On researching digital-based art
By: Doreen A. Rios
I clearly remember the moment I started developing a personal interest for digital art. It was during a module on Architectural Design, when I was studying the BA, that one of my professors said “paper Architecture isn’t Architecture; neither are digital renderings”. I kept on thinking on why shouldn’t we explore digital renderings as an architectural space, after all, digital tools tend to shape the final outcome as well as to provide an appropriate field for experimentation that couldn’t be possible any other way.
One thing lead to another and I became particularly interested in the digital practices that challenged physical standards by creating artwork within the web. And, following Peter Lunenfeld, I became convinced that the internet is the first serious contender of Architecture, where developers, artists and public in general have created places to go, places to see, places to interact and even places to appreciate art.
This whole idea seems quite abstract in terms of defining what does it mean to go digital, however digital art is commonly defined as art made and/or presented using digital technology and it has many faces: from Hacktivism, passing through Net-art and all the way to Data visualization.
In this essay I will address specifically digital-based art, by which I mean art that has been created to live inside the web and that finds its way through online sharing and virtual galleries/museums, and critically analyse which set of methods of research are the most suitable to determine the impact and success of exhibitions regarding this practices.
Digital art can be defined as all the artistic practices that use any kind of digital tools for being made or presented in an exhibition space, this means, a big part of the artwork that has been made after the Second World War. According to Christiane Paul, new media curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, it was during the early 80’s that the concept of digital art gained strength through the artwork of practitioners such as Harold Cohen and Kenneth Snelson. However, artists have been experimenting with technological tools since the early 50’s with the work of various pioneers such as artist and mathematician Ben Laposky.
It is clear: ever since the moment where we started approaching technology on a daily-basis, artistic practices have increasingly become closer to tech until the point where we can see them totally merged in the contemporary art circuit. This idea feels particularly familiar inside the statement of artist Allan Kaprow who affirmed that there are only two types of artists: those who wake up and do art and those who continuously ask “what could art be?”. Digital artists tend to be the second type, because with the use of technological tools they try to reinvent art by creating new discourses and this is what interests me the most as a curator.
Digital art takes many forms and it doesn’t respond to a single technique, for this particular essay I will address only those that are fully digital-based and can be inserted into the following forms: hacktivism, browser art, software art, hypermedia/hypertext art, ASCII code, identity artivism, cyber-performance, social network art, programming, video, gif, augmented reality, virtual reality and data visualization.
Space is a very broad concept which can refer to the Universe itself or a fragment of condensed measurements. However, for the purpose of this essay I will define this term under the architectural logic of Louis I. Kahn, who once said that "Architecture is the thoughtful making of space. The continual renewal of architecture comes from the changing concepts of space." By which I conclude that space refers to the three-dimensional land that’s being enclosed by the usage of Architecture; in that sense, Architecture is the creation of space within space.
Nowadays we find ourselves living through the fine line between the online and the offline spaces, which can be understood as the physical 3D places we inhabit daily, such as our house, school and city we live in, and those that we can only inhabit as virtual entities, such as social media, online communities and the web in general. I subscribe to Nathan Jurgenson’s idea that both – online and offline life – are equally real because whatever we do or say inside them, has consequences that affect us directly and can even affect others surrounding us. Online and offline life are complementary.
I am specifically interested in developing a thoughtful exhibition regarding digital-based practices and to do so I will need to research the various ways of putting together an exhibition with these characteristics. Perhaps one of the main questions would be: which is the ideal space for a show like this to happen? Is it online, offline or both? And why?
The answer to these questions will define the rest of the curatorial approach for the show since the requirements for setting up and exhibition online and offline vary a lot.
It is important to approach these curatorial issues surrounding digital-based artworks because art seems to be deeply growing in these areas. Curators should be able to engage with this conversation and propose intelligent solutions that are beneficial for the display of this type of artworks as well as creating valuable experiences for the audience.The curator is a translator between the artist and the spectator, therefore, he/she must be able to develop exhibitions that enhance the dialogue between them.
To solve these questions and start developing the exhibition proposal for my final project I will research various solutions that have been given to digital-based artwork inside exhibition spaces.
To develop my final project’s research methodology, I decided that it is important to research both: qualitative and quantitative aspects to be able to map out the environment that surrounds digital-based art exhibitions. To do this I chose to follow Hito Steyerl’s research pattern by dividing the investigation into three areas: people and social media, artwork engagement and further dialogue after the exhibition.
To make the research approachable I will pick three samples of the same category: an online exhibition, an offline exhibition and an online/offline exhibition. To do so I will look for the leading institutions developing this kind of shows such as The Whitney Museum of American Art, Panther Modern, Whitechapel Gallery, O-Fluxo, Barbican Centre, Institution of Contemporary Arts London, TRANSFER gallery, Vngravity, 15 folds gallery and offspace.xyz and pick the samples from their ongoing digital-based art exhibitions.
For the first category – people and social media – I am particularly interested in knowing rough data, I will choose a quantitative method and pick three days as examples to conduct the research. I will use a survey to know how many people goes inside the exhibition and how much time they spend in it. Since the online exhibition survey can become difficult to keep up with, especially because I can’t actually see and interact with the people who are going in and out, I will need to partner up with the gallery and ask them to share their web analytics results with me. Afterwards, I will put up the results inside a data visualization platform – such as Graph Commons – to filter the results and obtain data regarding the footfall as well as the average time of visit, this statistical analysis will help me evaluate the success of the shows.
As for the quantification of the media interaction I will gather the data of likes, comments and interactions available in their Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – since these are the most used social platforms – as well as using Google analytics to look for magazine articles, newspapers and other art websites sharing information regarding the exhibitions. To do this I will become a direct observant of their social media during the week of the opening.
The cons of using a survey as the key method to gain data on the footfall and time spent inside the exhibitions are that it is possible that the results depend a lot on the days I choose to conduct the research and might not be 100% accurate. It might be a problem for me to ask for the web analytics results of the online galleries because if the exhibitions are not as successful as they planned then sharing the results could be inconvenient for them. Also, to perform the surveys I’d need help from a couple of people so I don’t miss any spectator and I will probably need to ask the gallery for permission to conduct them, as well as being faced with the fact that some people might not be interested in participating in the survey, which could make it hard to obtain ideal results. As for the direct observation of the institution’s social media I will have to develop a strategy for interpreting the level of interest depending on the results, by this I mean that I will have to create a numerical system to evaluate likes, comments, shares, retweets, etc. since they don’t mean the same thing in terms of involvement with the exhibition.
For the second category – artwork engagement – I will use the same three-day sample to conduct the research method with the difference that this time I will focus on a qualitative approximation. In this case I believe the unstructured interview is the best method because it will allow me to approach key points of the research without missing out on details I might not be aware of. By this I mean that I will have a direct interaction with individuals selected at random, and approach them with some initial guiding questions on how they interacted with the artwork and how did the curatorial decisions helped to do so. I will keep an open dialogue with the people selected so I can move freely and explore the topic in a broader way. The online exhibition research will have to be made via Skype since a lot of the spectators might live in other cities. However, the method will remain the same by creating an individual dialogue with each of the chosen spectators. The level of involvement can be a difficult thing to measure in terms of how did the audience approached the artworks and which curatorial methods worked better, having this in mind the initial questions will set the ground for debating the arrange of the exhibition as well as pointing out the strengths and weaknesses of each show.
The issues of using an unstructured interview to investigate the artwork engagement is that the initial questions will set out the tone of the whole dialogue, so if they are not properly performed the whole conversation might be compromised. Also, it might be difficult to put into words the relation and engagement the spectators had with the artworks. If the participants are not familiar with the terminology surrounding curatorial studies and digital-based art a lot of the content of their answers might get lost in translation. Moreover, the results could point into diverse directions which might become hard to interpret once it comes the time of creating conclusions.
For the third category – further dialogue after the exhibition – I will need to wait until the exhibitions are over to perform the investigation. To do this I will use the participant observation method where I will submerge into the exhibition spaces after the exhibitions took place for me to see If there’s a need of the audience to create further dialogue. I will have to collect the available archive and documentation of the exhibition such as catalogues, books, videos, after movies, etc. and actively look for events regarding the exhibition such as symposiums or lectures where the curators, gestors and artists are invited to give a deeper view on the show. Furthermore, I will develop a focus group with participants selected at random of such events to gain data through debates and interactive dynamic between participants (Morgan, 2003), with the intention of making conclusions on the curatorial approach of the exhibitions as well as gathering the opinions of how spectators feel that digital-based art should be exhibited and why.
The probable causes of failure while conducting this research using the participant observation method is that it might be hard to keep up with all the activities surrounding the exhibitions, especially if they overlap, and to measure the feedback and impact is also very subjective since I’d have to choose a specific group of people to see the impact it had on them. Since I’m interested in a local social impact, this could be hard to understand in terms of importance because in most of the cases time is the only tool that helps create an efficient map on how an exhibition impacted a society. Therefore, the best solution might be to select past exhibitions and conduct the research on them but, since the online galleries are quite new – with about a decade of activity – and tend to be approached by a very specific type of audience – mostly people under 35, interested in digital arts who are also proficient in surfing through the internet – the audience will vary a lot and won’t be 100% useful in terms of mapping out a whole community. As for the focus group the issues are similar but the solution for it is not as simple because it might be very difficult to track down people who attended key exhibitions that took place a while ago and even if I could find a decent number of people to conduct the focus group there’s a chance that they won’t remember in detail the exhibitions and the curatorial approach of them. Moreover, if I decided to choose a recent exhibition for performing the focus group then the first part of the research – the observation of the activities and archive of the exhibitions – wouldn’t match the results of the focus group and could become useless for the objectives of the investigation.
I believe that by dividing the research into three l areas it will be easier to conduct it.
As for the first category – people and media – the methods will only be useful if I manage to get permission from the galleries to gather them, reason why it can be quite hard for me to obtain these data. Therefore, the solution could be to partner up with smaller more
approachable institutions than the ones I previously proposed. For the direct observation of social media I think everything can be easily sorted out once I develop an efficient scale for measuring the interactions held inside them; the second category – artwork engagement – can be successfully covered by performing the unstructured interviews because with a carefully planned guide of initial questions the only issue I might have is to sort out the size of the group of people I will interview; for the third area – further dialogue after the exhibition – I believe it will be useful to only conduct the focus group, without keeping myself informed about the events surrounding the exhibitions, because this way I can be part of a deep group dialogue where I’m sure I will find vital information for the developing of my final project.
In conclusion, I have decided to focus my final project in the curation of digital-based artworks in terms of the usage of space – online or offline – by creating an effective strategy that’s appealing, engaging and enhancing. The central topics of my final project are digital-based art and its relation with the exhibition space as well as how it connects with the audience depending on the curatorial decisions.
To do this I have developed a research methodology which will help me make important decisions for the curatorial approach I will give to my project. I have also pointed out the issues I might have with the methods proposed and how to solve them, in order to gather the most essential information.
What comes next is to create a proposal, where I will put together my central themes and delimit my area of research so that later on I can rearrange the research strategy analysed in this essay.
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Cover image: Avedon, LaTurbo (2016), Untitled, image viewed December 2016