Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the role that reproduction plays in both the circulation and understanding of paintings, in part due to the flurry of online discussion that took place around the launch of Google Art Project last month. I’m not all that impressed by Google’s latest expansion of its Mapping empire, although I know that many educators think it’s a valuable teaching tool. I do like how some folks are already using it to curate their own idiosyncratic collection mash-ups — check out Chicago Now blogger Taleen Kalenderian’s “10 Art Babes from Google Art Project” for an example. Funny aside: when I first read the headline to that post I assumed the author was male, and that he was “cruising” the galleries virtually, surveillance-style, for good-looking women. And then I rolled my eyes. Now I sorta wish that that had been the case, because the museum galleries featured in Google Art Project are always dispiritingly absent of any human presence. I guess this makes sense, given the nature of the Project, but I find it depressing to look at – a sad, premonitory vision of a future where the physical spaces of museums are totally vacant, while across the globe countless clicking fingers connected to asses planted firmly in chairs peer through screens at the Vermeers and Van Goghs.
One substantive critique that has already been launched at Google Art Project — let’s call it GAP for short — is that (surprise surprise) it doesn’t include enough women. This is certainly true, but that’s mostly because GAP isn’t a curatorial project in and of itself. It’s simply mapping museum collections as they stand (or recently stood). So the lack of women is a fixable problem: When museums start putting more work by women on their walls, there will be more women represented on GAP. But here’s the problem that I’m not sure is fixable: the preponderance of museum galleries on GAP dedicated solely to painting, and the tendency on the part of those who decide which galleries in particular will get “Google Mapped” to not only focus on painting over other media, but on paintings that are either image-based or that translate well photographically.
We should remind ourselves that technology is biased, that the form of content delivery shapes the nature of the content delivered, as well as how it is received. In his book Program or Be Programmed, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff argues against conforming to the logic of social media or other technological platforms. If people working in the art and design fields celebrate the launch of GAP uncritically, the logic of GAP will subsume us until it becomes normative. The answer, as Rushkoff also advocates, is for us to be conscious of the ways that technological biases are deployed. (For more on Rushkoff’s work see here).
I’m more than a little afraid that Google Art Project will really take off, and that as a result curators will start making installation decisions based on how their galleries will look on GAP. But I’m also bolstered by the fact that GAP isn’t meant to be an archive, nor is it a catalogue – it’s a map whose destination points will shift over time. The problem with GAP’s form of mapping is that its contours are pretty much set, and that means a huge swath of artistic production that isn’t particularly reproduction-friendly, is–and will continue to be–omitted. Mind the gaps, indeed.