This essay discusses an increased appearance of participation in digital art projects and problems that emerge with it. The organisation of events with engagement elements is becoming a frequent method of communication and transfer of knowledge between the author and the audience. The practice of inviting people to participate in the development of the art world actively creates in the viewer a sense of belonging and the importance of their presence and opinion. Nevertheless, projects that place social change and the development of a community above visual values are difficult to assess using the same criteria as for traditional art forms like painting or sculpture. It is also uneasy to create a suitable display for both types of audiences: those who actively take part in the project and those who want to experience it after the artwork’s participatory element ends. Virtual space makes these projects more accessible to people from all over the world. The viewer can participate in a 3D curatorial tour of an exhibition located on the other side of the globe or take part in an online discussion. However, this accessibility is frequently faced with the problem of the experience’s quality and the lack of translation from real-world objects into a digital space. They may be affected by the speed of the Internet, the technological equipment owned by the author and the viewer, computing skills or the very fact that the work expected to create a feeling of belonging and power over something takes place on a flat screen of a computer or phone.
This essay is divided into three sections. The first one focuses on how digitalisation creates new opportunities but also limits the art world. The second one examines the reasons for introducing the elements of participation by institutions, artists and curators into the world of art and the problems that emerge with it. The third section considers the increased activity in the use of digital space due to the onset of the pandemic and how the participatory projects face the current situation. As there are many different opinions on what participation in contemporary art exactly is, I would like to state what I will include under this term's umbrella for the purposes of this essay. I will treat every active engagement of the audience in the creative process of a work of art, exhibition or event as a valid resource for this research.
Digitalisation and Art World
Undoubtedly, the most significant advantage of the Internet is that it gives access to an incredible amount of information. These days, digital technology is present in all parts of our lives, including interactions with art. From watching live performances, buying exhibition tickets to reading newsletters from auction houses and investing in NFTs, the global audience takes part in the 24/7 active art world.
Translating the physical, artistic world into the digital one brings many positives. Scanning the exhibition space and creating a three-dimensional model on the gallery’s website allows access to those who, for various reasons, cannot visit it on a site. This way, one can join art events in different parts of the world in just a few clicks. As stated in the Creative People and Places Digital Engagement & Opportunities Research Insights & Recommendations (The Audience Agency, 2019), “Digital experiences are transforming how audiences engage with culture and are driving new forms of cultural participation and practice. As technology advances, so do the behaviours of audiences, especially younger audiences. We are no longer passive receivers of culture; increasingly we expect instant access to all forms of digital content, to interact and give rapid feedback.” Unfortunately, according to the Digital Culture report, in 2017, only 27% considered digital technology essential in distribution and exhibitions, and 25% in 2019. Constantly changing and updating platforms, applications and programmes provide excellent opportunities for creating creative projects. Still, the very limited number of digital participation specialists in artistic organisations slows down the development that is demanded and expected by the audience.
The provision of good quality experiences is not only due to a lack of skills by artists or curators but also due to the advancement of technology available to the audience. Even the newest VR glasses or computers do not allow to experience the texture of artworks in the same way as seeing the physical piece 5 cm away from our noses. The technological differences in equipment impact not only the colours, sharpness or three-dimensionality but also sound. Moreover, during the planning and production process, only a small number of artists consider how their pieces may look in the digital space. And these are just problems related to works of art intended mainly for their passive consumption. It is much easier to scan and upload them to a computer but transferring a participatory project into virtual space is often simply impossible. This is because we are dealing with the issue of delivering strongly physical experiences through flat screens. However, giving up a very container-like form of presentation, whether that’s Instagram’s grid made of square images or white cube gallery’s aesthetic, in favour of a panel discussion is one of the ways to deal with the problem of displaying participatory artwork.
In the late 2010s and early 2020s, museums and galleries placed great emphasis on inclusiveness; however, it primarily focuses only on those who are physically capable of visiting their buildings. Despite the constant development of digitisation, a significant proportion of artistic organisations still limit the quality and quantity of information provided on their websites and social media. As stated in the Digital Culture 2017 report, ‘Almost all organisations still regard digital technology as essential or important to marketing, but there have been significant declines in the proportion that see digital as important to preserving and archiving, operations, creation, and distribution and exhibition’. The report shows that the main reasons for that are the lack of financial resources and an insufficient number of employees with appropriate skills.
Despite the frequent lack of advanced digital skills, in contrast to projects in physical spaces, online ones create a feeling of comfort. Engaging through a phone or laptop guarantees a sense of security as the participant is not exposed to the gaze of others. It allows one to freely express opinions and engage without being judged. Still, it may also create a feeling of isolation and enable the participant to identify as a part of the audience. Projects in which the participants do not receive any personal feedback or don't see the effects of their engagement often change the initially active approach into a passive embrace of the virtual experience. From the virtual art project author’s point of view, who mostly can only see the number of visitors and not their present bodies, the audience is created by anonymous online users. For the same reason, the audience does not identify as anything other than the ageless, raceless, genderless, virtual recipient.
The definite increase of accessibility to the art through the development of the digital space does not solve the problems that participatory art projects faced in the physical space. Finding the right way to evaluate and display them remains unresolved.
Participation as a solution and cause of problems
For the past ten to fifteen years, there has been increased inclusion of participation in art organisations' educational and marketing programmes. International access to knowledge and information through the expansion of the Internet, the opening of borders resulting in greater flow of people and the development of anti-discrimination movements contributed significantly. The awareness of global problems and difficulty in understanding contemporary art by the wider public forced museums and galleries to make the provision of artistic sensations more accessible to a diverse audience through applying learning through practice methodology (Peter Ride, 2018).
According to Dutch socially engaged visual artist and curator Jeanne van Heeswijk, the reason for participation becoming a large part of the artists’ practice is that the audience's needs of visual consumption are mainly being satisfied by the commercial world. Varied in style, shapes, forms and colours, everyday objects are mass-produced, allowing everyone to surround themselves with beautiful things for a low price. That is part of why artists started exploring new ways of attracting viewers and expressing themselves beyond visual limitations. There is a need to separate artistic sensations from everyday life once again and offer something new– a sense of belonging, participation, or even handing the power over the artwork to the audience.
Another process that is now entering the technological age and influencing changes in the presentation of a work of art was the fact that the materialized art object lost its importance due to the development of dematerialized art (Lucy Lippard, 1973). As a result, the exhibition's creative process and thematic narrative became more significant, along with the growing importance of the curator’s position. It caused a tendency to abandon the creation of exhibitions to solely achieve a passive admiration of artworks. Willingness not only to pay attention to social, political and ecological problems but also to find solutions to them encourage curators to establish a dialogue with the audience and treat them as co-creators or inseparable parts of the work. To truly make a difference in the world, curators started giving a voice to people touched by these problems and collaborating with them. Nevertheless, involving the audience in the creative process has generated new issues and confusion in assessing the success of an artwork.
As the commonly used criteria for judging art used to be primarily based on visual qualities, it is challenging for audiences to access the ideas in artworks without something physical and material to connect to. Participatory art consists of works that aim to help people but also those that exist only to let the audience experience new things, for example, through play. No matter how different these artworks are from each other, people are the medium. However, it raises the question: How do you judge the success of such a work of art? Should we do it by counting the number of people who took part in it or maybe by efficiency on the quality of the viewer's life or well-being?
Another conversation about participatory projects touches on who is officially credited as a (co)creator and the identification of different forms of participation. Unlike the end credits of films where everyone who worked in the creation process is included, publicly available documents of an exhibition or art even credit only artists, curators and institutions. Most participatory projects do not include all contributors, even if they wouldn't exist without members of the public. This relates to Carole Pateman’s (1970) proposal to divide participation into three ways: full, partial and pseudo. The author points out that art institutions are not likely to implement full participation. They use it to create an illusion of the viewer’s power over what's happening in the project but limit the freedom to make decisions according to this institution’s rules.
Just like participation, we can divide the audience into the one that takes part in the project and the one that only learns about the project from visiting the summary exhibition. It creates a problem of finding an appropriate language and form of display for both groups. In the “Participation and Spectacle: Where Are We Now” talk, Claire Bishop states that due to the frequent rejection of the visual aspects by participatory artists, curators are very often forced to work with a minimal amount of documentation and bad quality photos. Therefore, they often choose a discussion panel with the artist rather than a traditional exhibition to create a conversation and so that the author could answer all the questions that the audience may have.
Even though the work of an art curator mainly takes place in the physical space of an exhibition or organisation, more and more often, their skills to connect things, themes, artworks, and create narratives are used in the virtual world. In the era of ubiquitous Internet, a significant part of the curator’s role is to consider how much and what information should appear on the organisation’s website and social media and in what way. With the onset of the pandemic, the entire art world faced a fait accompli. There was no other option than to completely go online.
On the threshold of a new era
The pandemic ended conversations about whether it is worth investing in developing public accessibility to art via the Internet. All the physical sites were closed, thus depriving institutions and artists of a huge part of the audience. Museums and galleries were forced to increase their activity in the virtual space, focusing not only on marketing measures but also on the development of curatorial projects that would speak to an even more diverse audience. The question:Should we value the accessibility to art through the digital world over its quality? changed into How do we provide the audience with what we have?
One of the online projects that tried to bring back the excitement of participating in art projects and community building after the onset of the pandemic was the Dispensary Gallery. Since June 2020, this research lead art gallery, run by two curators, Chloe Goodwin and Ryan Saunders, offers a space for emerging artists to promote their practices, network with other creatives and open conversations about studio practice, the physicality of the art, the notion of the site and many more. They initially focused on bringing the global virtual audience closer to emerging artists who lost opportunities for exhibiting their works in physical spaces due to the onset of the pandemic. By creating a series of interviews, a website page for each artist they worked with and organising group chats, they managed to create a real sense of community between their followers. Each topic or project presented on their Instagram was visually separated by new posts’ designs and fonts. Despite significantly different styles, the grid of their account did not seem chaotic but welcoming and inviting to take part in the debate. Unfortunately, as this project developed, the founders realised that they were putting a lot more effort into fitting Instagram's algorithm and WordPress publishing limitation than getting visible results in promoting contemporary art. The curators decided to focus on creating valuable content and developing started debates rather than following social media requirements regarding frequent and regular publishing to gain more prominent visibility.
Mariana Lind (2009) debated, [is curatorial] a way of linking objects, images, processes, people, locations, histories and discourses in physical space? An endeavor that encourages you to start from the artwork but not stay there, to think with it but also away from and against it? Chloe Goodman and Ryan Saunders proved that participation and experiencing togetherness don’t have to happen face to face. The Dispensary Gallery is one of the very few projects that made the documentation of the progress available to all audience types. On their website and Instagram, the viewer can read curators thoughts on various topics and join the conversation in the comments section, find information about the artists they collaborated with, watch full interviews and even have a glimpse of their Zoom meetings. Thanks to that, not only participants but also one-time visitors can get a sense of this project’s purpose and curators' aims.
Nevertheless, the project lasts too short to assess its success unequivocally. The Dispensary Gallery was created in a virtual space due to the onset of the pandemic, the increasing need for cooperation and mutual support between artists and curators and insufficient venues that exhibit and promote emerging artists with a personal approach, especially in the virtual space. Therefore, to assess the effectiveness of the Dispensary Gallery, I would suggest taking into account the relationships and mutual support that have arisen between the participants of the community created around the gallery, the creativity and diversity in the use of various styles and graphics to present artists, debates and projects and the accessibility to information that is offered to active participants and passive followers.
Participatory projects on the Internet face the same problems as those in physical space. The issue of finding an appropriate form of evaluating works of art that often reject visual values or the lack of proper documentation expands even more in the purely visual online world, whose users expect to have access to all information at any time. Unexperienced and unfamiliar with the digital possibilities, artists and curators are often discouraged from developing creative projects. Another aspect that slows down the development of virtual exhibition-making and art creation and impacts the quality of experience is the limitation of memory space, image sizes or film length on the available to everyone, free applications and platforms.
The pandemic has reduced many doubts about the importance of using virtual space to create relationships with the audience and not only for marketing purposes. The involvement in participatory projects through the use of computers or phone develops a sense of comfort but may also isolate the participants as they cannot experience each other’s physicality. However, the Dispensary Gallery shows that it is possible to experience togetherness in a virtual world through a personal approach to the other person and mutual support, the same as in the physical world. A significant advantage of transferring almost all public activities online during the pandemic was the creation of greater accessibility for the audience to still take part in exhibitions, open studios, talks or debates. It saved many organisations from bankruptcy and allowed many people, isolated in their apartments, to participate actively in society. However, only increased cooperation and sharing of information and documentation can cause finding better ways to communicate at a distance, experiencing the emotions associated with participating in art and discovering new possibilities in the virtual world. We have a powerful tool in our hands. Now we just need to learn how to use it.
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