David Drake is Director of Ffotogallery. He created the digital exhibition The Place I Call Home, commissioned by the British Council.
What’s the first thing you did to create your digital exhibition?
The first step is to decide who you want to visit the exhibition, and what you hope to achieve.
Our target audience for The Place I Call Home was young people aged 14-30 in the six Gulf states. The British Council recognised that that group of people are not only looking for rewarding employment in local or national economies, but also their place in global society.
Thirty-six million people in the Gulf region are regular social media users, and 70 per cent are young people in our target group. So, we knew that online participation in creative activities and debates would be as important as physical visits to exhibitions or participation in gallery-based activities. We considered the digital presentation as integral to the project as the whole.
We wanted to have an intercultural conversation on the meaning of ‘home’ at a time of rapid change and social mobility. In the Gulf, with so many global and transient citizens, the theme of home speaks to both collective and individual experience. I decided this would be the unifying idea of the whole project.
How did you get from that first step to your first visitor?
We established the online platform for The Place I Call Home two months before the first exhibition. We used it to introduce the project theme, and the artists and contributors involved.
Ffotogallery's creative team designed and built the platform from scratch, and it was augmented by a web developer. It was important that its visual identity and English-Arabic content reflected the ethos and diversity of the project.
We encouraged the public, and young people in particular, to contribute images reflecting their own ideas of ‘home’, using the hashtag #everydaygulf, and embedded a microsite in the online platform that automatically pulled in Instagram posts using that hashtag. You can view the most recent 100 posts submitted on the homepage of the website.
We re-posted several online contributions on Instagram and encouraged our partners and artists to use the hashtag to build the conversation before and during the exhibition period.
What resources did you use to create the digital exhibition from the exisiting physical exhibition?
We used 3D photo scanning equipment to comprehensively record the exhibition in the physical space. Then we rendered and stitched this together to produce a virtual tour.
In the UK and United Arab Emirates we worked with partner venues to find local production companies who could make high quality virtual tours and additional video content. We recruited interns in each country and asked them to contribute videos, blogs and other creative documentation in response to the exhibition.
In virtual tours, visitors can walk around the show remotely. When they approach exhibits, information about the artist and the project pops up. The technology for this is much more sophisticated and affordable than it used to be, and navigation is easy and fun.
We also produced video, audio and other content such as artist interviews, in the gallery or on location. This content enhances the online visitor experience and can also be shared in bitesize form on social media platforms.
By working together, we were able to place these on multiple websites and through several social media posts, maximising audience reach.
Can you create a digital exhibition like this without leaving your home?
It’s creatively and technically possible to do so. However, to do it well requires virtual reality and gaming technology to make it a fully immersive experience.
It is worth researching creative producers who would make good collaborators, and not just those based locally. Look for recommendations from people and organisations whose work you admire. They may know emerging talents in this area who would work with you on an affordable basis, for the experience of helping you present an innovative digital exhibition.
In the early 2000s, I curated a large-scale online project called Electric Pavilion. It soon became clear that the artists and public also wanted physical exhibitions, performances and events. So, the digital exhibition was also a virtual portal to things that happened in physical spaces.
With advances in technology since then, creating a high-quality digital exhibition without leaving home is within our reach. It requires a creative collaboration between the curator, artists, designers, programmers and producers, much of which can happen remotely.
I still believe, nonetheless, that it is good to meet up and discuss ideas or look at prototype designs around a physical table.
What are the logistical differences between creating a digital exhibition and a physical one?
There are more similarities than differences.
For both, you need to consider the exhibition context, intended audience, the architecture of the space, and form and content of the presentation. You also need to consider the use of digital guides and apps, how people will navigate the space and what they might bring to the experience.
The differences are more technical than creative, although people do tend to behave differently online than in the social space of a gallery. Until haptic technology or VR headsets are readily available to all, navigation of most screen-based digital exhibitions is by mouse or keyboard.
This is a different experience to that of a gallery visitor. It affects choices about how to move through the space, how long to stand or sit before each exhibit, and the other tactile and audiovisual elements that contribute to the experience, including the lighting and acoustics of the gallery.
Improving our knowledge of what works in virtual spaces, on the other hand, helps us to better understand how we can use augmented reality (text or audio-visual content superimposed onto what people see) in physical galleries and museums.
Do cultural differences factor into how you create a digital exhibition?
Language is an important consideration. If the audio and text is bilingual, you need to ensure the translation is authentic and accurate.
This was a huge challenge for The Place I Call Home, which used over 25,000 words in both English and Arabic, along with a bilingual mirror website and nine bilingual publications. Video content needed subtitles, as some was authored in Arabic and some in English.
Beyond the literal translation, there are nuances and regional inflections of language that can change the meaning. We had a great deal of debate about which Arabic characters best represented the project title. We wanted to convey the more universal meaning of the word ‘home’ rather than the physical place one lives in. In the end, we used the Arabic characters for ‘homeland’ rather than ‘house’, which we thought was too literal.
What happens after the digital exhibition – for the artists and for the visitors?
To achieve the best outcome for artists and audiences, the online platform will need to be maintained, hosted and further developed.
Software changes and the introduction of new technological platforms can present a challenge. It is important that the quality of the visitor experience is not impaired by broken links, technical glitches or content no longer being accessible. This requires an ongoing commitment to further editorial input and to troubleshooting technical problems.
How do you build a legacy based on a digital exhibition?
The great thing about a digital exhibition is that it instantly becomes an archive, offering a lasting legacy of the project. Physical exhibitions come and go.
Online visitors can return to a digital exhibition and be enriched in new ways. If the content and virtual environment is kept live and is added to periodically by the artists and curator, the experience will be different every time.
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