Who owns the virtual space in your museum?

Posted on June 12, 2011

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Yesterday I crashed my first ever ARDevCamp @ the Powerhouse Museum. Despite being late (buses do not replace trains very effectively) and missing some of the morning talks, the afternoon provided plenty of inspiration and lots of think about. True to form, I used my spidey senses to find some incredibly interesting people to sit next to, and got into some great conversations – some of which will no doubt inform this blog over the next few days.

One of the most interesting questions that arose at the Camp was about digital space and augmented reality (AR). Rob Manson from Mob Labs spoke a bit about the question of who owns the digital space – an issue that will no doubt become more important as more companies and individuals start tapping into the AR potential, particularly for advertising (if this stuff interests you, it’s worth reading this article on Mashable). But it’s also an interesting question for museums to think about.

Last October Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek staged a guerrilla AR intervention at MoMA as part of the Conflux Psychogeoraphy festival. The exhibition not only took over the current six floors of MoMA, it created an AR sculpture garden on the “seventh” floor. Check out the video for a sense of the event.

WeARinMoMA seems more akin to performance art than anything else, in part because of the time-limited nature of the performance. But I’m interested in how museums – and I’m probably thinking about art museums in particular – would deal with more of these kinds of interventions. What if Sander Veenhof and Mark Skwarek decided that they wanted their exhibition to be permanent?

The Stuckists (talking about the Tate) argue that:

An act by an individual which interferes with an existing artwork is termed an “intervention” and the individual termed an “artist” if they are endorsed by a Tate curator or are dead. The same, or similar, act by an individual interfering with the same artwork (or even interfering with the interference to the artwork), if they are alive and are not endorsed by a Tate curator, is termed “vandalism”, and the individual termed a “criminal”.

So what would happen if someone painted an AR beard on the Mona Lisa? Would the Louvre try to prevent the intervention for being vandalism? It does not harm or interfere with the actual work, although may impact upon its interpretation. Could an artist be prosecuted for digital vandalism?

Or conversely, would the AR addition to the painting be recognised as an important part of the painting’s provenance? Could visitors delight in seeing the painting through another artist’s eyes, and comparing that to the original then and there? Would the interpretation be documented and preserved in the artist file? And how would it be done? Would there simply be videos and photos as per a performance, or would the documentation include recording lines of code as well? Could the AR art be collected, and if so, how? Does the long tail of this end with a curator of AR in the museum?

This guy floated over the Powerhouse @ ARDevCampSyd

The AR might not only take place within the Gallery. Yesterday a giant virtual Lego man stood above the Powerhouse Museum, welcoming visitors to ARDevCamp. This could be a great way for museums seeking redevelopment funding to get people enthused about the project, by projecting the architectural models over the physical building.

But what if the layer had been promoting a commercial product instead? While I can see all kinds of awesome applications for this for artists seeking a little notoriety (like emblazoning their own name on the wall of a Gallery), they might not be the only ones interested in claiming the digital space around museums and galleries. What if Coke decided to as well? Or a political party?

Of course, these are all hypothetical situations and will likely never eventuate. The questions that arise out of real world AR interventions in digital space are likely to be far more nuanced – and far more interesting. But these questions demonstrate just how little we can prepare to respond to technology until we know how it’s actually utilised. While the legal and ethical debates around these issues might be fun to think about, it won’t be until there are cases actually in the courts that the actual implications will become clear. After all, laws are made in response to actual events not hypothetical ones, and individual cases often require individual responses. But until then, it’s interesting to consider just who owns the virtual space in your museum – and around it.

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Posted in: Ideas, Museums, Technology