Last February, The New York Times took the pulse of the art world's growing relationship with immersive technology. "Virtual Reality Has Arrived in the Art World," the headline proclaimed, followed by: "Now What?"
The story surveyed museums and contemporary artists using technology to create both au courant works and experiences. The story also expressed caution about the overhyped promises of new technologies, and even the limits the most successful may have in the art world, noting, "… it would be a pity if wonder was all we got."
I'm personally always happy to geek out and can't quite tell when I'm experiencing mere wonder versus having a more complex response. Case in point, the San Francisco Museum of Art unveiled last summer an artbot that responds to text message queries by accessing the museum's online archive and sending a captioned image from the museum's collection. "Send me SFMOMA" proved popular, sparking 12,000 text messages in four days during the service's beta run. Ever the simpleton with an unlimited data plan, I thought it was cool. I also thought it was engaging, showing me art I hadn't seen before and making connections—albeit via an Application Program Interface—that were thought-provoking.
A nascent initiative from the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum seems likely to one day have similarly robust user engagement. The museum recently received a $30,000 federal grant from the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, which funds projects that use technology and innovation for cultural and historic preservation.
Project Manager Ben Finberg, the museum's director of IT and operations, says the project particularly fits O'Keeffe's legacy. A modernist painter whose work explores nature through abstraction, O'Keeffe also maintained "photorealistic loyalty" to her subjects. So whether viewing "skyscrapers in New York or specific barns around Lake George or certainly anywhere in New Mexico," Finberg says, one can pinpoint where the artist was seeing the shapes that emerged on the canvas. "If you look at the painting of the Pedernal, you can find the exact location she was sitting or standing," he continues. "As a single-artist museum, that was the genesis of the project: We realized we could build up a database of every single viewshed and tie it to a specific geographical or geological site."
The logistics for the project's first phase—building the database—are considerable. The fieldwork will require making sure the viewsheds (Finberg says a few dozen have been identified with an eye toward geographic and geologic diversity) are accessible to visitors without negatively impacting existing residents or stakeholders in the region. The project also will require coordinating and triangulating locations via GPS at a three-dimensional level to truly replicate what would have been O'Keeffe's vantage points.
Farther off, the museum hopes to extend the database beyond New Mexico and even beyond O'Keeffe by making the project open-source to "create a model that can be used by a wide array of other organizations."
Then comes the user experience. In theory, participants in New Mexico could visit the viewsheds and, using a mobile app, overlay the original artwork onto the site. Finberg envisions doing so would create an "aha moment," one "that is a really enriching and educational" experience, allowing users "to understand the artistic process and the beauty of Northern New Mexico and New Mexico in general."
Outside of New Mexico, Finberg posits, an even bigger audience could "pull up the app at home and experience virtual reality: immersive photographs, 360 panoramas, juxtaposed against their artwork … and take people to the viewsheds virtually."
Finberg acknowledged that the question of how to best vet using technology in the context of fine arts is a big one. From his role, he says, "technology is a set of tools and a toolbox, and I think it has the ability to really enrich the visitor experience, to enrich the educational experience and enrich the interpretation."
So wonder, yes—and then some.