ONE YEAR OF DIGITAL EXHIBITIONS: FOUR EXPERIENCES
The corona virus pandemic has forced most art galleries and museums around the globe to close for many months. While physical encounters with artworks have not been possible, institutions and artists have utilized a range of digital platforms with which to stay in touch with their visitors and showcase art. For me, living in Germany, it has been a great opportunity to stay up to date with the exciting happenings in faraway Chile. Besides the wave of content provided on social media and through Zoom talks, digital exhibitions offer a more concise, and ideally, curated presentation of art to really engage with works on a deeper level. However, not all experiences have been enriching. Since we all are possibly facing an extended period of closures due to new outbreaks, digital exhibitions continue to connect us across continents and as such they are a worthy medium to examine critically. For my overview of four shows, I draw on the concept of “mise-en-scène”, the way digital artworks are presented, as recently elaborated on by one of the major research platforms of digital art, Rhizome. Given their broad potential, I hope that online exhibitions are here to stay in order to offer fresh approaches to experiencing and understanding art.
Isabel Croxatto Galería
The most obvious way to hold exhibitions online is to render the physical gallery as a 3D photorealistic space. This experience comes closest to how we are used to seeing art. Isabel Croxatto Galería went a step further in September 2020 by presenting a fictitious and idealized gallery set in a lush park; very different from the gallery’s actual seat in a busy commercial area in uptown Santiago. The artworks were inserted as digital images onto the walls of the space called ICG+. The viewer can see the exhibition through a walkthrough video with wide angles and close-ups, and installation views focusing on specific walls. Isabel Croxatto Galería is an international business that takes part in fairs in Turkey and Hong Kong and obviously has potential buyers in mind when presenting artworks in a setting reminiscent of foyers of mansions. In the installation renderings, we can imagine how much space the pieces would take up in our living rooms. And that may be about it.
Museums and white cube galleries imbue value to artworks through their architecture which takes them out of the mess of the quotidian and elevates them to objects of solemn contemplation. This was likely the goal of ICG+. But institutions mostly imbue value through their reputation. Isabel Croxatto Galería already provides the prestige associated with its name, its roster of renowned artists, and its intriguing curatorial stance. Their exhibitions continuously show interesting positions of local and international art, which are much more than decorative material for interior designers.
The gallery website offers all the information about the individual works with metadata, a curatorial introduction, and superb photographs. What, then, is the gain of the virtual gallery in comparison to the simpler “viewing rooms” with ordinary jpegs accompanied by text? The juxtaposition of different objects – a key curatorial tool to create meaning and highlight relationships – can to a large degree be realized in a two-dimensional layout on the web page. Furthermore, the works don’t “do” anything in the 3D space, since they are all images of paintings, textiles, drawings, illustrations, or photographs, with no computational functions activated in the browser. The problem here is fundamental: for ambitious digital exhibitions to have added value, we need to think about the work and its properties offline and online. In other words, there are two embodiments of the piece, its analog objecthood and its digital version, maybe even diversion from the analog. If the digital version is “only” a photograph of the physical work and not some kind of algorithmic piece of net art, the most important task is to show the image in a clear, simple manner. In my view, that is already a great way to present art and does not need any more gimmicks.
This also applies to the gallery’s recent renewal of their virtual exhibition space. On April 26th, they inaugurated an equally idealized white cube space located in the likewise virtually rendered Atacama Desert with an exhibition of works by Wladymir Bernechea. Although the idea to take international visitors on a trip to Chile and hence link the digital back to the physical is genius, the result is again meager. The video-walkthrough focuses on the works, which is important, but the landscape is only visible for a few seconds in the intro and through the windows, and thus practically shut out. Moreover, the curatorial introduction in no word mentions this geographic setting, and the art does not connect to it either. According to the introduction, Barnechea’s paintings speak to the increasing globalization and pop culture, such as anime. This stance would chime with the generic “global” space of the Internet that the gallery already built up, but what does it have to do with the site-specificity of the Atacama? My first association of the blank white faces was the violence of the Pinochet dictatorship, which disappeared political dissidents in this desert. However, this connection does not seem to be made in the artistic and curatorial proposition. Again, the sublime landscape is relegated to being mere decoration.
What seems overly painstakingly true to the physical realm at ICG+ is handled in a more “digital” fashion in the exhibition of Arte electrónico called Puntos de inflexión, opened on March 25, 2021. I put digital in quotation marks here because of the black atmosphere and white grid that is the ground on which the avatar of the visitor moves through this semi-interactive exhibition space, just as we imagine the cliché of the digital realm. However, this is of course also an illusion of space and not any more authentic to the medium than ICG+. After all, we cannot see bits and bytes, no matter if the rendered environment is abstract or naturalistic. Still, Puntos de inflexión at least makes the difference between real life and computers more evident. It therefore constitutes an innovative space for born-digital art from Chile, which is a welcome initiative to showcase and appreciate this genre. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that the organizers received no external funding (the virtual space of ICG, in turn, is partly funded by the government agency ProChile). There is also no curatorial selection: every artwork matching the technical requirements is admitted. This approach intentionally undermines the idea of the canon and its social mechanisms of exclusion.
The minimal aesthetic of the show reminds me of early computer games, but while I consider myself a first generation digital native, the games I played as a child already had more advanced graphics. Moreover, the navigation is clunky and during my second visit of the exhibition, my computer (purchased in 2018) almost died. Additionally, one has to go through far too many steps to enter the virtual rooms, which unfortunately removes any joy that such a layout could spark, and makes the digital feel quite old and cumbersome.
The works themselves are floating in space and are flickering incessantly, which retains some excitement for the exhibition. But again, the objects are placed at large distances from each other and getting from one work to the next is an ordeal, making it practically impossible to view all the works (unless you want to spend an entire day clicking). Yet, even with an easier navigation, it would require a lot of time to view the works of 111 participating artists; an overwhelming number owed to the idea of inclusivity.
The introductory text explains that the pieces are “questioning and proposing possible aesthetics, reflections, and imaginations (obras cuestionando y proponiendo estéticas, reflexiones e imaginarios posibles)”, divided into three topics and virtual rooms titled Mutation, Revolution, and Cyborg (Mutación, Revolución y Ciborg). Although I recognized some motifs of the estallido (the social uprising that started in October 2019) in the Revolution room, I was largely lost in the multitude of works. The lack of descriptions and a curatorial narrative made me lose interest and I left the room without learning more about the pieces and the ideas behind them.
Apart from this general confusion, I tried to make an effort and placed my avatar in front of some individual works. Unfortunately, again, more questions than answers arose: Am I viewing the work correctly? Where is the start and the end of a video? Is the sound I am hearing from the work I am looking at, or from a neighboring video or sound piece? And most importantly, who is the maker of the work? Can I look at it on a different website with more information?
The haptics of Puntos de inflexión are sadly a big drawback, because the works I have seen look very interesting, if only they were more legible and better labeled. I probably overlooked some technical features and thus missed out on content, but then I asked myself, how much time and skill do I need to have in order to view an exhibition?
In November 2020, Valparaiso’s artist collective and gallery space WORM (managed by Sebastián Gil Muñoz and Renato Órdenes San Martín) launched the online exhibition “In the Future, Everyone Will Be World Famous For 15 Minutes (En el futuro, todos serán mundialmente famosos por 15 minutos)”, initiated by Alonso Yañez and sponsored by the Puerto de Ideas festival (read the announcement on Artishock). The gallery used Google Street View to map out their publicly accessible space in 3D. This comprises the two exhibition rooms, an open patio, and the corridors. As the nucleus of a collective that has enriched the local scene for eight years, the house is full of artworks and stuff of everyday life, not least since they also provide temporary living spaces for artists.
In this street view setup, the exhibited works first appear as blue circles distributed all over the space. The navigation works intuitively by clicking on the floor and turning around by holding and dragging the cursor. Upon clicking on the buttons, images and videos pop up. The exhibited works are mostly shorter videos, which makes it possible to see the entire show in a sensible amount of time. These small works, which might get lost if looked at individually, benefit from the exhibition context which comes together as an inquiry into the daily life of artists and their relation to each other. The same accounts for the non-digital objects, such as sculptures and drawn interventions, for instance by Alvaro Oyarzún. They are incorporated into this “total work of art” that is the gallery, rather than isolated pieces in a white cube.
The fact that WORM is precisely not a sterile environment but a space of social events made the digital walkthrough meaningful and also playful, as we could discover messy corners and the stuff that has accumulated over the years of art making. Hence, rather than having to scroll over literally empty digital space, the digitization of WORM already satisfied the curious visitor. The allocation of the works in the house appeared mostly random, but the small chaos of everyday objects made for serendipitous placements, such as Daniela Bertolini’s video of her giving a speech next to the cleaning utensils of the gallery. This chimes perfectly with the artist’s feminist inquiries and the gallerists’ (who are also artists) interest in the everyday. Thus, the works, or better, the buttons that open them, are placed on a desk, a bike, a chair, a hat, and of course some walls, and expand the possibilities of curating in a both serious and tongue-in-cheek manner.
Most importantly, for the video works, the YouTube or Vimeo frame was visible, so I could quickly get to more of the artists’ work and share the link. This made the online gallery’s walls porous; I did not feel trapped like in Arte electrónico’s setup. And this is the most powerful advantage of online exhibitions over physical ones, an instance where digital tools are enabled.
In sum, the exhibition took a very pragmatic approach: a manageable number of works, short videos, humourous content, and an interface with which we are already accustomed. The advantage of WORM Gallery is that they do not intend to migrate to digital venues entirely and leave behind their IRL history. They experimented with this exhibition in a successful manner, but do not try to change exhibition making altogether. This takes away an awful lot of pressure and is maybe the most productive attitude to enter new terrain.
In October 2020, Cristóbal Cea opened the exhibition “The Extended Thing (La cosa extendida)” at Galería NAC. Cea has a high-profile educational background in animation design and an artistic career that consistently marries the analog with the digital. This show is a case in point for his practice, as it featured oil paintings, digital drawings printed on small pieces of paper, and screens with animated elements of the paintings, such as the grimacing head of Simón Bolívar. Moreover, one screen showed the gallery setup as it was streamed live on YouTube. Through this transmission, I could both see and hear the exhibition and chat with the artist. Needless to say, I could also share the link to the livestream with friends. The chat, in turn, also appeared on the screen in the gallery, which made the visitors aware of the parallel venue of the show. Yet, rather than being a copy, the livestream video was altered so that different images were digitally superposed on the oil paintings of the gallery walls. Importantly, these second images stand in direct relation to the paintings. Cea interprets canonical scenarios from Chilean and Latin American (art) history, and one of his most famous references include the monumental painting “The Founding of Santiago (La Fundación de Santiago)” by Pedro Lira from 1888. The livestream thus gave the exhibition more context, but above all, underlined a key characteristic of Cea’s practice: the hybridization of images. As the artist emphasized in an interview on Artishock, there are no borders between media, between the “real” and the digital; an oil painting may as well live on as a digital animation, and a digital drawing works just as well on paper. Indeed, Cea asks why precisely Latin Americans are struggling to combine genres, that is, transferring their own identity as mestizos to art. In this vein, there is no static image within the exhibition, but also from the exhibition itself: it is constantly evolving, not least through the participation of the visitors in the gallery and in the chat. Therefore, the show acquired a performative character, a trait of certain online exhibitions which has also been extensively described by the digital research platform Rhizome.
The livestream’s connection to the physical space, and seeing the visitors walk around in Santiago, was particularly intriguing for me in Germany where a second lockdown had begun a few days earlier. It allowed me to interact with the artist and to be involved in the physical iteration of the show. As in the case of WORM, the physical gallery environment continued to play a significant role in the exhibition, and in this instance, intertwined the two realities even tighter. Every piece and function was a hybrid, demonstrating what the artist criticized has been lacking in other projects.
As an initial reflection on these different types of online exhibitions, I conclude that such shows should take the properties of the works seriously, that is, they should present them as digital works. ICG gives us a strange in-between scenario, in which the works are not allowed to be digital because the space goes out of its way to look like analog life. Arte electrónico gives us a more digital feel with actual born-digital art, but does not entirely admit the works to function, especially in terms of adequately presenting them and making it possible to share them. The exhibition of WORM Gallery is probably the most honest: it stays true to its physical reference, but by using internal pop-ups and links, it sticks to the most basic and at the same time, the most important features of digital interfaces. Lastly, Cristóbal Cea’s is the technically best produced exhibition, not only in regard to functionality but also in the sense that the real and virtual elements made sense on their own and in conjunction. Given that it was planned as a hybrid from the beginning (and not as some sort of ersatz, as ICG+), the show is less to be analyzed as an exhibition than as a work of art in itself. Ultimately, visitors and critics will have to look more closely at the aspects of mise-en-scène and performativity of online exhibitions, with the resulting analyses resembling more that of artworks than of exhibitions as we have known them.
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