Until a year ago, virtual exhibitions were a novel exercise in digital programming carried out periodically by galleries, festivals, and institutions. In a world that has been steadily digging its feet into the virtual ground, the shock of the pandemic brings to light the vast potential of the virtual and its necessity. For the art economy - rooted in exhibition protocols and viewership - the shuttered gallery space presents an anxiety that is simultaneously artistic, economic, and intellectual. The state of suspension-initially deemed only momentary and ameliorative-exerted its pressures across the board, posing a gruelling challenge. As our lives and worlds moved online, grappling with a ‘new normal’, art institutions worldwide, ambled on with a spate of artists’ talks, lectures, and panel discussions, experiencing a veritable boom in virtual exhibitions.
A physical exhibition is perhaps, the most regularised format of art presentation. There are numerous categories within -solo, group, survey, itinerant, retrospective, and commemorative. There are many operative problematics undergirding the exhibition as an idea: ranging from, but not limited to its ideological imperatives, its publicness, and the nature of its publicness. Art historian and curator, Elena Filipovic lays out the contours of the Exhibition in her fundamental essay, What Is an Exhibition? It isn’t defined by its assembly nature, or by its presentation of concentrated ideas through the assembly. Besides being an aggregation, the exhibition is framed by the space it is situated in, along with the ways in which the space moulds relationships between the objects displayed, as well as the discourses that frame them. This dramaturgy is a definitive aspect of the exhibition format-its distinct performance and spatial production. With the virtual exhibition, one is driven to ask, what becomes of this dramaturgy?
In April 2020, ten galleries from across India and Dubai came together to launch In Touch, a platform to showcase art. Now running its 5th edition of programs and exhibitions, the roster was expanded to incorporate two more galleries, with a total of thirteen galleries. The Art Platform India, a similar platform arrived in September 2020, with another group of fourteen galleries across India. As gallery-centric congregations, the two platforms established a collaborative model maximising on shared networks within the art world. Their grid-like arrangement, with neat squares set apart by white space emulate the order of an Instagram feed, and the unmissable presence of the price-tag conveys an interest in the commercial side of things. In these virtual price catalogues, one can view the work of art in a tastefully austere living room, but not zoom into the image to get a finer look.
The open, accessible, and democratic nature of the internet comes with its own set of challenges, especially in a contemporary age where our lives are more virtually mediated than ever before. We are confronted daily by the enmeshed and entrenched nature of surveillance, censorship, manipulation, and data theft online. In light of this fundamental distrust, a mere simulation of the gallery wall and an emaciated anodyne Instagram feed offers little to those who are not in the market for the art work. Viewership and pedagogy, as interlaced processes suffer through the interface. Interestingly, it is on their Instagram pages that one finds a discursive engagement, where curation comes to life and the audience can move through not only a corpora of images and arrangements, but also find conversations facilitated by the galleries.
If we look at the recently concluded virtual edition of the Serendipity Arts Festival, we find a number of formal reincarnations of virtual exhibitions, cyber-theatre, laboratories of collaboration. On the website of Future Landing, an exhibition curated by Veeranganakumari Solanki, the cursor becomes the fulcrum moving between the vision and the screen. There is no one way to move, scroll, or slide around. Catapulted into a vortex of information, images, and affects one encounters a new sense of corporeality. Saturated by the clinical grid’s reproduction of the white-cube, the matrices of Future Landing’s artist projects reconfigure the apparent immateriality of the virtual assemblage rendering it tactile.
Virtual exhibition as proxies for in-person exhibitions are important sites for viewing and comprehending the evolving art practices. The ways in which audiences experience the artworks presented are embedded in the virtual-curatorial frameworks encompassing them, as well as the attendant discursive tensions they reveal. To reflect on the discursive and pedagogical function that the virtual exhibition as a cultural form enables, one must first, not treat it as a surrogate for the physical exhibition; but as another iteration of it. With its technological apparatus, the virtual exhibition sits on the axis of existing debates in the realm of digital art history and Digital Humanities. Here, I would like to revisit the anxieties that the computational turn posed for the arts and its study in the context of yet another turn towards the digital. This time one that was not propelled by an immediate technological advance, but by a global pandemic compelling us towards innovative technology. Invoking Johanna Drucker, it is key to make a distinction between the “digitised” and the “digital” in the study of art. While digitisation only renders a digital form to art, digital study offers a much wider range of cultural and intellectual practices that mobilise technological tools.
Building repositories of digitised material which make it available for viewing and access is necessary, but one must keep in mind that exhibitions work differently than an archive or a collection. Here, the digitised form presents itself for a fleeting moment [days, weeks, months-not to forget that when Instagram becomes the sole site of micro-curation and presentation, this duration could well be 24 hours]. Perhaps the consequent archival of the virtual exhibition would serve posterity better, but the mere accumulation of material or data doesn’t offer the best insights into how virtual platforms lend themselves to pedagogy. For the organisers of a virtual exhibition, its success and claims towards democratisation may lie in the numeric footprint- recorded through registrations and monitored through site and social media activity and analytics. The virtual exhibition’s pedagogic promise thus, can always be cushioned in a techno-optimism that lays stress on digitisation. Claire Bishop, in her polemical indictment of digital art history, warns us of the ways in which theoretical and methodological issues get steamrolled by the weight of data, and by the sheer impressiveness of technological marvel.
Virtual tools, whether theybeinsightsincommunication,problem-solving, or an attempt at gathering data, offer little to the growth of the arts and its correlative disciplines. Such methods of digital engagement prioritise the state of digitisation as a streamlining principle that reduces everything to information, and is steeped in a neoliberal logic where knowledge is instrumental only when winnowed as information.
Digital practices have been ubiquitous to our daily lives-we use images and texts available online, and plot major portions of study, research, and writing through digital remediations. Contemporary art has been embroiled in digital technology for a while now-for its production, circulation, and consumption. A preliminary reflection on the virtual exhibition thus becomes urgent and opportune. It’s implications on pedagogy; whether in art practice or scholarship of arts and culture are imbricated with issues that are infrastructural as well as creative. The distinction between reality and virtuality no longer orders our ways of perceiving art. The challenge of the virtual exhibition is not so much about moving addresses to relocate online. The sensitivity of the challenge lies in addressing how an exhibition would acquire form when the virtual is no longer seen as just a medium, but as a material and a space.