Digital dreams: what would a virtual exhibition look like?

Nearly a year of pandemic-related restrictions has necessarily persuaded many of us to remodel the way we live, work and socialise. One of the obvious changes is the increased focus on online communication – Covid-safe, free from geographical or horological constraints, enabling us to dress up or dress down to take part in internet-enabled interactions from wherever we choose (or wherever we can get a signal).

In the art ecosystem this has meant a rash of online viewing rooms and digital-only auctions in an attempt to provide a 2D analogue to the full 3D real-life experience, with galleries trying to convince us that clicking on a streetview arrow is an acceptable alterative to strolling through the rooms and awkward zoom meetings with multiple failures of mute button use replacing in-person symposia and conferences.

What we haven’t seen much of is the all-digital exhibition, designed for a generation that can’t (and won’t) live without consumer tech and highly relevant in the current circumstances.

Which is The Art Gallery at NYUAD deserves some applause. Its current show, titled not in, of, along, or relating to a line, opened on 20 January – on your phone rather than in the physical gallery.

It’s not huge: there are 14 existing works plus four new commissions. And of course it’s not unique: art has been made for online consumption via the small screen for several years, usually of course as video or interactive code. What is relatively novel is the packaging, putting the 18 works together in one (virtual) place and allowing you to navigate around them much as you might wander through a gallery.

The exhibition is co-curated by Chief Curator at NYU Abu Dhabi and Executive Director of The NYUAD Art Gallery Maya Allison with artist and NYUAD faculty member Heather Dewey-Hagborg.

Allison said they began the curatorial process with a question: what might a virtual exhibition be? Her answer: “In the pre-pandemic norm of exhibitions, you and your body physically enter the exhibition hall, to be surrounded by, immersed in, art. However, most digitally born art doesn’t enter that physical exhibition hall so easily. As a non-object, it lives always behind a computer screen, between what we might call the ‘object-ness’ of the monitor, and the ‘virtual-ness’ of the digital artwork’s original form. Today, we often hold that screen, that world, in the palm of our hands.

“The smartphone was already an extension of our bodies before the pandemic – in a way, we have all already embarked on a journey of self-modification through technology. Through these works, each artist here takes as their subject this matter of agency, self-determination, and technology’s promise of liberation or threat of suffocation.”

The delivery mechanism – whether it’s a physical place or a website – is as much part of the ‘exhibition experience’ as the works themselves. In this case the visitor is invited to navigate through a purpose-built website via a branching pathway, “a decentralised network diagram”, that is actually represented as a line.

It isn’t quite as non-linear as you might have wished; despite the options along the way to take in or skip different exhibits, there’s still a sense of sequence exemplified by the clickable numbers that take you to the next work. Something like the Prezi model might have been better, a large single-page space where you can zoom in or out of any part of the screen to hop easily between items.

On show

Still, it’s the work we’re here for, and the binding agent is the way all the artists make visible both the restrictions and the freedoms that a digital landscape offers. Digital technology is deployed by the artists to narrate, alter, augment, interpret or even invent from scratch their identities, their histories and their experiences.

So in one of the new commissions, Cao Fei uses augmented reality to create an imaginary friend, a doppelganger of her son, who interacts on screen with her real-life son: this is augmented reality, but delivered as a strange and slightly disorienting report on the lack of distinction between real reality and artificial reality.

Lee Blalock’s Ev3ryd4y Cyb0rg series bring a human-machine hybrid into the COVID-19 lockdown present. Originally designed as an experimental web TV project combining media and creative computation practices, Ev3ryd4y Cyb0rg allows Blalock to make robust electronic pieces she describes as “impossible anatomies” – shot in the artist’s apartment as part of her regular routine but avoiding any IRL performances. The result is a low-budget low-tech commentary on how we can fit in to a world that is managed by others.

Another commission with a similar but more explicit message comes from Addie Wagenknecht, who describes herself as “an anti-disciplinary, experimental artist who works in the fields of emerging media, open source, pop culture and hackivism”. Her piece uses the medium of a YouTube makeup tutorial to teach basic personal cybersecurity – all sensible practical advice, cut into equally sensible practical advice about lip plumping and eyebrow shaping. (Her recommended password phrase: “I’mnevergoingtohavesexagain”, presumably with some special characters like the apostrophe.) It’s funny, but serious too – the same social and political environment that encourages women to use makeup deploys the tools that can invade our privacy so easily.

For the fourth commission, Maryam Al Hamra has curated an exhibition of sculptures from a museum in an alternate reality – and the AlHamra National Museum is a well realised and quite detailed experience: “originally built as a castle for the AlHamra tribes, the AlHamra National Museum holds the world’s largest collection dedicated to the AlHamra civilization, holding over 3,800 artefacts that date back to Prehistoric times and as recent as the 21st century …” The museum has loaned five newly discovered sculptures of AlHamra queens, on display as a Cupix 3D virtual gallery tour, complete with detailed museum-style explainers next to each of the works. It’s a different world, articulated via familiar tropes.

Alongside these commissions are the existing works. As well as work by some of the commissioned artists, they include desertification and temporal dislocation in a video report by Sophia Al-Maria; an online, interactive game (including film, performance and poetry) by micha cárdenas which uses space travel as a lens through which to understand the experience of migration and settlement for a trans woman of colour; two pieces by Eva and Franco Mattes, the Italian duo who have been making art that responds to and exists on the internet since the mid-1990s (they were also to be seen in Sharjah Art Foundation’s Art in the Age of Anxiety); face cages by Zach Blas, masks based on the modelling points used in facial recognition; and a month of top-down film documenting the worktable (which doubles as a dining table) of the Dubai collective of Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, and Hesam Rahmanian.

Curator Q&A

We were interested in the thinking behind what we feel could be one of the most important shows in the region this year, so we put some questions to the co-curators (digitally, of course).

magpie: The broad theme of the show is presumably to highlight the restrictions and the freedoms that a digital landscape might offer to us – do I have that right? Or is there something more specific, less process-oriented, that I’m missing?

Heather Dewey-Hagborg: The show examines the restrictions and freedoms that emerge through our engagement with digital technologies, specifically as they impact our sense of self. It is about how our identities are transformed by and with new technologies. Who have we become, post-internet, post-COVID, as we rely on digital tools produced by distant corporations and see our loved ones through screens and interfaces we have no hand in producing? How do we reclaim technology for our own purposes? How do we re-make ourselves, not simply in opposition to these technologies, but through them, past them, tearing them apart and reconfiguring them for our own purposes?

magpie: The screen-based art in this show is necessarily 2D and face-on, assuming as it does that the user/viewer has access (and agency) only via a smartphone or tablet. Do the small screen and the reliance on internet access represent a restriction on art? Or do the constraints themselves make for a new art?

HDH: Rather than a restriction, this presented an opportunity to us as curators to think about what work naturally lives in this environment: what work might be best experienced this way, or differently experienced, such that new aspects of the work emerge.

For example, for Eva and Franco Mattes’ Riccardo Uncut, the artists had put out a call on the internet to pay someone $1,000 for their phone – but it had to be handed over with all images and videos untouched. Riccardo Uncut is the outcome of this experiment, a 90-minute chronological revealing of a man, Riccardo, as told by 3,000 images taken between 2004 and 2017 and stored on his mobile phone.

This was a piece originally made for the screen as a Whitney commission, but it was generally designed for a larger laptop viewing. In our exhibition we return the images to the phone, to the format they had originally on Riccardo’s phone. In general we find it brings a new level of intimacy to screen based works to see them in this format. Other works in the exhibition were always made with this kind of viewing in mind: YouTube videos, Instagram posts, and so on.

Maya Allison: I would add that, as a curator, I am concerned about the question of access to art exhibitions. The museum or gallery venue presents one barrier to entry, in terms of location and intimidation. The virtual exhibition presents another barrier. Early in the curatorial process, a colleague on our gallery team made a point that changed how we conceived the exhibition: as we have learned from the education crisis during the pandemic, many schoolchildren are relying on mobile phones for most of their schoolwork. Curating for the most accessible virtual medium possible – the mobile phone – thus became a framing goal for this project.

magpie: Maya’s introduction to the show talks about the smartphone as an extension of our bodies. Is it fair to say that this show represents a different species of exhibition, one that relies on the visitor’s choices (of the route through the exhibits, but also of the smartphone itself – small screens give a different experience to large screens, richer colours and better sound give a different experience to what you might get from a cheaper handset)?

HDH: It is indeed a new form of exhibition – one that is both online and self-reflexive, meditating on the medium that it exists in. The structure and format of the show amplify and push against different trajectories that have emerged in internet technology over the last three decades. We excavate the utopic dream of an internet of forking paths, of a decentralised network diagram; but we don’t look backward aesthetically, in terms of graphic design or user experience, and the artists are not nostalgic. Rather it is acknowledging these histories and moving forward – destination unknown.

MA: Exactly, and the sense of the visitor as a ‘user’ of the exhibition reverses some of these power dynamics. I love the idea that we are operating the exhibition when we visit it, instead of being led through it by its architecture.

magpie: In the Real World, going to a gallery is inherently part of an exhibition – the entrance, the walls, the route taken around the show. How important is the website as an analogy for that? Should the delivery mechanism be judged as the facilitator for the virtual exhibition experience, or should we see it as a key element of the show? And if the latter, should we trust it to technicians – or do we need a new generation of web-savvy artists to provide the scaffolding?

HDH: The website interface is pivotal for the concepts of the show – the ideas of indeterminacy and non-linearity, that the viewer takes agency and has a different experience form that of perhaps even someone sitting next to them. We designed the exhibition this way for the reasons already mentioned and also as a metaphor for how we experience identity in this moment, particularly in online spaces.

magpie: How did you choose the artists to include? Were there many candidates that you weren’t able to include for one reason or another?

HDH: Our curatorial process began with brainstorming examples of work that was really resonating with us during lockdown, work we were experiencing only digitally, and building a big wishlist from there. We were very lucky to get most of our list in the show! It was an unexpected pleasure how enthusiastic the artists were to collaborate with us on this experimental project.

MA: Agreed – and given that this show was part of The NYUAD Art Gallery’s pivot from in-person exhibitions to a virtual presence, the exhibition was done in record time. The artists were such brave collaborators, to produce new work in record time, but also to allow it to be shown in a wholly new frame.

magpie: Incidentally, why the emphasis on the line – or rather, not a line?

HDH: A line is a direct path, it represents efficiency, ideas of progress, modernity, boundaries around categories, borders and traditional artistic production. We want to curve this line, to suggest other possibilities.

We reference the non-linear experience the viewer will have of the work, the idea of curving time’s arrow of progress, questioning modernity (and post-modernity), technological narratives of progress – complicating these ideas to reflect how technology really operates with us.

Finally, we just loved the sound of it: a poetic allusion to the nonlinear.

magpie: And finally – The Art Gallery presumably has two other shows scheduled for this year. Are you expecting to further explore the idea of all-digital delivery, or will be seeing more conventional physical exhibitions?

MA: One of the most grounding aspects of this year, in terms of how it affects the work I personally do, is that I must live by a principle that is usually reserved for philosophical debate: it is not possible to plan the future. To think we can is clearly an illusion. We can, however, line things up in anticipation of a desirable, statistically-likely sequence ahead.

So, with that caveat, our ‘plan’ is to reopen our physical space in the Fall, with two major exhibitions lined up for the academic year, and these will feature art that lives in the physical world.

We will continue to experiment with what has now become a robust set of tools for connecting with audiences globally, through virtual means. Knowing that international travel will continue to be limited, we look forward to focusing intensely on our local audiences, which, like the virtual world, is an area where we would love to further enhance our programs, and grow.

not in, of, along, or relating to a line is accessible at no charge via this link until 10 July 2021

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