Virtual exhibitions and digital culture

How virtual culture is evolving amid the pandemic

With exhibitions, live productions and art fairs shuttering during the global coronavirus outbreak, we explore how virtual initiatives hold up against the real deal – and what this means for the future of culture in digital spaces

Witnessing Covid-19 take its toll around the world has felt akin to watching dominoes toppling over, one by one. As the arts community catches up to the reality of lockdown, institutions are pushing out new digital initiatives ranging from digital events to virtual exhibitions to Instagram artist takeovers.

With China being the first to implement strict lockdown measures, Art Basel’s March plans went in a markedly different direction than usual. Last year, the Hong Kong edition of the world-famous art fair drew in a record crowd of 88,000 visitors. This year, the arrival of the pandemic meant it had no choice but to go fully virtual for the first time, with Online Viewing Rooms, which hosted galleries’ collections for buyers and collectors to peruse and, hopefully, purchase.

If Art Basel seemed remarkably quick off the blocks in their solution to the Hong Kong cancellation, it’s because it was already part of their plans prior to the pandemic. “We had been planning to launch Online Viewing Rooms as part of our ongoing efforts to use new technologies to create additional opportunities to support our galleries and foster a healthy art-world ecosystem,” explains Marc Spiegler, global director of Art Basel. The platform was conceived to help exhibitors showcase artworks that don’t make it to their stand at the fair; with no artworks making it to the fair this year, it was Art Basel’s best option.

Creating any kind of digital experience for the arts comes with its own set of challenges – namely showcasing the works in their fullest form. For Spiegler, their aim was never to create “a simulacrum of the show experience”, since it was designed to be a complementary platform running in parallel to the art fairs.

“Our intention was not to replicate a visit to the fair itself as we believe that digital platforms cannot replace the experience of seeing art in person. Collectors don’t come to fairs exclusively to buy work, just as gallerists don’t only participate to sell the works on display,” he tells us. “Both collectors and gallerists attend our shows to exchange ideas, deepen existing relationships, and to develop new connections. In a market built on trust, face-to-face interaction remains essential.”

Of course, face-to-face interaction is hard to come by under current circumstances. However, as many will testify, these days even seeing a human on the other end of a phone or laptop screen beats the alternative of seeing no-one at all (or at least no-one new). It’s something that rang true for the team at London-based theatre company Headlong, which is working with Century Films on bringing new, live theatre productions right into our homes. The series of shows, titled Unprecedented: Real Time Theatre from a State of Isolation, is set to launch mid-April, and takes the form of short ‘digital plays’.