At the end of March, when the galleries switched off their projectors, unplugged their speakers, and left their paintings and sculptures to linger silently in the dark as they locked the doors indefinitely, everything had to be transferred online. But how did this transfer work?
While it was abundantly clear that the gallery couldn’t be replaced outright – some online exhibitions could be mistaken for appearing to offer exactly that replacement. For most galleries, the approach to lockdown was to defer the issue; the usual PR imagery and videos were put into accelerated production, giving followers and readers constant reminders of what will be available when everything blows over.
Other galleries, notably Frith Street Gallery with their exhibition of Massimo Bartolini, and DUVE Gallery, Berlin with their exhibition Somewhere In-Between, opted for the full transfer – a process provided by Matterport which takes 360-degree images of the space from various points around the gallery, and maps them onto a rudimentary 3-dimensional mesh (constructed using photogrammetry – the mapping of images onto a 3-dimensional surface to produce a model reproduction). The result is a recognisable Virtual Reality (VR), using the same kind of technology which powers Google Street View which, along with Google Earth, has defined the way we can explore spaces when going there physically isn’t an option. Given that this approach is an already learned language (most of us having, at some point, half-hopped, half-zoomed our way down Street View looking for where we’re going later), it seems that the production of a VR show in this way – an approximation of the physical space for all intents and purposes – is the logical approach; but the apparent logic of this decision is exactly what is in need of discussion.
Somewhere In-Between at DUVE Gallery, Berlin – an exhibition of work by Cathrin Hoffmann and Liam Fallon – stemmed from discussions of the Dyad, or relationships that exist in a state of binary opposition – push and pull. By transferring the show into a VR format, this opposition is extended into the structure of the online space. There is an odd dual relationship between the photogrammetric mesh and the navigable 360-degree images – the former being a sort of ghostly apparition of the latter, with the tangibility of the space lying somewhere ‘in-between’ the two. We are then left to imagine the gallery as it is now – quiet and empty – forming the third part of this new conversation, where this imagined physical space becomes perhaps more of a phantom than the ghostly mesh that floats in a dark void.
Through the VR navigation of Massimo Bartolini’s Credits at Frith Street Gallery – via the same combination of photogrammetric mesh and 360-degree image – the third space (the physical space) is mentally constructed in a similar manner. Initially, the space is silent, but as we are made aware of the sounds coming from the video and sculptural works, our understanding of the space becomes a composition of various imagined elements. This sense of construction is also evident in the earthy clods that form the installation Grotoni e Malocchi – physical lumps of stuff with a primordially powerful sense of real and tangible materiality, now existing in a state in-between a 3-dimensional mesh and a series of images at various angles.
While these VR tools are powerful in their own right, it is clear that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the duplication of the gallery into an online space. In Bartolini’s case – an artist whose work ‘changes space and our experience of it’ and ‘acknowledges [...] the processes by which it was made’ (Frith Street Gallery press release) – this new digital space isn’t a duplication, but is rather the opening up of an extended existence for the work.
The artist Elizabeth Peyton has taken the online exhibition to an entirely new area which takes a self- aware approach to the most staple gesture of internet use – the scroll. Her show Eternal Return, which alludes to ideas of reincarnation as well as the paragraph return or pilcrow symbol ¶, presents itself as a seemingly endless reel of images which fade in, fade out, zoom, and superimpose onto one another as the user scrolls down. Peyton approaches the task of an online exhibition using the functions of online applications as a starting point, rather than the transfer of material from a physical space.
It might seem that navigating VR spaces is a natural mechanism for an online exhibition, however, it is also important to consider the normalisation of this kind of technology as a result of the prevalence of Google Street View. As a mode of display, VR of this kind opens up countless questions; Street View itself has frequently been the subject of artistic enquiry (notably Jon Rafman’s Nine Eyes of Google Street View). The use of this technology is an understandable and inevitable reaction to the harsh shift from physical to online and is undeniably filled with potential for re-imagining the process of making an exhibition. However, as a duplication of a physical space, a strange distance is opened up in which a half-computer-generated, half-photographic model floats in an in-between space – a dark void.