High culture has been under lock and key, says Google’s Amit Sood
Google Cultural Institute director Amit Sood on the technology in digitizing and storytelling of art and culture
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New Delhi: If you download the Google Arts and Culture app on your phone or visit it online, you will spot a story featured upfront called ‘We Wear Culture’. It is Google’s newest addition to its now six-year-old project, which has so far digitized art from over 1,400 museums and institutions across more than 70 countries. Launched last week, ‘We Wear Culture’ is Google’s venture into fashion. Amit Sood, director of Google Cultural Institute, a non-profit initiative of Google that runs the Google Arts and Culture platform, has been with the company for over 10 years. This ever-expanding digital archive was born out of Sood’s ‘20 Percent Time’, a Google policy that has been used to encourage employees to spend 20% of their time developing other creative ideas and passion projects.
The app is quite a rabbit hole. In a feature titled ‘Appearances can be deceiving: Frida Kahlo’s wardrobe’, you can (virtually) stand in the middle of the rather dark gallery of the Frida Kahlo Museum in Mexico and get a 360 degree view of Kahlo’s traditional Tehuana dresses. Kahlo’s fashion and identity is as engaging as her art. On view are the crutches and corsets that Kahlo wore to hold her body up (the artist had an accident and a medical condition that resulted in several surgeries and a disintegrating body). You can super zoom into a prosthetic leg made in a leather lining and see the Chinese motifs embroidered in silk thread. It’s a visceral experience even through the small screen of your phone.
‘We Wear Culture’ takes a cultural route to documenting and showcasing fashion, as is the narrative of all of Google Arts and Culture. There are stories on the icons, the movements, the-making-of, stories that connect and cross-pollinate fashion with art, culture and history. It’s a smooth, seductive interface, powerful in content, accessible and free. Sood tells us more in a phone interview from New York just before the launch. Edited excerpts:
The Google Arts and Culture platform sees a constant stream of new museum partners and content. Give us an update on where it is at now.
It has become a much larger project than we imagined. We’ve gone beyond art into performing arts, natural history, world monuments and historic sites. We’re incorporating intangible cultural heritage; things that you can’t touch and see in a museum. It’s a much more challenging but rewarding experience. It’s about culture as a broader narrative. One of our latest initiatives is with the national parks in United States. We’ve involved the forest guides to tell audio-visual travel stories across America’s greatest natural parks. Two weeks ago we launched Google Grand Tour of Italy that used virtual reality and other media to uncover stories of the historic country. We worked with the mayor of Venice, for instance, and asked him to tell stories about why it’s built on water, what are the challenges, what are the hidden streets.
Was the decision to diversify into fashion an organic next step?
While we were doing all these other cultural areas like art and architecture, we realized that a lot of the partners we were working with also had fashion collections. Slowly, the platform started having dresses from the Mughal empire or ballet shoes from the Paris opera. Kate Lauterbach, the global programme head of the fashion initiative, came to us and said: ‘Hey, we already have so much info on fashion, why don’t we do a thorough project and tell the story of fashion from a perspective that is not only about the object?’ That idea is crucial to this project. At the end of the day, we’re a bunch of engineers. We’re not always known for our great fashion sense. Let’s say it’s not an intimate part of my understanding. But that’s the problem. Why isn’t it? So we wanted to focus on fashion from a cultural perspective.
Give us an idea of the breadth and depth of the fashion chapter.
We thought we would start small, but more and more partners wanted to join. We now have 183 institutions from around 42 countries. But what’s special is that it has gone beyond museums. For instance, if anyone is a fan of Japanese street wear fashion, we have the Bunka (Fashion) College (Tokyo, Japan). Or we have Parsons (School of Design) from New York. From India, we do have the Chhatrapati Shivaji (Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, Mumbai) and the (Dr) Bhau Daji Lad Museum, and they’ve done a fantastic job of putting together stories from their collections, but I was so happy to discover organizations like Border&Fall, who are providing such a unique, contemporary perspective to the sari. I love the work of the Avani Society that has focused on natural dyeing techniques. There are about 10 partners from India in the fashion chapter and over 45 Indian partners in the whole programme. For me, the Indian participation has surpassed my expectations, and this is only phase one.
Take us through the back-end technology that powers this.
The key thing that we bring to this programme is the application of tech, whether that’s in digitizing or storytelling. We digitized a significant amount of the objects using the Google Art Camera—a robot-managed camera that is being built in-house by Google engineers and is roaming around the world capturing collections. We used the street view tech and applied it in an interior setting. You can walk through the Met costume gallery or through the Museum of Decorative Arts in Paris. We’re starting with virtual reality experiences where you’ll be able to go behind the scenes on the story of the black Chanel dress or to understand the history of the kimono. The idea is to immerse the viewer in a virtual storytelling using zoom, street view, audio and video and putting it all together. The real tech marvel is in how you can zoom in to an intricate Alexander McQueen dress in one micro second. We have the digital copy, but now we need to make it work on your phone, and on an internet connection, and do it really, really fast.
The idea that a tech company has a cultural department, that a ‘20 Percent Time’ project becomes a non-profit foundation of its own, what does that say about the nature of our society?
I think about that a lot. We feel that the physical world of high culture has not embraced the digital. There is a divide and that is only going to get bigger, because in the digital tech world we are moving at an extremely fast pace, but we’re not moving at that same pace when it comes to cultural communication from the institutions, the guardians of culture, so to speak.
High culture has been under lock and key for a long time, and if they get left behind we will face consequences, because the past informs the future. Connecting intangible culture, the past and history, it fits with the mission of Google: to make information organized and accessible.
We’ve talked a lot about what’s to gain from digitizing art. Is there anything to lose?
I’m in New York and I will go to the MoMA (Museum of Modern Art) and see the Starry Night probably for the 40th time. The physical nature of consumption of art is very different from the digital. In the digital, you are consuming it at your convenience and that can have different purposes; perhaps you’re in school and are researching Van Gogh’s technique. You can’t visit 50 museums around the world where his art is at. You could be sitting at home having a glass of wine and instead of watching boring TV, you might want to pull up a beautiful painting on your phone and show it to the person you’re with and have a chat about it. The consumption is not restricted to just when you’re travelling on a holiday. I don’t think that will ever change. People will travel, they will meet other people in museums, they will make connections. Museum figures are just going higher and higher. Both of them will go on. It’s not one or the other.