Grey Areas

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The Peggy Guggenheim Collection has recently opened a new temporary exhibition based around their Jackson Pollock masterpiece Alchemy, and the intensive 18-month conservation it has just returned from to remove nearly 70 years worth of dust from its surface which, remarkably, is still yet to fully dry.

Divided into two rooms, the exhibition displays the work itself in one, and the science and theory behind this ground-breaking conservation and some historical interpretation of the work, Pollock himself, and his relationship with Peggy Guggenheim in the other. This information is conveyed through a series of videos, touchscreens and ephemera from Pollock’s Hamptons studio, such as paint cans and his mother’s old quilting frame, which he used to mount his canvases on the floor while conducting his famous “drip painting” technique. Perhaps most interestingly though, the exhibition contains a 1:1 scale 3D printed reproduction of Alchemy that visitors are invited to touch in order to explore the vastly textured surface of the painting.

Alchemy 3D

The rationale behind interpretive features like this are plainly obvious, everybody wants to touch things in museums. I’ve been at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection for three months now and I see this phenomenon first hand every day. The difference with Alchemy however is that its “poured paint” three dimensional surface at least would provide a satisfying tactile experience. This is not limited solely to appeasing the ignorant fingers of visitors however. Museums have long known that education functions more successfully when multi-sensory learning is able to take place. This is why museums have long striven to find ways in which they can permit visitors to touch things within exhibition displays, and to varying degrees of success.

At the Museo Correr in Piazza San Marco I spent some time recently fiddling with a complicated “augmented reality” exhibit that required you to hold a white disc in front of a camera that would then show you an onscreen image in which said disc was replaced in your hands by the Capsella di Samagher, an ivory Roman Reliquary from 5 AD, which is displayed in a cabinet behind. The exhibit is disheartening though as it is obviously expensive and takes up a lot of space in a venue that has little to spare, and it is entirely ineffectual. I wasn’t having a tactile experience of the object, I was having one of a white cardboard disc. On top of that, I was no longer looking at the object itself, but at a computer generated onscreen version of it that in actuality looked nothing like the real thing. It also took me at least 5 minutes of fumbling to work out how to reach this disappointing conclusion.

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3D printing is far more satisfying. While the materials and colours cannot be replicated yet, the shapes and textures certainly can. Nor do the advantages of 3D printing stop there. Jack Shoulder wrote an interesting piece last year about its implementation at the Grant Museum, where the bones and skeletal displays exhibited are accompanied by miniature 3D printed replicas of the creatures they once belonged to in order to help the visitor contextualise what they are being shown.

The idea of 3D printed replicas of exhibits as interpretive materials however was first brought to my attention at the second “Museum of the Future” debate at the British Museum last October. The idea was generally disregarded however but the reasoning for this was due to the gentleman following up his point with the alarming suggestion that visitors should be allowed to print off the exhibits they liked the most and then take them home with them.

In its current manifestation 3D printing does not pose much of a counterfeiting threat. I have no desire for example to take the ugly grey 3D Alchemy from the second room at the museum home and hang it on my wall, nor would I be able to successfully punt it through some dodgy backdoor art market. But technology is a vivacious beast and who are we to doubt that in the future such reproductions may not be possible? Alchemy of course will always be tricky as printing cigarette butts and sand is still realistically a long way off, but there are many valuable objects in museums across the world whose compositions are less complex. The ability to furnish 3D print outs with colour is something we must assume is being investigated, so the possibility of a Rosetta “Stone-effect” replica at some point is not such a ludicrous idea.

You could also argue that a 3D printer will never be able to replicate the artistic process, which is fair enough. The process of creating the artwork can often be what is of most interest when viewing the final piece. However, what if the interest in the piece lies only in financial gain? Artists and artworks have been fraudulently replicated, and even created for years. Sculpture for example will be incredibly susceptible to forgery via 3D printing in the future. Museums and galleries across the world are filled with statuary of questionable provenance due to the failure of artists to break their moulds after the initial production. Nowadays all it would take is a 3D scanner to digitally recreate the mould for any sculpture one desired, which if leaked to the online community could potentially lead to the “looting” of entire collections.

I am all for making collections digitally available however. The work of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam for example, and increasingly in other institutions across the world to make their collections viewable either through their own websites or initiatives such as the Google Art Project is a tremendous development. The advent of 3D printing however poses some serious questions as to the extent to which this should be done. Is there a line that can or should be drawn as to the extent to which collections can still be shared digitally, as they should be, without putting them in the grey areas of jeopardy created by technological developments such as 3D printing?