Fly me to the museum

17 Feb 2011

I'm in Tate Britain, virtually speaking, leaping via a pixel swatch up at Philip James De Loutherbourg's expertly painted Alps like a freeclimber at the face of the Eiger. I feel like I have violated every rule in the visitor's handbook. The voyeuristic sense of guilt the experience induces reminds me of the one and only time I logged into Second Life (as my male friend) and got thrown out of a rudimentary gameville hinterland for lewd conduct. This is the new way to look around museums, online, courtesy of Google. It's odd and interesting but what does it mean for the 'real' art encounter?

Google's Art Project is a bit like street view, inside out, for ghosts, those who have no respect for Earthly boundaries -- the public herding patterns determined by walls, doors and red ropes. The fear exists, perhaps, that the public might prefer the Big Bro delights of the virtual experience to the real thing. There are certainly no rain-sodden, sneezing tourists, no queues of any kind for the art or exhorbitantly priced refreshments. There is no-one with whom to share a moment of wonder, a smile or a solicitous wink, either.

Art's Project's Tate B is eerily empty in the manner of the avatar landscapes of gaming zones. I have always found it hard to spend any time in at all in these virtual places for the loneliness, similar to that felt while sat amongst a line of seated tube riders scanning their Kindles. In optimising one element of the interactive experience, in this case the reading of text, other elements are lost. The tool does its job but one can almost feel the grubby materiality of data downloading past, fading from the technological present, potentially making the bespoke physicalityof books more attractive.

For it is my opinion, however, that the virtual editing of objects and experiences exposes by default all that is vital about the 'real' encounter. As Tatton knows too well, and uses to its advantage, history smells, the mansion's rooms reek and creak with the peculiar olfactory and audio signifiers of time and use. Even the cleanest rooms of our major museums are impregnated with the whiff of art, old and new: oil paint, rubber, plastics and the unmistakeable guff of air emitted from hot technology. Time-based art has not superceded object-based practices, just added other means of describing the contemporary experience.

Although we call it 'visual art' and talk about the 'visual', there are no such sensory and intellectual limits to the encounter. Good art makes us aware of the mode, means and moment in which we become participant or witness, whether to describe the breach between surface and situation; the keyboard and corresponding actions carried out in a virtual realm far, far away. Cory Arcangel's 'Beat the Champ', for example, currently on at the Barbican's Curve Gallery, provides a competition arena in which to consider one's preconceptions of technological space; the protocols of gallery and screen-based interactivity.

There are many technological developments on the horizon that might be perceived as potentially threatening to the art encounter as we currently understand it and the commodity value of objects –avatar technology and 3D printing. And, while there will always be those who never read the book because the film had already come out, historically, radical changes in the reproductive potential of things have prompted equally radical shifts in thinking.

Posted by Rebecca Geldard at 11:46 A