Google Cultural Institute + Making Things


My research has taken a new turn this semester, and it looks like my dissertation will likely be somewhere in the realm of "making." I have yet to determine exactly what aspect of making I am interested in, but the concept of one-of-a-kind handmade objects and their role in the digital world is quite intriguing to me. Though I love many kinds of art, I'm more interested in the role of practical handmade, everyday objects: quilts, chairs, clocks, clothes, lamps, and so forth. I consider these things to be fundamentally different from paintings, photographs, and more traditional arts. I'm also interested in the making of food: bread, cheese, growing gardens, etc. There is a certain kind of humanness to making things. To using your hands and molding textiles and ingredients into a particular shape for a specific purpose. Which is not to say that animals don't make (think: birds's nest), but there is a cultural specialness to so many of our objects. 

The majority of items in my home are mass-produced. They were not difficult to acquire and many other people have these same things in their home. I don't feel any sort of attachment to these items. If my house burned down, I wouldn't really feel too bad about the loss of any of these items. But there are some objects that are important to me, and to which I am quite attached. They are all handmade. What does it mean to make things by hand? What does it mean to covet things that are handmade? What role does technology play in the making of objects? What if we made more things by hand? What would we learn? How would we change? I don't know what it is yet, but I feel there is a dissertation topic in here somewhere. 


All of which is to say, my recent research has brought me to the Google Cultural Institute, a place that is magical and incredibly rich with art, artifacts, and objects. The design of the institute is fantastic; I can't remember the last time I had a UI experience that was so satisfying. It invites exploration and beautifully fills the screen with information, images, text, video, and audio. And while I have enjoyed exploring many art exhibits via this tool, I find myself missing the tangible nature of art and artifacts. I want to touch many of these objects (though even in a live museum, I would be unable to do so) because many of these things are meant to be touched, or at least seen in their 3D form.        


This week I have been interviewing an artist for an HCI project. The artist works with multiple mediums, and most of her work revolves around the ideas of femininity, the female form, the role that clothing plays in identity, and the real vs. the ideal body. I am fascinated by her work and yesterday we asked her about the role of digital technology in her work and she laughed, saying that you have to touch and feel art with your hands. It's like the difference between asking Siri for the answer and knowing the answer yourself. The end result is the same, but the process of knowing (of learning and doing) is completely different. When she said this, she was working on a project--drawing, painting, using her hands to create--and I was struck by the fact that this is (essentially) impossible in the digital space. The closest thing we could come up with was Fiftythree's Pencil, which is still a far cry from a real pencil. So yes, you can "draw" on a screen. You can "paint" on a screen. But is it really painting? You can't touch or see the texture of globs of paint, or streams of watercolor on a screen. Everything becomes flat on a screen. And more to the point, regarding my own creative work: how on earth could you make a quilt on a screen? The whole point of it is tangibility, to wrap yourself up in it. 


I don't discount the value in something like the Google Cultural Institute. It has certainly allowed me to examine and learn about objects that I would never be able to see in person. But, it can't all exist on a screen. These things must first exist in the world, as objects that we can hold and touch. To see color--really see it--one must peer closely at the real thing. To feel the texture of a silk or a wood grain, one must run their finger along the surface. And, what of smell? A common complaint about digital books is their lack of smell. The digital space has adapted quite well to sound, video, and photography. But it has not yet adapted to 3D objects. The things that fill our physical space remain strangely absent from the digital world. What implications does this have for the digital space? And perhaps more importantly, what implications does it have for the non-digital world?