google receptionI had the unusual experience of going to the Google HQ for the final Contemporary Visual Art Network (CVAN) knowledge sharing event on the 3rd July. My thoughts about it were published in a joint commission between The Guardian Culture Professionals Network and a-n The Artists Information Company. Below is the full-length article.

With an idea approaching genius, the Contemporary Visual Arts Network persuaded Google’s Cultural Institute to host the climax of its series of knowledge sharing events. Taking place at Google’s London headquarters last week, the result was a startling high-impact juxtaposition between one of the world’s most successful companies and the subsidised visual arts sector. It was, to put it bluntly, a collision between rich and poor, private and public sectors, extreme confidence and extreme insecurity.

In economic terminology, it presented a real-time confrontation with ‘creative destruction’ – where capitalist economic development arises out of the destruction of some prior economic order – and this was, I think, both the cultural value and the psychological challenge of the day. Knowledge-sharing was intended to occur peer-to-peer within the sector, but for me, it was clear that the more extensive and challenging exchange was between CVAN and the symbolism of Google. In her introduction, a-n Director Susan Jones said: “We’re looking for ways to innovate and we need to be thinking differently. Today’s format is designed to help us think better, scan the horizon and build our collective knowledge and ambition.” A crucial part of making this possible was the embodiment of those concepts within the venue.

And what a venue! High-tech and polished, with panoramic views of the Londonscape, Google provides its staff with multiple quiet spaces and relaxation areas, a gym, library, allotment plots, table-tennis and foosball tables, and a free canteen that stocks foods such as Japanese rice crackers, toasted pumpkin seeds and low-fat greek yogurt. With deep pile carpets and designer couches and armchairs, it is a concentrated statement of enormous corporate wealth and power, designed to impress.  And it is very seductive indeed, if nagging thoughts about neo-liberalism and payment of taxes are put aside. As artist Alistair Gentry brilliantly quipped, “It’s like being invited to the palace of the Borgias”.

But underlying the opulence is genuine confidence in what Google has achieved, and crucially, in what it will achieve. Its policies are intended to enable staff – known as “googlers” – to work as productively as possible. They are constantly future scanning via all sorts of non-commercial projects, often initiated by individual staff being allowed to explore their own interests in their “20% personal time”. It allows them both to be aware of what is coming and to shape it. Of course there is a huge difference in scales and accountability, but the point is clear that arts organisations could work more like this. As one delegate observed during the office tour: “Many arts organisations work as if they are local authority departments. We need to learn from this that there are more creative ways of working”.

The day focused on discussion about pertinent arts administration matters with an eye on future uses of technology – for example, how to engage with a globalising audience, and how can arts organisations create rich digital experiences? Googlers were generous with their time and expertise in providing insight, presenting on Cultural Institute projects and the free tools they provide to help with website optimisation. James Davis, formerly of Tate and now Program Manager with the archival “Art Project” gave a comprehensive presentation on its history, substance and limitations. With an audience “in the tens of millions” it is of significance to curators and scholars, and its use of gigapixel technology and emphasis on traditional historical works was noted. From the CVAN perspective, its limitation is that at present it doesn’t include and present work by contemporary artists. I asked Sheila McGregor, Director of Axisweb, (an organisation that presents artists on the web) whether she considers the Art Project an opportunity?

“We really love the presentation of the art, particularly the way you can make the interface disappear. But how expensive would that be to reproduce?” she responded. I wondered if Axisweb would consider becoming a partner in the Art Project? “I’d need to think about that. People come to us knowing exactly what they want – a particular kind of artistic practice, or a particular person in a specific place. I’m not sure a partnership with Google would enhance our ability to do that. Also, the Google Cultural Institute deals with art that has already entered the canon and is out of copyright. We’re involved with practice that’s continually evolving – a very different proposition.”

Fascinating and of more general use was the presentation on google’s free analytical tools for website optimisation. Luisella Mazza explained that “for lots of people in the world, their first experience of the internet will not be via a desktop but via a mobile phone or tablet. Mobile search queries grew 500% in the past two years so the question for arts organisations is, are you ready to connect with these people? You have to make sure your web presence is ready for people to engage with you via a mobile device.”  Of key importance is the speed with which your website loads. What is the optimum response time? “Faster than your nearest competitor!” says Luisella “but for e-commerce sites, two seconds is too long. Don’t keep your customers waiting.” You can test your own – and your competitors’ sites – at http://developers.google.com/speed and you can test how mobile-friendly sites are at www.howtogomo.com. Both have advice on how to improve in a range of areas but a general rule is, says Luisella: “Send the least amount of data possible. Compress images.” Piotr Adamczyk talked about the importance of “universal design – building content to serve the entire spectrum is a design consideration.” Allied to this is content. “Remember that artspeak and jargon will not translate well in other countries” said Alistair Gentry, a point relevant for the national audience as well.

“We have to think rigorously about the impact of technology on what we think audiences will want and expect from the arts” said Susan Jones. But capacity is an issue. Sheila McGregor argued that: “One of the most difficult forms of collaboration is that between small and generally poorly resourced arts organisations, and the digital sector which is buoyant and can charge a high amount for its services. Our funding system needs to acknowledge that we need capital funding for digital projects, not just for bricks and mortar.” But pervasive technology presents a conundrum as well. Technology facilitates mobilisation of and engagement with audiences, but conversely, the huge amount of digital noise creates enormous competition for audience time and attention.

Other conversations were around collaboration and the need to mobilise non-sector partners and beneficiaries. “We need to tell it like it is, which is that we are absolutely embedded across a range of sectors on a daily basis, with health services, with industry, with education, with local authorities. We need to mobilise those voices that engage with the work we do,” suggested Amanda King, the CVAN-SE co-ordinator.

What did our googler hosts think of the day? “We’re learning about the concerns of CVAN, which are very different from a large established museum” said Piotr Adamczyk. Why is that useful? I ask. “Knowledge drives our decisions about our Cultural Institute projects, and the Arts Project” he replies and adds “there could have been more knowledge transfer from us to you”.  Is this an invitation for a return visit and the development of a deeper reciprocal relationship? It’s an intriguing speculation.


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