Interview Google’s Suhair Khan
Before the pandemic, she was focused on combining art, culture, storytelling and technology, and making important art and cultural institutions and works accessible to all online. When the world shuttered, it was thanks to Google Arts & Culture’s website and app and their important work that many could still access the archives of the likes of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, Tate Britain & The Museum of Modern Art.
When she is not writing extensively on fashion, design and culture for publications including Vogue, Condé Nast Traveller and Architectural Digest, Khan is creating positive change in the world through technology. To hear more about her perspective on what the future of technology holds for the art world, tune in on Wednesday 16 June to hear Khan on a CogX Festival panel: ‘New Ways of Seeing: Cultural Pathways For The Next 10 Years’. For further information and tickets, follow the link: https://cogx.live/tickets/
THE WICK: Talk us through a typical Monday.
Suhair Khan :
Like many of us, I have not had a typical Monday for a very long time. I am currently in New York, so it involves waking up at 5:30am to get on London time, and spending a lot of time scrolling unhealthily through emails from bed. Monday is always a reset day and I try to keep meetings minimal. I try to do a couple of video calls before heading to La Colombe on Lafayette Street for a coffee with a friend.
New York is all about the people. Everyone is intense and brilliant. I have been spending my afternoons meeting friends and people I admire in fashion, culture, human rights, technology and international development. We are talking about sustainability and climate change a lot.
TW: The pandemic has accelerated the relationship between art and tech. As the physical world comes back to life, how do you see this playing out?
We all know that culture and art will be accessible online more than ever – this is amazing as it allows for access for people around the world, in different languages and hopefully also for those who are differently abled or might have felt intimidated or unable to go to a museum or gallery in the past.
But pure online experiences do not work for all institutions or for all forms of art, and I think continuing to be thoughtful about how we connect technology to culture and creative experiences will be important. Technology can supplement cultural experiences, but it cannot be seen as a replacement.
I imagine a lot more art will be bought online or via social messaging, which is a big shift. I know that many more people are exploring art collections and cultural sites on the internet – scrolling through high-resolution photography or pausing to experience an immersive reality journey through an archaeological site or a cultural artefact.
Finally, we will be engaging with digital art in very different ways, and the recent news on NFT sales is a great example of a trend that has kicked off in part because of how we assign value to intangible digital art – a shift which will possibly change how all digital art (and artefacts) are valued, collected and shared going forward.
TW: How does Google plan to further enrich our lives with arts and culture?
Google Arts & Culture is a platform which creates access to 2,000+ museums and cultural institutions around the world online or via an immersive app. And Google overall as an organisation has a number of amazing initiatives that bring together art, artists and technology (machine learning, immersive reality, and more) – these will continue to hopefully build and thrive, in partnership with artists, composers, curators, choreographers, designers and architects from around the world. Artists, creative coders and technologists push each other’s boundaries and are able to create incredible new creative experiences often simply by spending time together. YouTube is also an amazing platform for cultural storytelling, education and the voices of creators of all demographics from around the world.
What excites you most about art and culture harnessing the power of technology?
Access and innovation. Technology opens up culture to new audiences and opens doors between very siloed worlds. When technology and culture are brought together in a thoughtful and quiet way, the outcomes help to push creativity in new and unexpected directions.
A beautiful example is this new app from Google Arts & Culture, a take on how machine learning can help with the preservation of lost languages. And right now at the London Design Biennale, the Antarctica pavilion has been conceptualised and designed by artist Ben Cullen Williams who has partnered with a couple of creative coders from Google. He uses artificial intelligence to extend and bring new creative direction to hundreds of hours of footage of the Larsen-B Ice Shelf in Antarctica. He has used technology to create an artwork, which is beautiful, but also one which drives home the impact of climate change.
“Technology opens up culture to new audiences and opens doors between very siloed worlds.”
TW: What projects do you have coming up with Google?
I am working on a new platform to help the fashion industry measure its environmental impact, in partnership with the WWF and fashion brands around the world including Stella McCartney. We are hoping for this to launch very soon.
What do you see as the challenges facing Google over the next decade?
It is amazing to see the world come online, and the possibilities this presents. As an organisation we impact the entire world in various ways, and as more and more people come online, there will always be challenges and opportunities.
I think Google will choose to address issues from health, climate change, connectivity and education. I am excited to see how this unfolds but I hope that our work is always thoughtful, inclusive and considers the impact of our products and services to all people, especially those who are vulnerable for any number of reasons, and on our environment as well.
What did lockdown teach you?
Avoiding your own fears will catch up with you in a pandemic lockdown. I will try to be braver, more honest, more decisive and less hesitant – we live only once.
Tell us about the Open/Ended platform you founded as a hub for activist design.
This was definitely a lockdown project and I’m grateful I had the headspace to do it. Open/Ended Design is a diverse community of creative practitioners and technologists working across disciplines. The platform spotlights and connects innovators in culture, design and technology from around the world, all of whom are driven by positive social or environmental impact. We have an awesome team of young people working on this and they inspire me every single day to listen to a broader array of voices – we are sometimes so much in our own bubble in tech.
We have a newsletter, podcast and video content. Recent favourites for me are the incredible activist for displaced people around the world, Jaz O’Hara. Digital has been central to her work. And the artist Daisy Ginsberg – her most recent collaboration at the Eden Project in Cornwall was built in partnership with coders at Google, using machine learning to create a generative artwork in nature.
Desert island quarantine: what one artwork, book and album would you take with you?
The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy and The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran.
Artwork is impossible. I think of maybe a Marc Chagall. Maybe ‘I and the Village’, as I just saw it at the MoMA again, which was an amazing reminder of why we need cultural institutions to be open and thriving. His works pull you in very deep, what we all need a little bit of right now.
Also, Imran Qureshi’s modern miniatures – the illusion of blood spattered red and gold on canvas is powerful and connects deeply for me to the formative years of my adulthood and the war on terror and its impact on my country and the Middle East.
For music, Amadou & Mariam, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, The Weeknd, Lou Doillon, Songhoy Blues, Julien Doré and Kanye West.
TW: Who is your ultimate Monday Muse?
The American photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White. She was the first woman of her profession and was uniquely intrepid and trailblazing, and always chic. She documented the world at the dawn of her own profession – World War 2, the partition of India and Pakistan, the Korean War – her photography is amazing, sensitive and her archives are now mostly with Life magazine.
It was always my dream to be a journalist, so I live through women in the field I admire – Lee Miller, Christiane Amanpour, and today my brilliant friend Clarissa Ward.