Tech Use In Museums – Tate Sensorium & More…

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Basket of Apples (1895), Paul Cezanne (French 1839 – 1906)

Can you smell, taste, or feel the roundness, or the ripeness of these apples? Do you need help? (See note below)

Digital technology has invaded and transformed all sectors of our culture and commerce. Car-making is now occurring in the old Wild West, challenging Detroit: Tesla’s electric cars, made in Fremont, California hold great promise for corralling air pollution from automobiles. And tech giants like Google and Apple are entering the auto industry because “traditional auto-makers do not really understand technology”.

Museums cannot be left behind – will another technology company replace our museums? Not likely. For one thing, there’s no great profit to be made in museums. Secondly, museums, and the arts in general, feed the underground spring of our mind, filtering out the endless flow of culture detritus, not adding to it – like more car carcasses. But sadly, some of the museum tech-applications seem to be producing more tech detritus, resulting only in fleeting ‘gee-whiz’ moments. To be fair, these projects generated huge online participation. But how much real engagement (thinking, mental processing) in front of the artwork (web image or actual) was generated? Will those works highlighted be remembered for the wrong reasons?

Lee Rosenbaum (CultureGrrl) in Tech Trauma: MoMA’s New Chief Tech Officer, Plus More on Museums’ Digital Disasters  reported on the rapid arrival and departure of technology officers in major museums in New York: The Met and MoMA and others; and some of the horror schemes proposed by these officers. A little research on my part found one problem (or so I thought): none of those mentioned in her article has an art history background.

Across the Atlantic, Tate Gallery in London, by far the leader in audience learning as well as thoughtfully curated exhibitions, nevertheless appears to have just produced a couple of shows that may be more ‘gee-whiz’ than thought. And this despite the fact that Tony Guillan, the Multimedia Producer for Tate and manager of  its IK Prize, is a graduate of the esteemed Courtauld Institute of Art. Luckily, the two shows I have in mind are one-off experiments, the result of the IK Prize, established in 2014. The first show last year was a robot that prowled Tate Britain’s galleries at night, After Dark, highlighting various artworks. It has been creatively used by the Van Abbemuseum in Holland to allow virtual visits by patients in nursing homes.

This year’s IK Prize was won by Flying Objects, a creative company which uses haptics   to create a sense of touch for the viewer of virtual objects. Its goal is for use in online merchandising and branding. For the show, Tate Sensorium (8/26 – 10/4/2015) the company created not just touch, but added taste, smell, and sound to aid the viewer in looking at four paintings in the Tate collection. (See here, and here reports from viewers). The impression I get is that viewers felt distracted and overwhelmed by all the stimulation: virtual raindrop shooting up onto your palm from below, perfumes wafting into your nostrils and chocolate on your tongue… (Yes, audiences were offered pieces of dark chocolate from a premiere chocolatier in London). And further, the evocation of such senses was the interpretation by the producer of the show, not necessarily the intention of the artists (they were not living artists, fortunately). In the real world, the same painting may produce very different sensations in another viewer, through the eyes alone; as it may trigger memories that are very personal (and unique). How do these senses work in our brain?

Humans are overwhelmingly visual – our good eyesight enables us to see far, either food or danger. And with the advanced development of our cerebral cortex, we do plan, and plan way far ahead and have created our highly complex society. Vision remains the most important: fully 30% of neurons in our cerebral cortex are devoted to processing inputs from the eyes (vs 8% for touch and 3% for hearing). More importantly, where in the brain the information from these different sensations goes makes them very unequal. In the case of vision, the information, soon upon entering the visual cortex, is divided into two separate pathways: the dorsal stream for acting on immediate danger or need (run, or grab that banana); and the ventral stream heading to the frontal lobe of the cerebral cortex for executive analysis. Our hearing also has connections to the two streams. However, the more immediate senses like touch, taste and  smell, while giving more ‘true’ information (un-altered or biased by our previous experience or learning), are also less useful for human memory and knowledge because the information mostly goes to the deep, unconscious part of the brain (though it can be brought to the conscious with training). I have written about this in Strip Club Science – The Snobbery Of The Senses. Furthermore, the dorsal and ventral streams are not mutually exclusive: they communicate with each other along the way.

It is admirable and essential that museums experiment. Tate is itself highly creative in investing in the IK Prize – sort of searching and trying out the technology that’s out there, rather than committing to one “tech expert” who is in a position to prove himself or herself. Museum experimentation can take many forms. The most desirable, as emphasized by the Director of Learning at Tate, Anna Cutler, is learner-centered and artistic practice-based (my italics):

“…key principles, including adherence to a more participatory, learner-centred approach that is concerned less with the transmission of expert knowledge about artworks than with the creation of learning contexts and opportunities for audiences to actively engage with art. The strategy also places strong emphasis on an already existing facet of learning at Tate, namely working with artists and drawing upon their practices.”

One museum experiment which holds great promise is the Hillman Photography Initiative at the Carnegie Museum of Art in Pittsburgh, launched in 2014. The initiative attempts to produce a yearly series of exhibitions and projects concerning the different aspects of photography from its invention in the 19th century to today: from personal memory-making to collective-witness in war and peace to the neglected and forgotten – and the ubiquity of picture taking by smart phones and uploads to the internet today. Its 2015 iteration generated huge international online participation as well as local interest. I hope to take a closer look at the initiative soon.

NOTE: This Cezanne paining is nothing about taste, touch or smell; or autumn harvest.  It just looks strange, as if the table is not flat and the apples are pouring out to you. That’s because it’s a means for Cezanne, whose work led Picasso to invent cubism, to investigate perspective, which is a construct of our brain, not our retina that is flat (albeit curved). Here’s a quote from WikiArt, where I found this image:

“This painting is most notable for the disjointment of perspective, as if the two sides of the painting were completed using two different points of view. The right side of the table is not in the same plane as the left side of the table, which was a stylized method used by Cezanne to incorporate the differences of viewpoint into an impressionistic still life. It was this technique that made it possible to bridge the gap between impressionists and cubism, which employed varying perspective and varying angles to depict subjects. As such, this still life is an example of the way in which Cezanne tried to deal with the complexities of visual perception.”

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