A/D/O by MINI | Are Digital Galleries Here to Stay?

Journal

Graphic/Visual

Are Digital Galleries Here to Stay?

The spread of COVID-19 has necessitated radical thinking in the arts and culture space. But is the move to exhibiting online an evolution, or merely a glitch?

When COVID-19 first shut down cultural institutions across the U.S. earlier this spring, many panicked. Others saw opportunity. “We crashed into a new reality, and with my exhibition indefinitely postponed, I had, perhaps, too much time and energy on my hands,” joked artist Faith Holland who, after the deferment of her solo show at LA’s Transfer Gallery, teamed up with artist Lorna Mills and digital anthropologist Wade Wallerstein to launch Well Now WTF?. The online exhibition comprises more than 80 creators contributing digital works and video art, hosted online by the “parking lot for digital art” Silicon Valet and produced by Transfer Gallery curator Kelani Nichole. This all-digital show proves to be not just a tidy workaround, but also an opportunity for the artists to thrive in their natural habitat – the digital space.

Online exhibition Well Now WTF? comprises more than 80 creators contributing digital works and video art, like Yoshi Sodeoka's Scrolling Of Death.

Holland isn’t the only one moving online out of both necessity and entrepreneurialism. Last month saw the launch of Art Basel Viewing Rooms, a new 360-degree viewing initiative, as well as tech-savvy offerings from David Zwirner Gallery, the Guggenheim, and even the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Digital galleries are on the rise, but what are the logistics of an online-only exhibition? What new or unforeseen challenges, and improvements, will this format bring? When the pandemic finally recedes, will there still be a need for these pixel-friendly projects?

“The classic concept of ‘rooms’ led the design and layout of the online exhibition,” explained Nichole, regarding the straightforward structure of Well Now WTF?. “We wanted an interaction pattern reminiscent of early net art, but at the same time presenting a more modern, fluid layout to ensure the exhibition is accessible on any device.” The team sought to empower visitors to flip between GIFs, linger on a piece and go fullscreen, or infinitely loop a design – a “chat” component allowing for direct engagement with the works.

The Well Now WTF? team sought to empower visitors to flip between GIFs, linger on a piece and go fullscreen, or infinitely loop a design, such as Non-Human Touch by Surabhi Saraf.

“We wanted the conversation to be present throughout so this would feel like a shared experience,” said Nichole, in reference to the grand ‘opening’ on April 7th, hosted across platforms and Zoom-broadcast live to Twitch. The challenge of producing an all-digital show was “to build a social space around the online exhibition similar to social interactions in a brick and mortar gallery,” continued Holland, on top of those associated with a traditional exhibition: curation, production and, ultimately, a whole lot of artist corralling.

But this project also provided for a unique means of engagement. “We wanted an unbridled, direct experience of the artists’ created works,” explained Wade Wallerstein, “their own creative process grappling with these extraordinary circumstances,” adding that, when curating online, “you have to juggle different worlds in a way that you don’t when curating an IRL exhibition,” navigating the idiosyncrasies of the web, the work itself, and the user experience. But as more traditional spaces are forced into the digital realm, it’s been a challenge to maintain a level of curatorial excellence working in the digital sphere, even one with promise.

Pace Gallery's online offering seeks to connect audiences directly to a range of artists from its own contemporary program, like Nathalie Du Pasquier.

“Pace’s online platform has provided an opportunity for us to create thoughtful group shows that otherwise may not have been possible in a traditional format, given the obstacles of international shipping, installation, build-out etc,” said Samanthe Rubell, senior director at Pace Gallery. Rubell explained that Pace’s new platform has provided a venue to respond to the moment, telling “new, thought-provoking stories that we feel have resonance for today’s situation as well as forging enriching connections within our program and artists.” Pace’s embrace of digital has seen a dramatic increase in visitors engaging with its online exhibitions and, for its next sequence, seeks to connect audiences directly to a range of artists from its own contemporary program, including solo-shows by Loie Hollowell, Nigel Cooke, William Monk, Nathalie du Pasquier, and Yin Xiuzhen.

“We're hoping these exhibitions give our viewers unique insight into the lives and worlds of our artists in ways that are altogether new and inspiring,” said Rubell, regarding the gallery’s expanded capacity to unveil works for all to enjoy. “In some ways, we are able to share and relate to one another more than ever before, despite the distance.” Rubell says this new use of digital is less about transforming the business model than about enhancing it, with the group continuing to explore and enlist the technical skills of graphics and imaging teams to create to-scale renderings that bring a work “from the screen into real, lived space.”

Pace’s embrace of digital has seen a dramatic increase in visitors engaging with its online exhibitions, including a solo show of work by William Monk.

For Hauser & Wirth, the push has been to go beyond the online space and enter the virtual realm with its first VR exhibition, opening April 30th. Using new HWVR technology, the exhibition features works by Louise Bourgeois, Jenny Holzer, Mike Kelley and Lawrence Weiner, among others, and comes as part of a newly launched research and innovation arm called ArtLab. Set in the gallery space of the future Hauser & Wirth Menorca, visitors can experience the exhibition via computer, smartphone or VR headset through the gallery’s website.

“In an unprecedented moment like this, in which we are all sharing a disconcerting, challenging, vexing experience, artists have something to tell us,” Marc Payot, partner and vice president of Hauser & Wirth, told the Journal. “The web is a much faster moving environment, so in addition to all the obvious circumstances that are unique to looking at art online, there is the issue of speed and how much patience viewers have when it comes to truly studying a work of art virtually.” Payot elaborates that there will never be a replacement for experiencing a work of art in a live space, nor does he see online exhibitions as a substitute: “we see them as yet another means to share artists’ work with the widest possible audience around the world.”

“When we created ArtLab and first began developing the HWVR art experience, our primary goal was to create technology that would help our artists visualize the spaces where their exhibitions would be presented,” said Iwan Wirth in a press release. “Given the current situation, with so many in essential self-isolation, we feel this new approach to virtual reality exhibitions is especially relevant, and will engage as many people as possible and bring them together while we’re all apart.”

For its first virtual-reality exhibition, Hauser & Wirth has digitally recreated its future Menorca location.

While VR and digital rooms expand the capabilities of larger institutions, smaller, resourceful galleries are able to use the digital space as a lifeline. “The time scale for digital projects is much quicker on many levels,” said a representative for Brooklyn’s A.I.R. Gallery, “and while there are just as many – if not more – moving parts, the platforms of website, social media, digital conferencing are all much more versatile and instantaneous than wall, hammer, and nail.”

This transition to digital platforms requires a shift in the way we think of programs, audiences and access. Digital exhibitions lack the physical labor of installation and maintenance, but online comes with its own trials – how to represent the work and the artist faithfully, and to create compelling engagement. “The digital gallery does not emphasize these aspects of the work in the same way. Embodied experience almost forces a more durational and spatial look from many angles,” A.I.R. explained. The gallery anticipates continuing these initiatives into the future alongside physical exhibitions, with virtual platforms allowing audiences throughout the globe to connect to its mission and community.

Visitors can experience Hauser & Wirth Menorca's exhibition via computer, smartphone or VR headset through the gallery’s website.

“Many galleries think that just having a slide show of works is an online exhibit, which it's not,” said Steven Sacks, director and owner of Bitforms Gallery, one of the first art spaces to specialize in digital works. “The more successful online exhibitions create dynamic experiences that include new media, live artist conversations, and other collaborative programming.”

He added that an online exhibit needs a curatorial direction and statement, and requires different skill-sets and knowledge than a physical install. “Many artworks and exhibits benefit from being seen and experienced in person, a challenge that is very difficult to overcome. Until society can get back to connecting in person, creating these emotions online can be done for some works, but for many the true impact of the work will be weakened or lost.” Yet, Jones feels this is just the beginning of a new era of online programming. “The connection to artists via live feeds has been especially popular. I see that expanding and improving.”

Ultimately, as artist Lorna Mills puts it, it’s all about context and execution. And with some work, there will always be a need for an IRL component. “A Zoom panel does not replace a screening or an installation,” she lamented. At least not yet.

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