Once the struggling sidekicks to their physical counterparts, exhibitions held in cyberspace have been forced to the foreground thanks to stay-at-home orders. But are we – and the necessary technologies – ready for the revolution?

When COVID-19 forced the world into lockdown, almost everything moved (more) online. Team meetings, yoga classes, concerts. No longer able to welcome guests onto their physical sites, industries across the board had to rely on website visits instead. ‘We are in the midst of a new digital revolution, yanked kicking and screaming by COVID-19 into a new reality,’ writes Lenox Mhlanga for Zimbabwean newspaper The Standard. ‘Where innovations such as virtual reality were relegated to a new breed of digital nerds, there is a mad scramble by mainstream organisations to adapt and play catch-up.’

Enter the explosion of virtual/online exhibitions. Some have gone so far as to call them virtual reality exhibitions, even if what appears is no more than a click-through website – no headset in sight. The latter is understandable, given how few homes actually own a VR headset. Despite the technology becoming more accessible and reports of the industry’s rapid growth – the market size of consumer virtual reality hardware and software is projected to increase from $6.2 billion in 2019 to more than $16 billion by 2022 (Statista) – it’s likely that most at-home usage is by gamers. According to TechJury, 70 per cent of VR headset-owning consumers have bought a game on it. In an article for The New York Times, Kevin Roose predicted that virtual escapism would be perfect for a pandemic, only to conclude that ‘outside of gaming, there isn’t much you can do on a V.R. headset that you can’t do more easily on another device’. That’s because the technology is still very much in its infancy – or as Fredrik Hellberg of Space Popular describes it, ‘we’re at the fax machine stage. It’s still so basic, expensive, inaccessible. We’ll look back on this period later and think it’s hilarious we had to wear these big clunky headsets.’

Freestyle: Architectural Adventures in Mass Media Just prior to the UK lockdown, Space Popular had designed the first virtual reality exhibition for the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Visitors to Freestyle: Architectural Adventures in Mass Media donned headsets to watch a morphing black maquette track 500 years of architecture history. Forced to close in the midst of the pandemic, RIBA commissioned Space Popular to move the exhibition online. RIBA head of exhibitions and interpretation, Marie Bak Mortensen, praised Space Popular for not falling into ‘the default position of creating an online exhibition that mimicked the Architecture Gallery at RIBA. They created a new virtual interior that enhanced the online opportunities, making a seamless connection between the artefacts in the exhibition and virtual reality.’
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Holding an exhibition in cyberspace is not exactly a brand-new concept. David Zwirner Gallery, for example, opened online rooms in 2017, the same year as the launch of the online-only Universal Museum of Art. But as has been the case in other industries – retail, hospitality and offices being prime examples (see more on this in Frame 135) – the crisis has accelerated the adoption of existing ideas by both providers and consumers. David Zwirner Gallery is evidence of the latter, with David Zwirner Online experiencing increased traffic during lockdown. Similarly, Seoul’s Savina Museum of Contemporary Art – which in 2012 became one of the first museums in South Korea to offer VR exhibitions – has seen visitor numbers to its digital offerings increase almost tenfold since the coronavirus outbreak.

Some took to social media instead, capitalizing on the immediacy and reach of platforms such as Instagram. Around five weeks after authorities in China first sent Wuhan and other cities in the Hubei Province into lockdown, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage decided to provide the housebound population with some cultural sustenance. It rallied museums around the country to launch virtual exhibitions on existing digital platforms such as Weibo. As reported in March by the China Global Television Network, ‘according to preliminary statistics, more than 1,300 museums have exhibited more than 2,000 items online through websites, Weibo and WeChat’. The article stated that Weibo has become an important platform for online museum visiting, and the official Weibo of museums at all levels has been used to push online exhibitions. The UK lockdown was announced on 23 March. That very same evening, an artist liaison at a London gallery (who wishes to remain unnamed) launched @artofsocialdistancing, an Instagram handle showcasing disrupted exhibitions across the globe.

Surprisingly This Rather Works Work by artist Manuel Rossner explores the possibilities of a virtual design language. For Surprisingly This Rather Works – the first exhibition to take place in König Galerie’s virtual space, König Digital – Rossner transformed the brutalist church-turned-Berlin gallery into a gaming environment. ‘Things that are impossible in physical space become possible in the digital environment,’ states the description on the gallery’s website. ‘A treadmill breaks through the floor and the back wall of the nave of St. Agnes. A huge yellow sculpture sprawls like a plant through the stairwell all the way up to the church tower. An amorphous object made up of blue and pink bubbles spreads out beneath the ceiling of
the church.’
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Others saw the opportunity to rework their ideas into a new digital format. Volna, for example, was planning to organize a solo show in Europe before the virus struck. The St Petersburg-based media-arts collective made a quick switch to present the exhibition online, since, according to cofounder Nikita Golyshev, ‘that’s pretty much the only way to visit exhibitions these days’. The team created exhibition spaces and installations using video-game development tools that simulate real-time scenes and lighting effects. Visitors can move freely and choose any observation point, highlighting one clear advantage of the medium. ‘With the help of advanced digital technology, cultural relic images can be clearly displayed from multiple angles, allowing the audience to see some details that cannot be seen at the scene,’ reported Yang Meng for the China Global Television Network. Other benefits include accessibility – 24/7 opening times, no travel limitations – and the ability to avoid queues and crowded spaces. Meng believes these factors enable ‘people to appreciate the cultural relics with more concentration’.

Hiloni Sutaria of Hsc Designs, a design firm in Ahmedabad, India, decided to launch products through what she’s calling ‘India’s first virtual furniture and product design exhibition’. And not just to launch them, but to hopefully help to sell them. ‘Participants have the option to order any pieces,’ she says. ‘They will be able to navigate in a virtual space and to change various aspects of the pieces such as colour, texture and material. With everyone around the world practising social distancing, this is the perfect time for people to experience such an idea. Even though we’re based in India, we could reach a larger audience than would be possible through a physical exhibition. We can also launch a larger selection of products and furniture than might be possible in a physical space. All of our products are and have always been made by locals. The global reach of this furniture line at this time would be an added advantage to our team of craftsmen, who have been the worst affected by the pandemic.’ Sutaria sees the only disadvantage to this strategy being the inability to interact with people – and them being able to physically interact with the furniture. ‘We are also planning to remove this barrier by coming up with a second, more immersive part of this experience.’

Keep Yourself Clean Volna was planning to organize a solo show in Europe before the virus struck. The St Petersburg-based media-arts collective made a swift switch to present the exhibition online, creating exhibition spaces and installations using video-game development tools that simulate real-time scenes and lighting effects. Visitors can move freely and choose any observation point.
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When we think VR immersion, we tend to think headsets. ‘Pre-pandemic, we used brick-and-mortar galleries as spaces to offer access to hardware,’ says Lara Lesmes of Space Popular, whose work straddles the physical and virtual realms. Just prior to the UK lockdown, for instance, Space Popular had designed the first virtual reality exhibition for the

Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA). Visitors to Freestyle: Architectural Adventures in Mass Media donned headsets to watch a morphing black maquette track 500 years of architecture history. Forced to close in the midst of the pandemic, RIBA commissioned Space Popular to move the exhibition online. But with home ownership of headsets so limited, how can you create immersion without them? According to Space Popular, through social interaction. Entering as avatars through a web browser, virtual visitors could meet friends and family in a digital reconstruction of the original gallery interior. The activity of meeting is ‘what makes you feel present in the space’, says Lesmes. ‘Alone, our exhibition might feel slightly more engaging than a traditional website, but the moment someone else appears – even if they don’t talk to you – the experience is heightened.’

Bart Veen, creative director of event production agency Bart, sees things differently. Together with digital agency Ronin, Bart designed online exhibition New Horizons for tyre brand Vredestein after the Geneva International Motor Show and The Tire in Cologne were cancelled. They created their own 3D design museum inspired by the V&A Dundee. But here, interaction with others wasn’t important, says Veen. ‘Our target group wasn’t looking for a collective experience but for an individual brand experience with a clear message and goal. If exhibitions do become more virtual, we would first look into the needs of the target group and see in what ways we can create the collective experience.’

New Horizons Together with digital agency Ronin, event production agency Bart designed online exhibition New Horizons for tyre brand Vredestein after the Geneva International Motor Show and The Tire in Cologne were cancelled. They created their own 3D design museum inspired by the V&A Dundee.
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Whether individual or collective, virtual exhibitions will have to contend with digital attention spans. Think of some Tinder users, who dismiss a potential match in a millisecond. Online exhibitions must immediately captivate their audiences, who need only click the X button for the experience to be over. ‘Our patience and attention span is so different on the internet,’ says Hellberg of Space Popular. ‘If online exhibitions continue, the attention economy gap might be quite big. We’re talking about a similar level of effort to opening Netflix. That will completely change how exhibitions are made virtually.’

In this wide-open world of digital possibilities, much of the output so far mimics elements from the physical world. ‘The virtual world hasn’t really come up with a design language that does it justice,’ said Ray Winkler, CEO of Stufish Entertainment Architects, in our FrameLive talk on post-pandemic event design. ‘It’s interesting to see references [at online events] go back to things like steel trussing, moving lights and circular screens – all of which are in the physical world but not really necessary in the digital world. I think as we get more comfortable with the digital environment and as these technologies and media become second nature . . . a new design language will emerge.’

Work by artist Manuel Rossner explores this very territory. For Surprisingly This Rather Works – the first exhibition to take place in König Galerie’s virtual space, König Digital – Rossner transformed the brutalist church-turned-Berlin gallery into a gaming environment. ‘Things that are impossible in physical space become possible in the digital environment,’ states the description on the gallery’s website. ‘A treadmill breaks through the floor and the back wall of the nave of St. Agnes. A huge yellow sculpture sprawls like a plant through the stairwell all the way up to the church tower. An amorphous object made up of blue and pink bubbles spreads out beneath the ceiling of the church.’ Rossner also explores how interaction could change in this virtual environment: ‘Whereas visitors are typically warned not to touch the artwork, they are now asked to “please interact” . . . [which] also means that the visitor is allowed to knock them over.’

Hsc Designs Exhibition Hiloni Sutaria of Hsc Designs, a design firm in Ahmedabad, India, decided to launch products through what she’s calling ‘India’s first virtual furniture and product design exhibition’. And not just to launch them, but to hopefully help to sell them. ‘Participants have the option to order any pieces,’ she says. ‘They will be able to navigate in a virtual space and to change various aspects of the pieces such as colour, texture and material.’
hsc-designs.com


Hellberg of Space Popular says he’s looking forward to a future where you can’t even imagine what these digital worlds will look like. But for now the studio is operating under the idea that ‘we do everything by understanding the language of objects and environments. Mimicry is often thought of in the West as a negative word, but I disagree. If virtual spaces are places for learning or entertainment, it becomes very limiting if you don’t use things from the physical world. Why are there chairs in virtual worlds? Because sitting down signals a commitment to a social interaction.’ Or, adds Lesmes, they’re arranged around a focal point, signalling where to look. She says the power lies in using clear references, but shifting perhaps one thing to make the outcome surreal.

When galleries across the globe can reopen, the question won’t be digital or physical, but how to capitalize on the power of both. As Christopher Lee, managing director of Populous, summed up during the aforementioned #FrameLive discussion, soon we’ll see the blurring of real live events – which do have to happen somewhere – with digital worlds that enable so many more people to take part. Hundreds of thousands or even millions more can share in that one single event. He feels the current solutions are ‘quite clunky and cartoonish’, but they’re also rapidly evolving. ‘We’re on the edge of some really interesting [virtual] spaces where we can genuinely interact.’


VIRTUAL (REALITY) EXHIBITIONS
Market overview

01 As published on Statista, the VR industry is growing at a fast pace, with the market size of consumer virtual reality hardware and software projected to increase from $6.2 billion in 2019 to more than $16 billion by 2022.

02 It’s likely that most current at-home usage is by gamers. According to TechJury, 70% of VR headset-owning consumers have bought a game on it.

03 Aiming to democratize culture, the online-only Universal Museum of Art (UMA) opened in 2017. Others – such as the Virtual Online Museum of Art (VOMA) – are emerging with a similar ethos.

04 A number of galleries with existing digital viewing rooms saw an increase in visitor numbers during lockdown. For Seoul’s Savina Museum of Contemporary Art – which in 2012 became one of the first museums in South Korea to offer VR exhibitions – the figure was almost ten times higher.

05 Without the spatial constraints of their physical counterparts, digital exhibition environments can show more. According to the U



Hero image: Rossner explores how interaction could change in virtual exhibition spaces: works of art are no longer off limits to the hands of curious visitors.