Institutional Technology: An Outline

Date: January 8, 2017 Category: ,

Written for Digital Technologies and the Arts, NYU Steinhardt, 2015
Taught by Sarah Hromack, Faculty, NYU Steinhardt.

A 2014 New York Times article published a mythical sentence that has framed the past decade of discourse surrounding the influence of technology on arts viewership: “The average visitor spends 15 to 30 seconds in front of a work of art, according to museum researchers.” Mirroring various 2013-2014 statistics, the average user checks their phone 110 times per day (upwards to once every 6 seconds in the evening hours), Facebook’s “like” button is clicked 3,125,000 times every minute, and 58 photos are added to Instagram every second. While critics have long since debated the specific reasons for the technology addiction engulfing contemporary culture, the quick explanation is the sheer fact that technology is now affordable, accessible, and everywhere.

As the commercial sectors emphasis on innovation is materializing itself through lucrative new products and services, it seems only natural that arts organizations would want to participate by partnering with software engineers to develop projects. The buzz word surrounding innovative practice is that it can “disrupt” markets that have previously been written off as sustainable (think, “smart” bands that tracks an athletes movements, or the “sharing economy,” in which you could temporarily rent a car, bike, or place to stay without once speaking to a hotel or taxi driver). In the purest sense of the word, an art “institution” holds a major mission of collecting, preserving, and exhibiting works of cultural significance; yet, with innovation in mind, the institutions themselves are becoming less like quiet sanctuaries to analyze the past and more like visitor-focused playhouses, controlled by the hyper-current thrust towards ingenuity, socialization, and spectacle.

If the question were to be framed: “how can technology make individuals more informed of cultural events and exhibitions?” then the answer would be simple: spend more resources on web-based advertising and developing online communication techniques. Institutions have always emphasized marketing as service to ensure that the public has known access to their holdings. However, moving towards 2015, in which the Pew Research Group recently citied that 97% of cultural institutions are already active on social media, the most pressing question seems to be: “how can we encourage arts consumers to use their existing technologies to become more deeply engaged, and to want to come back frequently?” Institutional technology needs to evolve past communication strategy. Visitors are aware of whats happening when and where; with this line of thought, technology should support the visitor once they arrive.

Consider this: if an art museum has thousands of social media followers that live thousands of miles away, why not make every image in collection browsable on its website? If visitors are equally as enchanted with their smartphones as they are with the objects in front of them, why not build mobile applications to supplement the museum education experience? If digital media empires, like Facebook, Amazon, and Google are tracking user data and constricting our online privacy, why shouldn’t cultural institutions begin to use these technologies to collect visitor data as well? In theory, these considerations could be seen as solutions to the larger question that surrounds visitor engagement and frequency, however an ample dose of criticism needs to be applied. Should the capitalistically driven innovation economy, poised for its reinvention of the commercial marketplace, find equally safe refuge in non-profit institutions? Does the very act of viewing and experiencing art in a museum context need to be disrupted by innovation? Paola Antonelli, senior curator of architecture and design at the Museum of Modern Art quotes: “We live not in the digital, not in the physical, but in the kind of minestrone that our mind makes of the two.”

In a recent essay for e-flux, critic Michael Pepi made the following statement: “By digitizing the works so that they can be rendered and made searchable with image recognition technology, the institution—tasked with holding cultural objects in the public trust—moves the aesthetic experience into a hardware apparatus whose proprietary format is dictated by a private company. As the institution crosses over this line, they begin a process that denigrates the free play of narrative, the outsized imaginative force that silently sweeps through the heterotopia of the museum space and advances the indexical, algorithmic performativity of its data as yet just another platform for user experience.”

Pepi’s assertions allude to the concept of the future museum acting as a database; a structured set of inventory existing only on computers. This “database” is heavily archived, easily searchable, and accessible to everyone with an internet connection. The physical work of art can always exist in tangible form within the context and security of an institution. But today, high-quality documentation of each piece now creates a secondary life for these works within the conglomerated digital landscape. This issue questions ownership and conservation: that secondary digital life is fast becoming the most relevant mode of engagement, not only for the artworks, but for the individuals who interact with them. Technology has made it easier for curious consumers to browse digital collections of art without actually visiting the museum to experience their physical iterations. If this is the new standard, then where does that leave the physical objects? Who owns the objects once they have transcended their physical form in favor of a more readily available one online? And in who’s hands should conservation now reside? Certainly not private companies, though, recent examples are proving this just might be the case.

The most prominent comes from the most visited website in the world: Google formulated Google Art Project as part of its Cultural Institute. It was launched in February 2011 in cooperation with 17 international museums, including the Tate Gallery in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and the Uffizi in Florence. In 2014, the server now features more than 32,000 artworks from 46 museums, available in 18 languages. To see this project through, Google acquired the proper image rights needed to document these museum collections through high-resolution photographs and interactive mapping. Users of the platform can take “virtual tours” (similar to visiting cities in Google Maps), save select images into “collections” of their own, or simply browse “curated” slideshows of the works. The Google Art Project is seen as a method for democratizing access to the arts on an international scale. Additionally, it can provide a better visitor experience than a physical institution could: virtual visitors need not worry about money, physical limitations such as disabilities, large crowds, or whether or not a specific work is on view; everything is always available and time does not exist.

Google’s early on support for the field of art-focused technology spawned hundreds of similar projects. Like Google Art Project, many of these developments were formed as one time collaborations between art institutions and software agencies. Just as a corporation may sponsor a contemporary retrospective exhibition through funding, the software agency provides a gainful service that falls outside of the art institutions métier. Both parties benefit: the software agency can align itself in the marketplace as an arts supporter, and the arts institution can be applauded by visitors for its embrace of the new. In 2013 The Cleveland Art Museum launched Gallery One with Local Projects, encouraging users to browse its collection on a massive, multi-panel touch screen and use museum provided iPads, equipped with GPS, to locate the works they pre-selected based on images. And in 2015, The Cooper Hewitt Design Museum will release “The Pen” with experience design firm TellArt, enabling every visitor to “collect” objects from around the galleries and create their own designs on interactive tables; this project is considered the world’s first institutionally led “wearable” technology.

A new wave of start-up engineers are recognizing these partnerships and bypassing them entirely, creating software that can be sold to multiple museums at once rather than designing specific products strategically with the institution. An application currently being developed in Boston, Spotzer is tag lined as a “Pinterest for the physical world.” It uses bluetooth iBeacon technology for iPhone’s iOS; when a visitor of a museum is close to an object, the application will recognize it and pull up an image, object information, and an audio guide. Spotzer promises to merge social media practices with museum viewership, stating: “We believe that the visitor’s experience with art should be mobile, personalized, seamless, and compelling; powering interactive, socially engaging, and context-aware mobile apps for museums to enhance the way we experience art.” The application is already being prototyped by New York City’s Neue Galerie, the Boston Athenaeum, and the Public Art Collection at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center. Similar, a collaborative research project by two Stanford University PhD students are using trends in augmented reality for their project Art++, combining image-recognition technology and computer graphics with art history. With this software, a museum visitor can turn their smartphone or tablet toward an artwork to uncover interactive information, such as a map of the journey a photographer made to capture their image, or process drawings of a painting found in an artists studio.

Framed with the same supportive language that surrounds advanced academic research, much of Pepi’s criticisms on specific ownership and conservation of post-internet collections are being ignored, disguised by the excitement of tech-utopia. As long as museums are keeping up with the cutting-edge technologies needed to craft contemporary visitor experience campaigns, they do not seem to care that they are slowly surrendering their public physical archives to the private sectors demands. Aesthetic experience can and will be mediated.

It would be impossible to make comparisons between these outlined technologies and commercial enterprises without debating data science, their major common thread. “Big Data” is transforming American Corporations, using acquired customer accounts to track everything from buying processes and advertisement clicks to the users personal identity, like an e-mail address, location, or date of birth. Run a Google search for a product, and sure enough, a Facebook user will see an ad for that product on their feed within minutes. Our internet patterns are being watched and sold, and we’re exchanging basic personal information for “free” access to information and services. These patterns dictate our online experience, and as Facebook and Google have proven, these patterns are also worth an enormous amount of money.

An arts institution may not be able to sell collected visitor data to the same extent as corporations; chances are, each of their visitors have already been bought. What they can do is adapt to Big Data principles as another methodology for internal improvement; data science is heralded in the private sector as a way to recover failing economies by subliminally bolstering commerce. “Understanding audience behavior enables museums to target marketing for future exhibits or personalize messages to visitors based on their past viewing history. From an educational standpoint, data can help museums find the most effective tools for teaching their audiences,” cites Wall Street Journal columnist Ellen Gamerman.

At the Dallas Museum of Art in Texas, a frequent-visitor program called DMA Friends asks guests to “check in” at designated locations around the building with their phones or at kiosks. When a guest alerts the museum of their specific location by entering activity codes located in the galleries, they can unlock reward points towards prizes such as special event tickets, free parking, and dining. The museum filters this data to better understand visitor behavior, like how often they visit and which types of art they enjoy. By asking visitors to register an account with DMA Friends they also have the ability to collect names and e-mail addresses. Recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art asked visitors to provide optional information before accessing the museums free wi-fi; in only a few months, the museum has collected 100,000 email addresses.

The adverse affects of Big Data in an institutional context boils down a visitor having potential control of cultural production itself. For example, if a particular artists work is deemed too challenging, a museum may decide to place the work in storage rather than find creative ways to make the work relatable. How long until museums decide to only purchase works that they know in advance will be popular? How long until artists decide to only produce works that will be largely admired, pressured more by consumerism than the social and cultural issues that immerse them? When art “goes viral,” the work itself suffers while the industry gains. The artist may have intended for a critical dialogue, but virality is often dictated by simplicity. What is strange, remarkable, unusual, or visually immersive dominates. Virality is Jeff Koon’s Retrospective at the Whitney Museum, one so popular amongst visitors that Whitney itself was encouraging selfies. Virality is Kara Walker’s exhibition at the Domino Sugar Factory giving birth to a selfie generator, despite the artists life-long advocacy for civil rights. Arts institutions—the very spaces that were built to provide highly-considered education and appropriate dissemination—are instead succumbing to what is on trend. Best put by Edward Gargiulo, director of membership and database marketing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston: “We’re trying to balance that creepiness factor,” in regards to the solicitation of personal visitor information and the art on the walls having the ability to stare back.

Innovation seems to be entering a vicious cycle; when one new idea transforms a particular market, it is soon replaced by newer, better idea. Just as our culture is speeding up, technology companies struggle to stay on top of the research and resources needed for market longevity. As institutions are just now experimenting with these practices, it may be several years before an art museum is able to truly disrupt physical experience with technology, in the sense that the digital experience will become augmented as the primary one. Yet several of the projects referenced here are laying the groundwork. Every benefit a new technology may grant a museum comes with the price of obstructing a long conservative system; and when that system is as precarious and personal as interpreting art and cultural objects, careful consideration needs to be emphasized to ensure quality and consistency. Institutions must now decide exactly how technical they want to become, and exactly how much power they want to place in the hands of its patrons. In addition, institutions need to be observant of the commercial markets influence on their unique missions, should these many outside collaborations continue. Lastly, they must understand and value the criticisms that will face them along the way.