Sunday, 26 August 2012

Digital vandalism or just good fun? The Prado comes to Brisbane

Since I was attending the International Congress of Archives (ICA 2012) in Brisbane last week I had the opportunity to visit the Queensland Art Gallery which is a stone’s throw from the Brisbane Convention Centre.  As an added bonus all conference attendees got a discounted entry to the ‘Portrait of Spain’ Exhibition, which has 100 paintings from the Prado, Madrid on show.

I was surprised to see that visitors were encouraged to get their iphones out at the start of the tour. The primary reason was to take a photo of yourself against a backdrop of a Prado gallery, so that you could pretend to friends you had actually been to the Prado. The ticket collector obliged and took my photo:
As I approached the first painting a security guard then warned me that photos were not allowed, with or without flash, and I should put my iphone away.  At the next painting when I commented to another visitor how little description was provided beside paintings another security guard overheard and said ‘oh you can use your iphone’.  Now somewhat perplexed I asked again if I could take a photo.  ‘No, but you can scan the QR codes beside the paintings which tell you more information about them’. [If you don't know what QR codes are and how galleries and museums use them read this short explanation].

I couldn’t be bothered with that.  That is, until I got to a breathtaking painting that had absolutely no explanation about why it took your breathe away.  The painting appeared to be of a man (with hairy forearms, moustache, thick neck) but dressed in formal women’s court clothing with a bust. The description had no mention about this surprising phenomena.  At that point I got my iphone out and checked the QR code.  Disappointingly still no info on the surprise, simply that the artist had ‘a good eye for detail and had painted the hair well. The woman was graceless and had a less than feminine appearance’.  I made a note of the painting to look it up afterwards and see if anyone else had more information on the person in it that they were willing to candidly share. Perhaps a Wikipedia entry? The painting is called Senora de Delicado de Imaz by Vincent Lopez Portana from the Spanish Court of 1833.

On leaving the exhibition I felt in dire need of a cup of tea so headed towards what I thought was the café, only to be blocked by a guard who demanded to see my entry ticket (yes there are a lot of guards).  I queried why I should need to show my entry ticket to partake of tea and was told that this café was themed with Spanish food (?). I was about to turn away when she also mentioned that the photo booths were included in the ticket price.  Being a sucker for a photo I couldn’t resist so passed through the checkpoint having no idea what the photo booth would do. 

Well – talk about surprise!! You are absolutely not allowed to take a photo of a painting in an art gallery.  The answer usually given is because of copyright or mis-use or inappropriate use of images. Clearly the images in the Prado exhibition are out of copyright dating from 1500-1800. Images of them are sold in the gift shop.  However the photo-booth allowed me to stick my own face into a selection of the Prado portraits (in a similar way to sticking your head through a funfair cardboard cut out of Popeye and Olive) and create my own digital image.  After all the high brow gallery poppycock I have heard over the years about galleries digitising images and rules they have made up around this, I was staggered and thrilled to be able to do this fun activity (which I think is probably aimed at children!).  It was the most fun I have had for a while and my first foray into what is commonly called ‘digital vandalism’ or mis-appropriate use of digital artworks.

It made me recall the battle that Wikipedia had with art galleries and use of images over a long duration.  On one particular occasion Liam Wyatt the VP of Wikimedia Australia spoke about how the public were not allowed to take or share photos of artworks for invalid reasons of copyright ownership or inappropriate or commercial use of images, but then the galleries or museums in question would use the same images themselves to make things like ties or mugs for a profit in the gift shop. This was such a case exactly, but more extreme than any I have yet seen. In case you are in doubt – I am endorsing the activity offered in the photo booths at Queensland Art Gallery.  The e-mail I received with my bastardised portrait also had an animated version… where things like my hand and head moved – crikey! The experience led  me to formally write to Queensland Art Gallery (via their online form) and ask them why if I can do this I was not allowed to take a photo without flash of the same painting in the exhibition?  That was 7 days ago and I still have not had a reply….

Incidentally I cannot find a Wikipedia entry for the portrait of Senora de Delicado de Imaz, or anything about her life and circumstance which I am sure is most interesting.  I could also not find a really good digital print online that matched the real life experience of seeing the painting. I did manage however to take a photo of the painting myself via the photo booth.  For some strange reason the photo booth kept offering me this painting as the perfect match to put my face into.

However I preferred to go with a much more regal match.

Me with my head digitally stuck into the portrait of La infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia Magdalena Ruiz by Alonso Sanchez Coello 1588.
The animation had me fiddling with my minature and the monkeys.....


1 comment:

  1. Nice portrait study Rose. I enjoyed your commentary on the confusing experience of navigating the exhibition and the promotion of QR codes for interpretation. This would make a great conference paper.
    I hope you got that cup of tea.