Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Google Art Heist

SEPT. 12, 2015

Maureen Dowd,

Image from article -- an interactive high-resolution digitized Marc Chagall painting

Paris — JUST seeing the Crayola colors painted on the tall iron fence of the
18th­century hotel particulier made me shiver. The big panda in flip flops in
the lobby, arms up in greeting, scared me. And the petite ham sandwiches
getting wheeled around to Google staffers looked positively menacing.
The more playful Google gets, the more paranoid I get.

We are still trying to fathom whether the tech behemoth is a boon to
society or, as Rupert Murdoch’s lieutenant Robert Thomson charges, a cynical,
rapacious, “often unaccountable bureaucracy” running “a platform for piracy,”
gobbling up all the intellectual property in the world for its own profit.

So when I heard that, building on its plan to digitize all books, Google had
opened a Cultural Institute in Paris to digitally replicate and curate all art and
culture on earth, I wanted to check it out. Europe is, after all, hostile territory
for the Alphabet, with its highest court upholding an individual’s right to be
forgotten and lawsuits looming over the tech giant’s suffocating business

Despite the cheeky sign on the door of the grand building on Rue de
Londres — “I’m feeling lucky” — I wasn’t the only one with mal de mer. When
the institute had an opening fete two years ago, the French culture minister
was a no­show, warning about “an operation that still raises a certain number
of questions.”

Meeting the head of the institute, Amit Sood, a Bombay native in his mid­
30s, made me suspicious at first. Looking cozy in a long gray cardigan and
black sneakers, he’s a preternaturally perfect ambassador, like a high­powered
Google algorithm designed to co­opt museums and foundations so charmingly
that curators will barely know they’d been appropriated. But the guy seems

“This is our biggest battle, this constant misunderstanding of why the
Cultural Institute actually exists,” he said. “In France obviously there was a lot
of skepticism about why is Google entering this domain.”

From the most famous paintings of the Uffizi to an archive of South
Korean film to virtual galleries of the pyramids, the institute has already
amassed an impressive collection. Sood has serenely fielded the questions
about whether his project will lead to people prowling museums from the
comfort of their couch, filtering and missing out on actual visits.

“I’ve seen ‘Starry Night’ at MoMA probably 30 times in person and I have
the most high­resolution digitized image of that on my platform right now,” he
said, “but every time I come to New York, I still go see ‘Starry Night.’ ”

He added that there was “awesome” data showing that “physical
attendance at museums is rising at a rate never seen before, especially in
countries and museums that have cool digital initiatives.”

To critics who accuse him of dumbing down art education, he says: “To
some extent I do want to dumb down a few things, because I think some things
are too highbrow at some point.” He talks about “the mom feature”: His Indian
mom doesn’t care about Impressionists and thought he was “wasting” his life
on this project, but when he showed her the gold jewelry from Bogotá, Israel
and the Met on his site, she became a fan.

“So for me,” he said, “the route into the person’s mind to get more
interested in culture, history or wonders can be many.”

Sood was not an art aficionado when he and some colleagues launched the
project at Mountain View, trying to come up with a way to make art in Western
museums accessible to people in countries like India and make it look magical
online, with the ability to zoom in on each brush stroke of the Chagall ceiling
of the Paris Opera.

When Sood lived in London, he went to museums just because the cafes
were good places to meet interesting people. But now, he says, “I value what’s
going on and I think you have to be patient. You can’t expect museums to
move at the pace of the Internet.”

Sood said Paris was chosen for the endeavor in order to confront the
skepticism head on — “If I can convince them, I can convince practically
everybody” — and as bait to recruit the best engineers.

“In Paris, it has not been easy,” he said. “But we’re getting there. More
and more institutions are signing up.”

He has now lured in over 850 museums, archives and foundations in 61
countries and hired several people he first pitched the project to — experts
from the German ministry of culture, the Met, the Tate and Versailles.

He and his colleague, Laurent Gaveau, have cast a wide net, creating an
archive of street art, histories of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Lahore crafts and
textiles and even — “out of our comfort zone” — Italian mozzarella, lemons
and Balsamic vinegar.

They didn’t get to Palmyra to film the nearly 2,000­year­old temple there
before ISIS blew it up, but Sood suggested they could recreate it online.
He has tried to soothe fears that technology ruins the experience of
viewing art and that Google will gobble up content, offering museums a delete
button that instantly removes all content from the site.

“I don’t care so much if they use Google or not, to be very blunt,” he said.
“I care more that cultural institutions that have great stuff under lock and key
put it out there for anybody to download. If they want to put it on Instagram or
Facebook or Twitter, be my guest.” Indeed, to show they aren’t gaming the
system, he noted that if you Google “The Birth of Venus,” his site does not
come up first. (It’s 10th.)

Could there be a digital version of one of those famous French art heists?
“Of course I could be hacked,” Sood said, adding wryly, “I don’t know if
there’s a teenager sitting somewhere wanting all the Rembrandts.”

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