Type “virtual gallery” into Google and the first few hits that will come up will be commercial sites, platforms selling paintings or prints. So is the “virtual gallery” a way to commercialise fairly traditional notions of “art” to a wider audience? Scroll-down further and you’ll be able to take a “virtual tour” around the National Gallery in London. You can now become a virtual tourist, seeing the most famous works and collections from all over the world without ever leaving the comfort of your own home. In the larger rooms of the gallery you jump, or spawn, from one end to the other, and experience a 360° panorama from that spot. There is no doubt that the quality of the photography that has been involved is remarkable, but is that really how you would view the works were you in that space for real?
Scroll-down still further and there are a series of sites where you can “build your own” virtual galleries, like they are levels in some video game. You become the curator of a fictitious digital gallery space, and you can post them up for all to see. Your “virtual gallery-goers” can even leave you a star-rating, so you can rest assured your “taste” in art has been validated by those that took the time to click-to-rate your exhibition. Or are these “D-I-Y virtual galleries” simply a way to showcase your own work without ever needing to go through the hassle and expense of putting on an exhibition in the physical world; certainly they will last longer. But can anything ever really replace being there in front of an artwork. Being in that space; that vast, vast space. Being in that place in the world. Being in that moment. Knowing it will never come again. The artwork is there, you are there; and then not.
But why there? What is there about that place? How did the artwork get to be there? How did you get to be there? By walking into a physical gallery you are entering into a particular context. You are choosing to be part of that cultural frame-work. Those works have a history, they have been selected and validated. And by engaging with them in this way you are adding to that validation.
Galleries have become our modern cathedrals, where we go to worship, to stand in awe. We go to be touched by the work, to feel something. To hear it speak to us. We go to stand where so many have stood before, as though we are on some holy pilgrimage. We go to be part of something larger than ourselves, to take part in the festivities, where the crowds converge. In that place, that sacred place, and in that moment, there is a certain authenticity. Where once we went to see the hand of God, now we go to see the hand of the Artist, to feel the breath of life they have given to the work.
So is the function of a “virtual gallery” to act as an aide memoir to an exhibition that has already been in the world, to record our legacy, to be a digital account; pale though it may be? Or is it a way to create new places, virtual places, so we can experience new moments, with new artworks that could never be-in-the-world, as we knew it before?
With this new technology there comes a disruption to the existing world-order. It is as though the carnival has come to town, and it is here to stay. Theoretically, it is possible for anyone to make a virtual gallery and share it with anyone else in the world. With this comes a break in the frame-work, a collapse of the hierarchy. The internet and its associated technologies have brought about a democratization, where we are no longer dependent on those voices of authority as we were before. But on a practical level, there enters another concern, the socio-economic limits to the access of high-end software and expensive technology, and the skills to use them.
Do you know what I remember from my first experience in a gallery in “virtual reality”? It wasn’t the art or the layout of the space – it was the motes of dust dancing in the light of a window that wasn’t even there. In that moment I became more aware of myself. More aware of my being. Of where I was, of the moment I was in. Of the place I was in. I was both in the world; and in another world – a virtual world. I couldn’t tell you if time slowed-down or sped-up, all I know is that that moment changed me. I was transformed, from that one moment to the next, I was different. In English we talk of experience, but as I understand it, in the German Language there are is more than one word for experience. Erfahrung – is used when referring to those more profound, and life-altering experiences, often associated with an artwork as a site of transformation or moments of epiphany. Like the revelations in the pages of a book or the moment you realize that another thinks or feels as you do. They give that sense of connection, of understanding, knowing that nothing will ever be the same as it was again. We don’t just experience the artwork; we experience the artwork. By placing pre-existing works in virtual space or making virtual artworks, we are about to give rise to a-whole-nother world. I believe that it is our role as artists to pick-up these new tools, no matter how strange and put them to work.
With this profane shift in tools and technology must come a new vocabulary, one to match the new questions we will ask. Step into this new world and see “This is Real” and we start to question our very experience of what it even means for something to be real. In this new virtual reality we question again the perception of our senses. We will question our awareness of our own being in a way we have never done before. Over time will we also extend this shifted cultural-framework? Will we be able to share such spaces with others? Will it still feel like we are part of the crowd converging for the festival? Will we ever be able to replicate or imitate the aura of a physical artwork? The questions we could ask are endless and as these virtual platforms become more available, more accessible, so many more people will begin to ask them.