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Art in a digital world: Inside Google Cultural Institute’s Paris Lab

Lounge looks at what made Google's art selfie feature click and delves into its Paris Lab to uncover the evolving role of technology in art

Freya Murray using Google Cardboard.  Courtesy: Google Cultural Institute
Freya Murray using Google Cardboard. Courtesy: Google Cultural Institute

In November, the London-based Google Cultural Institute (GCI) led a project titled Future Relics at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS) museum in Mumbai. Visitors were asked to suggest one object from their everyday lives that they would preserve for archaeologists to uncover 1,000 years from now, as representative of our current lives. Google collated the contributions—the mobile phone was the most recommended—and, last month, 3D-printed a set of vases that were inscribed with these object-contributions.

Future Relics could be dismissed as a one-off experiment to increase museum participation. However, given the scale and scope at which the GCI is operating globally, it becomes a larger movement towards the future of art: how we’re consuming it and how we might engage with it in a future that seems to be here already. In the last six years, the GCI has digitized art collections from more than 1,000 cultural institutions, from over 70 countries, creating a digital database of more than six million photographs, videos and other formats.

The GCI was founded in 2011 with the aim of opening up access to museum knowledge and art, all made available for digital consumption. The robot-managed Google Art Camera creates ultra high-resolution images of artworks, Google’s Street View technology is applied to interior settings, and virtual tours are done in real time. Technology that powers this kind of consumption is integral to the question of how we experience art in a time of intuitive, sophisticated technology. Amit Sood, GCI director, reinforced this idea in an earlier interview with Lounge. “The real tech marvel is in how you can zoom in to an intricate Alexander McQueen dress in one micro second. We have the digital copy, but now we need to make it work on your phone, and on an internet connection, and do it really, really fast," Sood had said.

However, in the various seductive possibilities that technology brings to the future of art, the question emerges: Is there a not-so-slight chance that too much technology could detract from the essential human experience of art? The Lab at the GCI, set up in Paris in December 2013, is a good place to look for answers.

Google’s art selfie app feature. Courtesy: Google Cultural Institute

It’s an ecosystem of artists, designers, curators, technologists and engineers who work collaboratively. It is where Google Cardboard, a simple cardboard headset that made Virtual Reality an affordable reality for everyone, was born. “The aim is to facilitate artists who are exploring new technologies in their artistic practices," says Freya Murray on the phone. She is programme manager at The Lab and also led the Future Relics project at CSMVS.

Murray talks, for instance, about the work of a French digital interaction artist, Cyril Diagne, who has been a resident artist at The Lab since May 2015. “Cyril was interested in how machine learning could be applied to artistic practices," she says. He was part of the team that worked on Google Arts & Culture app’s selfie feature, launched with much social media buzz in January. It allows you to take a selfie, which it matches with portraits in Google’s database to find your lookalike from the history of art. Imagine discovering yourself in a 17th century artwork from the Dutch Golden Age. “We’ve had millions of people participating; it’s phenomenal how such a simple feature can instantly capture people’s imagination. And, in turn, these people connect with artworks that they might never have otherwise," says Diagne on the phone.

The complex technology behind the art selfie feature has, in signature Google style, been hidden in favour of simplicity of use. The focus is on the human experience of a tech-led artwork, rather than on the marvel of technology itself. “All art is about imagination, references, intuition; this idea that somewhere, sometime, someone looked just like you is quite fascinating to most people," says Diagne.

Murray reinforces this secondary, supportive role of technology in the making of art. “The relationship between art and technology is not new. Throughout history, art has been shaped by technology. Look at the breakthroughs in printing, the invention of photography. What is important is the creative expression and the kind of technological support it calls for. In the past one year, ‘360 films’ or VR films have become a buzzword, but you have to ask yourself: Why is it the best way to express what you want to? Are those the best tools to do it?"

British artist Jonathan Yeo making his 3D self- portrait in VR. Courtesy: Google Cultural Institute

She further cites the work of London-based portraiture artist Jonathan Yeo. In 2017, as an artist in residence at the Google Lab, Yeo explored digital technologies to create a 3D portrait of himself. In a video on Google Arts & Culture, Yeo says, “Portrait artists have historically used mirrors and, later, photography to make self-portraits, but still only in 2D." It was at The Lab that he was introduced to the Tilt Brush, a digital tool that allows you to paint in a 3D state using a VR headset (see “Brave new world").

“But Yeo needed to see his subject, which you can’t normally do if you have a VR headset on," explains Murray. Working alongside engineers at The Lab, Yeo found a way to scan his head in 3D and incorporate it into the VR environment, allowing him to create a self-sculpture. This virtual sculpture was then directly 3D-printed and cast in bronze. Called Homage To Paolozzi (Self Portrait), it can currently be seen at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. “Yeo’s project was about how to work with digital tools but create a more permanent, physical sculpture. Each of his brush strokes is captured and solidified in this sculptural form," says Murray. She, however, cautions: “It’s important that we don’t get carried away with the wow of the technology. Jonathan didn’t let the technology dictate. He let his ideas and curiosity dictate. That’s important."

Throughout history, art has been shaped by technology. Look at the breakthroughs in printing, the invention of photography. What is important is the creative expression and the kind of technological support it calls for.- Freya Murray

Such human will is critical to the potent mix of art and technology. Diagne, who teaches art at the Lausanne University of Arts and Design, talks about valid fears that students of art are confronting. “The idea that Artificial Intelligence might replace humans who create art is something we discuss at the university.... Yet I don’t believe that the sovereignty of the human will ever be at stake. Technology has profoundly transformed art over thousands of years, but there’s a human who we turn to when we look for authorship or creative intent," says Diagne.

In the 1960s, when Andy Warhol—it’s the American artist’s 30th death anniversary this month—made the Marilyn Diptych series, he used silk-screen printing, a technique borrowed from his commercial art background, unexplored till then in the world of high art. The medium—however provocative—became the message. Yet the message was about the human condition at that moment in time. That message lingers in Diagne’s art selfie project, in Future Relics at CSMVS, and Yeo’s self-sculpture. Art, now and in the future, remains a reflection of our times , and technology an enigmatic enabler."

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