Imagining a richer art experience

In late 2015, I moved to the suburb of Westdene in Johannesburg. One of the first things I noticed about my new neighbourhood was the amount of graffiti that was dotted all around the suburb.

But these were not just tags from teenagers with cans of spray paint, these were fully realised works of art. I felt lucky to be moving into a neighbourhood that clearly valued visual art.

In those first few weeks I was keen to discover as many of the murals as possible, and I soon developed a favourite – a mural by an artist called Veronika, near the corner of Second Avenue and Monmouth Road.

The work features a gorilla’s head, mouth open, staring down at pedestrians walking past.

The gorilla is painted in shades of blue and purple, with touches of green around the cheeks. The gorilla’s head is surrounded by miniature stick figure UFOs, as well as some pink and purple dots.

Veronika’s mural was conveniently situated along the route I take to the local supermarket, so I was soon passing it every two or three days, staring into the gaping mouth of razor-sharp teeth.

Every time I did, I found myself wondering about Veronika. Is she a Westdene resident? Does she even live in Johannesburg? Where could I find more of her artworks?

After a few Google searches I discovered that the Westdene Graffiti Project was started by Clint Hill in 2015, a few months before I became a resident. Hill called on residents through the “I Love Westdene” Facebook group to donate walls on which graffiti artists could paint murals.

It seems the homeowners have little input in what gets painted on their walls and the graffiti artists do not charge for their artwork, time or paint. If the homeowner does want to commission a mural, then a business arrangement can be reached with a graffiti artist. But I couldn’t find any more information on Veronika, besides a few photographs of her mural.

The Westdene Graffiti Project sprung to mind the other day when I read about Google’s new tools developed by its arts and culture team.

These tools, when integrated with Google Maps and Google Search, will enhance the user’s experience when searching for visual art. Users may be able to see a high resolution image of the artwork, perhaps even see it hanging in a gallery or museum, or link to a full collection of the artist in question’s work.

In some cases users will be able to take virtual tours of museums, fully annotated for an information-rich experience. Google says it scanned over 15 000 artworks from the 440 participating museums before the launch.

It feels like there is clear demand for tools like this as the company’s search engine is clocking up more than 500m art-related searches per month.

It seems art museums are using all kinds of technologies to enrich user experiences, bring new audiences to art and even make curation decisions. Seattle’s Frye Art Museum launched an exhibition titled #SocialMedium, where members of the public made the selections via a social media voting system. Users of Facebook, Pinterest, Instagram and Twitter selected their favourites from the 232 paintings in the museum’s collection.

Other museums have apps that can be downloaded, which intuitively learn about your tastes and preferences as you wander through the museum and accordingly notify you of works of interest. Some have digitised their entire collections, allowing users to write back by manipulating or remixing artworks.

This sense of play that is being used is said to be bringing new young audiences to the visual arts.

I began to imagine a world where I could walk around my suburb of Westdene and upon reaching each work of graffiti, I could find out online when it was painted and by whom. Then, if I was curious, I could read about the artist, perhaps be pointed to where I can find more of their work; perhaps browse through images of their other work as I stand there in front of their mural.

As I imagine a world rich with art history fuelled by technology, I think back to days spent traversing art museums in London, Paris and Oslo. How much richer would my experience spending a rainy, cold afternoon at the Munch Museum in Oslo have been?

With Edvard Munch’s history and work at my fingertips, I would have been able to draw much more meaning from the experience. Instead of researching the artist in the weeks after that museum visit, the research could have begun in real time.

As Google says, “discovering the art world has never been easier”.

This article originally appeared in the 15 June edition of finweekBuy and download the magazine here.

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