Technology Mashup: Driving Through Your Local Museum

There are times when true creativity takes the form of breathtaking originality, an idea or object that makes us all stop in our tracks and stare unblinkingly, thinking “I’ve never seen anything like that!”

The first cubist paintings of Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque possessed that quality. So did the first tiny automobiles that hopped their way across meager distances before collapsing in clouds of dust. People viewing these works for the first time would struggle mightily to understand, at a fundamental level, what the creations were doing and how they were doing it. Without familiar frames of reference upon which to base their observations, they found it extremely difficult to even begin to comprehend the design and function of such objects.

But there are other times when true creativity is simply a function of taking already-familiar objects and combining them to achieve useful purposes. Such mashups of existing concepts and devices do indeed make us stop and stare, but instead of thinking “I’ve never seen anything like that!,” they make us think “Look how they’re using those common items!” In such a situation, we instantly perceive the work’s purpose and operational function, and are then dazzled by their efficiencies and effectiveness.

Although uniquely original inspirations are often rare, creative mashups are relatively common. Last week, for instance, Google teamed up with some of the world’s greatest museums of art to introduce a mashup that was both undeniably creative and yet strikingly familiar.

Introducing the Art Project

The very name of Google’s creation, the Art Project, is itself a mashup of sorts. It borrows a term that is commonly found on every grade schooler’s homework assignment sheet, a term that connotes Crayola crayons and Elmer’s Glue, and applies it to a sophisticated internet based research activity.

What, exactly, is Google’s Art Project? It may be appropriate to answer this question by describing how it was produced before defining what it actually delivers in terms of creative value. To put it simply, Google took the camera trucks that are driven through the streets of the world’s major cities to create the Street View panoramic photographs that enhance its Google Maps driving directions, and drove smaller versions of them through the galleries of the world’s finest art museums instead.

What did this activity produce? A set of interactive online images, free for public research and enjoyment, that allows web surfers to use their computers to walk (virtually speaking) through the world’s finest galleries in the same manner as they navigate the city streets with the Google Maps application. And why is this Art Project so valuable? Because any one around the globe with an internet connection can now enjoy free access to the complete collections of the world’s greatest museums of art.

Of course, Google’s creative staff must have confronted numerous hurdles while completing this project. Simply explaining the concept to the Executive Directors of the museums, and convincing them that free online access would help improve paid museum attendance and not threaten it, must have represented an extremely daunting challenge. And then there are the technological obstacles posed by the need to downsize their Street View camera trucks into mobile vehicles that can maneuver the maze-like hallways of the art museums without destroying the exhibits!

Art and Technology

Interestingly, art and technology have always represented breeding grounds for creative types who produce incredibly innovative mashups of existing styles, formats, and objects. Hip-hop artists, for instance, regularly insert samples of songs previously recorded by other bands into their own tracks, at times without the legal permissions of the original artists. Their juxtapositions of shockingly different musical genres often produce astoundingly creative results, as was the case when punk rock impresario Malcolm McLaren mashed square dancing calls into a hip-hop sound track called Buffalo Gals, and later created R&B versions of great arias from operas like Madame Butterfly and Carmen.

The greatest minds in computer technology also routinely insert features that were previously pioneered by other firms into their own creations. A primary reason for the popularity of Steve Jobs’ iPhone, for instance, is the manner in which it incorporates a Kodak-style camera, a Sony-style portable music player, a Blackberry-style email and text messager, and an Amazon Kindle-style e-book reader into a single svelte communication device. In fact, some iPhone users hardly ever bother to make telephone calls!

What mashups are now appearing on the horizon of human ingenuity? What impressive combinations of unlikely ideas and objects will soon dazzle us with their creative visions? For technologists, perhaps it will be a truly integrated internet television device, a blend of today’s rudimentary Apple TV product and the now-defunct Microsoft WebTV branded service. And for connoisseurs of fine culture, perhaps it will be collaborative works of experimental art that use electronic social media to stimulate and organize group creative processes.