Democratising Art With the Guy Behind the Google Art Project [INTERVIEW]

Democratising Art With the Guy Behind the Google Art Project [INTERVIEW]

ARTICLE – FIRST APPEARED ON VICE.COM – 05.12.15

democratising-art-with-the-inventor-of-the-google-art-project-body-image-1431319428One of the most globally recognised examples that art and technology work together is the Google Art Project. A digitised library that holds seven million interactive objects including over 10,000 ultra-high resolution works of art, Google Art Project features works from 600 venues across 60 different countries. It also utilises Street-View technology to let you virtually walk around museums on the other side of the world.

Amit Sood is the director of Google’s Cultural Institute and owns the brain who first came up with the idea of bringing the world’s art to people who usually wouldn’t have access to it.

But while that sounds like a noble thing, it hasn’t been without its detractors. Some question if it’s in the best interest of the museums and galleries, and whether it could impact attendance. Features that allow you to zoom in on painting in detail beyond the scope of human eye have also brought up whether this is really the way these works were intended to be viewed.

VICE caught up with Amit to see what brought him to take on such a massive, and complex project.

VICE: Hi Amit, so what drew you to REMIX?
Amit: I think what is great about REMIX is that they were one of the first events that really understood that you need to bring people from the cultural and digital sector together. You need them in the same room, thinking about these things. A lot of the museum conferences I’ve attended are really just museums talking to each other. REMIX is that whole idea – you need to mix it up. Otherwise it’s going to remain a sector that isn’t embracing the digital.

Talking about your work with museums, what inspired the Google Art Project?
The project stems from when I moved from India to New York in 1999. I just found their museums amazing, you had access to these fantastic social spaces where you could go and learn. For me it was more of a social experience. It was more inspiring, to see something beautiful.

I spoke to a couple of people back home in India and was trying to tell them how passionate I was about these beautiful buildings. But they just didn’t get it. I realised it’s because in India they haven’t had the same access.

So I developed the Project around this concept of accessibility. I didn’t want to just create a list of the world’s great museums and here’s some pictures of inside. I wanted there to be a bit of a whimsical, almost magical, experience in using it. The whole idea was we can’t replicate the physical experience, and we don’t want to. But let’s at least try and give people a sense of magic.

democratising-art-with-the-inventor-of-the-google-art-project-body-image-1431319519The brushstrokes of Vincent Van Gogh in The Starry Night.

What’s the process in digitising an exhibition?
There’s the giga-pixel camera, which captures each image in incredible detail and we use purpose-built equipment that we asked our Street-View team to build. It’s called a Trolley, and is a camera which allows us to walk around and capture the museums as we move.

It’s just a backpack that has a mounted camera, but it’s running a smart piece of software which is essentially allowing the person to create, on the fly, these panoramic images. We then feed it back to our data centers and stitch them together. Then we get a curator to essentially give you a narrative about what you’re seeing, so it’s not just a series of pictures.

I know there have been issues with some exhibitions blurring out their art.
I don’t see that as an issue at all—I see that as a constructive way to manage the transition online. We have to get museums comfortable with the idea of putting up their objects. They put a lot of work into the art, they curate them, they provide stories about them, and they have the challenging job of convincing right holders and artists that putting their work freely online.

So I encourage the blurring in a weird way. We tell museums if they have any doubts about the fact they don’t have the rights then just blur it. It’s a way to tell people that look, this is optional. The Google Art Project doesn’t have to replicate this exact idea of their physical institution.

And as time has gone by, more and more institutions are removing blurring. I think once an artist realises the control is in their hands, via a museum, the conversation changes.

Has this access impacted attendance?
We don’t track visitor data, but according to the latest attendance figures you can see this whole notion that accessing art digitally will reduce the physical is not valid. The attendance figures are skyrocketing. If you look at the data, last year was actually the biggest in attendance.

And if you’re a small-to-medium museum, located in a pretty inaccessible place, then they are definitely benefiting from the Google Art Project quite a lot. But it’s not just the Google Art Project – it’s more about what the web in general – and how digital efforts by museums are increasing interest in cultural content.

democratising-art-with-the-inventor-of-the-google-art-project-body-image-1431319647The faces of Stephen Lawrence in the tears of No Woman No Cry by Chris Ofili

What kind of secrets has the giga-pixel uncovered?
Well there’s so many. If you go to the user gallery and type “the power of zoom”, you’ll find a gallery that I made to show all the things I’ve found. Like, ” No Woman NoCry” by Chris Ofili – you can zoom in on the actual tears and see the reflection of the mother and of Stephen Lawrence. There’s a lot of really amazing stuff – it’s just a matter of exploring it.

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