Viewing Art in the Time of COVID-19

Christo and Jeanne-Claude, ‘The London Mastaba’, 2016–18, 7,506 oil barrels, polyethylene cubes, and steel frame, 600 tons. Virtual Reality installation view: Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, London, 2018. Copyright and courtesy the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation, Acute Art, London, and the Serpentine Galleries, London.

Where Have We Been?

Avoiding a full digital revolution, the art world has instead carried out marginal digital experimentation, although the efforts have been somewhat ‘lite’. First came the digitisation of public and private collections, which is not ubiquitous, even now. Then came Instagram and, with it, extensive arguments over cropping images, copyright, and reproduction rights, its promise hobbled by precedent and the conventions of a landscape dominated by artist estates. More recently, we have experienced something of an overcorrection, with some fumbled attempts at engaging with meme culture (sorry, LACMA). ‘Innovation’ in the art world has meant forgoing physical invitations for email invitations and Facebook events, and sending ‘PDF previews’ (PDFs of Word documents with images) of artworks and exhibitions via email. The most innovative organisations forwent printed room sheets or walking sheets in favour of PDFs or audio tours hosted on their websites, hesitantly experimented with online sales platforms Artsy, Artnet, and Ocula, and maybe even had an online store for merchandise and prints. Experiments with apps have been largely unsuccessful, whether in institutions developing their own (à la MoMA) or organisations making use of third-party apps (including Art Logic’s Private Views, which many commercial galleries experimented with before reverting back to emailed PDF previews).

What Came Next: Online Viewing Rooms and Not Much Else

The new leading lady is a natural progression from the plane (and plain) offerings of before — what has been dubbed an ‘Online Viewing Room’ (OVR). This term has taken hold only recently in the industry, after commercial galleries across the world were forced to experiment with a variety of alternatives. Galleries have eschewed referring to these offerings as ‘exhibitions’, wary of the curatorial and space-based connotations, and of audience expectations. Similarly, galleries have moved on from referring to these offerings as online, digital, or virtual ‘presentations’ in our current condition, finding the term to lack an adequate sense of occasion. ‘Online Viewing Room’ makes use of language that galleries’ collectors are familiar with — the smaller, pristine private ‘viewing rooms’ at many commercial galleries that are reserved for the purpose of hanging and presenting works for visiting VIPs. Of the available options, ‘Online Viewing Room’ most evokes a sense of 3D space and of viewer transportation, suggesting that the screen through which it is experienced might be more than just a collection of pixels; instead, it becomes a portal to something new and unique. In so doing, the name implies both exclusivity and substance, without explicitly committing to either.

A landing screen for David Zwirner’s ‘Basel: 15 Rooms’ Online Viewing Room, 2020. Copyright and courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London/Paris/Hong Kong.

Immersive Experiences

In those few years, we witnessed an interesting paradox, as the art world’s presence on social media (Instagram, specifically) skyrocketed and, alongside it, the popularity of immersive, experience-based artworks and exhibitions. Organisations who could or would not digitise their collections or other offerings hustled to present Instagram-friendly artworks and exhibitions. At the top of the charts were (and are) the artworks of veteran installation artists — chief among them Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Rooms, Olafur Eliasson’s Room for one colour (1997), and more or less anything by James Turrell. Several relative newcomers made a name for themselves, including Refik Anadol, teamLAB, Meow Wolf, and Marshmallow Laser Feast. Several spaces dedicated to immersive art experiences — some even dedicated to art/tech experiences — popped up across the world, including ARTECHOUSE and the expansion of Culturespaces, with the additions of its Atelier des Lumières and Bassins de Lumières sites to its Carrières de Lumières. These artworks, exhibitions, and organisations competed for ticketed entry — and Instagram posts, tags, and likes — with blockbuster museum shows geared towards immersion, like the Musée des Arts Décoratifs’ breathtaking Christian Dior, couturier du rêve (2017), and family-friendly celebrity favourites like the San Francisco-born Color Factory and the New York-born Museum of Ice Cream. The success of these experience-based offerings signified an audience gravitation toward ‘real’ experiences, and offered the art world convenient evidence that online, digital, and virtual artworks, exhibitions, and experiences were not of interest to their masses.

Installation view: ‘Van Gogh, la nuit etoilée’, l’Atelier Lumières, Paris, 2019-20. Copyright and courtesy Culturespaces, Paris and Gianfranco Iannuzzi.

The Future is Now: Extended Reality (XR)

So, for the most part, robust online, digital, and virtual offerings have largely eluded the art world — at least until recent years. In other industries, creators and audiences have turned to Extended Reality (XR) for truly immersive experiences. (A brief aside: Extended Reality is an umbrella term that covers Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR).) The field is intimidating, developing at warp speed, and flooded with buzzwords, only truly understood by a small but growing group of specialists. These specialists — interaction designers, developers, and neuroscientists — develop experiences, products, and services using what we know about how the brain receives information from the senses, how the brain determines what is ‘real’ and what is not, and how our bodies respond.

’Mona Lisa: Beyond the Glass’, Musée Louvre, Paris, 2019. Copyright and courtesy the Musée Louvre, Paris, VIVE Arts, Slough, and Emissive, Paris.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude, ‘The London Mastaba’, 2016–18, 7,506 oil barrels, polyethylene cubes, and steel frame, 600 tons. Virtual Reality installation view: Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, London, 2018. Copyright and courtesy the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation, Acute Art, London, and the Serpentine Galleries, London.
[1-2] Koo Jeong A, ‘density’, 2019, Augmented Reality. Augmented Reality installation view: Frieze Sculpture, London, 2019. Copyright and courtesy Koo Jeong A and Acute Art, London. [3] Christo and Jeanne-Claude, ‘The London Mastaba’, 2020, Augmented Reality. Augmented Reality installation view: Serpentine Lake, Hyde Park, London. Copyright and courtesy the Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation, Acute Art, London, and the Serpentine Galleries, London.
Visitors reacting to Jordan Wolfson’s ‘Real Violence’ in Virtual Reality at the Whitney Biennial, 2017. Photo: Therese Öhrvall. Copyright and courtesy Therese Öhrvall and the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
Chris Ofili, ‘Siren’, 2019, oil, gold leaf, and charcoal on linen, 157.5 x 96.5 cm / 62 x 38 in. Virtual Reality installation view: ‘Side by Side’, Victoria Miro and David Zwirner, 2020, powered by Vortic XR. Copyright and courtesy Chris Ofili, Victoria Miro, London/Venice, David Zwirner, New York/London/Paris/Hong Kong, and Vortic XR, London.

Community, Accessibility, and the Roles of Institutions

The question that is being asked throughout the art world is: can OVRs, XR, and other online, digital, and virtual offerings ever meaningfully recreate or replace the experience of going to an exhibition, a gallery, or otherwise viewing an artwork in-person? This question seems, to me, largely abstract at present; simply put, nobody knows the answer, and only time will tell. More interesting to me is this question: will the art world’s digital revolution be for the many or the few?

Occupy White Walls. Copyright and courtesy Occupy White Walls.
Artworks from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art hang in a user-created space inside the game ‘Animal Crossing’. [Pictured artworks: From top left: 1. Thomas Eakins and John Laurie Wallace on a Beach, ca. 1883; 2. Paul Cezanne, Still Life with Apples and a Pot of Primroses, ca. 1890; 3. Hans Holbein the Younger, Erasmus of Rotterdam, ca. 1532; 4. Coptic Textile Fragment with Image of a Goddess, late 3rd–4th century; 5. Fragment of a Queen’s Face, ca. 1353–1336 BCE; 6. Vincent Van Gogh, Madame Roulin and Her Baby, 1888; 7. Georges de La Tour, The Fortune-Teller, probably 1630s; 8. Gustav Klimt, Mäda Primavesi (1903–2000), 1912–13; 9. Georges de La Tour, The Fortune-Teller, probably 1630s.] Copyright and courtesy the estates of the artists, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Nintendo, Kyoto.

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Harriet Flavel

Harriet Flavel

Digital strategist, producer, and writer.