Push Button Art Gallery



'Push button Art Gallery' The Age 26 November, 11 (1994)

Visitors to the Louvre's current Poussin exhibition can walk away with not only a catalogue and a few postcards, but also a CD-Rom containing hundreds of megabytes about the artist. Closer to home, the Creative Nation statement promotes CD-Rom as one of the `new ways of accessing the storehouse of our intellectual and creative inheritance'. The future role of CD-Rom is rather like that of a glory box to be filled with cultural wealth in preparation for the day when the nation finally comes of age.

The question on most lips, though, is whether CD-Rom offers any substantial improvement on its predecessor, the printed book. Surely books have passed the test of time as self-contained and inexpensive packages of text and image. If the goal is to make a gallery or museum collection globally accessible, a paperback guide with intelligent commentary and colour images can be accessed by anyone in libraries and bookshops around the world.

The National Gallery of London presents a compelling test of this new technology. One of the world's finest collections of paintings was accumulated in the nineteenth century by bargain hunters such as Charles Eastlake (who acquired Piero della Francesca's Baptism of Christ for £241). In 1960 the former director Sir Philip Hendy wrote a study book companion to the collection for the `World of Art' series published by Thames & Hudson. For decades this book has served as a distinguished ambassador to the Trafalgar Square collection.

In 1991, the National Gallery established a virtual exhibition called Micro Gallery where visitors have computer access to the collection before or after their tour. Last year, as part of its `Home' range of software, Microsoft released a CD-Rom version of this service titled Art Gallery.

In Melbourne, Waverley City Gallery has set up Art Gallery for public use. The comments book indicates the public response to this new experience: for most, the computer display offers a fusion of pleasure and education¾`a valuable and exciting experience' as one visitor put it.

But how much of this `excitement' is due simply to its novelty? Justification for CD-Rom begins typically with data storage. While Hendy's book has 320 reproductions, the CD-Rom has 2,000. Glowing on the screen, these reproductions are mostly clearer than on the page, except in cases of dark oil paintings. Each painting has at least one, sometimes up to ten pages of commentary with links elsewhere in the CD-Rom, while the paper system is limited to one lonely page per work.

But quantity of information by itself does not make a better commentary on art. In general, the CD-Rom provides what seems a more `objective' account of the collection. This can be empowering, but also impersonal. In the book, Hendy often refers to inaccessible x-ray evidence whereas the CD-Rom always offers visible demonstrations of its commentary. In doing this, the CD-Rom lacks the act of judgment that heralds the unique features of a collection. Absent is a comment like Hendy's about Titian's Noli me Tangere:`it is hard to think of any painting in which the interdependence of man and nature is more beautifully expressed.' While the CD-Rom offers plenty of evidence about this `interdependence', the superlatives are left behind in the pre-digital world of analogue emotions.

Human presence comes instead in the form of a reassuring male English voice. Artists' names are pronounced and there are four `guided tours' through matters of composition, conservation, technique and painting as furniture. But the speech is plain and overshadowed by the engaging animations that demonstrate his points.

Beyond the guided tours, Art Gallery provides a menu organised by picture type, artists, subject or city. What's missing, critically, is page numbers. There is no beginning and end. The way to get around Art Gallery is more like riding a bike than catching a train. One session might start with the fifteen works based on Vernacular Literature found in the Picture Type of Narrative, Allegory and the Nude. From that base, we can follow works based on Tasso's poetry, explore van Dyk's career in London, see Rubens Peace and War animated to identify figures, and view in microscopic detail Seurat's Bathers with an accompanying demonstration of colour theory. The desire to compulsively click through links like a dog on a scent is thankfully countered by columns of text¾something which slows the mind down long enough to catch a glimpse of the work.

Art Gallery is a hard act to follow. Its sister gallery, the Tate, has just released Exploring Modern Art which presents 150 images on garishly patterned walls in five separate galleries (Picasso, Pop Art, Men and Woman, British Sculpture and Dynamism). This uninspiring selection (no Francis Bacon) founders in a mass of trivial historical detail supplied in a drab English voice. The restrictive nature of the `galleries' is countered by the offer of a `private gallery' where users may select works for a self-curated exhibition. It may be of some use to British school students, but viewed here it looks to be about the worst we might expect of art on CD-Rom. Flattering the user with a `you be the judge' pitch can turn an engaging resource into a solipsistic game.

CD-Rom titles on Australian art are still rare. Discovery Media has produced a sample of contemporary Australian art titled Art Right Now. Though the production is clunky and the thematic links are limited (aboriginal, feminist, cultural, landscape, abstraction and figuration), it contains much information: 450 images from 48 artists, each with a critical analysis and some with audio commentary from the makers. Art Right Now has emerged partly with the assistance of local galleries (including Sutton, Niagara, 200 Gertrude Street) and artists (like Juan Davila, Rosslynd Piggott, Angela Brennan and Geoff Lowe) who expect to receive 15% of the profits. Its suits secondary students who need an up to date resource of Australian contemporary art.

Of the major institutions, the National Gallery of Victoria recently received a Darling Foundation Grant to catalogue its collection, but there are no immediate plans for a CD-Rom. It's the capital, with its geographic isolation, which has greatest motive for electronic distribution. The Australian National Gallery is currently producing Patterns of Power: Aboriginal Art from Arnhem Land, a CD-Rom based on their Arnhem land collection. Under the co-ordination of aboriginal artist Liz McNiven, the multimedia company Leaning Curve is electronically embellishing one chapter in Wally Caruana's recent Thames and Hudson book on Aboriginal Art. A hundred works of art, including the burial poles from Ramangining, will be organised around a corpus of four stories that describe the travels of a mythological figure through the landscape. Images will be linked to local music, natural sounds, maps and aerial photographs.

Patterns of Power aims for a balance between entertainment and instruction. ANG coordinator Peter Naumann stresses the importance of `rivers of information' and `mortar between the bricks'. On the other hand, developer Gerry Orkin stresses the danger that CD-Rom can turn art into an `extravaganza' that overshadows the context in which the art was produced.

Indications are that multimedia will favour a narrative basis for art, rather than the modernist faith in art as a pursuit nobly isolated from the world. So far, themes have mostly dealt with the origins of the work of art. But as artists themselves begin to master this medium, we should expect more speculative themes--themes about possibilities not simply historical phenomena.

Rather than herald the end of the printed book, the CD-Rom may indeed return to a pre-Gutenberg partnership of art and text. Given the demand now for artists to do post-graduate research, a generation is emerging which is well positioned to weave links between image and text. In this, they may resemble more their clerical ancestors who illuminated manuscripts than their modernist elders questing for pure form.