In the last couple of months, an increasing number of places and events have moved online, to our screens, owing to the pandemic. Virtual tours are now picking up pace whether it is gardens, museums or art exhibitions.
Gallery Ark, a Vadodara-based gallery for contemporary arts, has created a unique experience for their visitors. We talked to the director Nupur Dalmia to find out what went into the process:
What's it like to run a virtual art gallery?
Like most of our friends and colleagues working in the art and culture space, adapting to the digital mode has been an opportunity for much introspection and learning. For those of us who view the art we represent through the prism of the physical space, the digital pivot has been a steep learning curve, admittedly not without its challenges.
For Gallery Ark, whilst this move to create a virtual gallery experience was precipitated by the global pandemic, I would venture to say that it was an intervention that was waiting in the wings. We see this as an opportunity to reach out to a wider audience, particularly a younger, digital-first demographic who might otherwise give art galleries a miss. We’re excited to continue developing our virtual art viewing experience and working towards creating an omnichannel approach to exhibitions.
What's the response been like? How do you measure success?
It is still early days, but it has been gratifying to see an uptick in the traffic on both online viewing vRoom (which is a more static, image friendly format) and the 3D virtual gallery, which is a digital re-creation of the exhibition, as well as the space and architecture of the building, with a precise replication of the curation, allowing you to access the exhibition in a more dynamic way. Quite literally, as our virtual model has a zoom-in functionality and easy keyboard navigation that resembles moving through a video game!
Our measure of success would be seeing new audiences, who tune into our exhibitions and keep coming back. One of the key motivating philosophies for Gallery Ark is to make the joy of art accessible to everyone.
What can an online gallery give people that a real world one can't?
The most obvious advantage of a virtual exhibition is accessibility, a well designed virtual exhibition can create a compelling art viewing experience that can be accessed by anyone, anywhere. The greater the reach, the more the chances for a cross pollination of ideas and dialogue, and we all stand to be richer for it.
We’re also seeing the emergence of digital-only art platforms set up by artist collectives or smaller businesses that may not have the means to support a physical gallery space, but have the vision and desire to support great art. In this sense, the digital arena is a great equaliser.
I should caveat this with another rather obvious point, a virtual exhibition and the experience of viewing art in a physical space are two very different beasts, with a different texture, and different advantages. It is unlikely that one will ever obsolete the other, but I think it is mutually beneficial for both to co-exist.
Interior architecture is its own kind of user interface, and a key factor in enjoyment of art in galleries. How will you make up for the missing spatial component? Are you digitising your art space too? If yes, how?
The architecture of the physical gallery space certainly plays a vital role in the curation and reception of an exhibition. Gallery Ark is not a typical 'white cube' gallery space; it is a part of a beautifully designed building, with the architecture interspersed with significant art interventions. We aim to use the space with creativity in all our exhibitions and the current one is a very strong example of this.
The curation allows the art to move beyond the gallery walls, spilling into the atrium and basement. With the architecture of the building playing such a key factor in our curation and exhibition design, we felt it was imperative to create a virtual art viewing experience that articulated this; which is why we went with the approach of creating a 3D replication for our virtual exhibition. The process was no doubt more cumbersome, but the final result and experience of the virtual exhibition is entirely gratifying.
What challenges did you face while curating the current exhibition’s 3D model?
The biggest challenge was building the entire 3D model from scratch. It took us about three months to do this, using code on a software called Unity, and of course we went through several iterations in the design.
We faced another major challenge at the last stage of design, on the cusp of launching the 3D virtual exhibition. Given the number of high resolution artwork images, video files, and three levels of the building with detailed architectural elements, we had to figure out a way to load the model quickly to provide a user friendly experience, without compromising on the quality of the product.
Whilst this caused a few delays for the launch, it was entirely worth the wait and we now have this as a long-term addition to our exhibition experience, beyond the lockdown. In its current format, the model allows us to replace the artworks and move things around the gallery with minimal effort, for our future exhibitions.
Can you walk us through the current exhibition?
The current exhibition is called “A Voyage of Seemingly Propulsive Speed and an Apparent Absolute Stillness”. It is a multidisciplinary show, bringing together works of art by three emerging artists, Arshad Hakim, Moonis Ahmad Shah and Sarasija Subramanian. The three artists have very distinct practices. The sheer range of concepts and mediums, including etchings, drawings, zinc plates, videos, digital prints and LED strips, makes the exhibition a rich, layered dialogue.
We were set to open in late March, and on the eve of the exhibition preview, the lockdown was enforced. In a certain sense, it is fitting that our move towards integrating digital exhibitions in our offering coincided with this show because these young artists are pushing the boundaries with their experimentation and a deep thinking around an alternate future. The process of adaptation during times like these needs to be a collaborative one and we’re grateful for our artists’ support towards helping us bring the digital iteration of the show to life.
Virtual viewing galleries are becoming increasingly common. Is Gallery Ark doing anything to stand out?
I think Gallery Ark’s unique quotient lies in the 3D exhibition model. The technology that we are leveraging is perhaps a fundamental version of Virtual Reality. It enables users to virtually scroll through the gallery space and experience the exhibition in its intended spatial setting and exhibition design. However, this three-dimensional point of view experience is highly accessible and doesn't require additional accessories other than a computer or iPad.
Whilst this approach has been adopted by larger institutions and art fairs internationally, there are very few galleries that have taken on the painstaking route of creating a 3D virtual experience. It's much easier to shoot a space with a 3D camera and render it digitally, but we did not have that option when we first started the project early on in the lockdown.
This model is also more immersive in its aesthetic and functionality. Gallery Ark is part of a beautiful building that we wanted to include in the experience but would be challenging to shoot on a 3D camera in the same way.
The architecture is interspersed with significant art interventions and has a strong tactile quality that we wanted to highlight. The texture and materiality add to the gallery experience and could be recreated much better in this format. Additionally, most of our exhibits spill over into other parts of the building, such as the basement (also in this show), and the artium, both of which we have included in the model.
We do recognise that this is both time and resource intensive so it may not be a feasible option for everyone. But with the demand for digital experiences on the rise, hopefully the technology will catch up soon enough with dynamic, immersive and perhaps most importantly, sustainable solutions.
Virtual viewing has picked up in the last couple months, but it may have some challenges. What do you think those are, especially in the context of Indian art?
The biggest draw back with the virtual art viewing experience is the loss of the element of serendipity that comes with experiencing art in person. Space most certainly led a gravitas to the experience and in turn I have seen artworks from different exhibitions lend the same space a unique but palpable presence each time, be it a white cube gallery or a neoclassical museum. This applies to art everywhere.
In India, whilst we have once of the richest creative legacies, the public education and awareness around this often falls short.
With people having fewer distractions and spending more time on their gadgets, this is a great opportunity for institutions, public and private, to create engaging content for digital platforms, to galvanise the cultural awareness project.
The exhibition can be viewed here.