Reflections on a Trip to the Google Cultural Institute in Paris
Just a few short days ago, I had the chance to visit the Google Arts and Culture HQ in Paris. To give it its proper title, they call it the Google Cultural Institute.
The below are some reflections on what I saw, followed by some broader analysis of why, exactly, Google is choosing to invest in such an initiative.
Let’s start with an easy question.
WHAT IS GOOGLE ARTS AND CULTURE, ANYWAY?
Google Arts and Culture was initially launched in 2011, as the Google Art Project.
Its headline feature was the Virtual Gallery Tour, which uses Google’s Street View technology to capture the interior of world-famous museums and their many, precious paintings.
Since its re-brand to ‘Arts and Culture’, it has transformed into an online platform (you can try it here) that contains an index of millions of historical works, along with an increasing variety of original content.
I’m a fan. The inventory is far from exhaustive and contains some surprising omissions (no Agnes Martin?), but this attempt to make art more accessible, to more people, should be applauded.
Moreover, the original content uses innovative formats to convey its message.
There is a mellifluous flow to the narratives (check out this one on black history in London) that involves and guides the viewer through key moments.
THE GOOGLE CULTURAL INSTITUTE
So, I was pretty jazzed to visit the headquarters of the Arts and Culture project in Paris, let’s say.
The Google Cultural Institute is situated adjacent to the main Google Paris building and it serves as a showroom for Google’s data-capturing prowess.
The walls are covered with very HD TV’s (I think that’s the technical term) and they display panoramic views of well-known cultural artifacts. There is a rotation of paintings by Rothko, van Gogh, Rembrandt, and the like.
If you’ve ever tried to get near van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ at MoMA, you’ll appreciate the joy to be found in actually being able to see the painting here, albeit in a digitized simulacrum.
It is also possible to hone in on minor details in a way you could absolutely try to do at a major gallery, but would fail to achieve.
I was once told to get really close to Pissarro’s paintings to appreciate his precise brushwork. When my opportunity arrived at an exhibition in London, it was dashed immediately by an overbearing security guard with a sternness that suggested I may be punished publicly, as a warning to the others.
Purists will certainly sniff at Google’s watered-down version of the “real” thing, but seeing the paintings live offers no guarantee of serene, sublime contemplation.
It’s not a question of either/or, anyway.
Google offers a different perspective and permits more people to see the work. On the Arts and Culture app, it also does an excellent job of telling the stories of artists and their subjects.
It is interesting that Google has chosen to situate its Cultural Institute in France, regardless. Sure, France is home to much of what we see as the pinnacle of Western aesthetic culture, but it’s also home to any number of skeptics.
An American company using technology to put all the world’s art online, in Paris, is just asking for some good old-fashioned Gallic scorn.
Hélas, this has come to pass.
When the Cultural Institute opened in 2013, the French Culture Minister turned down an invitation to attend the opening ceremony, citing concerns about “an operation that still raises a number of questions.”
That skepticism is healthy but, on the whole, it is easy to see the merits of this project, even if its intentions remain somewhat opaque.
As our on-brand, friendly host relates to us at the Cultural Institute, Google was able to recreate the collection from Brazil’s National Museum, which was destroyed by a fire in late 2018.
This virtual museum (you can see it here and a screenshot below) is not the same as the real thing, of course.
At the very least, it provides some record of these treasures and it was made possible by Google’s global Street View initiative.
This is impressive and majoritively, it is a positive development, yet it does open some questions about ownership of our shared culture. Disasters like the fire in Brazil strengthen Google’s argument for access to our public spaces, for “safe-keeping”.
Google has stumbled upon some discoveries during its process of archiving classic art, too. Their high-tech, zoomed-in take on the art world has revealed new intricacies in some of the world’s best-known paintings.
Our host gives us a tour (on these screens, even looking at one painting becomes its own “tour”) of Marc Chagall’s ‘Ceiling for the Paris Opéra’, a stunning work whose beauty is obscured only by its altitudinous location.
It’s on a ceiling, is what I mean, and it’s hard to look up there to see all the wee details. You’ll get a sore neck, if nothing else.
Google had to create a flat version of what is an uneven, oft-domed ceiling and, in the process, uncovered numerous elements that had escaped even the opera house’s well-versed staff.
Chagall had made references to friends and colleagues amidst the mythical allusions of his masterpiece. Google’s new perspective on the work has surfaced these minutiae and added a new, albeit slight, chapter to its story.
Google has made similar discoveries within paintings from the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, which the museum’s chief curator had never noticed.
Now, no-one is claiming that this approach can match, or even approximate, the experience of viewing the “real” art.
I mean, just take a look at the Paris Opera House, and this is still a low-quality digital image:
However, while something is certainly lost in this spatial transference, much is gained too. Simply, more people can now enjoy the majesty of these works, in a reproduced, digital form.
It is challenging sometimes just to perceive of the scale of Google’s attempt to create an online index of art history.
Our host zooms out from the minor details in Chagall’s ceiling to show the full scope of the portraits held in Google’s inventory.
These “hills” span the full breadth of the Cultural Institute’s walls, shaped by Google’s categorization based on the visual similarity of the subjects.
We can zoom in again to see how some of these mustachioed men have been grouped together:
There is something eerie about seeing the machine at work in this way. This, after all, is the same technology that is analyzing our faces today. (Allegedly.)
On that note, Google surely knows the significance of including the audience in these projects and there are a few interactive stations at the Cultural Institute.
I tried this one, where you draw an object or a scene and Google tries to find a similar work from art history.
It seems to have picked up that this is a bird, at least.
The biggest “success” for Google Arts and Culture was its art selfie gimmick, which went viral in 2018.
This feature (still very much available on the app today) asks you to upload a selfie and then it aims to find your canvas-based doppelganger.
It even creates a little diptych of your face alongside your closest match.
As you can see, it’s flawless:
People love this stuff, though.
In fact, if you search Google Images for ‘google arts and culture’, in the hope of finding a cool image for an article, you’ll just see a whole load of selfies.
Whether the results are accurate or offensively off-the-mark, we still like to share.
One could say that it shows how self-obsessed we are, but this is not a uniquely modern phenomenon. If there weren’t so many posed portraits in the history of art, Google would have nothing to match our selfies to.
I can only assume that no-one who looks like me has ever sat for a portrait (which would tie with how I imagine my genealogical past), or that the system just isn’t all that effective yet.
WHAT ELSE DOES IT DO?
There is a lot more to the Google Arts and Culture app, even if the selfie stunt is to thank for its rapid ascent up the “most downloaded” app charts.
First, it allows people to visit museums, sans the selfie stick-wielding tourists and queues.
You can also visit places you will probably never go.
See below for my quick trip to Mont Blanc, the “still, snowy, and serene” mountain I would only otherwise have viewed through the classic Shelley poem.
Gets a bit boring after about a minute, to be honest. It’s just snow.
If you’re feeling brave and fancy venturing out there, into the world, among others, you can find local art exhibitions to visit through the app.
Google has also put on its own virtual exhibitions, including ‘The Art of Color’. This uses Augmented Reality to place the artworks within the user’s line of sight through their smartphone screen.
Indeed, Google makes repeated use of color as an organizing element of art throughout its online platform. Viewers can select a color that suits their current mood and Google will display a variety of works in their chosen hue.
A real highlight of Google Arts and Culture app is the array of new content that adds an extra dimension to familiar works.
Here are five of my favorites:
A partnership with over 100 organizations, including NASA and the Smithsonian, covering everything from the Big Bang to the invention of the toothbrush.
Five potential futures, including fake meat and edible packaging.
Some remarkable photography that tells the story of climate change for people, animals, and vegetation.
Just some lovely shots. Brasilia features pretty heavily, as you’d expect.
A trip through a Kandinsky painting, with broad context and forensic detail.
As the great man wrote in ‘Concerning the Spiritual in Art’:
“Every work of art is the child of its age and the mother of our emotions. It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated.”
Google Arts and Culture is certainly the child of our age, a digital-era attempt to classify, categorize, and possess, reminiscent of the 18th-century Encyclopédie of Diderot and his pals.
WAIT, WHY IS GOOGLE DOING THIS?
Google isn’t known for its benevolence.
In fact, it tends to can anything that isn’t profitable in the near short-term. Just this week, we heard that Google Cloud has a deadline to crack into the global top two, or face the fate of Google+.
As such, any philanthropic motive behind Google Arts and Culture should indeed be met with skepticism.
There is nothing wrong with a private company providing a good service and hoping to advance its own agenda in the process, of course.
Moreover, while one could lament the loss of the ethereal muses to the callous, Google machine, one would also have to overlook the last few centuries of art history to make a convincing case.
Big exhibitions are sponsored by global corporations and the Sacklers have their name on everything.
Please permit me an anecdote, loosely related to the above.
Caught up in the mood, I bought a book at the Pompidou Center in Paris.
2016 was the year.
I know this because I visited the museum at the end of my 3-week stay in France for the European Football Championships. I had my suitcase with me, as I was killing time before flying back to New York.
The stern, burly security guy at the Pompidou Center entrance asked me to open my case so he could check for contraband, and I knew he was making a mistake.
I was carrying nothing more sinister than fridge magnets and football shirts, but I certainly hadn’t visited the laundromat on my travels. Three, summer weeks of sun, beer, and long train journeys.
Well you asked for it, mon ami.
His frozen visage cracked quick.
“Oh, la vache!” was his exact exclamation.
“Holy cow!” would be a pretty literal translation, but the meaning is more like “Oh, good lord!”
Let that sink in. A Frenchman thought my clothes smelt bad.
So, I sought to restore some cosmic balance to the scene by buying a challenging French book. That’ll teach him.
“L’Art Sans Le Capitalisme” (“Art Without Capitalism”) is its name, and it has remained safely ensconced in its plastic wrapping until this very day.
I opened it just now and flicked through to see if there was anything useful for this article, but it’s just the usual old bromides about Marxism. Still, it briefly lifted by spirits on that sweltering afternoon in 2016.
I picked it because it seemed such an improbable dissolution. Art without capitalism seems instinctively natural, yet in practice art would be radically different to its current incarnation if it were not so closely aligned with The System.
The book offers few, concrete solutions and today, Big Art remains very much part of our capitalist society.
But anyway, in 2020, Abu Dhabi will host an event “in collaboration with global partners the Royal Academy of Arts, UNESCO, the Guggenheim, The Economist Events and Google.”
Google’s name looks a little out of place there, but this is in line with its stated objective to store all human knowledge.
Today, the big tech companies want to understand the world as it is, not necessarily as it could be.
How we interpret the world is unique and we rarely gain insight into the mind of another.
The attraction of art — or one of them, at least — is the opportunity to see the world as experienced by another person.
Any painting, of any quality, offers a tantalizing glimpse of what someone else sees. It brings to light the role of the brain in dictating what the eyes perceive.
If there is a nuomenal world out there, of perfect forms and universal laws, it is not the one we tend to express in art.
If Google truly wants to encode what it means to be human, its dataset needs to include the history of art. From this perspective, Google Arts and Culture makes strategic sense.
There are still challenging questions to pose, as the French Culture Minister said in 2013, about the role of a giant corporation in shaping the contours of our shared culture.
Nonetheless, Google Arts and Culture and the Google Culture Institute do offer a new perspective that can help democratize access to the often elitist world of art.
For my part, I just hope they don’t shut the app down when they realize it doesn’t make money.