Is the future of events virtual? The pressing question drove our last #FrameLive talk. Here are key takeaways from the panel discussion.

With in-person fairs, festivals, summits and exhibitions cancelled or only accessible to small groups during the global pandemic, organizers have been quick to digitize their offering. But while digitization has increased the reach of such events, it has also reduced their immersive qualities and ability to build interpersonal relationships. Will it ever be possible to create virtual happenings that are both bigger and better than what they've replaced? And how can the physical and digital enhance rather than compete with each other?

To learn more about the future of events, we organized a panel discussion including Frame founder Robert Thiemann, Lara Lesmes and Frederik Hellberg, cofounders of Space Popular, curator and writer Anika Meier for König Galerie, and Bart Veen, founder of the event creation company BART. Together, the panel conversed on what makes a great event, the pros and cons of the virtual worlds which have taken shape this year and how programming will need to develop.

For the Arkdes exhibition Value in the Virtual, Space Popular organized an event to discuss surrounding themes.

Bart Veen called Billie Eilish's Apple Music showcase 'pure magic'.

CREATING CONTEXT AND ACCESSIBLITY

Space Popular cofounder Frederik Hellberg explained that his idea of a strong event is when there is a shared context connecting the space, topic and the people attending. ‘Looking through a monitor and seeing avatars is nowhere near as interactive as engaging with our bodies in space,’ Hellberg pointed out. ‘The doorways through virtual worlds into physical worlds are often very, very narrow and single-directional. You’re either inside the virtual world, or outside of it.’ No matter the content or venue realm, it’s essential that the aforementioned elements ‘sync up’, Hellberg thinks. This is something Bart Veen concurred with, recalling how his experience of watching Billie Eilish’s showcase on Apple Music (with a set designed by Es Devlin), was impactful because there was a ‘certain purpose’ behind the event – that being the forging of connection between viewer and artist.

The doorways through virtual worlds into physical worlds are often very, very narrow and single-directional

With an exhibition for German artist Manuel Rossner, the Berlin-based König Galerie explored how to boost accessibility for these digital audiences. ‘Manuel came up with the idea of making the VR piece available via an app [which we then built],’ explained Anika Meier. ‘The idea was [to question] how art works within the digital realm, and how can people interact with the art. It’s not possible to throw a sculpture around in a gallery space, in real life. [Laughs] People quite enjoyed that. It’s a real jump-and-run exhibition experience. It would not be possible, probably, in a real space – or it would be difficult to build.’

5,000 people came to the gamified opening of a König Galerie show for the work of Thomas Webb, selecting avatars and connecting in an interactive universe.

BART developed a virtual museum for tyre company Vredestein where multiple talks were held upon launch.

DON’T FORGET RELEVANCE AND SPONTANEITY

Before the lockdown, BART was tapped by tyre company Vredestein to create an event that could communicate a new visual identity, product specs and launch with consumers. The team started drafting a concept in a physical venue but soon were tasked with transferring their ideas to the virtual. ‘We started exploring and researching – the whole visual identity focused on “refined by design”,’ said Veen. ‘We asked ourselves a question: where does art belong and where can you enjoy art the most? And the answer was a museum, so we said let’s design a museum. Our goal was to not let it feel like a commercial event, but an experience. So we had three speakers to share different perspectives of the consequences of COVID: the CEO to make it really personal, a London-based auto journalist who gave the perspective of a consumer and the new role of a car and Daan Roosegaarde, who gave his vision on the role of a design in a new world. That gave some relevance to the event as well.’

König Galerie’s second digital show, with artist Thomas Webb, took the shape of a 2D multi-player game. Over 5,000 people came to the opening, immersing themselves (in avatar form) in the gamified world comprising bars, clubs (even a re-creation of the notoriously inaccessible Berghain, which players have to queue for – only to be denied by the gatekeeper) and the gallery of course. ‘The thing was to really replicate the spontaneity of the world pre-COVID but online,’ explained Meier. ‘People can go and dance, there are DJs playing live music. It shows a different way of presenting digital art online.’

This is what people are interested in in the age of social media – to interact with [content] and to experience it

To this Thiemann questioned whether the next step is for art itself to become gamified. ‘I don’t think for art in general – maybe for digital art,’ responded Meier. ‘When people go to a museum, they know to stand in front of a painting or sculpture or a big installation. They take selfies, and share the photos on Instagram. So people are sort of used to putting themselves in relation to artworks. I think this is what people are interested in in the age of social media – to interact with art and to experience it. That’s more easily translated online with digital art, but I don’t think the work should move online. It’s just for a younger generation of artists who grew up on social media, who grew up on the Internet. They want to use those spaces in new ways.’

Lesmes and Hellberg created a virtual world for Lesmes' niece to safely celebrate her sixth birthday, a digital party which took place amid the early days of the virus in early April. 'Kids may hold the key for the future,' said Lesmes. 'Seeing [possibilities] that for [adults], are a little harder to see.'

AND WHATEVER YOU DO, CONNECTION IS KEY

Lara Lesmes believes that the haptic and visual must be seen with equal importance. ‘Whatever we see through the screen is a still experience with a physical body that is maybe sitting on a chair, or standing up with a headset on, or holding a phone somewhere on the street,’ she reflected. ‘Understanding where [the event] is experienced from is what’s crucial. The bridge will be the future, and it is really not until we acknowledge that and start building for that that we will really explore the full potential [of virtual events].’ Take Space Popular’s virtual RIBA exhibition Freestyle, for example. Opened physically just a few days before London locked down, the event was quickly adjusted to the virtual realm using the Mozilla Hubs platform.

Events should always continue to embrace a connection – an awareness of the physical – even if the physical is people’s homes

Lesmes explained that the platform – which allows one to ‘host virtual spaces directly on websites accessible via browser from almost any device’ – and its capability to enable spatial audio (microphone noise can follow a visitor’s avatar) were two major contributions to the exhibition’s success. On the latter: ‘What that creates is the possibility for having side conversations – for facing somebody even if you look really abstract. It brings in body language to a certain extent.’ ‘We think there are many ways for this to evolve and for exhibitions to reach locations that are beyond the gallery. But we think they should always continue to embrace a connection – an awareness of the physical – even if the physical is people’s homes.’

‘We really think it’s really always about human togetherness and that connection,’ said Hellberg. ‘The medium is much more secondary. The technology itself is often hampered by the fact that it doesn’t have the output or the need. If humans aren’t there to try and connect, it won’t evolve.’

Hero image: 'The challenge – which is something that I think we all have in common – is thinking about this transformation of looking at the physical to understand what might happen in the virtual,' said Hellberg in reference to the RIBA exhibition Freestyle.

WATCH THE FULL TALK HERE: