Heresy but true: Museum websites can be as satisfying as museums. On the best sites, you can zoom in on high-resolution photographs of the art from a thousand miles away, getting closer and staying longer than you could right in front of the art in the gallery. There are no guards to shoo you, no alarms to sound, no somebody elses who want a turn—only penetrable pictures like maps that have bested their territory, that answer a deep desire to know, to possess. Seattle's contemporary art museum, the Henry Art Gallery, does not provide zoomable pictures on its website, to the endless frustration of all who seek them. In response to this hunger, Seattle artists SuttonBeresCuller have turned the museum's collection of paintings, prints, sculptures, and photographs into a zoomable and physically present landscape, as well as a field for surveillance and voyeurism, and a mechanical factory setting. The scene—it's rightfully called a scene, because it is a whole live system—is called Panoptos, and it takes place in one tall gallery at the museum.
Panoptos is named after the word "panoptic," which describes a single view that takes in everything visible. It's a devouring, total view—a perfect, controlling fantasy. (This is the inspiring idea behind prison tower architecture.) Panoptos is a response to the Henry's request that living artists make new art based on the museum's holdings, a request that has become trendy across the art world in the last 20 years, and one which the Henry has made before of other local artists. Where others applied their own interests first—Dawn Cerny selected 19th-century mourning objects, while Akio Takamori focused on images of children—SBC responded strictly to the situation at hand: their inability to zoom in on the images of the collection they were perusing in order to decide what to make for the commission. From that frustration came Panoptos.
SBC chose paintings, prints, sculptures, and photographs (only a few photographs, because objects behind glass worked less well), and had the museum's prep team hang them "salon-style," meaning packed tightly from floor to ceiling. They enlisted a computer engineer to help them build a giant mechanical arm with a high-definition camera at its end attached to a computer.
The arm is on a track, controlled by a joystick with a screen in front of it in an adjacent gallery. As you move the joystick, the camera-arm moves, and what you direct it to see, at the camera's very close range, is projected onto the screen in front of you. The aesthetic is a sexy hybrid of old paintings, heavy industry, video games, cinema, and peeping.
If the collection is the landscape upon which the museum is built—which the packed, sedimentary-like salon-style jumble of art implies—then SBC have added new entry points in and new trails through it. You can stand and look at the art on the walls, unmediated, as usual. You can watch instead where the camera-arm goes as it glides slowly along the x and y axes of the walls, expressing the wanderlust of the person at the joystick in the other room. You can operate the joystick yourself. Or you can stand nearby and watch the screen as someone else does.
When the museum is closed, the computer brain of Panoptos switches to the web. A virtual joystick is available for online visitors, who each can spend an allotted amount of time traversing the far-off landscape—not strictly digitally this time. Their online manipulation will instigate movement in the locked-up and closed museum, where the lights will be on and the robot-arm running, as if the museum were still open for business. The only thing better than zooming in on a digital image from a distant computer is zooming on an actual, gallery-lit object from a distant computer. You're Skyping your art and challenging the meaning of presence.
The computer will save the details that people zoom in on, and upload them to the web for others to see. Those images will form an ongoing portrait—3-D reconstructions of the art using the Microsoft program Photosynth, if all goes well—of what people have been looking at: a map of the interaction itself. That portrait will represent not just the collection, then, but the collection and its viewers, all rolled into one new continuously collaged, collective, public landscape.