“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.

MW2013 reflections on emerging and collapsing museum roles

Well I’ve been hanging out in America for the last week with a mind full of thoughts in the aftermath of Museums and the Web 2013… and computer problems. It’s been frustrating, but it also provided the perfect excuse to upgrade my laptop after years of slow technology. Hooray! Truly, a new computer is a pleasure.

Now that I’m back online, I thought I’d start a series of quick posts on the issues that really caught my attention during the conference (a kind of belated version of what Koven Smith was doing in his live-blogging from Portland). In the meantime, if you’re feeling less patient and just want an overall summary of the themes and discussions that came out of the conference, check out the great reads by Danny Birchall, Susan Edwards and Ed Rodley.

So, theme no. 1: the fluctuation of museum jobs, and the impact that has upon the sector
On Day 2 of the conference, Rob Stein and Rich Cherry presented a plenary session that asked what is a museum technologist anyway? During the questions that followed, Liz Neely asked how many people in the room had made up their own job at some point in their career. I was surprised to see  the number of hands waved in response. It was probably close to half the room, all of whom had created a job for themselves.

As someone who has never known where I would fit within existing career paths in this sector, I was pretty excited by this. But then I started thinking further on the implications. When a job is created for someone, rather than created to fill a particular pre-identified need or purpose, then that job will be necessarily built around their individual strengths and weaknesses, maybe even more than the institution’s actual needs. So what happens when that person leaves the organisation? Does the museum then look to fill that position, or to craft another one in concert with the person who comes next into the role? I know I’ve created at least one job for myself in this sector, and it’s now something my museum will always need to have someone doing… but the opportunity came up because I identified the gap, not because they did. How often does this happen?

Sitting next to Michael Parry in one session, I had a discussion about the frequency with which museums should revisit their digital structure and strategy. Given how quickly the technological and work context change, should a museum rewrite its digital strategy and organisational chart regularly? And what are the benefits of doing so very regularly (maybe every three years) versus waiting longer; of making foundational instead incremental change? Two critical issues here become the value of adaptability vs stability, and the potential loss of corporate knowledge (not to mention staff morale… do people want to work in an environment where they position is always up to be questioned?). But it is something worth considering in the frequent discussions we have about writing a digital strategy; getting beyond the how and looking at the when.

These were just some of a series of questions that started to come up about the fluctuation of museum roles. In the session on digital curation that Danny Birchall and I were a part of, Danny looked at different curators who have influenced the sector to show just how diverse the notion of a “curator” is, even in the museum sector in order to demonstrate what museums could teach those who now seek to curate the digital world (one of these being Iris Barry, founder of the film department of the Museum of Modern Art, who herself created her own job based on her own skills and interests), while I looked at what museums could learn from some different types of curators of the digital world. In response to this session, Koven got to the heart of the matter and asked whether the discussion was indicative of the need for a new kind of role within the museum; that of the curator of the digital. Are we witnessing the birth of a new museum profession in these discussions? Do we now need someone who curates the digital world for stories and information as they relate to the collection and/or mission of the museum, in addition to more established curatorial roles?

In the unconference session that followed, Seb Chan pointed out that many museum, archive and library roles were beginning to collapse onto themselves as the differences that defined one from the next became less distinct in the digital realm. All of which makes me start to wonder just which roles within the museum will stand up as they currently are, and which other roles (like digital conservators) will begin to emerge as more and more critical in the coming years? Just how fluid is the museum’s institutional and organisational structure, anyway?

And, finally, what happens if you design yourself out of a job? There is a tension between wanting to create efficiencies and do things better, and wanting to maintain your job and an organisation’s need to employ you. Given that the positions needed in and by this sector appear to fluctuate more than I had previously imagined, I’m interested in how this tension plays out in career paths, and whether institutions can or do support those whose once-essential skills are now only peripherally useful.

This is where my relative newness to the sector starts to really get in the way, because I cannot look back at institutions and their history to know how these kinds of questions play out. But I am sure some of you can.

I’d love to hear more about your experiences and what you’ve seen in your own careers. Do the roles that museums need filled fluctuate significantly over the course of years? And what impact does that have on the museum? How often should a museum actively revisit its structure and strategy to ensure a fit for purpose?

Guest post: Making the Museum Publishing Band

A couple of weeks ago, I was captivated by Liz Neely’s Tweets from the National Museum Publishing Seminar in the USA. The conference sounded really interesting, and so I asked her to do a quick write-up for museumgeek. The resulting post is much more than that. Calling in two co-authors, this post explores museum publishing through a pretty rock’n’roll perspective. Enjoy. 

Making the Museum Publishing Band

Liz Neely
, Katie Reilly and Sarah Guernsey

Quite randomly, the National Museum Publishing Seminar, held June 21-23, holds the distinction of being a band reunion of sorts for us. Back about 8 years ago, the three of us shared stages and practice spaces.

We all worked at the Art Institute of Chicago—Liz in technology and Katie and Sarah in Publications—but we rarely actually worked together. In that large museum and at that time, our worlds infrequently overlapped. But as a band, we were particularly collaborative—we all wrote songs, we all sang, and there isn’t a tune that doesn’t have harmonies or some kind of backing vocal. One of us would bring a song to the group and we would all start tinkering with the idea, adding parts, experimenting, iterating, reviewing and building the song. We had to be comfortable accepting and responding to critique. We made songs; we booked shows; we made T-shirts and burned CDs—we never practiced enough, but we created something together that we loved. In the best of cases, the song transcended the sum of our individual parts. These songs, this accumulation of voices, formed the identity of the band.

Katie, Sarah and Liz, circa 2004.

Seeing each other again at the MPS got each of us thinking about the band again, not just nostalgically, but because in some odd sense it captured the spirit of this year’s conference. The theme was “The Voice of the Museum,” and both the roster of attendees and the agenda reflected that the profession of museum publishing is changing profoundly. No longer a forum only for professionals in publishing departments and their distributors, the conference encompassed digital and social media interlopers (bringing Katie, Sarah, and Liz together at a conference for the first time). Centered around a wider dialogue about publishing as a key and central feature to a museum’s identity formation, the gathering recognized the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of our work.

Some museums have already implemented this wider definition of publishing by centralizing efforts among various publishing silos, such as the Walker, or by centralizing budgets with cross-departmental committees, such as MoMA. Paul Schmelzer, Web Editor at the Walker, stated, “the Walker is one voice comprised of many.” In thinking about ‘voice’ as a concept, it’s important to recognize that each individual ‘voice’ is not a static set variable. This is what keeps our institutions evolving and alive—but also why strong vision and leadership remains paramount in keeping efforts moving in the same direction. Both Schmelzer and, in a later panel, Kristi McGuire from the U of C Press emphasized a move from using digital communications strictly for promotion to creating a content model that emphasizes and supports the institution’s personality. McGuire reported that since transitioning from a publicity-focused blog to something more editorial, the traffic has tripled.

How do we harness each person’s contribution to create amazing publications across all platforms? As the definition of publishing gets wider and the channels more complicated, we must harness the contributions of a larger set of talents and expertise in a truly collaborative manner. Robert Weisberg called for a “content launch instead of a book launch” to set up communication early in the planning process among publishing, digital media, marketing, and distribution stakeholders. Stakeholders need to build from the strengths of other collaborators. Publishers should iterate and be experimental like a technologist while developing an appetite for risk. Dan Sinker, the keynote speaker at the conference, who has has built a career at the intersection of a DIY punk aesthetic and technological savvy, particularly spoke to this need. He noted that so many developers and tech people he meets nowadays he discovers he knew back in the ’90s punk scene—making music, publishing zines, setting up record labels. They were people who made things that were ephemeral and constantly evolving yet important and rich. Technologists could learn from the organized workflow planning  and strategizing that publishers have honed. Kara Kirk pointed out that publications departments should be comfortable slowing things down appropriately. “Everyone wants to have their foot on the gas, but it’s not fun to not have brakes.”

The emerging role of the ‘publishing technologist’ is analogous to that of the editor.  Kate Steinmann defined the editor role with the following keywords “Ally, Advisor, Mentor, Magician, Meddler, Diplomat.” These are the qualities that a technologist also needs to take on in collaboratively helping the author best reach his or her vision. Editors, for their part, need to embrace an iterative approach to publishing, to balance their deeply rooted desire for perfection—for authoritativeness—with the realities and opportunities of new media.

We’d like to suggest that we approach museum publishing strategy as a collaborative creative process. Should we start a publishing band at the museum? How big is the band and what instruments do we need? Depending on the project, do stakeholders play collaborative vs. supporting roles? Are there project leads? Do we have enough roadies, sound guys, and photographers to pull it off? Do we want to attain the rough-hewn simplicity of the Ramones or insist on the polish of Steely Dan? Instead of viewing new challenges and uncertain roles with anxiety, can we see it as writing a new song?

Channeling Richard Holland from Bad at Sports: “Don’t be boring!” We should not continue doing things because that’s what’s always been done. There is an urgency and an opportunity to transform our processes in a way that creatively and effectively supports dialogue with our audiences across print and digital platforms. If we don’t grab a hold of it, we—both technologists and traditional publishers alike—will all be marginalized.

Visit the Museum Digital Publishing Bliki (a blog + wiki) to discuss museum publishing. http://digitalpublishingbliki.com

museumgeek: What do you think? Can museum publishing strategies be a collaborative creative process, as Liz, Katie and Sarah suggest? How would this idea work in your museum?