Before the invention of the World Wide Web, if you wanted to see famous artworks, you might have had to travel a long way, or find a specialist art library for a reproduction.
But 30 years on, things are different. Online initiatives, such as the Google Art Project, are making high-quality artworks available on the web, allowing anyone, anywhere to experience visual culture from their desktop or smartphone.
Cultural institutions are capitalising on this new demand for digital experiences. Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum has created travelling immersive exhibitions such as Meet Vincent Van Gogh, which launched in Beijing in 2016. The show features videos, reproductions and interactive installations, which aim to bring audiences closer to the artist’s life and work. Institutions including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City have digitised large portions of their archives and made them accessible on their website – even smaller galleries, such as Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London, are now making their collections available online.
Cultural organisations are also embracing the web as a tool for encouraging audience participation. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has been at the forefront, from staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream for social media audiences to creating digital avatars for the stage in partnership with technology firm Intel and performance capture company The Imaginarium Studios. The RSC has also produced an online 'behind-the-scenes' exhibition on Richard II with Google Cultural Institute. Projects such as these not only extend the reach of the work being produced, they also involve audiences in the creative process and contribute to democratising access to culture.
Working to increase online audience access to the arts, The Space connects institutions and artists with digital technologies and solutions. Founded by the BBC and Arts Council England in 2012, the organisation has worked with cultural partners across the UK to rethink the ways in which art can be made, shared and experienced digitally. We spoke to its chief executive Fiona Morris about how The Space has brought art to a wider audience, how artists can make the most of these developments, and her thoughts on the future of art in the digital age.
Could you tell us about The Space and what you do?
We work primarily with arts organisations, using digital technologies and online platforms to increase their audience reach and impact. We help them make the most of the opportunities that digital technologies present, and in turn increase their sustainability.
In the past three years, we have commissioned more than 200 projects and reached audiences exceeding 20 million through web and broadcast. We want to increase access to artworks that would otherwise be inaccessible for many people due to factors such as cost, disability and geography.
How has the invention of the web shaped The Space’s work?
Obviously, The Space would not exist without the web. We are both a product of, and a response to, the web and our success depends on our ability to understand and monitor the ways in which it is being used. We keep track of the latest digital audience behaviours so that we are well placed to advise the sector and those whom we commission.
What effect has the web had on the creation and presentation of art?
First and foremost, art can now be shared more widely. Cultural organisations are able to produce great art and distribute it online, potentially to a global audience, which can be transformative for those trying to raise their profile. Audiences are discovering and talking about work online, and sharing it across their networks. This not only helps organisations expand their audiences, but also has an effect on the range of art that can be created, the ways in which it can be created, and by whom. There is no aspect of artistic practice that isn’t being revolutionised by the web and digital technologies.
Tell us about some of the projects The Space has commissioned.
Steering away from the usual apps, websites, games and VR experiences, our digital commissions need to be original, have artistic merit and offer a truly compelling user experience. Here are a few of our recent commissions.
Playcraft Live was the world’s first play designed, developed and performed in the online video game Minecraft. It was simultaneously performed on stage at The Playhouse in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland, combining real and virtual worlds for a live and online audience. The work was conceived with the web in mind, and the international audience it could serve. It was seen by approximately half a million people on the night of the performance – and hundreds of thousands more since.
Project Adrift enabled users to adopt a piece of space debris and interact with it in real time via Twitter. The use of live data allowed participants to message the debris and receive a response, and the often-humorous comments posted on Twitter by each piece of debris provided both a narrative and a personality with which users developed a personal connection.
SculptureCam is Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s web-based app that allows visitors to explore, photograph and interact with the sculptures via their phone. Visitors match the sculptures they see with a silhouette frame on their screen, take a photo and then are rewarded with a 360-degree animation of the object. Meanwhile, their photograph contributes directly to an online archive of photographs of the collection – a valuable educational resource.
100 Masters is a project created by Creative Black Country to identify contemporary skilled craftspeople from the Black Country – an area of the West Midlands in central England – and inspire future talent. We worked with them to develop the digital arm of the project, creating a series of short videos that have had over 10 million views in the first six months. We’re really excited that the project went on to win the 2018 European Youth Award for Open Innovation.