I love art books. My bookshelves bow with them and they offer thoroughgoing diversion when I can’t sleep. Monographs work best for this. I prefer thick paper, with big images that fill the whole page. Although I always read the introduction and biographical essays that start these sorts of books, I prefer the artwork to stand alone on the page. Maybe a date, but that’s it. These books offer what all books offer, the ability to experience what I haven’t experienced in real life, or to re-experience what I have. I’ve never been to the Tate or Van Gogh Museum, or even the Frick. But that’s the beauty of books, right?
Still, this same warm fuzzy argument doesn’t extend to all mediums, at least not for everyone. There was recently a spirited Facebook debate between some friends of mine about Art Project by Google. The pro Art Project folks said that for the first time in history some of the world’s best art was available directly to our homes, that with our personal computers we could access images of great (and maybe not so great) art. Because the images are high-resolution, we can zoom in close, see the paint, the hairs left by the brushes, the hand of the artist, all at a quality even more detailed than an actual book, even more detailed than standing in front of the original painting. And what about the detractors? They argued that when we log into Art Project we are not looking at art, we instead are looking at digitized reproductions. Even reproductions in books are still ultimately objects. These same folks also argue that we are on a slippery slope, where a virtual experience becomes a replacement for the experience itself.
Recently museums have started making apps for smartphones and tablets. Personally, I have apps for The Louvre, Hermitage, The Art Institute of Chicago Impressionist collection, and the MoMA Ab Ex Exhibition. Some of these apps are better than others. For example MoMA’s excellent Ab Ex app takes you through a tour of their recently closed Abstract Expressionist exhibition. You click on an image to make it larger and to access information about the artwork. But along with the images we also get a video of Ann Temkin discussing why she mounted the show and how she selected the works that would be included. She discusses the history of the Abstract Expressionists and why we should care about them today. Arguably, if I had seen this show at MoMA, I wouldn’t know any of these things. Perhaps what is lost by not seeing the works in person is made up for by added information and contextualization.
David Lynch said, “If you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it, but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real.” I do see Lynch’s point, a smartphone or even an awesome tablet doesn’t equal a real-life experience with a work of art. But my question for Lynch is, does he extend this to all non-theatrical viewing? I mean before we watched movies on our phones we watched them on DVD, and before that video, and before that broadcast television if we were lucky enough that the one of three stations would re-run a movie we might consider “art.” Where exactly is he drawing the line in the technological sand? What technology is an acceptable mediator for art? The harsh tokes are that once your art is in the world, you don’t control it anymore no matter how hard you try (I’m talking to you, Anish Kapoor).
Over the years we have grown comfortable with new technologies. By now, no one is threatened by a book. When records were introduced people argued that this reproduction was not the same as a live performance. Then CDs were not as “alive” as the sensuous analog sound of vinyl. MP3s not as “lush” as compact discs. Without exception this is all true. What is also true is that we now listen to music all day instead of just on special occasions. So perhaps we trade quality for quantity, but we also gain access to music we could never hear live and we can also control when we listen to it.
All through college “The Birth of Venus” hung over my bed. Never once did I confuse this poster with the real thing. The original hangs in Florence at The Uffizi Gallery. I’ve never been to that museum and sadly enough, I probably won’t ever. Mechanical reproduction and digital technology has acted as a mediator between viewer and artwork for centuries. How is an exhibition app any different than a catalogue? Even with all its bells and whistles an iPad is still on the same trajectory as moveable type. After all those years of looking each morning at Venus, I never saw her so clearly as I did when I saw her on Art Project.
I’ve been following the ‘curation’ meme for awhile now, and find its latest iteration particularly fascinating. Whereas in the recent past, the term ‘curated’ has tended to crop up in marketing and shopping-related contexts (i.e. “to curate” = “to pick and choose,” “to select,” or at its most base, “to shop around so others don’t have to”), last week I noticed that the term is now being slung around by those on both sides of the iPad/Apple wars. In an article titled Curated Computing: What’s Next for Devices in a Post-iPad World, on ars technica, analyst Sarah Rotman Epps puts a new spin on what’s already become a tired (and annoyingly mis-applied) buzz-word, arguing,
There is something very significant about the iPad beyond how many units it will sell: it’s changing how we think about the PC. The iPad creates a use case for a device that doesn’t do everything your laptop does, targeted at a consumer that uses devices more for consumption than production. The iPad ushers in a new era of personal computing that we call “Curated Computing”—a mode of computing where choice is constrained to deliver less complex, more relevant experiences. Let me repeat that, because it’s the essence of the Curated Computing experience: less choice; more relevance.
Oof! The connotations of the word ‘curation’ just get worse and worse, don’t they? “Less choice; more relevance?” Here, the verb curation isn’t merely equated with shopping; it signifies exclusivity and an active process of kicking the riff-raff out of the so-called “walled garden” of Eden that Apple has created and actively cultivates (or polices, depending on your point of view). You can watch a YouTube video of Epps describing her “curated computing” concept in (slightly) further detail here; I think it’s pretty dumb myself, but you can judge for yourself whether the idea of ‘curating’ in this context provides a useful conceptual metaphor or just trendy b.s..
In The Death of the Open Web, NYT Magazine columnist Virginia Heffernan used the term ‘curation’ to drive a related train of thought. In yesterday’s Magazine, Heffernan describes the Web as “a teeming commercial city…where Malware and spam have turned living conditions in many quarters unsafe and unsanitary” and “bullies and hucksters roam the streets.” Before, she argues, there was no way that Web denizens could escape the rabble. The rise of the iPhone, the iPad and the ubiquitous app, however, are now allowing users to migrate into the online equivalent of a gated community in the ‘burbs. Heffernan goes so far as to liken it to “white flight.” She writes,
In spite of a growing consensus about the dangers of Web vertigo and the importance of curation, there were surprisingly few “walled gardens” online — like the one Facebook purports to (but does not really) represent.
But a kind of virtual redlining is now under way. The Webtropolis is being stratified. Even if, like most people, you still surf the Web on a desktop or laptop, you will have noticed pay walls, invitation-only clubs, subscription programs, privacy settings and other ways of creating tiers of access. All these things make spaces feel “safe” — not only from viruses, instability, unwanted light and sound, unrequested porn, sponsored links and pop-up ads, but also from crude design, wayward and unregistered commenters and the eccentric voices and images that make the Web constantly surprising, challenging and enlightening.
Heffernan’s analogies are powerful and persuasive, although I do think she’s romanticizing some of the cruddier aspects of internet citizenry a bit. In any case, Hefferman’s use of the term ‘curation’ in this context aligns curators with those snooty, front lawn-obsessed Homeowners Associations and NIMBY-types, if not with community policing.
And finally Eliot van Burskirk, in an article written for Wired last week, took a jab at Epps’ opportunistic deployment of what he describe as “a well-worn meme” while acknowledging that Epps is undoubtedly “on to something” in her use of the term curated. Van Burskirk, tongue loosely planted in cheek, goes Epps one better and dubs this “The Age of Curation.”
Curation is the positive flip side of Apple’s locked-down approach, decried as a major, negative development in computing by many observers, present company included. Who would have thought that in 2010, so many people would pay good money for a computer that only runs approved software?
It runs counter to the idea, prized by geeks, that computing equals freedom. If it were Microsoft doing this, we’d all be storming the Gates with torches and pitchforks.
Nonetheless, the Age of Curation (see? anyone can coin a catchphrase) began long before today’s conversation about curated computing. In this Age of Digital Excess (oops, there I go again), we’re surrounded by too much music, too much software, too many websites, too many feeds, too many people, too many of their opinions and so on.
Curation is already fundamental to the way in which we view the world these days, and the iPad is hardly the first technology to recognize this.
I don’t have a dog in the walled garden vs. the riff-raff, suburb vs. gritty city, the iPad vs. Freedom of All that Is Good and True argument. I’m more interested in the ways that the terms curator and curation, which once had such dusty connotations, are undergoing a semiotic rejuvenation of sorts. Its meanings are not confined to a single realm of experience anymore – the curator has finally broken free of the White Cube. Alas, the white cube seems only to lead out into a Walled Garden, but I guess you have to take what you can get.
Memo: To Whomever It May Concern
Re: Acquisition of an iPad
From: The Bad at Sports Team
Okay, it has come to our attention that we can’t afford an iPad, either collective or individually. And while we are neither a formal non-profit at the moment, or a worthwhile cause, you can’t get help if you don’t ask.
We want an iPad(s). The art potential here is big big big! There is all sort of amusing shit we could do with one of those bad boys. We’ll take donations of any recent technology for that matter, computers, audio gear, advanced military weapon systems. Send us your working discarded wazmos. You’ll be contributing to … a cause, not a good cause mind you, but a cause none the less. And with the growing numbers of BAS folks with kids, or kids on the way, we surely could use some entertainment. If we’re jolly, we’re funnier, and who wants to listen to a bunch of cranky jerks. Well, you probably, as you are reading this instead of something meaningful, but you catch my drift.
Call our hotline (312) 772-2780 with details. And thank you!
One of my favorite BoingBoing contributors, Cory Doctorow, provides this week’s most memorable rant: Why I won’t buy an iPad (and think you shouldn’t either). I certainly don’t agree with everything he says, but it’s well-argued. Unfortunately, it doesn’t make me want one any less. Doctorow’s case for why the new Marvel Comic App for the iPad is just. plain. wrong. is particularly compelling– see the excerpt below, then go read the whole lengthy piece.
“I mean, look at that Marvel app (just look at it). I was a comic-book kid, and I’m a comic-book grownup, and the thing that made comics for me was sharing them. If there was ever a medium that relied on kids swapping their purchases around to build an audience, it was comics. And the used market for comics! It was — and is — huge, and vital. I can’t even count how many times I’ve gone spelunking in the used comic-bins at a great and musty store to find back issues that I’d missed, or sample new titles on the cheap. (It’s part of a multigenerational tradition in my family — my mom’s father used to take her and her sibs down to Dragon Lady Comics on Queen Street in Toronto every weekend to swap their old comics for credit and get new ones).
So what does Marvel do to “enhance” its comics? They take away the right to give, sell or loan your comics. What an improvement. Way to take the joyous, marvellous sharing and bonding experience of comic reading and turn it into a passive, lonely undertaking that isolates, rather than unites. Nice one, Misney.”