Author Archives: Dina El-Saharty

Flattening the White Cube: Freeing the Creative Process


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Dina El-Saharty

Abstract

This paper examines in what ways the Google Arts and Culture project remediates the functions of the physical space of the museum in a digital space. While the online platform makes artworks more accessible by creating rich visualizations, this paper shows what such a project entails for the function of the museum and evaluates its role within the art world. Drawing on visual culture and museum curation theories, including but not limited to Malraux’s Musée Imaginaire, O’Doherty’s White Cube, and Benjamin’s concept of the aura, this paper unpacks the effects of creating an online digital platform that showcases artworks in a space that ultimately lacks context. The analysis reveals that, while exhibiting works on a website completely removes the works of art from their historical and social context, it allows for visitors to develop their own interpretations with the limited amount of basic information they are given.

What is the Google Arts and Culture project?

In 2011, the Google Cultural Institute launched the Google Arts and Culture project, an art initiative seeking to grant access to artworks to the general public online and worldwide for free. With the collaboration of art institutions and partner museums, the online platform provides access to high-resolution images of artworks. Within one year of the launching of the project, the Google Arts and Culture platform featured 32,000 images of artworks from 46 museums and had partnered with over 150 museums from 40 countries (Smith, 2012). To deliver a high level of detail, the images are reproduced using ultra high-resolution, and some of the works are captured using the Google Art Camera, which reproduces a gigapixel image (i.e. over 1 billion pixels) and can even bring out details invisible to the naked eye.

So, why does it matter?

By making museums’ artworks more accessible, the initiative fits well with Google’s mission statement, which is “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful” (“Google: About Our Company”, 2018). The problem with this reasoning of creating an encyclopedic art collective knowledge database is that it fails to recognize the interpretations embedded in artworks that derive from traditional art spaces such as the museum. This posits the following questions:

Can the art world’s information be universally accessible, such that those who do not have an art history background or any connections to the art world can make use of the works and extract coherent meanings and interpretations? If so, in what ways does the Google Art Project remediate the functions of the museum – as an interpretive reception context, an interface, and an institutional means of transmission? Finally, to what extent can the Google Arts and Culture effectively remediate these functions within a digital space as opposed to the physical space of the museum?

Morse’s Gallery of the Louvre was motivated by the transmission of ideas and cultural meaning, as well as communication across distances and borders. Similarly, the Google Art Project succeeds in granting online access to digital representations of artworks, as well as background information surrounding the works, the artist, and the movements to those who cannot obtain or retrieve this form of knowledge online and by extension worldwide. Both primarily act as interfaces that hold an educational value. Irvine writes, “The ideas for reflexive gallery meta-paintings emerged in the context of understood cultural encyclopedic knowledge or information, and the motivation to construct interfaces for accessing and learning not only the content of the knowledge but also how a society’s knowledge and archived memory were conceptually organized” (Irvine, p.9). That is to say, meta paintings aimed to not only provide access to knowledge and information, but also to unpack the way society adapted these forms of knowledge by extracting meaning and organizing them, and to ultimately reveal the way society reintegrated these forms into society over time. While the Google Arts and Culture project provides online, fast, and easy access and consolidates all artworks and art knowledge in one place, the platform needs to be more than just putting digital images on a website and giving basic background information.

How can the platform communicate content, historical context, and dialogic networks?

Assuming its aesthetic role, the museum provides a contextual framework in which the work is embedded and can be understood. In this respect, the museum also functions to collect, becoming the “single viewpoint (cultural and visual) from which works can be considered” (Buren, 1985). The museum adds cultural weight to the work. That is to say, the space in which the reception of the work is done heavily shapes the cultural meaning and supplements multiple layers of interpretation.

For instance, there are different architectural styles of buildings and spaces that give us cues on what and how to think. Gordon Bunshaft’s circular design of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden signaled certain cues of interpretations and imprinted a meaning onto the works of art that are showcased there. When visiting the Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s exhibit, the circular space echoed the idea of finding oneself in a whirlwind and endless loop of commodity fetishism and consumerism. The cylindrical building imposed on its visitors to interpret the exhibit and the artworks as a time where one was overwhelmed with the ubiquity of billboards, advertising, and media culture. Similarly, the Roman architecture and feel of the National Art Gallery associated a classical and traditional meaning to the artworks and the artists in the exhibition Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting.

The design of the architectural space in which the artwork is received becomes increasingly symbolic: they give enough background for visitors to construe more or less the same meanings from the art pieces, the artists, and the movements at play, extracting one overarching homogenous meaning.

At a first glance, the Google Art and Culture platform – because of its flat design – seems to flatten the artworks themselves, as well as the historic and cultural context that the works carry. Because the works are detached and completely removed from a contextual space, visitors are free to interpret the artworks in whatever way they can – depending on their art history background and relationship with the art world in general. This lack of boundaries and context multiplies and fragments the meanings of the pieces.

But what if the white digital space of the Google Art and Culture project is like that of O’Doherty’s white cube?

According to O’Doherty, the modern gallery space removes the artwork from its aesthetic and historical context. Because the sacredness of the work of art is contingent on its context of reception, the white cube became part of the work itself. Therefore, he argues that the white cube is not a neutral container, but rather a historical construct inseparable from the artworks displayed inside it (O’Doherty, 1986). O’Doherty’s analysis of the white cube goes on to show the power of context and how it defines the content. Perhaps, the white cube was necessary and became a reflection of the modernist wave that overcame the art world, such that modernism required the viewer to take an active role in interpreting the work and to abandon conventional ways of thinking.

The art world is a constant reflection of the social, the political, and the economic – irrespective of the era. We live today in a digital age, in which information is endless and is at a press of a button, forcing us to critically think for ourselves but also to make sense of the abundance of information shoved down our throats. Digital online spaces are not concerned with how much you know, but rather they deal with the question of what kinds of connections, meanings, and understandings are you making given how much you do know.

What if with the increasing use of digital media and abundance of information with which we are bombarded every day, art is meant to be conceived in a similar manner, and demands this free-thinking space completely detached from its historical, social, and political contexts?

Malraux’s “Museum Without Walls” calls for the displacement of artworks from their physical art object (i.e. materials used) and art space (i.e. the museum) by photographically reproducing them (Irvine, p.3-4). As such, Malraux places more emphasis on the creative curatorial aspect of art, rather than the artistic production of an artwork, such that the organization, indexing, and assembly of artworks are privileged over the presentation and appreciation of the artwork itself (Malraux, . In face of digital reproduction of art objects, the Google Arts and Culture project resembles that of Malraux. Like the museum, both serve as encyclopedic functions as they each organize cultural and artistic knowledge. In this respect, the Google Arts and Culture project is perhaps the closest to and largest digital iteration of Malraux’s Musée Imaginaire.

 

The platform organizes its content using several categories deriving from the art world, such as museum collections, artists, mediums, art movements, historical events, historical figures, art movements, but also the current geographic locations of art pieces. It attempts to circumscribe and provide an artistic hub in the digital space. Still, the database is incomplete: paintings such as the Mona Lisa are not featured on the platform. This goes on to show that the collection’s completion is contingent on the participation of all the museums and galleries (i.e. physical spaces), and their compliance to feature the pieces in their collection online. In other words, compiling a robust encyclopedia that contains all the artworks ever created is certainly an ambitious goal, but not impossible.

But until then, where does that leave the Google Arts and Culture project in terms of the artistic and creative process?

Irvine writes that Malraux’s “selection and arrangement of photographs of art objects for a view of art history was governed by the idea of the museum as an organizational system, a musée imaginaire (the imagined, i.e., idealized museum)” (Irvine, p.3-4). That is to say, the function of organizing art content is in itself an artistic creative act, which the online platform exemplifies. It attempts to constantly create and recreate an extensive and comprehensive taxonomy of cultural and artistic knowledge, using sorting methods that organize content in either alphabetical order or chronological order. The “all” sorting method is not specified, but users can assume that it is organized by popularity and not randomly. When the same page is refreshed multiple times or accessed at different times, the order of categories remains the same. Similarly, when viewing an individual artwork, artist or art movement, the dialogic relations and positions suggested at the bottom of each page do not change, but are rather static. This goes on to show that the Google Arts and Culture as an organizational system follows a specific structure and flow depending on the choices made by software developers and coders. Here, code and algorithms become digital curators.

 

Can a programming language communicate dialogic networks?

The collection function of the museum asserts the configurations of possible dialogic positions and relations through simplifications, but also the establishment of connections and relationships between different works, artists, movements, and schools of thought. It imposes a web of meanings between dissimilar elements and creates a vast network, solely constrained by selection (Latour, 2011))–or “curation” in terms of museums. While collection can emphasize certain works, artists, and art institutions and their dialogic contexts when considering a group of works, it can also “flatten” them when considering a single body of work. In this case, the work is conceived without subjectivity or without reference to anything outside of itself, and here, the museum functions to emphasize the juxtapositions within the body of work, highlighting its “genius” and again, increasing its sales value (Buren, 1985). Similarly, the Google Arts and Culture platform gives way to highlight the juxtapositions within each work of art, individually and exclusively, without any reference to other artworks or artists. The absence of dialogic networks leaves room for questioning of the ingenuity of the art piece.

According to Buren, one of the functions of the museum is to provide refuge for the works, since it functions to select, collect, and protect. This reinforces the role of the museum in embodying the mystical dimension of art (Buren, 1985). Buren writes, “The Museum is an asylum. The work set in it is sheltered from the weather and all sorts of dangers, and most of all protected from any kind of questioning” (Buren, 1985). In other words, when a work of art is received in the context of a museum, the work is validated and authenticated as “art”, instead of being received for example on Instagram – where the content is user-generated and cannot be granted “art” status unless received in a museum. The Google Art Project does not fall short in this respect – works that are displayed have been carefully subjected and have already acquired “art” status.

   

The content is not user-generated, but rather museum-generated: museums and exhibits give access to the Google Art Project to their art collections, making it available worldwide. To have an artwork published on the Google website, it needs to have been already considered art. However, once having arrived in the digital platform, the artworks are placed in a space where constant questioning is formulated. When observing a painting such as the Starry Night in such a digital space, one cannot help but wonder what makes the painting an Impressionist masterpiece, and why Vincent Van Gogh is considered an artist whose ingenuity could only be recognized posthumously? The Google Art Project gives adequate answers to these questions – extracting its textual content from the Modern Museum of Art’s text label from 2011, where Starry Night was and is currently being exhibited.

But, does this mean that the platform cannot provide refuge for the artworks from being bombarded with questions and questioning their artistic significance? Can the Google Art Project maintain the “art” status quo?

To answer this question, it is necessary to understand the impact of the reproducibility of art in the modern and digital era we live in today. In his book “The Work of Art in an Era of its Technological Reproducibility”, Walter Benjamin argues that artworks have lost their “aura” in face of modernism, due to the fact that art has become increasingly reproducible. The aura of a work refers to the idea that it is present in time and space: it is connected to authenticity and authenticity cannot be reproduced (Benjamin, 1939). When the original artwork is exhibited in a museum, the aura, uniqueness, and authenticity of the work are firmly planted in and connected to the sphere of tradition.

In contrast, when an artwork is reproduced in a poster, for example, the artwork is extracted from its historical, cultural, and geographic context. It becomes completely detached from the historical continuum in which it was firmly rooted, losing its ingenuity and depreciating its value (Benjamin, 1939). In this respect, the aura of a painting such as the Starry Night lies in its three-dimensionality. Transferring a work from a physical space into a digital space flattens the work into a two-dimensional space, and by extension flattens the aura as well. Museum space becomes a website. Exhibitions and galleries become web pages. Curators become algorithms and code. This type of interface depends on graphical and pixelated reproductions of art, and as such, erase cultural meanings and relevance of artworks.

By removing the work from the mundane, and exhibiting it in a space that is consecrated to art and culture like the museum as opposed to an online digital platform, the artwork undergoes a process of selection and of being privileged. It becomes an object of choice and divine favor, or even – dare I say – “sacred”. Enabling its exposure and promotion in order to abide by its economic role, the museum works to preserve the artwork such that its sales value increases (Buren, 1985). In aiming to preserve the work, the museum assumes that works can be affected by time. Therefore, one of the functions of the museum is to preserve the artwork, protecting it from the effects of time, but also, to prevent its cultural meaning from eroding, granting the illusion of eternality to the work (Buren, 1985).

The impression of immortalizing the artwork is inherently flawed. For instance, Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper, which had been completed in the late 15th century, had already begun to deteriorate by 1517. Many details have been lost, including Jesus’ feet and Judas spilling salt (Van Luling, 2014). Similarly, the colors of the Mona Lisa were not originally of brownish and yellowish hues, but rather of vibrant blues and reds (Van Luling, 2014). Paintings can undergo destruction, and colors can be subjected to deterioration. Thus, this idea that paintings cannot be worn out by time and be shielded from corrosion and depreciation is misleading. Certainly, there are conservation and restoration methods that can be taken, but then,

What happens to the aura – or “timelessness” – of the work? Do these restoration efforts partake in the authenticity and uniqueness of the work, or do they take away from it?

The timelessness or “auras” of works of art can never be fully preserved, especially in the age of photographic reproduction: the more time passes by, the more the work of art becomes removed from its historical context and becomes less and less embedded in its original sphere of tradition. Instead, the work becomes a part of multiples spheres of tradition, and its meanings and interpretations become numerous and endless. To this extent, the Google Arts and Culture becomes just another attempt at preserving the aura of art. For example, it can show what the original colors and brush strokes of an art piece looked like when it was originally conceived. While the aura cannot be fully transmitted through digital reproduction, the Google Art and Culture can work alongside other art and cultural institutions, which together can preserve the aura that has been already decaying since their inception. Analogously, these interfaces can serve to include the numerous meanings and interpretations, which digital reproduction has fragmented.

Benjamin argues that reproduced artworks are consumed in a distractive manner as opposed to being consumed in a contemplative manner (Benjamin, 1939). For example, when one is walking around the National Gallery of Art and is examining the intricate details of Ter Borch’s brush strokes of satin in his artworks, the artwork lures and absorbs the examiner. To appreciate the genius of Ter Borch’s painting technique, one needs to be able to stand so close to the painting that one’s nose is almost touching it. However, when examining a painting on the digital platform, the examiner absorbs the work of art. The user can zoom in and zoom out, change the sizes of the artwork depending on the device’s screen size, decide to focus on the details of the brush strokes or examine the work as a whole. These levels of interactivity rooted in scalability, that the Google Arts and Culture initiative offers, distracts the audience from letting the artwork lure them in. What the user winds up observing is not the hidden meanings of artwork, but rather the pixelated representations of the artwork – neither paint nor a canvas but pixels. The platform creates rich visualizations, albeit it cannot visualize the intangible and hidden meanings within each artwork.

What could be done to provide a better interpretative experience using the interface beyond just presentation of images and a little bit of data?

The Google platform cannot remediate all of the museum’s functions, however, there are possible configurations that can be implemented which would enable people to explore while making distinctions and understand works through dialogic relations and positions. While not everything cannot be remediated in the same way as the museum space, the platform provides a different interpretative framework. The Google Arts and Culture project provides a basic foundation for those interested in learning about the art world, but it can never fully remediate the interpretive framework that a museum provides for its visitors. While the platform allows for users to formulate their own interpretations given the limited amount of knowledge they are presented with, the information is not sufficient for art enthusiasts to study in depth the artworks and for them to be able to establish connections with other works, artists, and movement. Further research is usually needed. Perhaps, generating more links at the bottom of each page of each work can be a step closer to developing a network of nodes surrounding the work in question or creating a literary library that can solidify one’s art knowledge. Still, the art world is too vast and too complex to be able to organize it and curate it in a way that can render a cohesive meaning. As humans, we have the tendency to categorize and classify everything, but the allure of the art world always resides in providing a means of escapism for its members. The art world is not concerned with closing in one meaning or one idea, but rather with expanding one’s ability to think, to express oneself, and being presented with endless opportunities of connecting and finding relationships between objects and concepts. That being said, the Google art project should not be seen as a platform that is limiting our expression and thinking, but rather another space in which free-thinking and free-expression should be unrestrained, and in which creating a multiplicity of meanings and interpretations is welcome.

Works Cited

Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. Feb. 18 – May. 13, 2018.

Brian O’Doherty, Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Berkeley, CA: Univ. of California Press, 1986. Selections: focus on Chapter 1, pp. 13-34.

Bruno Latour, “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist,” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011), 796–810.

Daniel Buren, “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, edited by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.

Gerard ter Borch. (c. 1660-1665) The Letter [Oil on Canvas]. Royal Collection Trust: London, UK. The Google Arts & Culture Insititute.

Google: About Our Company. (2018). Retrieved from https://www.google.com/about/our-company/.

Google Arts & Culture. (2018). Retrieved from https://artsandculture.google.com/.

Leonardo da Vinci. (c. 1503-1506) Mona Lisa [Oil on Poplar Panel]. Musée du Louvre: Paris, France. Wikipedia.  

Leonardo da Vinci. (c. 1495-1498) The Last Supper [Fresco-Secco]. The Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie: Milan, Italy. Wikipedia.

Martin Irvine, “Malraux and the Musée Imaginaire: (Meta)Mediation, Representation, and Mediating Institutions”. Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Martin Irvine, “Art and Artefacts as Interfaces: Meta-Representation and Meta-Media from Samuel Morse to the Google Art Project”. Georgetown University, Washington, D.C.

Rosetta Smith. (2012). An Online Art Collection Grows Out of Infancy. The New York Times. 

Todd Van Luling. (2014). 7 Famous Artworks That Are Actually Supposed To Look Completely Different. The Huffington Post.

Vermeer and the Masters of Genre Painting, The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Oct. 22, 2017 – Jan. 21, 2018

Vincent Van Gogh. (1889) Starry Night [Oil on Canvas]. MoMA – The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY. The Google Arts & Culture Insititute.

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” (1936; rev. 1939). (From the new edition of Benjamin’s writings, Harvard Univ. Press, 2003, with the revised title.) Focus on sections: Pref., I-VI, X-XII, XV.

 

From Single Imposed to Fragmented Meanings


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Communities and cultures make meanings/interpretations with artwork depending on the spaces and environments in which they are received. Institutional interfaces, such as museums (i.e. The National Gallery of Art, The Philipps Collection and the Hirshhorn Museum) and academic disciplines (i.e. an art class such as Art and Media Interfaced), enable interpreters to discover meanings. Such interfaces and tools were

(1) museums’ wall texts that gave visitors some foundational background on the artworks, such as art movements that may have influenced the artists and their work and the key recurring themes that arose in that time;

(2) the sequencing of galleries and artworks, as well as the placement of the paintings, artworks and sculptures, juxtaposing two artworks from two different artists from the same movement – revealing differences or similarities, and ultimately unpacking the network of relations that give meaning and value to the artists and the artworks;

and finally, (3) the museum as a space itself (i.e. the circular space of the Hirshhorn to view the consumer culture exhibit vs. the Roman architecture and feel of the National Gallery of Art to see the Dutch masters paintings). The former associated a classical and traditional meaning to the artworks and the artists, while the latter empowered and amplified the exhaustive and overwhelming nature of advertising and consumer culture – that it’s everywhere and that there is no way out. In other words, the architecture of the museums imposed certain meanings on the artworks and the exhibitions as a whole.

Museum Curators’ jobs are to make this type of interface digestible for visitors that do not have any ties to the art world, and to carefully select a finite amount of pieces to send transmit a slice of culture.

So, what about meta-museums like Google Art?

While Google Art makes accessibility to viewing artworks digitally easier (seeing pixels vs paintings), this type of interface remediates paintings, photographs, and artworks, and breaking through the multiple layers of interfaces mentioned above that help interpreters discover meanings. These digital reproductions alter our sense of the artifacts and their meanings, such that instead of viewing tangible artifacts (i.e. paintings and printed photographs), site visitors are instead viewing pictorial representations in a digital space (i.e. “photographs” in pixels), offering a completely different experience.

Museum space becomes a website. Exhibitions and galleries become web pages. Curators become algorithms and code. This type of interface depends on graphical and pixelated reproductions of art, and as such, erase cultural meanings and relevance of artworks. For example, viewing a Ter Borch oil on canvas painting in a museum vis-a-vis google art — no matter how much one zooms in, one cannot appreciate Ter Borch’s mastery of brush strokes to create satin that look extremely realistic and cannot fathom the intricacy or difficulty in achieving this with the oil paint and the canvas material.

On the one hand, viewing artworks in a digital space literally flatten the artworks (removing the physical aspect associated with the artwork) and the “aura” is lost, but on the other hand these digital reproductions add an additional layer to the artworks: variability. The images displayed on a computer or phone screen are scaled, can be made bigger or smaller, thus ultimately expanding its meanings: because paintings can be digitally manipulated and toggled with, their uniqueness and “aura” is lost, and as a result, their meanings become multiple and fragmented. In this respect, digital media allows for interpreters to further discover new meanings, beyond that of curators and museum walls, and free themselves from meanings and values imposed upon their interpretations.

Selling the Wind at the Hirshhorn


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By Adey Zegeye, Dina El-Saharty, and Jordan Moeny

 

As you go up the escalators to enter the Hirshhorn’s exhibit “Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 80s,” you are greeted with three copies of Haim Steinbach’s billboard-like piece “On Vend du Vent” that are plastered across the wall. A rough translation of the French vinyl words is “we sell air”, which can be naively interpreted as meaning that everything and anything can be marketed and sold, including the air that is around us. Steinbach’s piece is at first impressive, due to the largeness and boldness of the letters’ font, and debuts the exhibit with excitement, enticement, and intrigue for visitors. This impression reflects the mood of the beginning of the 80s at the time, particularly in New York, when advertisement was on the rise and ads and billboards were seen as a source of inspiration — something that one looks up to.

“On Vend Du Vent” is a first look at the themes of the exhibit: branding, commodification, the transformation of the every day into Art. While Steinbach’s work is grand in scale, another piece deep inside the exhibit provides a smaller, more subtle look at the themes: Peter Halley’s “Copies Simulated.” Peter Halley is a New York Based artist, writer, and teacher who contributed to the conceptualist art movement of the 1980s. This piece was a response to French sociologist Jean Baudrillard’s essay “Simulations” published in 1983. Baudrillard posited that the over-saturation of images (signs and symbols) presented to us have replaced what we view as reality (there is no difference between the copy and the original). At the time (the 1980s), art was reflecting these ideas in that artists were creating works that resembled commodities (to bring attention to consumer culture), resulting in a lack of distinction between art and commodity.

In Halley’s piece, the image itself is a copy of (reflection) reality, because the background serves as a mirror. The work itself is a framed black mirror with the words “copies simulated” printed in white. This piece asks the question: what is real? Is it the image you see in the mirror (a copy) or is it you, the viewer looking at the image? According to the description text, Baudrillard’s theory influenced many other artists of the decade as well. Along with Halley, Alan Belcher, Mark Stahl, and Jennifer Bolande were featured under this category of simulation art. All of them were responding to the conversation about the relationship between the object and the image referenced by Baudrillard. The description states, “Halley hints at a world in which, not only are the images and objects we encounter copies of reality, but those copies are represented to us through constructed images.” The simulation of “reality” shown in the reflection is mediated through the Halley’s constructed image.

The mirrored effect of the work added an interesting layer to the reception of the work by viewers. Many museum-goers took a selfie using their camera phone (another black mirror) — it is notable that you can’t take a picture of the artwork (head on) without being a part of the reflection. In the image being constructed by the phone, the reality of what is seen has now changed to add the additional people within the gallery space, the person taking the photo, and the other artworks in the background. In the context of the present day (as opposed to the 80s) this idea of the art itself as a simulation is accompanied by the idea of an additional layer of reality: the reflection shown through the camera phone lens, which adds to the current conversations around social media and art. As we continue to add layers of mediation, the question “what is real?” continues to have new meanings and new answers.

This idea of copy and simulation is in the structure of the exhibit itself. The unique nature of the Hirshhorn building is that repetition and circularity are quite literally built into the space. Though the exhibit is chronologically arranged, as you walk around the full circumference of the building each room takes you closer to where you were in the beginning. The design of the various rooms, too, echoes the themes of the exhibit. While the first several rooms are quite close to the “white cube” approach to a gallery space, at several points you turn a corner to find that everything has been inverted: the walls are a deep dark gray, the space much narrower, the space drawing you close instead of giving you (and the artworks) room to breath. It is not a rejection of the white cube, but a reinterpretation: like the pieces within, it is both familiar and unfamiliar.

The other artworks carry on these themes. Visitors walk through the exhibit and many pieces seem at a first glance to be “cool” and “fun,” but as you get closer to the pieces, an eerie and disturbing mood sets in. Pieces hold a darker underside: Joan Wallace’s pool ladder-turned-hangman’s trapdoor, or Jenny Holzer’s incredibly Instagrammable handbills that, upon closer examination, shout “hot, flaming, nasty things” at the reader.

The exhibit highlights consumer culture in America, particularly the ubiquity of billboards and advertising and the rise of commodification. Anything and everything in 80s America can be and is considered a commodity: from laundry detergents and furniture to individuals through self-branding. The pieces are arranged to critique and highlight the dark side of consumer and TV culture. For example, the TV culture room — consisting of a dozen televisions that display looping footage of news, logos, and products — hypnotizes viewers due to the absence of light, and then proceeds to sedate them as the audio simulates a broken record (repeating certain words, the overlap of audio). The room becomes a commentary on the consumption of television, and how media and  television inculcate consumer behavior among viewers.  The penultimate gallery then shows that television not only turns its audience into consumers but into apathetic consumers: a small television set, on which is printed the words “PEOPLE WITH AIDS”, running footage of professional figure skaters performing a dramatic and emotional routine to Dalida’s “Je Suis Malade.” Although the performance at first demands a reaction from consumers, when played in repetition, it ultimately desensitizes the viewers.

By the end of the exhibit, the light sense of humor has faded and the dark undertones have settled: advertisements, television, commodities are everywhere you look. The circular space mimics an endless loop: consumers cannot break the loop until they’ve consumed all advertisements, all billboards, all texts, and all pictures. The exhibit ends up overwhelming visitors. In the end, you are right where you started, farewelled with the greeting sign “on vend du vent” once again, which now takes on a different meaning: that everything that is marketed and sold — and the satisfaction that derives from its consumption — is ultimately fleeting, temporary, and short-lived.

 

Galleries and Artworks Referenced

AIDS and Political Activism Gallery, Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. Feb. 18 – May. 13, 2018.

Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Hirshhorn Museum, Washington, D.C. Feb. 18 – May. 13, 2018.

Copies Simulated Gallery, Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. Feb. 18 – May. 13, 2018.

Haim Steinbach – On Vend du Vent, 1988. Text in matte black latex paint, or vinyl letters applied onto the wall., Exhibit Entrance, Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. Feb. 18 – May. 13, 2018.

Peter Halley – Copies Simulated, 1984. Kodalith (photosensitive Mylar print). Copies Simulated Gallery, Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. Feb. 18 – May. 13, 2018.

TV Culture Gallery, Brand New: Art and Commodity in the 1980s, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C. Feb. 18 – May. 13, 2018.

Photojournalism, Art, and #Basic


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Pre-1940: On Social-Use Context

“Photographic genres became connected to the social institutions and social class functions that continue to today: documentation, news and journalism, family rituals, advertising, portraits, personal snapshots (with the development of inexpensive, small portable cameras), and the remediation of artistic genres (landscapes, still lifes, portraits, nudes).” (Irvine, 5) In other words, when comparing these photographs, I attempt to understand why these photographs were made? How did the social mood affect what was being captured?

A(n) (African American) going in the Entrance for (African Americans) at a Movie Theater by Marion Post Wolcott – Belzoni, Mississippi, USA

MEDIUM INFORMATION

Photographer: Marion Post Wolcott
Camera: Twin Lens Reflex Camera (TLR)/Rolleiflex
Type of Shot: Establishing Shot
Photographic Print: Gelatin Silver Print
Received In: N/A
Genre Frame: Racial Segregation
Social Use Context: Documenting

A photojournalist, Wolcott’s job consisted of reporting and documenting the functioning of the cotton industry, as well as the working conditions on cotton plantations. The social-cultural function of Wolcott’s photographic image is mainly to document. Although it wasn’t published for public relational purposes and wasn’t received in the newspaper, her boss, “dreamed of creating a photographic archive that would embrace the American experience” (Mason,). In 1939, the beginnings of racial segregation began to define the American experience: access to everyday life activities and opportunities – including but not limited to entertainment centers, public transportation, employment, and education – was separated according to racial ethnicity, specifically between African Americans and white people. Her photograph of an African American at an entrance specifically for people of color is a token image of racial segregation at the time: showing the “colored” vs “white” signs; usually one person is shown; if there are two, it’s one of each racial ethnicity; and they are usually captured in 3 different spaces: theatre entrances, water fountains, and then in the post-1940s, they were retokened in buses, where groups of African Americans would be seen at the back of the bus, while white people sat in front. Here, Wolcott captures a theatre entrance for African Americans in Mississippi, with both the segregational signs (on the door, it reads: “white men only” — for the bathroom; on the staircase, “colored admission”). In addition to its geometric aesthetic and the interplay between light and dark, this photo is iconic, in the sense that it captures one of the many realities of the experience of race and segregation in America. In an interview, Wolcott explains “I was really interested in that I was photographing and I was looking for something that would be, well, more useful or had more purpose to it” (Interview), in comparison with photos that she would take for the newspaper. By “transforming a mundane scene into a complex composition with deeply layered meanings” (Mason,) , Wolcott successfully depicts segregation, burdened with alienation and humiliation.

Post-1962: On The Concept of Iconic and Indexical

“[Iconic] Photographs for which meaning now transcends the specific circumstances of their making as they have come to represent particular ideologies or political attitudes (Hariman and Lucaites 2007)” (34) – Critical Introduction

“[Indexical Photographs] that is, ways in which the image stands as a reference to or trace of actual phenomena (Elkins 2007)”

“Sontag takes a particular position within debates about realism, stressing the referential nature of the photographic image both in terms of its iconic properties and in terms of its indexical nature. For Sontag, the fact that a photograph exists testifies to the actuality of how something, someone or somewhere once appeared. Max Kozloff challenged Sontag’s conceptual model, criticising her proposition that the photograph ‘traces’ reality, and arguing instead for a view of the photograph as ‘witness’ with all the possibilities of misunderstanding, partial information or false testament that the term ‘witness’ may be taken to imply (Kozloff 1987: 237).

In other words, what makes a photographi iconic?

Grace Jones’ album “Island Life” artwork (1985) by Jean Paul-Goude

MEDIUM INFORMATION

Photographer: Jean-Paul Goude
Camera: N/A but manipulated pre-digital era
Type of Shot: Long Shot (i.e. entire human subject is shown)
Photographic Print: Lithograph
Received In: Jean-Paul Goude’s Autobiographical Book “Jungle Fever” (1972); Grace Jones’ Album “Island Life” Artwork (1985)
Genre Frame: Exotic Fetishism; Nude
Social Use Context: The Resurgence of Feminism; Modern Photography and Photography as Art

This photograph is indexical in the sense that it marks the beginnings of the conception of photography as art: it does not seek to document, report, publicize or advertise, nor does it seek to tokenize social rituals. Instead, this photograph seeks to empower the image of African American women, despite its critical reception at the time it was released and even today. Jean-Paul Goude wanted to convey his love for African Women and beauty – coining the term “Jungle Fever” through the name of his autobiographical work. In addition, his photographs of (and love for) Grace Jones empowered her image: he seemed to present her as a strong female. However, his photographic images were deemed fetishizing the exotic by the public and visual culture. “It was argued that the term ‘nude’, central to the visual arts tradition, lent a guise of respectability to the practice of naked women being objectified for fantasy libidinous gratification” (Critical Introduction, 326). The duality between “erotic fetishism” and “nude female empowerment” render this photograph an indexical and iconic piece. Moreover, Jean-Paul Goude wanted to communicate the impossibility of creating such a pose through his manipulation of the image in a pre-digital era. This image is iconic as it embodies what we call photoshop today and precedes the digital era we live in today. Jean-Paul Goude was able to create this image by taking multiple shots, and cutting and sticking pieces together into a final collage, in order to create the impossible pose Grace Jones was taking.

 

Recent: On Tokens of A Genre

What makes a moment worth capturing?

Sunday Tam-Tams on Mount Royal – Montréal, QC, CANADA

MEDIUM INFORMATION

Photographer: Dina El-Saharty
Camera: Digital Single Lens Reflex (DSLR)/Nikon D3400
Type of Shot: Two Shot (i.e. two people are shown)
Photographic Print: Digital Imaging
Received In: Personal Portfolio, Professional/Academic Use, NOT Posted on Social Media, Circulated Among Friends and Family for Portfolio Help
Genre Frame: Remediation of Socio-Political “Peaceful” Racial Interrelations
Social Use Context: Coexistence, the Rise of Social Movements, Pushing for Racial Equality

This photo is a typical instance of representing “peaceful” and coexisting interracial relations: a two-shot, a handshake, same hand gesture/mimicking one another. The photo was certainly edited to mark the contrast in racial differences, but also not so much in a way that perpetuates racial discrimination (usually, when you want to represent minorities, they’re darkened, but here, he is brightened). As such, the composition of the picture isn’t “original”: there are hundreds of pictures of politicians and world leaders shaking hands to represent peace; etc. Nevertheless, these photographic images, as tokens of social rituals, serve as additional tools understanding the world we live in today and making sense of what is happening. Sunsets are constantly being captured because we live in a technologically emprisoning world, so sunsets reflect our connection with nature and our appreciation of Mother Nature’s beauty. The same images of food are endlessly being reproduced on social media perhaps because food trends are becoming more and more international, but also because we live in an era where we’re fighting against food shaming and body image. And finally, the fact that I found this moment worth capturing was probably due to the fact that we live in a time where we’re advocating peace, among racial ethnicities (after all, this was taken at a hippie festival).

 

The Medium “and” The Message


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Interface (n.): ” a point where two systems, subjects, organizations, etc., meet and interact.”

Art, meet art enthusiast; art enthusiast, meet… the death of originality, authenticity, of the aura… through the technological reproduction of art. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Era of Technological Reproducibility”, Benjamin discusses the effects of technological reproduction of art on the originality and authenticity of artworks and aids us in understanding what that means for art and all forms of cultural expression in the digital world we live in today.

He argues that traditional art forms, such as paintings have an “aura” – as they preserve their uniqueness and their attachment to their origins, their history and by extension their materiality – while the reproduction of any form of art or cultural expression using modern technological mechanisms, such as photographs, do not. Think of the original Mona Lisa in the Louvre vis-a-vis a poster of the painting that can be bought from the boutique, which is completely detached and removed from its sphere of traditions. As such, art mediation becomes concerned with preserving and delivering the aura of an art form. Here, Benjamin recognizes that although art has always been reproducible, the technological reproduction of art should be evaluated as a process in itself, extending his theory to the art of film.

We begin to move from evaluating and assessing what is authentic and what is not, what is considered to be original and what is not, to fixating on the knowledge and traditions – i.e. culture – that are being transmitted within a medium. In other words, we focus on the relationship between technology and culture: Mediology attempts to study the transmission of cultural meanings in societies, according to Debray. It is not concerned with technological determinism – whether or not “The medium is the message” (the famous phrase coined by McLuhan),  but instead with the social construction of technology (think socio-technical systems –  the relationship between the medium (technology) and the message. Mediology broadens the spectrum of understanding mediation – going beyond assessing whether or not printed books and paintings are real – in order to include digital mediums such as photographic images and cinematic footage and ultimately reconceptualize the understanding of art within social, political, and economic frameworks. It calls for the interaction between technology and culture, rendering the dissemination of ideas embedded in artworks possible.

Benjamin argues that the reproduction of art meant losing the uniqueness of an art piece; but Mediology makes room for digital reproduction, such that studying the relationship between the way art is transmitted and memorized (i.e. media as a memory, archival system) and the way it interacts with, structures, and organizes our thoughts, beliefs, and information (i.e. culture) is being studied. It allows for ideas to transpire digitally. As a consequence, it expands our network model of mediation by exploring the cultural aspects embedded into technology, and regenerating new and different encounters each time the audience meets and interacts with art. Thus, not only does this interpretation of mediation transcend space (i.e. communication), but also it transcends time (i.e. transmission).

 

Works Cited:

Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” (1936; rev. 1939).
(From the new edition of Benjamin’s writings, Harvard Univ. Press, 2003, with the revised title.) Focus on sections: Pref., I-VI, X-XII, XV.

 

Régis Debray, Transmitting Culture, trans. Eric Rauth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2000.  Excerpts from Chaps. 1-2 and 7.

The Re-Mediation of Museums in a Virtual Space


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Museums are cultural time machines, effacing the past and the future and causing the art viewer’s gaze to zoom in on the artwork, and allow it to transport the viewer through time. As O’Doherty writes, “The outside world must not come in” (p.15), disrupting the visitor’s experience with the artwork. The Google Cultural Institute – a virtual space that makes cultural heritage accessible to the world – share the same functions of museums, and can be a hub that allows others to be educated in art history.

The Google Cultural Institute platform is an interface that imitates the museum functions in two ways. First, The design of the user interface is extremely accessible as it divides artworks into art movements. The organization here replaces the art of curation for museum exhibits and galleries. The fact that the interface is published online mimics the the idea of inclusivity and accessibility: rendering artworks and cultural heritage available and accessible to all through the Internet and digital platforms. Similar to O’Doherty’s White Cube, by showcasing the works of artists online, it strips the primordial layer of aestheticism and historicism associated with the artworks when displayed in a museum exhibit. Unlike museums, the Cultural Institute takes away the social aspect of going to the museum and the crowds passing by, offering their own interpretions of the paintings. However, by offering a neutral virtual space, Google’s Art Project allows for the display of  a variety of cultures in a pure form.

Second, the layout of screen “pages” seems to require less work on the viewer subject’s behalf to engage with his environment. In other words, the viewer’s mind works less to perceive the aestheticism offered by museums, galleries, and frames that display the installations. Here, these “pages” function as galleries, cornering the painting in one room alone for viewing and inspection. The art viewing experience becomes more intimate and more detailed – on the singular level of the painting. Connections and relationships cannot be physically made, as seen at the National Art Gallery, by displaying two paintings next to one another for a compare and contrast. Rather, these “pages” allow for an in-depth interaction with a singular painting rather for an in-breadth one.

Perhaps, the Google Cultural Institute is only a continuance of modernism in the sense that “The art is [one step closer to being] free, as the saying used to go, ‘to take on its own life’.” (p.15). This lack of context truly lets the art to speak for itself.

Vermeer (National Art Gallery): A Little Explanation Never Hurt Nobody!


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The museum exhibit curation was more impressive than that of ones I’ve seen in Musée des Beaux-Arts in Montréal, QC Canada, due to the fact that contexts in which the artworks were conceived, as well as their meanings, were provided. What I found most interesting was that the text accompanying the visuals features little to no explanations regarding the use of deep colors, the use of light and the extravagant and dramatic nature of these artworks. Further, it did not make use of the word “Baroque” to refer to the art movement and technique under which these painters fall. Rather, it utilized the word “genre painting”, highlighting the social significance rather than the artistic significance of these works.

The exhibit curation brought attention to the dominant so themes found in Dutch Genre Painting, showcasing works of Dutch artists, including but not limited to Vermeer, ter Borch, de Hooch, and Maes. Such highlighted themes included the use of music, the representation of women, specifically in unguarded moments, and that of men, as well as the use of animals such as parrots and dogs, the former – a motif for prosperity due to the newly established trade network – and the latter symbolizing loyalty in relationships. As such, through textual aids, the exhibition uncovers the underlying socio-cultural meanings and symbols found in these genre paintings (i.e. painting of scenes from everyday life, of ordinary people in work or recreation, depicted in a generally realistic manner), serving as a mini lens into the 17th Century Dutch Republic.

Despite the exhibit taking on after the Dutch painter’s name, the surprisingly low amount of Vermeer paintings presented in the exhibitions shows that to attract an audience to a museum like the National Art Gallery, curators must succumb to the commercialization of art. In other words, the name of renowned artists is often the most advertised to gain a large number of museum visits. Although the exhibition did not carry the “Girl with A Pearl Earring”, the boutique found at the end of gallery displayed commercialized goods, such as calendars, posters, and notebooks splattered with the painting, for sale. In short, the NGA is benefitting from the name of Vermeer to attract attention to the exhibition and produce financial gain.

As a result, interacting with the art becomes difficult: because there are many people surrounding the painting, and at times, pushing one another, to get a closer look of the work – specifically to admire the loose brush strokes of satin – in the context of a museum, the viewer grows tired of waiting and might skip some paintings; thus, not fully grasping the whole experience of the curated exhibit. While the digital aids provide relief in this aspect, still, appreciating the artworks becomes less powerful. In other words, while the digital aids render the art to be more accessible, quality of the paintings (i.e. to what extent they are appreciated) are comprised as they are captured digitally. Additionally, the exhibition was organized by themes – a gallery for each one (i.e. music, women), and at times, themes were coupled in order to establish relationships between each theme (i.e. “world of men” and “love and courtship”). While art should be open to interpretation, and this type of curating might tamper with one’s interpretation, this curating causes one to appreciate the art more because they are aware of its cultural meaning.

All in all, the exhibition surpasses expectations as it offered an acute perspective of the works by offering textual, material, and digital aids, rendering a wholesome understanding of the paintings and their social significance, not only in 17th Century Netherlands society but also in the context of being represented in the National Art Gallery in Washington, D.C.