can’t replace the physical experience of visiting a museum, the human scale you get when you stand in front of an artwork in the same place that its maker stood.

Yes, the quality is a bit grainy at times, and the galleries’ lighting doesn’t translate well to the screen all the time.

Yes, the number of museums, rooms and artworks is limited, but this is a first iteration, and by all accounts Google intends to expand it.

But on the upside: no airplane tickets. No entry fee. No crowds. No opening hours. The ability to dive deep deep in – valuable both to the browser and to the academic.

This is particularly apparent in the one contemporary hero image, Chris Ofili’s No Woman No Cry in the Tate Modern.

The experience of zooming into this work is almost hallucinatory. It turns into this gleaming, fractured mosaic of extreme beauty. The work includes collaged images of Stephen Lawrence, a black teenager who was stabbed to death while waiting for a bus in 1993. You have the option to switch to dark view, so you can see the glow-in-the-dark words “RIP Stephen Lawrence 1974-1993”.

Part of the reaction seems to depend on how much background research the author did. Here’s Alastair Sooke in the Telegraph:

Moreover, at the moment only a small proportion of works from each collection is available in high-resolution. One of the pleasures of exploring a museum is that you can follow your eyes, and linger in front of any work of art that takes your fancy. This is impossible with Google’s Art Project since it prescribes which images you are allowed to study in any depth. Their selection from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, for instance, favours Neo- and Post-Impressionist painting by the likes of Seurat, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Cezanne, at the expense of modernist masterpieces.

In other words, someone else is deciding what images are worthy of study on your behalf – an impulse that surely runs counter to the “democratic” motivation of the project in the first place. Essentially, Google’s Art Project is a cherry-picking tool, but I would much rather choose the cherries I want to pick myself.

As for the choice of the “Gigapixel Artworks”, supposedly the stars of each collection, sometimes the selection is perverse. The Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid opts for a Cubist composition by Juan Gris instead of Picasso’s Guernica, which, for many people, is the only reason they actually visit the museum in the first place (the Art Project does not offer Guernica as a high-res artwork, either).

However, as it says on the website, the selections of rooms and artworks was made by the museums, not by Google. Copyright restrictions played a huge part in the decision-making, and are more than likely the exact reason why Guernica isn’t available. As Roberta Smith writes:

The Museum of Modern Art, for example, has made only one large gallery available — the large room of French Post-Impressionist works that kicks off its permanent collection displays — along with 17 paintings that are all, again, examples of 19th-century Post-Impressionism. (Oh, and you can wander around the lobby.)

On first glance this seems both unmodern in focus and a tad miserly, given that several museums offer more than 100 works and at least 15 galleries. But MoMA is being pragmatic. According to Kim Mitchell, the museum’s chief communications officer, the 17 paintings “are among the few in our collection that do not raise the copyright-related issues that affect so many works of modern and contemporary art.”

Likewise, Google approached a host of museums and, while it doesn’t say who said no, some chose not to take part.

I like the strange stuff

Playing around with this on my home broadband was an interesting experience. I loved the weird mushed shapes and blurring as you jumped around.

I got quite absorbed looking at floors and skirting boards and walls, which is the kind of things I look at when I go to galleries. Except in the privacy of my own home I could look at them even more.

I was also absorbed by the feeling of driving a person through the galleries. Maybe it was because I watched the videos that showed the filming being done, but I had this weird, out-of-body experience of guiding another set of eyes around a gallery.

Similarity to The Commons on Flickr

The Google Art Project reminds me quite a lot of The Commons on Flickr, a project to add out-of-copyright photographs from public collections to Flickr, the world’s biggest photo-sharing website.

Digitising artworks and putting them online isn’t a new thing at all, and neither are virtual tours. What sets the Google Art Project apart is the ability for museums to leverage off the technology and reach of Google. Local collaboration between museums is hard, international collaboration is even harder, but when you’re working with a company like Google or Yahoo, the egos seem to get set aside.

The Google Art Project thus brings together 17 major collections in one place. And instead of creating new technology, it builds off something people are already using. It makes this stuff more accessible in two ways – by removing geographic and cost barriers, and by making the new experience familiar to an existing one.

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