Google Glass Sponsorship Bodes Ill for New Museum

Google Glass meets Ryan Trecartin.
Google Glass meets Ryan Trecartin. (Glass image via Wikipedia, Trecartin image via Vimeo)

The future of art has arrived, and it looks … not like James Franco dressed in drag, but like a software developer wearing a silly-looking pair of futuristic glasses. Yes, the future of art is a Glasshole, coming to a museum near you.

OK, not just any museum (yet), but the New Museum in New York, which announced in a press release this morning that Google Glass will sponsor its 2015 Triennial. The New Museum describes its triennial as “the only recurring international exhibition in New York City devoted to emerging artists from around the world.” The 2015 edition will be curated by New Museum curator and former executive director of Rhizome Lauren Cornell, along with artist Ryan Trecartin, the golden child of new media art. Given that pair — and the New Museum’s launch of NEW INC, an art, technology, and design incubator — Google Glass would seem like the perfect sponsor.

In one light, yes, the New Museum’s increasing focus on the latter half of their stated “new art, new ideas” mission sets up the institution perfectly to host Google Glass. It is, indeed, a new idea, a forefront in computing and interactive technology, and the New Museum’s launch of a “visitor engagement app” using Glass during the triennial will spread the technology to more people than it currently reaches (Glass is only available to those accepted into its currently full “Explorers” program and those people who shelled out $1,500 for it during a daylong public sale).

On the other hand, the announcement troubles me. It’s not the deal itself — huge companies and corporations, as well the humans behind them, pay for art exhibitions all the time. Unfortunately, that’s just where the money is. But Google Glass is a product. By allowing the company that makes the product to place it in an (important and well-regarded) exhibition as part of a sponsorship deal, the New Museum is essentially turning itself, its exhibition, and the art therein into a giant marketing platform.

It’s even more discomfiting when you think about the kind of art that might be included in that show, given the curators — art confronting the questions of big-brother tech companies, government surveillance, the cooperation between the two. How will those critiques look through the eyes of Google Glass?

The New Museum positions its collaboration as a natural progression in visitor engagement technologies:

Museums have been exploring handheld technologies for the last five years, while others are developing apps for tablets. The New Museum will introduce Glassware that enhances visitor engagement at the Triennial and enables the public to share their experiences.

It doesn’t mention the obvious fact: Google Glass is an eyewear technology, which necessarily and fundamentally creates a different experience of looking at artwork than any audio guide, iPad, or brochure. I don’t think that means Glass can’t or shouldn’t be used in museums, but I do think it means the New Museum has an ethical responsibility to artists to tread very carefully down this path. This isn’t the same as displaying an artwork that’s meant to be viewed with Google Glass. I worry that this decision represents the museum privileging tech over art, but I’m holding out hope that I’m wrong.

Perhaps what’s most disappointing, however, is what the sponsorship deal seems to symbolize: the hardening corporatization of art museums, their interest in eliteness over populism, a very real limit to the possibilities that these institutions can offer for contemporary art and artists. Then again, many would say I’m just being naive — that these things have been the standard for a long time, and the Google Glass sponsorship is just a rose by any other name. Maybe we’re out of good options, and as artist William Powhida tweeted earlier, “it’s either Google or oligarchs at this point” — a choice neoliberalism has backed us into, and one that seems impossible to make.

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