Expanding The Making of Modern Art

April 2018
The following text was produced in response to the Van Abbe exhibition titled ‘The Making of Modern Art’. [vanabbemuseum.nl]

 A very recent history of versioning

One of Google’s earliest ventures into capturing physical objects for a digital realm came in the form of their Google Books Library project. It wasn’t huge leap of imagination for the company to move from capturing the written word in digital form via blogs and online media, to transposing whole books of written text in a similar manner. In fact, the blurb on the current Google Books site suggests that digitalising whole libraries was the goal of a ‘web crawler’ nicknamed BackRub [1] that Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page built as far back 1996. In wasn’t until 2002 though that Google would turn their attention back to where they reportedly started, pulling together a small team tasked with the goal of working out ‘How long would it take to digitally scan every book in the world?’ [2]

There were already similar projects underway such as Project Gutenberg (which exists today [3]) and the Internet Archive’s Universal Library Project [4] but being an independent commercial entity, Google would approach the collection of written works in a broader, more aggressive and expansive manner than their institutional and open source-based peers. For the next three years ‘Googlers’ would happily ignore issues around copyright and ownership in a fever of scanning and capturing. That was until in 2005 when The Author’s Guild, a US-based advocacy service for book authors, issued a legal notice asking Google to put a stop to the Google Books project citing ‘a plain and brazen violation of copyright law’. [5] This legal case would drag on for another 10 years until 2015 when it was ruled that Google’s creation of digital ‘versions’ of existing books was considered ‘fair use’ and therefore, legal. [6]

Over the course of ten years of legal wrangling, a number of case studies were presented that seemed to cause a sea change in people’s attitudes towards Google’s rabid digitisation of whatever written material they could get their hands on. To many minds the inherent usefulness of the Google Books project, helped by it’s visibility, was enough to validate its continuance. Aside from the preservation aspect, it was pointed out that digitalising so many titles and maintaining them in one place opened up a whole new library for those with poor eyesight who rely on electronic readers to reinterpret books for them.

For some the question shifted to concerns away from copyright and ownership. Artists Andrew Norman Wilson became concerned with the labour involved in the process. For his ScanOps project [2012-ongoing] he sifted through Google Book’s burgeoning archive to find photographic evidence of the little-talked about labour force responsible for the scanning. In his images you can clearly see the hands of the workers accidentally captured whilst positioning pages and archived as pages in the books. [7]

 The digitisation of objects

The Google Cultural Institute project took a very similar concept to the Google Books Project but appears to have had a much smoother ride. Google learnt from their book scanning project that to negate concerns over ownership they had to bring copyright holders along with them from the start. With this in mind they set up the Google Art Project in 2012, [8] under the auspices of the recently launched Google Cultural Institute, having enlisted a number of well known and respected cultural bodies from around the world such as the Tate in London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Uffizi in Florence. [9]

The goal, this time, would be to digitise entire museum and gallery collections, starting with high resolution images of two dimensional works and works on canvas before graduating to the scanning of sculptures and larger works to create three-dimensional models that could be ‘picked up’ and spun around via virtual space enabled web browsers.

Part of their offer to cultural institutions was to also create ‘street view’ enabled viewings of their spaces, untethering museums and galleries from their physical locations. This works in a similar way to the paper maps you can get when entering a museum or gallery, only instead of locating the viewer within a space, the space unfolds around the viewer. This also creates yet another ‘version’ of the works on display, now set in aspic, frozen at the moment in time when this virtual tour was first recorded by Google’s harness mounted ‘Street Trekker’ camera. [10]

 Changing vantage points

When Rachel Whiteread chose to exhibit her casting of Aldous Huxley’s old workspace at the BBC (the original ‘Room 101’) within the Cast Courts at the V&A Museum [11] the ‘newness’ of this work highlighted the paradoxical nature of these galleries, homes to copies of original sculptures and architectural pieces such as Trajan’s Column (cut into two pieces) and Michelangelo’s David, since the late 1800s. [12] The institutional value of these copies was bought to the fore. It was a chance to recognise the artistry and history of copy making. The V&A’s cast of Trajan’s Column now had equal billing with piece of ‘original’ work as contemporary as Whiteread’s ‘Untitled (Room 101)’.

In the 5th room of the new semi-permanent exhibition, The Making of Modern Art at the Van Abbe Museum [13] there is a great deal of evidence of this idea of versioning within musatorial fields. Co-curators The Museum of American Art, Berlin, [14] have no qualms about reproducing any kind of artwork, often in paint or pencil, even when these different versions are placed in close proximity to each other. And there is a placid acceptance of their relationship by most visitors. Whether or not it’s assumed these are original artworks is rarely commented on.

 Mapping and models

Versioning as a means for expanding on stories of art already occurs within The Making of Modern Art exhibition at the Van Abbe but this could be pushed even further with the incorporation of some of the recent technologies mentioned above.

A street view style map could give visitors an almost forensic viewing platform from which to interrogate the works and ideas contained within. An accompanying printed diagrammatic map could highlight vantage points where the Street Trekker's camera took these recordings for visitors to review later online as a type of continuous souvenir.

Three dimensional models of works within the exhibition could be added to the Google Arts & Culture database and exhibited in physical spaces. Allowing visitor to ‘handle’ artworks without the potential to damage original works also on show.

When considering these recent digitised formats suddenly the versioning that is already occurring within radical exhibitions such as The Making of Modern Art is expanded into new realms and dimensions that can only aid and attract visitors eager to interrogate ideas that have seemed so static up until now. 

Submitted as part of the Design Curation & Writing MA
at Design Academy Eindhoven.
Tutors: Steven ten Thije (Van Abbe) & Alice Twemlow.