By Anika Meier
You might mistake it for an April Fool’s stunt, the bizarre thing Jeff Koons and Snapchat just announced together. But it’s rather unlikely that Snapchat would indulge in humour at the launch of its new AR art platform art.snapchat.com early in October. And, actually, it’s really just one of them – namely, Jeff Koons – who makes the announcement in a short video – which, incidentally, is also a hard-to-beat parody of an artist. In any event, as it is, Koons announces with great enthusiasm – as if he were peddling Louis Vuitton handbags – that his Balloon Dog now appears on smartphone displays in, say, New York’s Central Park and can be used as a reflecting background for selfies. His eyes aglow, he proclaims that hundreds – thousands – of people in major cities around the world – or even on the moon! – can now do this at the same time. Get creative, he means, trying to look even more excited.
Perhaps it’s just a question of taste whether you consider the virtual Balloon Dogs – which can pop up on phone screens in public spaces in Paris, London, Rio de Janeiro, Toronto or Sydney, for example – particularly great or somewhat gratuitous. Koons, for one, likes the idea because there don’t seem to be any boundaries involved – after all, apparently he’s already even imaging that someone on the moon wouldn’t have anything better to do than to take a selfie with his artwork.
Another artist, the American John Craig Freeman, is maximally more cautious in his attitude towards AR, VR and art – which he didn’t only just take up the day before yesterday because it’s trendy somehow and needs to be tried. When he first became involved with new media in the 1990s, he explains, for him it wasn’t a question of using new technologies, but rather of bringing art into public spaces and people into contact with it as a result. Today, he’s interested in migration because it’s a pressing issue, because he could show an artwork anywhere in the world and because he wants to find out if it’s possible to also elicit a viewer’s empathy through VR and AR. “I’m bringing the real to virtual reality”, he says. For him, it’s not about technical gimmicks and showing everything you can do with technology these days. The fact that he can circumvent the art market is another advantage, of course – basically there is no work anyone could own, making the art incorruptible as a result, not to mention that he can place a piece in a museum at any time. Social media helps him let people know where in the world they can find his art.
And while the culture supplements of German papers are all talking about how even museums have succumbed to social media madness and some journalists are going to bat for the analogue transmission of art, a number of museums are already three steps ahead. Frankfurt’s Städel Museum is betting on a digital expansion to reach even more people. It offers an online course on modernity and free digitorials – essentially small preparatory courses – on special exhibitions.
“These are opportunities to communicate content to visitors more intensely”, according to Dr Chantal Eschenfelder, Head of the Städel’s Department of Education and Communication. “Plus, we reach more people. Depending on the exhibition, some 20 to 50 per cent of visitors now use the digitorials.” Reaching a wider audience is also the argument made by Google and Europeana, the virtual library, when it comes to digitalisation and free access to cultural heritage. “Digitalisation democratises access to culture”, says Simon Rein, Program Manager of Google Art & Culture. “Digital methods inspire curiosity, break down barriers.” Google has long since moved beyond just scanning streets and books to also digitalising museum collections and exhibitions.
Meanwhile, critics fear that the difference between originals and copies are blurring and that soon no one will want to go to an actual museum anymore. Rein emphasises that, quite to the contrary, digital options aren’t competing with museum visits; rather, experience has shown the opposite, as Eschenfelder also concurs. Visitor numbers are rising. Jill Cousins, Executive Director of the Europeana Foundation warns and urges museums to develop a digital strategy and to keep in mind that putting your collection online has both advantages and disadvantages. One disadvantage is that you can’t remove things once they’re online. Which is why having a strategy is so important.
When it comes to the financial aspect, the institutions all take an altruistic approach. Europeana considers itself an intermediary and doesn’t mind if third parties decide to earn money with the content it makes available to download online. For Google, the Cultural Institute is a non-commercial project that aims to provide access to knowledge. Even the Städel emphasises that its digital expansion will help fulfil its educational mandate, and John Craig Freeman became a professor to ensure he has a secure income so he can dedicate himself to being an artist. In the meantime, Jeff Koons is probably still asking himself how he’s going to pull off that thing with the moon, the Balloon Dog and the selfies.