“I like your old stuff better than your new stuff.” On 3D mashups, appropriation, and irreverence.

I just happened to stick my head up from the books for a moment to catch a wild discussion taking place on Twitter about whether 3D mash-ups of masterpieces are ‘sacrilege’ or merely ‘winking irreverence’. Arts journalist Lee Rosenbaum Tweets that the ‘@MetMuseum‘s digerati should serve the curators, not the other way around’, and is clearly troubled by moves within the museum to enable artists and others to create new types of art from the digital bodies of old ones.

A stake are mashups like this version of Leda and the Swan hacked together with Marsyas, by Jon Monaghan (which I have to confess that I love, and am terrified by).

I am so glad Rosenbaum has raised these questions, because to me they are actually about very core issues at the heart of contemporary museology, and no doubt speak to bigger issues than one short Twitter conversation. Is the museum’s core role and responsibility to protect sacred cows from those who question them (even though questioning can equally be an act of exaltation as irreverence)? Or is it to enable humankind to draw on those ideas and objects from the past considered worthy of recognition, protection, and value, in order to create something new, and to come up with new ways of asking questions and seeing the world? Are museums about now, and responses to a changing world, or an attempt to freeze in time as much as possible those things which are from a world that has already shapeshifted away? Is it more disrespectful to a work of art (and the artist who once created it) to enable these kinds of digital mash-ups that bring the work into a contemporary context and conversation, or to prevent them? And does a 3D mash-up of multiple works of art actually lesson the relevance or importance of the original work? Is Leda and the Swan now less magnificent for the fact that it has been reimagined through a new technology, and with a new face?

Liz Neely and Miriam Langer published a useful paper at Museums and the Web this year, on the emergence of 3D printing and scanning, in which they argue that the act of 3D modelling offers museum visitors the capacity to gain insight into an object:

To create a 3D model of the object, the visitor must photograph it from every angle, requiring a close examination and consideration of the object’s form. To create a really good 3D scan without massive distortion, the photographer must look carefully at the artwork, think about angles, consider shadows, and capture all physical details. This is just the kind of thought and ”close looking” we want to encourage in the museum. When a photogrammetric model is unsuccessful, even this failure can initiate a point of dialogue. What caused this failure? Was it a missed angle? Are areas lost in shadow? Is the shape too amorphous? The failed model may provide a surprising launch pad from which to celebrate a derivative “glitch” creation. Glitches and other unintended transformations are prevalent because the freely available 3D creation tools are young and evolving.

This perspective would position the fun of 3D absolutely in support of the original object, even if later results aren’t faithful to its prototypical intentions.

In some ways, I think that the technology question here is a bluff; a distraction. Haven’t artists always questioned the work of other artists, simultaneously nodding at their importance and interrogating it? Isn’t this, in fact, part of what makes art such an interesting (and often insidery) game; these long-running conversations about materiality and culture, that utilise the same objects and symbols from one generation to the next; that pull apart the ideas of one another in a critique? Is not art, after all, as much about a response to its own history as to the conditions that surround it?

Sherrie Levine, Fountain (after Marcel Duchamp: A. P.) (1991) Walker Art Center, 1999

Or is the problem the fact that it isn’t just artists making these works; that it might be a museum technologist who asks questions of the work, just as much as another artist? Or a programmer with no traditional artistic background or impulse? I am perhaps as concerned about the notion that a museum’s ‘digerati’ should serve the curators, not the other way around as I am about the privileging the masterpiece over new creation. Firstly, it imagines that somehow a 3D mashup of a work of art necesssarily does not serve the curators (or artist). But it also creates a false dichotomy through which to think through the relationship between the curator and digital technologies.

Digital technologies are becoming more and more knit into not just how we operate online, but how we perceive and experience in the world far more broadly. I met an artist last year who photographs her paintings every time she works on them, not as a way to track their progress, but so that she can see what they look like when viewed digitally via a screen, since that will primarily be the way her works are experienced. Her artistic processes are driven and changed in response to the digital context through which art and ideas are communicated. This is the circumstance in which culture now exists. And just like artists, curators themselves do and must serve digital demands as much as physical ones. The relationship is not hierarchical.

And I wonder if this isn’t at the crux of this whole discussion; about the shift in the balance of power as traditional artforms and positions are interrogated. I’ve been writing a lecture this morning on art and digital technology, which led me to revisit Will Wiles’ 2012 piece on The New Aesthetic. In it, he speaks of how the intent of The New Aesthetic was to draw attention to the fluctuations in power relationships, in response to ‘the riotous spread of new technologies of seeing.’ He includes a quote from James Bridle, that seems pertinent here (though you should go and read it in context too):

‘The programmers have a huge amount of agency in the world, because they can deconstruct, reverse engineer and write and construct and create these systems. People who can’t, don’t, and they have less power in the world because of it.’

I wonder whether what’s at stake is not so much the interrogation of the art object, but the agency of those who do and don’t have the power to participate in these discourses?

What do you think? Is the concern about irreverent mashups of important works of art simply a response to shifts in power, and reduced agency, or does it speak to a genuine problem about the sacredness of art? What am I missing in thinking through this issue? I’d love your thoughts.

Note: Koven beat me to this discussion with his own short piece. Check it out here.

20 thoughts on ““I like your old stuff better than your new stuff.” On 3D mashups, appropriation, and irreverence.

  1. Great discussion! I agree with SBHogarty regarding authenticity not excluding new ways of seeing. Technology is changing the audiences and museums need to engage and draw on that enthusiasm. Cheers

  2. I’m reminded of the words of Daniel Sprick when a small team and I had the chance to interview him for an installation. He was describing how he portrayed the weave and the weft of fabrics in his paintings and to illustrate, he started to draw on one of his completed works. In response to our collective gasp, he responded, “Your art is too precious.”

    That’s the only appropriate response to Rosenbaum’s concerns.

  3. At the Art Institute, we are just getting started on an IMLS grant to study the effect on collection engagement when employing 3D technologies in public programs across various audiences and program modes. Our advisory team is working with an evaluator in designing overall questions and tools for evaluating each of the 6 programs over the next year. We’ll be covering our progress and process as we go along in a project blog to go live next week! I’m hoping this research will test some of our assumptions about how this interface — mashups, co-creation, scanning, printing, designing, etc– does or does not change the relationship of our audiences with our collections. The grant pdf is here: http://1.usa.gov/19OGOKi and we’d love community feedback when we get the blog up and running!


  4. Great question Suse! I do think you’re right. I think there was a long dialogue about where the locus of authority lies when we employ participatory design, whether it lies with the museum or the visitor. But you’ve perfectly framed another power dynamic, and that is who can or cannot participate in dialogue about works of art (and whether art history is something that can also be democratized). As a recovering art historian, I have always wondered about this issue myself because, while I can appreciate the study and fine reading of art, don’t we think that if the control over who can talk about, work with, create, and interpret art was relaxed people who come to museums might feel more ownership over the objects and the space? From where I sit, (in the US) it’s hard to imagine such a radical change like that, because then, US museums might actually have a demonstrable value to our citizens, one that is worth funding and legislating to protect. I’m sympathetic to Lee Rosenbaum’s impulse, but I think she misses the mark on more than old guard ideas vs. new guard (technologists) ideas. She is holding back the art world from becoming a more active aspect of people’s lives – especially when that ‘active aspect’ can be whatever they want it to be. In my experience, not as many people can connect with an art historian’s world, and they frankly aren’t meant to.

    1. Lesley, this is a really intriguing answer. Do you think that museums don’t currently have a demonstratable value to the public? And do you think that is linked to questions of ownership over the objects and the space? The issue of demonstratability is interesting, because we often talk about the challenges of measuring intangible values, but is measurement the same as demonstration? I don’t know. You can demonstrate feelings towards something or someone without necessarily being able to measure them (I love you THIS much…), so surely the same could be true of value? Hmm…

  5. Great post, Suse! This is such an interesting issue as we experience the rapid rise of 3D printing and its experimental & playful uses in museums. I just wanted to quickly say that, from a museum education perspective, I have really valued working with the 3D printing process. In the workshop I was able to facilitate along with Liz Neely, Miriam Langer, Kristin Bayans, and others this spring for MW2013 here at the Portland Art Museum, I noticed how amazingly close everyone was looking at the objects (yes, the artworks in our collection). As an educator, I greatly value slow, close, extended looking — something which can be difficult to instigate at times. But the process of image scanning pieces in our galleries was phenomenal. It not only brought people together in new ways, but the objects remained the focus of the experience and inquiry (even as we were interacting with the 3D prints).

    I’m so excited to see what the team at AIC learns in their IMLS-funded research, and I hope we can all continue to share our experiences with this technology.

  6. Awesome post; these are some things that I’m starting to research about in my graduate program (I’m at MIT for Comparative Media Studies and focusing on museums + media). I come from a background in museum education and I think it is incredibly important for visitors to question structures of power in museums and cultural heritage–THAT is deep engagement. Regarding a work as sacred isn’t critical thinking. If digital technologies like 3D printing allow visitors to interrogate notions of power in institutions, then they’re doing a good thing.

    I’d like to pose a further question, though: is it a two-way street? Collections are open to the public so that they may manipulate it, make their own creations, encourage a sense of critical thinking about such structures of power, but are museum collections ever shaped by their visitors? Are the curators/other authorial powers deciding what should be in the museum ever influenced by these participatory modes of engaging with collections?

  7. great post, Suze!
    I also have a gut reaction to the notion that a 3D mashup is necessarily “irreverent.” Reverence doesn’t command non-engagement. Personally the more I look at Leda and the Marsyas, the more I’m moved by the contrast of expressions, given the backstory of each character. We should ask Jonathan what he was thinking.

    1. Donnie, we should! Do you have his contact details?

      You make a good point about the use of the term ‘irreverence’ however. I, too, think that something can be revered through engagement with it, even if the expression of that reverence is unconventional. I keep thinking how much better to have this kind of critical gaze on a work (or two, or more) of art, that always sends us back to the original and makes us look at it anew, with new kinds of understanding, than to have it ignored, or only copied in a way that shows us what we’re already aware we see or is there. One of the other things I’ve loved about some of the glitchier 3D prints, or the prints of a sculpture in “low res” for instance, is that it can actually show you different aspects of the shape of the object, which you might miss when caught up in all its detail. It promotes a different sort of looking, and therefore can make way for different kinds of seeing too.

  8. Excavating this through my not-as-convenient-as-google-feedreader hence late to the party. Great post but OMG I thought museums and museum professionals had long done away with the kind of rhetoric @Culturegirl was tweeting. Furthermore, parody and mashing up of older works can often give it a new life or bring the original to a new audience with the explosion of visual culture on the net (at least it would if crediting original sources was ever undertaken by the Forumites and the redditors.

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