Online arts: Click-fix culture
You can watch a rock concert and tour an art gallery from the comfort of your armchair. But can it replace the thrill of the real thing? Fiona Sturges finds out
Wednesday 06 April 2011
My father wasn't keen on holidays, though he was a great watcher of holiday programmes. Having enjoyed a sun-dappled tour of a Mediterranean country on the television courtesy of Alan Whicker or Judith Chalmers, he would announce, with immense satisfaction, that he had seen all that there was to see, and there was no need for any of us to go. This was in the Eighties, long before the widespread use of the internet, though he was clearly on to something, since nowadays the concept of going out while staying in is an increasingly popular one.
Fancy an evening at the theatre but can't face the interminable ache to your derriere? Not a problem, as there are increasing numbers of theatre companies, from Big Telly to Black Country Touring, happy to stream performances live to your laptop. Want to see a band but put off by the exorbitant ticket prices? No worries. Two years ago U2 were among the first mainstream bands to allow one of their concerts to be streamed live – and free of charge – since when countless acts, including Florence and the Machine, Rihanna, Gorillaz and Arcade Fire have followed suit. This week Duran Duran will be upping the creative ante with an online concert directed by none other than David Lynch.
Now galleries are getting in on the act with the Art Project, a Google-sponsored initiative that offers online tours of 17 of the world's leading art institutions using "Street View" technology. As a result, sofa-bound art lovers can wander around the State Hermitage in St Petersburg, New York's Met, the Uffizi in Florence, the Reina Sofia in Madrid and the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam, all in swanky high resolution and without fear of getting sore feet.
But is it really the same as seeing it in the flesh? Can a computer image, even one rendered in extreme close-up, really match the thrill of standing in front of a painting and feeling the physical force of its significance? I decided to find out.
My first stop is the Uffizi, where I am immediately deposited in front of a "gigapixel" detail of Botticelli's The Birth of Venus. According to the blurb, each gallery has chosen one artwork to be photographed in 7 billion pixels, which is considerably more than the naked eye can manage. In technological terms, it's very impressive. I can see every bump and fissure in the surface of the paint. If I were there in person, I would need one hefty magnifying glass to view it like this. It occurs to me that Botticelli would never have seen it in such detail and I wonder what he would have thought of us all marvelling at every sliver of paint through Google's high-resolution prism. His head would probably explode with the strangeness and complexity of it all.
I decide to go for a stroll, though moving around isn't as straightforward as I'd hoped. I spend several minutes trying to get through doorways but succeed only in bumping into walls. Attempting a 180-degree turn to look at a painting on the opposite wall, I end up staring at a fire extinguisher. This being a room dominated by 15th-century Italian masterworks, I can safely assume this isn't a piece of art.
Feeling impatient, I head to the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid, one of my favourite galleries in the world. It takes several minutes to get my bearings and a few more to stop bumping into the furniture. But once I get the hang of it I begin to enjoy myself, zooming up and down corridors, whisking past sculptures and going eyeball to eyeball with assorted portraits in a manner that would be frowned upon were I actually there. But I suspect that behaving badly isn't quite the point of the Art Project.
There's a lot to be said for viewing art this way. Admission is free, there aren't any queues and there's no need to worry about having your pockets picked. Plus, you won't find yourself peering over anyone else's shoulder to view a work of art or listening to the babble of fellow visitors as they loudly broadcast their knowledge of Spanish Surrealism.
But it's no substitute for the real thing. Seven billion pixels can't accurately transmit the scale or colour or atmosphere of a painting or convey the sense of wonder you feel when standing in front of it. And only in a gallery do you have the opportunity to shut out the rest of the world, engage with a work and view it in context. My enduring thought, while strolling around the Reina Sofia online, is how nicer it would be if I were actually in Madrid.
So how about a gig instead? If any medium has fearlessly embraced new technology it's pop, so the streamed concert is surely live music's logical evolution. Without leaving my postcode, I barge my way into rising band The Antlers' show at South by South-West in Austin, Texas, the annual music festival famed for its overcrowding, where punters invariably end up stuck outside venues listening to bands through the air vents. Watching this rather fine New York trio, my initial feeling is of smugness. It's the same feeling I get watching Glastonbury on the television, getting the best views of the best bands without the threat of dysentery.
But as the show goes on my attention starts to drift. The thought that the lead singer Peter Silberman's voice sounds a bit like Jeff Buckley's leads me to temporarily wander off and play a bit of Buckley's album Grace in order to compare and contrast. While I'm at it, I make a cup of tea. About half an hour into the show I am distracted by a distant, juddering noise that turns out to be my washing machine.
The quality of concert streaming has improved immeasurably over the last year or so. Forget the grainy footage of gigs posted by fans on YouTube; now it really is like watching it on telly. But despite this, I still know I'm missing out. Filmed concerts, whether on television or online, invariably struggle to convey the tension of live performance. That sensation of a crowd collectively holding their breath as a song reaches its crescendo – you don't get that sitting at home.
Watching a band this way can be a lonely business too. I've grumbled on these pages before about the hell that is other people at pop concerts, notably those who sing along too loudly or photograph every moment with their mobile phones. But I'd sooner experience live music in a roomful of strangers than be standing there alone.
Art in almost all its forms is meant to be a communal experience, whether you are sitting in an opera house, wandering around a gallery or elbowing your way through a crowd at a gig. It is also a ritual, one that is about so much more than the final performance. These are pilgrimages made by people in pursuit of a particular visceral sensation. Often the pleasure is as much in the anticipation as the execution. Remove the build-up, the tantalising bit where you imagine how it will be, and you take away a vital part of the experience.
So you can keep your streamed concerts, your simulated gallery excursions and your laptop theatrical events. Believe me when I tell you that lying on the sofa, with computers, phones and remote controls all within easy reach, is my default setting. But when it comes to art appreciation, even a slob like me can recognise the basic requirement to leave the house.
Ultimately it's a bit like watching holidays on telly. Yes, you can cut out the sweat, the aching legs, the ravenous mosquitoes and the dodgy souvenirs. By staying at home, you can stare at the locals without embarrassment and take in the finest views. But it's just not the same if you can't feel the sun on your face.
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