Animating Art in the Metropolitan Museum

A GIF of Simone Seagle’s interactive of Henry Farrer’s “Winter Scene in Moonlight,” 1869 (courtesy the artist).

Elena Goukassian, Animating the Art of the Metropolitan Museum, Hyperallergic, 1 March 2018

Simone Seagle transforms iconic works by artists like Paul Klee and Claude Monet into interactive animations. 

A little over a year ago, the Metropolitan Museum of Art launched its Open Access initiative, making high-resolution images of all public domain artworks in the museum’s collections available for free to the general public. Under Creative Commons Zero, more than 375,000 images became available to “use, share, and remix — without restriction.” Of all the people in the last year who have taken advantage of the Met’s new policy, New Mexico-based web and educational software developer Simone Seagle has been one of the most dedicated and creative, transforming iconic works by artists like Paul Klee and Claude Monet into interactive animations.

When the Met first announced its Open Access initiative, Seagle was really excited, she told Hyperallergic in a phone interview. The first project she did with the Met’s artwork was “The Portrait Gallery” last February, “an interactive inspired by the old trick of having people peering at you through holes in a portrait,” with the eyes of portrait sitters following the cursor around the computer screen.

But Seagle really got into it last summer, when she found herself between contracting jobs. “I was wasting time on social media, and the only way to get out of it was to make something of value,” she said. That’s when she began concentrating on creating multiple moving parts in individual paintings, starting with Kandinsky’s “Violett” (1923). By either scrolling over the image or clicking and dragging, you can make the various shapes in the painting spin and bounce in all directions and at different speeds. Next she tackled the rainforest in Henri Rousseau’s “The Repast of the Lion” (ca 1907) then Arthur Dove’s “Clouds and Water” (1930). Seagle has done several more over the last few months, including a sliding puzzle of Paul Klee’s “Variations (Progressive Motif)” (1927), completed in late February.

How does Seagle choose which paintings to animate? “It depends, but I usually pick artists I’m fond of,” she said, citing the early 20th-century expressionists as some of her favorites. She’s specifically drawn to paintings that lend themselves well to being cut apart with Photoshop. “Kandinsky and Klee work really well,” she said, adding that it usually takes a couple hours of Photoshopping, then a few more hours of programming all the moving parts. “The Tiffany stained glass and Monet pieces took a really long time,” she said. “I’m awfully fond of the Tiffany’s fractal mechanisms, and I’m also proud of how it looks. Every time you reload it, the trees will look different, because they’re randomly generated.”

“Simone Seagle is a talented artist at the intersection of tech and culture, and her works deserve to be shown,” said Loic Tallon, the Met’s chief digital officer, in a phone interview with Hyperallergic. “The Met collections have one object to inspire every internet-connected person in the world. When we free up the collection for people to use, it’s a collection that could inspire the whole world.”

Tallon is extremely enthusiastic about all the possibilities the Open Access initiative has opened up, and he’s not particularly worried about people potentially misusing Met images either. “If we look at similar projects in the past, the public benefit outweighs people using it for nefarious purposes,” he said. “People were already using bad images anyway,” so why not provide high-resolution versions to everyone?

Tallon sees this as a way of widening the museum’s audience, making the Met much more accessible to people who can’t come to the physical space. (This will be especially helpful now that out-of-towners are required to pay the full admission fee.) Using official partnerships with Google, the Wikimedia Foundation, and others to disseminate images of its collection, the Met makes it possible for more people like Seagle to find creative ways of remixing their artworks. “Art is always borrowing on what’s happened before,” Tallon said. “This continues that process.”

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