Seeeeeeeee(i)n.
  • Seeeeeeeee(i)n.
First, a note: It just so happened that Google Art Project launched while Seattle Art Museum is closed for a two-week furlough for budgetary reasons—so please enjoy a free virtual museum while a physical one saves its dollars.

My first instinct when I got inside GAP was to shoot pictures—steal screengrabs, that is. (Links to my fragmentary visions here.) But even before that, I'd already been practicing framing and capturing my own idiosyncratic snapshots of the art in a museum's collection, at the Henry.

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At the Henry, artists SuttonBeresCuller built a robotic machine that lets you, by joystick, push a camera in another room over the surfaces of hanging artworks. Those surfaces—the thick gilt frames on the paintings, barely-visible-to-the-naked-eye outposts inside landscapes, the isolated eyes or nose or hairline of a portrait subject—appear on a video screen on the wall in front of you, transmitted by the computerized camera. Press the red button next to the joystick and the image on the screen is captured and automatically sent to a Flickr pool (which now has more than 4,300 images). The museum's collection is remade and rehung by its visitors.

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This machine-stallation by SuttonBeresCuller, Panoptos, will be up through Sunday. (My review here and in this month's Art in America.) In off-hours, when the museum is closed, Panoptos was supposed to continue working—its computer brain switching to the web, where a virtual joystick awaited, to activate the camera in the still-lit, locked galleries. But it didn't happen—the technology problems were too complicated to solve, the artists found.

So now that GAP waltzed its way onto the scene, what do SuttonBeresCuller think of it, both as artists and as people who have tried and failed to install a similar technology? I talked to John Sutton about GAP, the limits of Panoptos, and the future of those 4,300 images...

*Panoptos Autopsy: What a pair of words!

Q: Have you messed around on GAP?

A: Yeah. It's a really cool tool, and with unlimited resources, we'd be Google, right? In some ways it's glorified Street View. I went to it thinking it would be a completely new technology, and I was really happy with what I saw, but there was frustration that it was that same street view, too—some of those ultra high-definition scans are incredible, but also static.

Q: Is that static-ness the main difference between GAP and Panoptos?

A: Yup. I know navigating [GAP] that I’m looking at a scanned document, and ours, whether it succeeds or not, there’s always that sense that you are manipulating, that there is a physical presence. We were never able to get that control online, but there was always that sense. Even when you stand in the gallery, you’re looking at the work, but you’re looking at it through mediated technology. It’s that forensic way of looking at things, at bits and pieces, and I like what that affords, the detail and the ability to dive deeper.

Q: So what happened with Panoptos?

A: We ran into so many issues: the UW’s firewalls and the fact that we went wireless. At last week's talk, Betsey [Brock of the Henry] asked, what can museums do to help facilitate these kinds of works better? The only obvious thing that came up was we’re at the University of Washington, which is a cutting-edge school that has a guy three buildings down who’s probably done everything we’re trying to do, so being more connected to the resources around it might help. In part that's on us, too—we brought in who we thought and didn't know where to begin.

I think for what we intended for this to do, we came pretty close. We were able to realize the machine and the control. The 24-hour access and the transcending the geography and location we weren’t able to do. Every time we tried to get the stream out, it lowered the quality in the gallery itself, so it was taking away from that in-person experience, so we had to say that the installation was more important than what we were setting out to do with this online thing. Knowing what we know now, if this thing has another incarnation, we would start over, we would use the same basic tools, but the way the software talks to itself, it was completely original software—and it would be different. It’s the most inherently complex thing we’ve ever done.

Q: What was the point of Panoptos for you?

A: One of the things we were really hoping is that it would change the amount of time people spent looking at any given work. The pieces were selected in part because we couldn’t use anything behind glass [too reflective], and we were not able to get the zoom feature we wanted, so we had this fixed focal length (maybe magnifying everything by 10), but we found that people spent a lot of time looking and trying to navigate. There were these mixed reactions of being fascinated by it or being frustrated that it wouldn’t do things like zoom or center on something. I really liked watching people, they would walk back and forth between the rooms. There was a lot of this traversing of the spaces.

The one thing we wish would have been better was just the resolution. It was traveling over a wireless network and sometimes you would hit digital noise. So it was never the same as looking as a high-definition uncompressed image. It was nice resolution, but it wasn’t megapixels.

Q: It generated something like 4,500 images. What will you do with them? You've talked about stitching them together in Photosynth, to re-create digitally the three dimensions of the actual objects. Are you still looking at that?

A: We're not sure that's the way we want to go. Photosynth seems really cool, but it just does what it does, so how do we make that unique instead of just a Photosynth composite of all these images?

Q: What do you think would be better?

A: I don’t know yet, but I think one thing would be starting to separate them by artwork, and working individually backwards, instead of trying to look at them at this conglomerate whole. Look at the bits and pieces as if they were a jigsaw puzzle, see how many people focused on the frames themselves—in some cases the frames are more interesting than the works. I think breaking them down into categories of works, frames, or negative space, and somehow making heads or tails of them, and then deciding at what point or how do we want to stitch them together into a continuous whole or keep them broken into individuals. We’ve only just decided we want to do something a little different than just stitch them.

Q: Image Transfer, the show by several artists appropriating images from all over the place, was upstairs at the same time as Panoptos was on the lower level. Did you see connections?

A: I really enjoyed the mirrored pieces in the ceilings [by Amanda Ross-Ho] because they were so subtle, but reflecting everything else. They were more about how you were looking at the work, it was more about how you observe. I liked the artist with the photographs on the floor with the rock over the face [Marlo Pascual]—something about the obscuring, the changing of the perspective, you have the traditional photograph but there’s this intervention, and it makes you want to look further to try to piece together what you’re not seeing.

And then the table with the scraps laid out on it [Jordan Kantor]. Playing with how we look and what we value in an image, wanting to navigate that in a different way. We were not creating a new sculpture or new installation, we were creating a work that was all about viewing work, what we value in that. We hoped it would do a lot of things, but it was intentionally meant to not give you the whole. We wanted the value of the work itself to stand alone, and this was giving you a perspective but only through this mediated sense. It was never a replacement for seeing.

And next, we’re going to make some simple sculpture, that has no moving parts.