Analogue Audience/Digital Interfaces

Shwetal A. Patel is a PhD student at Winchester School of Art and a founding member of Kochi-Muziris Biennale. As a founding member of KMB, Patel took a wide ranging role, which involved  research and national and international advocacy duties, including a key initiative between Google Art Project and KMB to bring the biennial experience to internet audiences globally. In this post, Shwetal provides an overview of ‘Analogue Audiences / Digital Interfaces’, a symposium he organised for WSA examining contemporary audiences in the context of galleries and museums. The symposium was held on the 24th November 2015, at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London.

On an overcast drizzly Tuesday afternoon, high up in the Wren Room of the RIBA building in central London, a group of scholars, artists and experts gathered to participate in a symposium titled ‘Analogue Audience / Digital Interfaces‘ in an attempt to better understand our current digitally driven age. Our world today is increasingly one of hyper digital interaction in every conceivable sphere of society. We use our phones, our computers, our tablets, for almost all activities, and technology has become an intractable part of our daily lives. Projections for the numbers of people online are set to grow almost exponentially in the coming decade and there are even plans afoot to provide internet access to the most rural and improvised parts of the globe.
The effect that this might have on art, its production and its appreciation, is something we are only beginning to understand. In order to examine these issue more closely, faculty from Winchester School of Art (WSA) and I gathered some of the most accomplished thinkers and practitioners in this area. Participating WSA faculty included Head of Research, Professor Ryan Bishop, Head of School, Dr. Robert D’Souza, Reader in Critical and Cultural Theory, Dr. Sunil Manghani and the school’s Winchester Gallery curator, August Davis. Invited participants included curator, Hannah Redler, Head of Programmes and Operations at Sedition, Ashley Wong, Programme Manager at Google Cultural Institute, James Davis, artist and poet Robert Montgomery and Tate Modern Director, Chris Dercon.

‘Analogue Audience/Digital Interfaces’ was an attempt by us to discover something of the nature of the consumption, appreciation and understanding of artworks and how this is changed when a digital interface is interposed between artwork and viewer. Our collective intention was to explore the notion of the ever increasing digitisation and dissemination of art in the internet era, and also to explore philosophical and ideological issues and use this as the beginning for a larger discussion of our age. The selection of the speakers and moderators was made so as not to distil pre conceived notions or provide neat  ‘take aways’, but rather to gather a diverse range of voices that could set up important questions and examples of what was going on in the field. Following a brief introduction by myself, Ryan Bishop lay some of the theoretical groundwork for the symposium including the notion that interfaces can be simultaneously productive, alienating and liberating and that machines were increasingly speaking directly to other machines in the current phase of technological advancement. 

The first speaker in the symposium was Hannah Redler, an independent curator talked about a recent project curated by Lucy Dusgate for which Hannah selected key works as one of 5 guest curators. The show, titled Right Here Right Now, is an exhibition of contemporary art engaged in digital culture (Right Here Right Now is open at the Lowry until February 2016). Hannah is also the Open Data Institute Associate Curator, and a consultant art curator for the Institute of Physics where she recently co-curated an events series for Tate Modern titled ‘Light and Dark Matters’, with Tate and IOP programming teams Hannah brought a wealth of experience of working with artists who are using technology and digital strategies in interesting and unique ways.
Ashley Wong, Head of Programmes and Operations at Sedition – a leading online platform for artists to distribute work as digital limited editions for digital TV’s, smartphones, screens & tablets – discussed Sedition as a commercial platform for emerging and established artists. Artists Sedition currently offer on their platform include blue chip figures Bill Viola, Tracy Emin, Damien Hirst, Elmgreen & Dragset, Jake & Dinos Chapman and filmmaker Wim Wenders amongst nearly 100 others. During her presentation she explored several examples of artist practices who are engaging audiences in different ways with technology in their work whilst also discussing the interdependent relationship between the digital and physical in the post-digital age.
Robert Montgomery is a London-based, Scottish artist. He occupies a precarious space between street art and academia. His simple, graphic poems have been plastered, often illegally, over advertisements and billboards internationally, as well as being available (copyright free) over the internet. Montgomery was initially inspired by the graffiti artists of East London, the poetry of Philip Larkin, the philosophy of Guy Debord, and the French student protesters of May 1968. Montgomery became interested in the Situationist tradition while following the writing of Roland Barthes and Jean Baudrillard during his time at Edinburgh College of Art in the early 1990’s.
During his presentation Montgomery gave an example of a 22-year-old from Culver City who tattooed one of his poems on her arms and later emailed him the image through social media. His studio has since followed how the poems he writes get posted by people on Twitter /Facebook/ Pintrest/ Instagram etc and how his poem ‘The People You Love Become Ghosts Inside Of You And Like This You Keep Them Alive’ travels out into various communities of people beyond the contemporary art audience and gets used in sometimes unusual and expected ways. Montgomery also challenged the Benjaminian notion that the aura of an art work is diminished upon reproduction. Rather the artist felt that the internet was liberating his poetry and allowed him to disseminate his work to previously inaccessible audiences and engage in a dialogue with the public, suggesting that the internet was ‘like a democratic postcard’.
James Davis, Programme Manager at Google Cultural Institute presented Google’s ground breaking non-profit initiative, Google Art Project, as an online platform through which the public can access high-resolution images of artworks housed in partner museums and institutions, which currently number over 900 internationally. The fast expanding platform enables users to virtually tour partner museums’ galleries, explore physical space and monuments and research contextual information about artworks, and compile their own virtual collections as well as visit historical and archaeological wonders of the world. By using an internet connected webpage, he showed the audience the “walk-through” feature of the project which uses Google’s Street View and Gigapixel technology. Davis largely repeated the stated Google’s position/s and heralded the technology and platform as one that essentially provides “access to art and culture to anyone with an internet connection”. Google is one of the worlds most sophisticated and influential technology companies whose primary mission is to “organise the worlds information” though Google strongly believes in the potential of universal access to cultural production. 
To close the symposium, Chris Dercon, Director of Tate Modern was in conversation with Ryan Bishop and their free-form discussion expanded on some of the Tate’s Digital initiatives as well as personal insights into running a museum the size of Tate Modern in the digital age. Tate believes that digital media is an important channel for inspiring, challenging and engaging with local, national and international audiences. A useful insight garnered from Tate’s own research showed that 42% of visitors stated that they came to Tate to experience ‘encounters’, this was an interesting learning which illustrated how people are seemingly desirous of experiences and encounters which public spaces can provide in the digital age. Interestingly, 47% of visitors to the Tate website sited ‘research’ purposes as a reason for visiting the site. Dercon also mentioned that although their current Alexander Calder exhibition had received rave reviews from the art and mainstream press and that social media activity had been extremely high, the opening week attendance had been unusually low. This went against the idea that popularity on the web leads to greater footfall at exhibitions and he stated that Tate were currently analysing this phenomenon further to understand why. Despite substantial digital investment Dercon felt that it was still not possible to effectively translate theatre and museum experiences online.
As a result of the symposium there is now a platform of views and ideas to build upon, and a chance to open the discussion to audiences and scholars through the internet. The entire event is being transcribed from 3hrs and 42 mins of audio (links to be provided soon). This, it is hoped, will lead to new questions and possibly some conclusions emerging in the future. After the event, I said, ‘I feel this area is very fast moving and we are kind of guinea pigs of the digital revolution. Tech companies, artists, institutions and audiences are still feeling their way through the many changes and opportunities and it will take some time for the ground to settle and for concrete conclusions to be drawn. The lens of time and history will help.’ I hope many more people can join this discussion over the coming months as the topic broadens.
See also: Analogue Audience / Digital Interfaces [Programme Notes]

The Portrait of Sakıp Sabancı (2014) by Kütlag Ataman at the Sabanci Museum. Photo: Shwetal A. Patel.