Early this fall, I went online and reserved my ticket to an exhibition a week in advance. Seven days later confirming my ticket time, I stepped in front of a temperature scanner, slid my bag under a window to be searched and proceeded to have my ticket scanned by a person wearing a face shield. I pumped antibacterial gel into my hand, downloaded a QR scanner app, and was ready to view a show. The entire experience felt strange and disorienting. Upon returning home later that day I went online and clicked back through the show on the museum’s site; the experience felt lighter, less cumbersome. I found myself wondering: should I have just looked at the work online to begin with?
The move to digital exhibition formats has been a long time coming. Online display has taken on many forms, with new ways of connecting and sharing seemingly blossoming overnight. There was always a sense of the next challenge: the transition from online presentations to physical exhibitions. This time, of course, it is different. In the light of a global pandemic, artists, curators, and institutions are turning to the internet to explore new ways of exhibiting online both for the short term as well as the long.
As many trends in the art world go, one size doesn’t necessarily fit all, but a common theme of engagement runs through these formats: relating to and meeting audiences where they are. In thinking of how one, as a photographer, can not only relate to these shifts but also apply them to one’s own work, it is worth looking at their various forms, benefits, and challenges.
AN INDIVIDUAL FLAVOR: THE ARTIST WEBSITE
An artist’s website is the most immediate of an online exhibition, as it can be a blank canvas, free of physical restrictions. Dana Lixenberg’s Imperial Courts, 1993-2015 lives in expanded form online, not only as a photographic body of work but also a documentary film and a space for residents of the social housing project to contribute.
On a looser side, photographer Jason Fulford’s website includes an interactive choose-your-own-adventure rabbithole, 3 Doors. Taking a cue from the game show query of “what’s behind that door?” the viewer can choose from a series of question marks following through a set of photographs, ending up at one of his books or a webpage on Chess moves. Looked at from a distance, the gambit serves as an extension of his photographic style: playful, meandering, clever. This is one of the key benefits of online exhibitions, with lower overhead costs for materials and looser timelines, artists can treat an online exhibition as a space of experimentation and a means of sharing their photographic personalities.
BUILDING A COMMUNITY: THE ONLINE GROUP SHOW
One of the best places to start in showing work online, and broadening your community, is through group shows. This style of exhibition, for an online audience, has been tried and true. Through open calls or open submission policies, group shows provide access to a wealth of editors, curators, and other photographers. In submitting work, it is important to consider where one is sharing it and what it is; in doing the research and submitting targeted, appropriate work one will find more success. The ease in submitting online can cause some photographers to pursue a scattershot approach. From a professional standpoint, this can be a problem, twisting and contorting one’s work to fit any theme is a strategy bound to fail in the long run; truly considering where your work ends up will lead to greater gains in connections and exposure.
There are a number of sites online that provide an entry point, a way of dipping one’s toe in the water to build up from group exhibition to feature. Der Greif is an organization whose manifesto states that they “research subjects affecting the production, distribution, presentation and thus our perception of photographic images – on screens, in print as well as in exhibitions.” Through a program called Guest Room, they host monthly open submission exhibitions around a theme curated by industry professionals. It is important to look at these opportunities with a wide lens; it may lead to a spot in a group exhibition but it also has the possibility to put the artist on the radar of industry decision-makers or create a reason to reach out later on.
AN ENDLESS REACH: THE ONLINE EXHIBITION
For gallerists and curators, the online show has some fundamental benefits: it offers a reach that a physical exhibition can not. The cost of shipping, installation, on site insurance can all be minimized—if not completely canceled—when work is not being transported. They can also be ways of discovering new talent, in a synthesized, organized form.
Smaller, independent spaces have been experimenting online for a number of years. PHmuseum is a curated online platform for contemporary photography. The selection for shows, according to curator Rocco Venezia, varies. “Most of the time it is a joint effort between us at PHmuseum and the invited curators, and other times we present shows which were already existing in other forms as is the case for Hunger, a collaboration on a very dynamic publishing initiative proposed by VOID, or a collaboration we are working on with International Women’s Media Foundation which will be presented in January.” In their current exhibition, Erratic Dream, they partnered with PannaFoto Institute to present the works of ten photographers documenting South and South-East Asia in times of monumental change.
Venezia notes, “Having an online show can help artists reach a large, new and diverse audience, taking advantage of the host’s network and its partners.” The ability to reach beyond one’s own network, into another more established one, is a huge plus. Portfolio drops, reviews, and mailers are all ways of sharing work but for an editor searching for someone to cover something in South Asia, seeing a corresponding body of work on a noted platform is more likely than simply finding an individual’s website.
A CURATED EXPERIENCE: THE VIEWING ROOM
A viewing room is a smaller physical space within a gallery where a limited number of selected artworks are displayed. Its purpose is to provide privacy and highlight one or a few artworks for sale. An online viewing room often has the same quality of ‘focus’ presenting one or two artists only.
Zeit Contemporary has recently showcased the work of two artists, Res and Bryson Rand. The World Within: Photography and Interiority features works made by the artists in isolation, during the first lockdowns of the Covid-19 pandemic. The works’ themes fit the concept of a viewing room, one feels ushered into a quieter space, to look in detail. In speaking to Res about the experience, they told me, “In one way it’s kind of special to think that your work is literally going into the same space of intimacy that it was created from…my apartment to the viewers. The question is how do you slow that space down? How do you let the work take up its own space? Ideally you’re hoping for the work to create a kind of intimacy and connection with anyone who is viewing it. I think the choice to limit the amount of images was good in that way, so that if you’re going to look at it then you might as well put the time into looking at the few images that are in front of you instead of craving the thousands that we are accustomed to in our regular image appetite.”
AN EXPANDED VIEW: THE ONLINE MUSEUM EXHIBITION
On the other end of the spectrum, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, even though it has reopened to visitors, has a robust online exhibition and programming arm, offering videos, curatorial talks, and virtual views.
For this year’s edition of their celebrated series, New Photography, the entire exhibition Companion Pieces, debuted online. Each week the museum released a new feature via Magazine, their online publication as a special, in depth focus on one of the artists within the show. The features included slideshows, artist-curator interviews, and the artists discussing particular pieces in the show. In one, artist Dionne Lee discusses her research on the North Star and the difference between magnetic North and True North.
One of the strengths of online exhibitions is this ability to include additional material. In working within a week-by-week format, the museum created a hook—they told viewers to come back for more. With this format, anticipation was built in, separating these photographs from the mass of images online. In the way that a gallery exhibition puts emphasis on a press preview and an opening, here the show created multiple openings or perhaps more adroitly, multiple deepenings of the work. In pitching an online show, photographers should consider programming, to extend the reach and depth of their exhibition.
A LIVELY, INCLUSIVE PROGRAM: THE ONLINE PHOTO FESTIVAL
A photo festival in its essence is a celebration, a reason to travel, to fuse the local and the global. Aliyu L Abdu, Director of Heritage, Monuments, and Sites for the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Abuja, Nigeria, wrote of the initiative that Home Museum, fashioned through an open call is “the future of museums without walls or barriers, the new inclusive museums co-created by the public.”
From an audience’s perspective, online exhibitions offer the chance for the work to become much more accessible. Pandemic-necessary lockdowns have shuttered museums and galleries around the world or have forced them into shorter hours, limited capacity, and reservation systems—but the benefits of migrating online extend beyond our current situation. There are many who simply cannot afford hefty museum admissions, whose schedules do not fit those of a gallery, who geographically are not close to institutions but value them, or others to whom for multiple reasons a trip to the museum is an issue of accessibility and highlights the many ways in which the cultural fields need to change. As the curators, Clémentine Deliss and Azu Nwagbogu, note, “Home Museum will grow in scope and scale, transforming into a digital museum of the commons, a space for sharing and dialoguing, a visual library for the arts of the twenty-first century.”
MAKING AN EFFORT: THE ARTIST’S RESPONSIBILITY
For artists this can be seen as a motivator, an online exhibition has a more fluid form than one in a physical space. There is more ability to enliven the work. There are more diverse, broad audiences to connect with as well as more targeted audiences. Curators, editors, and gallerists can browse through these exhibitions, often more easily than simply finding an individual photographer’s website out of the blue.
Glenn Ruga, of Social Documentary Network, points this out, saying, “Online exhibits can reach a global audience and in great numbers. Not that they will, and often they don’t, but potentially they can.” This of course relates to one of the challenges of online exhibitions; just because you put something out there doesn’t mean it will be found. Photographers can benefit from the network of the organization but they must bring their own audience as well as reach out to desired contacts. The internet is endless and photographers need to be prepared to help guide their audience to their work.
Ruga also warns against a complacency around online shows, and the need to not think of them as somehow less important or professional than a physical exhibition, saying of photographers “their work will gain viewers and recognition in direct proportion to the effort they put into creating the exhibit, editing their images, preparing well-written and edited captions and project descriptions.” As much as there can be a motivation and rush in putting work up online, it can be easy to fall into the trap of underestimating an online exhibition. An artist should consider the exhibition in a similar fashion as a physical one.When does it launch? Is there programming to go alongside, how might that extend the reach? How will the audience hear about it?
NOT JUST AN IN-BETWEEN: EXPERIMENTING WITH FORM
A near universal point that everyone I spoke to agreed upon is the idea that online exhibitions should be deeply considered, not just thought of as some in between space. In advance of proposing an online exhibition photographers should ask themselves why and how they want to show online and what makes sense, what fits the work? There is a propensity to fall back on a slideshow format for ease and familiarity.
Photographers must consider what will set their work apart on the screen.Why this format? Why this particular venue? Michal Iwanowski’s work Go Home Polish, for example, takes the starting point of a journey across Europe as its form. The work is presented on CULTVR’s site as an immersive VR experience, the navigation through the site extends the projects original starting point of movement and migration. This melding of concept, content, and context is an important equation and will make an online exhibition stand out.
At this moment in time, online exhibitions have felt like a welcome respite from the uncertainty of the pandemic. One can still see art and experience where beauty, information, and concept meet. But it would be a shame to think of them solely in this light; now more than ever the future and the present of online exhibitions looks bright.