Scripted Engagement

First published here. 

The rush to make online substitutes for events derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic promises an influx of viewing technologies that approximate real life.

One of the great pleasures of living near the southern tip of Africa is that I miss all of the world’s major art fairs. Too far away, too unpleasant, and over too quickly to justify the travel, the blockbuster art fairs – Art Basel, Frieze, and the Armory Show in particular – are on my horizon as flies buzzing vaguely against a window pane.

For a different echelon of the art world, one that does turn up at fairs, nothing is more important than being there, than having travelled to be there, than always travelling to be everywhere. It was, therefore, a major blow to Art Basel Hong Kong and its entire nomadic ecosystem when the global COVID-19 pandemic necessitated the cancellation of this year’s fair, which would have taken place from 19 to 22 March. Art Fair Week in Hong Kong is this art scene’s vital international moment. Every year, for the week leading up to and including Hong Kong’s two concurrent art fairs, Art Basel Hong Kong and Art Central, the city swells with collectors, gallerists, curators, and artists from all over the world. In the absence of this possibility, Art Basel Hong Kong attempted to replicate the international moment digitally by moving the entire fair online. 234 galleries participated in this scheme – 95 per cent of the original cohort that signed up for physical booths – creating virtual exhibitions in standardised online viewing ‘rooms’ accessible from Art Basel’s website. After the statutory two days’ VIP preview (some protocols are inviolable), anyone anywhere in the world could peruse the fair for free until 25 March.

With the escalation of COVID-19 since early February, when Art Basel Hong Kong announced the cancellation of the fair, many other platforms around the world have followed suit, conjuring up online-only versions of their derailed exhibitions and events. At the same time, the platform Google Arts & Culture, which hosts virtual manifestations of some of the world’s leading museums, is enjoying a revival. This is accelerating a trend of virtualisation whose apex many might have thought was still years away. Though digital mediation has become an indispensable tool for the art world, never before has it so explicitly tried to approximate ‘real life’.

Online shopping

The obstacle of distance now removed, and the repellant crowds no longer a factor, I was out of excuses. I began my tour of Art Basel Hong Kong with a visit to Kurimanzutto, the first in a list of participating galleries that was reshuffled daily. With spaces in Mexico City and New York, Kurimanzutto boasts a formidable roster of artists that includes Haegue Yang, Danh Vo, Gabriel Orozco, and Rirkrit Tiravanija. Kurimanzutto’s Art Basel Online exhibition was a group show of new and unseen work by gallery artists, a fairly typical art fair offering. But the translation of one homogenous format to another fell flat.

The works were presented in an ‘installation view’, a standardised in-situ digital mockup that included a wooden bench for scale, as well as by cropped and detail images of each work on its own. Short texts presented alongside the work offered interpretive and contextual information, an attempt to compensate for the conversations that might have arisen during a visit to a physical booth. A particularly successful manifestation was Tiravanija’s work on paper, Untitled 2018 (我们在同一片天空下做梦吗)(2018), a piece that, given its dimensions and contrasting colour, translates well on the screen. But views of other pieces, like Vo’s Untitled (Les grands voyages), 18 (2014–2015) were woefully deficient, for no other reason than the gallery seems not to have documented the work adequately.

Departing from Kurimanzutto, other galleries’ presentations followed the same format: group shows displayed piece by piece, some representations good, others bad, with that infernal wooden bench in just about every shot.

Over two thousand artworks were shown in this manner, worth an estimated total value of USD 270 million (EUR 246 million). One would think that big ticket pieces might not make it into an online viewing room, especially such a dull one, but five works priced at over USD 1 million (EUR 912,000) each were presented, including Nam June Paik’s Sfera / Punto Elettronico (1990), listed for USD 3 million (EUR 2.7 million).

Art Basel’s foray into the online-only fair merely confirms what a few galleries have known for some time: if collectors are willing to buy work from a trusted gallery off a PDF, a more sophisticated online offering is a potential gold mine. Scale is no longer the constraint it can be in physical exhibitions, and, particularly when it comes to large works, an astronomical amount of money is to be saved on shipping. Gallerist David Zwirner has been ahead of this curve, offering works for sale in online-only presentations, including on Instagram, for the past three years. According to a recent New York Times article, his online sales have increased by 400 per cent in the last year alone.

Artsy’s analysis of Art Basel and UBS’s newly released report The Art Market 2020, states thatonline sales of art accounted for 9 per cent of the total market of USD 64.1 billion (EUR 58.2 billion). This is lower than the general online retail market share, but only by 5 per cent. This means that while only 14 per cent of shoppers are willing to spend what are comparatively small sums of money online, 9 per cent of all art buyers spend substantially on works they have only seen in the form of a digital reproduction. The online mediation of artworks stands in for the works themselves so effectively that it has a tangible impact on the global art market.

Manet in Street View

I remember long ago studying a reproduction of Édouard Manet’s Olympia (1863) in an art history textbook, in black and white no less, and feeling a kind of vertigo. This work was important; it contained beautiful ideas, and even if I couldn’t relate to it physically, it changed how my 18-year-old self thought about the world. Some years later, I saw Olympia in real life, at Musée d’Orsay, and though I had expected to be overwhelmed, to have some kind of transcendental experience, the prevailing feeling was an anxiety that I was not having profound enough an experience. Looking at the work in physical proximity was overshadowed by the imminence of no longer being able to look at the work in physical proximity.

Today, it is possible to look at a high definition reproduction of Olympia on Google Arts & Culture, one of the most powerful and centralised online tools for looking at historic art. Revisiting this old flame, I zoom in and examine the cracks on the painting’s surface. I note the absence of Olympia’s fingernails. I linger on the variegated blacks of the cat’s fur. I close my laptop for the night, and the next morning when I open it up, Olympia’s cat is still there, stretching. I can simply resume my looking. Olympia has not gone anywhere. I have the luxury of looking at the work on my own terms and with a proximity, albeit simulated, that would never be possible in the museum itself. And yet, something is missing in the experience. Without my body being in the room with the painting, I lack a sense of scale and heft; I miss out on the way the light lands on Manet’s distinctive flat black. I neglect to worry about the insufficiency of my looking.

Google tries to simulate the experience of being in a room with an artwork with its Street View functionality, a feature native to Google Maps. An interior transposition of Google Maps’ Street View, this enables you to navigate certain museum interiors just as you would click down a street. In principle, it’s a revolutionary idea, but it just so happens that the Street View of Olympia is blocked by an insurmountable pillar. A glitch in the stitching together of this particular view makes it impossible to get around the pillar to see the painting in context. This underscores the limitations of viewing art virtually: you are beholden to someone else’s potentially careless recording efforts, but also, more nefariously, to a handling of the medium in which your freedom to ‘move’ is curtailed by Google’s script. Google has – just through this feature – the power to decide the terms of engagement with culture.

Digital phenomenology

Though restricted, and restrictive, in these ways, Google Street View was the first in what has become a considerable market for 3D capture and viewing technology. The world of contemporary art is lagging in its uptake of these tools, but in the future a 3D ‘recording’ of an exhibition may well become the standard for exhibition documentation. Many commercial galleries in Europe have already embraced this possibility thanks to a platform called Artland. Designed to facilitate the buying and selling of art, Artland enables galleries to document and present fully navigable 3D recordings of their exhibitions, which can be published online and in Artland’s native mobile app. One hundred and fifty galleries currently use the product, which, according to Artland CEO Mattis Curth, significantly improves their prospects of receiving sales enquiries.

Commercial expediency may be necessary to get a novel product like this into circulation, but its potential far outstrips sales. Artland’s 3D exhibition recordings are compelling viewing in their own right. The user experience is cleaner than Street View and the amount of detail captured makes a convincing case for the virtual translation of physical artworks. For people who can’t get to exhibitions in person because of, say, quarantine, this is the best substitute so far.

Moreover, Artland’s 3D recordings continue to exist after their physical counterparts have closed, forming an archive of exhibition content that could be of great value to exhibition historians of the future. “It is clear that there is massive untapped potential in a resource like this,” Curth said in an email interview. “It is already by far the largest [3D] library of modern and contemporary art exhibitions in the world.”

All our experiences of artworks, even physical ones, are mediated. And all mediation can be reduced to the insertion of something – paper, a lens, a screen, museum protocols – between us and the artwork. The digital mediation of art will only become more ubiquitous as the technology grows in sophistication. This will embed in visual culture a practice of seeing that is not comparable to being physically present with an artwork, but that nonetheless ‘counts’ for many people as a kind of digital phenomenology.

The trouble comes when we rely, as we increasingly do, on digital representation for most – or even all – of our knowledge about art. This deepens the ‘googlification’ of contemporary life, the mediation of everything from our whereabouts to our spelling by corporations. Though a product like Google Arts & Culture makes documentation of thousands of artworks available to anyone who uses Google, seemingly ‘democratising’ our access to art, it is not neutral; it selects for us and entrenches an overwhelmingly European narrative of art history, as well as a contemporary culture that has no incentive to question this. In this respect, Google is another gatekeeper of culture, shaping discourse just as museums, curators, collectors, and patrons have for centuries. The difference between Google and a museum, however, is that Google is at your fingertips. Its influence is far wider than that of any museum, no matter how popular.

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