Pixels and Post-Tourism

Curator's Note

The Google Art Project’s “visitor guide” establishes the qualitative benefits of virtual exhibit tours with the promise of accessibility, interactivity, personalization, expanded knowledge, and unrestrained exploration: to “take a trip around the world’s greatest museums,” “discover the masters” and “hidden secrets,” which only a digital experience powered by Google could provide. Beyond rhetorically blurring the line between online and in-gallery art viewing, such an experience may actually be incrementally better, with over a 1,000 artworks at one’s technology-touching fingertips, seventeen “gigapixeled” paintings allowing visual inspection up to 1,000 times that of a digital camera, and Street View technology allowing for safe and unconstrained “travel” via clicking. As Google continues to render activities in the real world into digital form, it prompts the question whether physical space is becoming less relevant or irrelevant. Unconstrained by time or space or financial restrictions, this slice of the digital culture of convenience constitutes what has been termed the “post-tourist” condition, as individuals find it less necessary to leave home with the surrounding technologies that allow us to “gaze” on tourist sites in isolated comfort (Feifer 1985).

However, this electronic flânerie produces a disjointed and fantastical journey of a museum easily marred by digital distractions. We are encouraged to view fragments of paintings, brushstroke-level details impossible to see in person from behind designated viewing lines; we “fly” through corridors, jump floor levels and even museums, while additional clicks quickly take us “off-site” to Google-designated locations like YouTube and Google Maps. And while the virtual may draw the viewer into a spectacle, mimicking and transcending the everyday spaces of the temporal world, it does not negate the fact that Google is first and foremost an advertising company (Vaidhyanathan 2011). This virtual space may actually further the hermeneutic circle of tourist motivation, providing a basis for the future tourist to select and evaluate potential places to visit, while codifying their desire to travel (Urry 2002). Thus, the question is not the disjuncture or dissolving of actual and virtual space, but how this new overlay of sites and sights mutually reinforces and reshapes our experiences within today’s museums.


This is great stuff! One of the things I'm really interested in is how the museum relates to its physical/geographic surroundings, how an institution like the Museum of Modern Art is linked to the city of New York and both the everyday lives of urban residents and the tourists experience of the city. How does the meaning of Van Gogh change by viewing his 20 most famous paintings across the world versus viewing his paintings in context of the New York (or London or Paris) art world? How is it different viewing an artits's work his home city or country versus abroad? And depending on the artist, these questions can become more and more complex. Think of someone like Warhol, how he's linked to New York and how that link is encouraged by something like the guide book that came out last year with Manhattan Warhol tours. Lots of great questions at stake here. 

Those are excellent queries that expand into the digital realm of virtual exhibit tours, which complicate them in interesting ways. Undoubtedly, specific tourist cities like Paris and New York cannot be disconnected from their art collections. But are virtual tours diminishing that connection anymore than traditional travelling exhibits that, for example, have taken Van Gogh’s work to Beijing? I think it might be interesting to examine the mythos surrounding a specific city’s art collection through their tourism discourse, i.e. how guidebooks talk about it, and compare it to that of travelling art exhibitions and online virtual exhibits. I would suspect that place, despite the art’s temporary or virtual disconnection from it, continues to hold some importance. Definitely something to look into!

A very interesting post, Laura. This is a case study that truly illustrates the potential strengths and weaknesses of online curation. Your observation regarding being relegated to pre-determined views, explore fragments of images, and that the entire experience is contextualized by an advertiser. In many ways this video seems to try and "sell" this experience as being, in some ways, better than the real thing (rather than merely enhancing it) due to your ability to explore additional meta data relating to the works of art, and get even "closer" to the works than in real life and observe them in greater detail. At the same time, as you point out, it could serve as a means of encouraging future travel by enhancing existing museum experiences. 

One thing that continues to be absent in all virtual tours (including this one) is a lack of dimension when it comes to exploring the enhanced details. While you can see the details in Van Gogh's brushstrokes, the detail is rendered 2-dimensional. While there is rising interest in 3-dimensional television sets, I have been surprised that this technology hasn't been as fully explored within virtual tourism contexts. Given your observation that Google is an advertising company and that such technology can, in turn, attract future tourists to specific locations, do you think that Google (or similar companies) will ever endeavor to find new ways of adding actual 3-dimensional detail to these works of art? Would such an endeavor potentially hurt their ability to "sell" the site for future tourists or act as a means of further encouragement?

This is a fascinating question, and while I am unsure of Google’s future intentions, it does make one wonder whether a painting, materially 2-Dimensions, is necessarily suited to be viewed in 3-D. Should a flat painted image of a painter-induced 3-D landscape be adjusted to pop out of our computer screens to further prod that imaginative spatial wandering that our minds already do when looking at it? While all the “improvements” Google Art Project supposedly accomplishes, would this improvement ultimately fall into an unrealistic experience which future tourists know they wouldn’t have? Perhaps there’s a necessary balance Google needs to maintain in order to “sell” experiences that easily traverse from online to offline. One can imagine the 3-D technology being more readily applied to the Street View tours of the museum's corridors, however.

This is a very thought-provoking discussion, and I really appreciated your analysis. I find the connection to post-tourism extremely helpful in thinking about the cultural functions of such online experiences. One question I have grappled with in the context of my own research inquiries has been the context in which web users are exposed to this online content. Do they access it in lieu of a physical visit? Do they consult it as orientation material prior to the visit? Or do they use it to deepen or cement their knowledge in the aftermath of an actual museum visit? I think the context would certainly affect the online experience in very interesting ways. I also appreciated your discussion of the commercial aspect of the Art Project as a Google initiative, and it is indeed crucial to take this into account when analyzing such products. Finally, I was very interested in the way that the project rhetorically and functionally facilitates sharing and dialogue: users are encouraged to share their custom collections, and post about their experience to various social media. I wonder to what extent this is happening; certainly, the narrative and aesthetic substance of such user-generated content would be an intriguing research effort!

Thank you for the thought-provoking reply. I'm also curious if the novel attraction of using such rich interactive archives like Google Art Project more often wears off after the first few uses, or if it develops into more time consuming interactions of posting and sharing, and if it contributes to a person's interest and understanding of the subject. For those that do become more engaged, I also wonder what their online experiences demonstrate; or what conversations these knowledge banks induce. Undoubtedly, Google Art Project and other online exhibits are being used as educational tools, so students have probably picked up on its Wikipedia-like worth. My own research is also dealing with very similar questions, but in terms of commercial geodemographic systems like Google Earth, where people are acquiring specific place-based knowledge and, in the same rhetorical fashion, encouraged to share and contribute to it through multiple platforms. What is at stake with these initiatives? Is it just a continued democratization of knowledge? All worthy questions to ask and hopefully problematize!

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