Art exhibition has been through major changes since the emergence of the World Wide Web. Galleries and museums have been active players in the forming of new modes of cultural consumption and participation online while technology companies like Google invest in online platforms for digital exhibition (Google Art Project). From virtual exhibitions and online archives to multimedia applications like games and 3D, cultural organizations are learning to utilize the best digital technology has to offer in order to expand their reach and become more competitive. Social media in the beginning of 2000s allowed for new exhibition practices that were no longer associated with art exhibition as an event but rather as a condition. Free and open posting, sharing, curating and publishing has become a reality through these platforms. Entire social networks like pinterest, instagram and flickr are open exhibition spaces available for mass consumption anywhere and anytime. Physical or digital artworks are designed to fit in this online exhibition (photographs, videos etc.) while internet and post-internet art is designed online and for online exhibition (often for both virtual and physical spaces (Vierkant, Image Objects)).
The digitization of art exhibition has resulted in a massive shift on how we evaluate art, since much of today’s art success depends on reach and popularity (Arora and Vermeylen 206). Online, every artwork has an audience to find. Follower culture makes audience engagement easier and interaction between artists and audiences instant. An artist’s follower can have direct access to the artist’s work and progress and either approve or disapprove by altering her social network relationship (ex. Friend/unfriend, follow/unfollow, participate by commenting & sharing/not participating). Artists can have instant feedback on their work and themselves by using network and website analytics, effectively treating themselves and their work as brands. The artist becomes a public persona (famous artist Ai Weiwei has 288K Twitter and 146K Instagram followers), selfies, social updates, commentary are few of the tools used by artists in order to engage with and expand their audience, popularity and status. Exposure means popularity, bigger audiences and more possibilities of financially surviving the hard reality of the art world. The above results to a confusion as to what art exhibition entails today, who is involved and where and when it takes place.
I attempt to examine these phenomena, behaviors and interactions from both a technical and theoretical understanding. Often art research fails to examine the technical and systemic characteristic of the medium through which art is being mediated and the apparatus through which art is being systematized. The internet is not simply “open” or “closed” but above all a form that is modulated. Information does flow but it does so in a highly regulated manner (Thacker xix). As Bowker et al. argue, these embedded technological frames are often invisible to perceive in social systems such as the art world; hence to genuinely comprehend its impact, it involves the unfolding of ‘the political, ethical, and social choices that have been made throughout its development’ (Bowker et al. 99; Arora and Vermeylen 6). This falls under a wider discussion of how the social and the political are not external to technology and of how technological developments (research, design, use, distribution, marketing, naturalization, consumption) affect and/or determine all aspects of social life (Thacker xi).
EXHIBITION AS AN EVENT AND AS A CONDITION
Traditionally art exhibition is understood as an event. It takes time and resources, it requires preparation by the artist/s, venue, and curator/s, it has a lifespan of a set time and it has an afterlife through documentation, evaluation/critique, reflection, impact, publication and archive. Exhibitions can be reproduced or travel yet their spatiotemporal lives are limited by physical and logistical laws. Such art exhibitions constitute some of the major events (Biennale, Documenta etc.) in the art world and produce great revenue for cultural organizations and institutions. The life span of art exhibitions though has been massively affected by Web 2.0. Escaping the limitations of the physical world, art can be exhibited and accessed anywhere, anytime and by anyone. The whole wide web is available for exhibition, it is an open venue for both art and artists, servicing some of the traditional purposes of art exhibition like communication, audience reaching, cultural exchange and discourse, popularity and of course sales. Time, space, accessibility and audience participation are some of the major changes of how art is being exhibited online but in order to understand what makes art exhibition today a constant condition, I will briefly discuss here two specific effects of online interactions, the mixed reality effect and the bandwagon effect.
THE MIXED REALITY EFFECT
As technological innovations continue to extend our notion of the visible experience we now recognize ourselves as both the observer and the observed on a constant basis and we often understand this as a requirement for belonging. At the same time our notion of what is a visible experience has massively changed as visibility now belongs to both physical and virtual realms. These experiences are taking place in very distinct spaces online, that are both controlled public spaces and monitored private spaces – neither public nor private, neither here or there, they are heterotopic as Foucault describes them or interstitial spaces as Paul Virilio describes them. These spaces are what we call non-space. Originally these non-spaces refer to spaces one travels rather than inhabits. These are airports, hotel lobbies, shopping malls etc. Today non-space can describe the public/private, physical/virtual, instant/past and future spaces of online interactions. Heteropic, interstitial and non-spaces theories, fall under the more generic concept of the mixed-reality effect.
Mixed-reality ideas and theories are the results of a greater confusion in post-modern and contemporary years around time, space, public sphere, individuality and community that emerged through the online technologies of WEB 1.0 and WEB 2.0. Physical and digital events have merged into a cluster, while artists, curators and organizations have lost control over the lifespan of exhibitions through the uncontrollable reproduction of posts, photos and information that social media sharing allowed. Originally, mixed reality was used to describe the merging of real and virtual worlds that produce new environments where physical and digital objects co-exist (Ohta and Tamura 6). Today mixed reality theory is used in order to explore various phenomena of co-existing in both physical and virtual spaces. In Mark Hansen’s Bodies in Code (139), all reality is mixed reality which means that instead of thinking of our digital identity and our real-space/physical identity as two separate things, today we understand reality as a fluid space of both virtual and physical; both states are equally real and exist as one. This mixed reality condition challenges the spatiotemporal constrains of experiencing art exhibition – amongst other things – as an event. We could argue that as reality is a condition, a state of things, today’s mixed reality is also a condition which escapes the boundaries of the physical world and allows for new understandings of our experiences. These new conditions are the result of the specificity of the digital computer, the internet and the web as a medium, a medium with its own protocols and networks that needs to be examined as such.
THE NETWORK EFFECT
Networked society’s online culture and its compulsory characteristics of exhibiting ones work, actions and value by constantly sharing and participating in an effort to stay relevant, become formal measurements of effectiveness. If everyone is part of the networked society and you are not, how can you form connections, be visible and get noticed? If you can’t form connections, be visible and get noticed how can you affect change? It is a matter of scale. The medium’s ability of reaching massive audiences together with the systemic characteristic of network effectiveness based on popularity creates a network effect and a bandwagon effect. For example, the more people already use a social network the higher is the chance that more people will start using it as well (Bandwagon Effect). This results to social networks becoming extremely valuable to individuals and communities as the more people use them the more valuable they become to each user (Network Effect). Thus, chances of being effective are higher within a medium used by everyone.
Even if someone is targeting a niche audience, audience members are more likely to participate and engage with ones work in a familiar environment (like facebook) where the platform, its looks, feel and functions require no extra effort of environmental adjustment. Consequently, cultural interactions in such environments create a positive first impression since this is where people would expect to come across something relevant to their cultural preferences (by targeted advertisement and curation algorithms). Finally, this is where people can publicly exhibit their action/participation to someone’s work by joining events or by commenting and liking (actions that will later appear on their wall), fulfilling this way their part of exhibiting activity and participation. Other social networks like instagram, flickr, youtube etc. allow for similar behaviors within their systems, structures and environments. This network effect makes acting outside these platforms a very hard choice.
Remaining active, sharing and participating become measures of value for sociality, popularity, work and impact to the level of excess. At the same time acts of artistic exhibition online, add to this constant condition of making and receiving information for cultural consumption within mixed reality conditions. Social and behavioral norms along with systemic characteristics of the digital medium like protocols, software, applications and its commercial character become the gatekeepers of how we evaluate and interact with art today.
As more and more artists and cultural organizations become active participants in online environments and as more and more novel art spaces emerge online, we need to examine the conditions under which the art world is changing including the ways of exhibiting art. The art world online is being transformed into a network within a network. Further research is necessary in order to examine the impact and significance of the new technological developments on the art world and the massive changes in its hierarchies, knowledge production and valuation systems, and of course its exhibition practices and conditions.
Above all, our very short experience of life with the internet reveals issues of digital reproduction, digital mediation, digital surveillance and a generalized application of systemization. Our communication practices, our language, our image, our creativity and culture including art, is being mediated and systematized to fit online. This can liberate and/or restrain us at the same time but it certainly won’t leave us the same.
Arora, Payal., Vermeylen Filip. “The End of the Art Connoisseur? Experts and Knowledge Production in the Visual Arts in the Digital Age”, p. 6, p.206 Information, Communication & Society, 194-214, Routledge, 2013. Print
Bowker, Geoffrey C., Baker, Karen., Millerand, Florence., Ribes, David., “Toward Information Infrastructure Studies: Ways of Knowing in a Networked Environment”, International Handbook of Internet Research, pp. 97-117, Springer Netherlands, 2010. Print
Foucault, Michel. ”Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias”, Architecture/Mouvement/Continuite Journal, 1984. Print
Google Art Project, 2011 – ongoing https://www.google.com/culturalinstitute/project/art-project
Hansen, Mark B N. Bodies in Code, p.139, Routledge, 2006. Print
Lastname, Firstname. Title of Book. City of Publication: Publisher, Year of Publication. Medium of Publication (Print, Web, Film etc.).
Ohta, Yuichi.,Tamura, Hideyuki. Mixed Reality: Merging Real and Virtual Worlds, p.6, Springer, 1999. Print
Thacker, Eugene.”Protocol Is as Protocol Does”, p. xi, p. xix, Galloway, Alexander R., Protocol, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 2004. Print
Vierkant, Artie. Image Objects, 2011 – ongoing.,http://artievierkant.com/imageobjects.php
Virilio, Paul. Negative Horizon An Essay in Dromoscopy, Continuum, 2005. Print