I Am Digital & Digital is Me: Lines Blur Between Museum & Digital Initiatives

Every day, innovative museums begin programming. Every day, groundbreaking designs are conceptualized. New works of art are begun. And every day, technology advances. The tools most often used in these various professional sectors have become increasingly indiscernible. New cultural institutions require both design and technology in order to achieve fruition. Designers regularly find inspiration for their work in art and architecture. Technology is an essential workplace component, contributing to both the electronic sustainability and forward digital momentum of many cultural organizations, and providing tools for creative professionals.

Although the relationship between cultural organizations, design, technology, and art would seem on paper to be a simple game of connect-the-dots, in reality these sectors are collaborating in fascinating and unique ways. In order to illustrate and unpack some of these wonderful intersections, I ask a series of ‘If_________, then __________’ questions:

If the architecture of historic buildings needed to be digitally preserved in a 3-D format, then what would be the best method and the subsequent results?

Minecraft player and multitalented human Kate Hedin’s answer to this question is Frank Lloyd Wrightcraft. Hedin produces 3-D digital renderings of Frank Lloyd Wright’s designs in the game Minecraft, using a combination of her own experiences visiting Wright’s iconic buildings and personal photographs she takes there, and the building blueprints. She has recently been recognized by the Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House on their Instagram account, and by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

hollyhock
Hollyhock House, as interpreted by Kate Hedin in Minecraft, courtesy of Frank Lloyd Wrightcraft

What is excellent about this unlikely combination of preservation and digital technology is that the results are utterly whimsical. Hedin’s choice of Minecraft as the medium with which she crafts her renderings makes the end result a game – literally. Stumbling upon such a construction whilst engulfed in a gaming session must be at once wildly enjoyable and magical. The game is enhanced by the new construction, and Wright’s iconic architecture is given new life and exposed to an entirely new audience.

Advocates of historic preservation should rejoice this citizen-lead interpretation of their mission, and encourage it in the digital realm as much as possible. The more visitors invest in a historic site and the incredible details that make it special, and the more involved they become in gaining a deep understanding of its significance, the more they will care about its safety, maintenance, and relevance to the public.

Hedin is not the only digital dynamo exploring the intersection between exhibitions and computer games…

If an exhibition were to solely contain digital objects, then how could the exhibition be effectively curated and designed?

Pippin Barr is a computer game designer known for borrowing inspiration from museums and contemporary art, with entertaining results:

For his latest game, vr3, he again borrowed from the exhibition aesthetic. In this instance, however, he situated the game inside an original virtual exhibition he curated and designed, focusing on one of the most challenging elements of computer games to convincingly animate: computer-generated water. Imitating the movement and look of water virtually remains a difficult task for game designers, as evidenced by the various iterations Barr has selected for display. The more one explores the exhibition, the more fascinating it becomes.

vr3
Pippin Barr’s v r 3, courtesy of Pippin Barr via Hyperallergic

The evenly spaced freestanding display cases of water, each assigned its own white label with black label text, add more humor to the absurd scene. And yet, what exactly makes it absurd? Couched within the virtual world, the exhibit is both plausible and informative. It demonstrates skillful execution of a Big Idea (a concept introduced by exhibition development scholar Beverly Serrell): to explore the evolution of computer-generated water throughout computer game design history.

The fact that each example of water is in an open and unprotected case could only be acceptable in a virtual world where dust, temperature change, and invasive, curious visitors do not exist (excepting the gamer). Thus, Barr has effectively answered the question of how one might design a strong museum exhibition best suited for, and visited within, the virtual world.

But what about the material world? How has technology made a mark on not only the presentation of an exhibition, but its core subject matter?

If an artist were to make technology his or her medium, then in what way would technology influence the art, and what form would the resulting works take on, and what would it mean?

Many multimedia artists and technology-focused curators have answered this question already, in their own ways. The Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden exhibited several examples in its recent exhibition Suspended Animation. The Telfair MuseumsJepson Center in Savannah’s exhibition Alt+AI, which closed at the end of March, also explored the notion of the merge of conceptual art and intelligent design.

But perhaps the most recent and widely publicized example of the marriage between technology and fine art is contemporary artist Adrian Villar Rojas’ current installation on the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Rojas meticulously picked through the sculptures of the Met’s collection, then had his chosen items 3-D scanned. Using these scans, he then combined pieces of different objects to developed a new generation of strange, fascinating hybrid sculptures, and finally had them physically reconstituted in new sculptural shapes.

rojas
Rojas’ installation on the Met rooftop, courtesy of Hyperallergic via Claire Voon

Rojas’ precise artistic vision and process could exist without 3-D technology. And yet, it could also not exist without thousands of years of art history. Without its past, his sculptures seem to hint, art is meaningless, and random combinations of figures and shapes are simply sculptural piles of beautiful junk. On the other hand, that beautiful junk pile could not exist without a modern day assist from computers.

And so, perhaps Rojas has decided, will be the relationship of contemporary artists to the world that surrounds them – in order to interpret the present through a contemporary lens, one must reach into the past for guidance and inspiration. And for Rojas, digital technology provides endless opportunities for art to be simultaneously evocative and innovative.

If technology has a continuing role in the future of preservation, museum exhibitions, and contemporary art installations, there is no telling what exploratory pathways each industry may take. If there is one commonality to be drawn from each of the digital/museum examples above, it is that no matter how much we allow technology and digitization into our lives, if a fundamental question is posed, humans are often happiest when challenged to discover the most whimsical, magical, entertaining and engaging answers.

 

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