The Virtual Exhibition: Too Little, Too Soon.

As I sit down to write this article it has been one year since the Covid lockdowns began. During that time museums, galleries and exhibition venues have been closed. The experience of physical connection with an image attached to a wall has been denied and the opportunity to slowly walk around or sit within an exhibition space has become a memory. Many photographers seem to have turned to the photo book as a form to be embraced. A physical artefact in which to display and showcase work but the desire to exhibit work still remains strong.

The virtual exhibition is a solution that some have adopted but the reality of that choice is in my experience often disappointing and confusing. The idea of the virtual exhibition is at its heart simple but in its construction and delivery complex. In attempting to recreate the experience of traveling within a space to view photography a digital world is created. This most often consists of white/grey walls, grey/wood floors and nondescript/industrial ceilings (although one I have viewed recently seemed to exist within a confusing version of the Eden Project in Cornwall, Devon). These antiseptic spaces are constructed of a series of walls with considerable space to ‘hang’ images but with no personality to encourage a sense of discovery.

The images placed on the virtual walls are often unframed or clumsily framed and demonstrate a digital hyper reality some distance from the original aesthetic of the work being shown. As a result what we are seeing has no more connection with the photographers work than any other digitally manipulated file. This is the direct opposite to an exhibition experience and counter intuitive to the reasons for attending a physical exhibition space.

The aesthetic experience is one concern but the functionality is the major problem in my experience. The ability to navigate a space with ease and confidence is intrinsic to any exhibition, it is central to the journey the work being shown takes you on. The successful hanging of a show is more than just seeing where images fit on a wall. This provides a major problem for the virtual exhibition that relies on user instructions, menus, tabs, arrows and user initiative/digital experience to provide any form of virtual exploration of the exhibition space.

We have had time to master the eccentricities of using Google street view when attempting to travel along a street and turn a corner without leaping into the sky or shooting past our intended destination. However, every virtual exhibition I have attempted to attend has required a new set of skills and movements to be mastered. Inevitably after a few false moves and unintended leaps around a virtual space I become frustrated with the process and jump out of the nearest virtual window, desperate to leave, whilst contemplating that life is too short to waste on trying to make something work that clearly does not.

The experience is too often like wearing VR glasses whilst someone else pushes you around, constantly pushing you in directions you do not want to go in.

If you add to these issues the fragile nature of many of these virtual builds causing crashes, glitches and poor functionality across different devices and what you get is a mirror to the frustrations experienced during the ‘Dot Com Boom and Bust’ of the late 1990s. A time when ideas and ambitions were as rich as the venture capitalists pouring their money into ventures that were fuelled by potential but derailed by a lack of reality. Hardware, software and broadband could not deliver the expectations of those hoping to build the future and as a result online experiences disappointed and ended.

The idea of trying to recreate an experience that relies upon its physicality as a central virtue within a virtual world is ambitious to say the least and some would say fool hardy. A virtual experience that adds to the physical experience seems to me to be a more valuable and achievable goal but one that requires a fundamental re-thinking of what an exhibition could be. A re-thinking that sees a virtual experience as a new way of experiencing work away from the white painted wall. In the meantime I prefer to watch films that provide additional context to an exhibition, the work shown and the creator of that work.

Films are not dictated by content management systems and do not require funding to build complex virtual infrastructures. As photographers we can create them ourselves with the cameras we own.

I am not against the development of virtual experiences related to the exhibition of work. Many museums and galleries around the world have established virtual initiatives that explore how they can bring their spaces and collections to a global audience. Some work better than others but all are attempting to re-define their future audiences, you can even visit the Vatican virtually!

However, I am against jumping on a bandwagon with wonky wheels and it seems to me that at the moment the excitement of jumping into the virtual world to exhibit photography is blinding some to the reality of how poor the viewing experience is. There maybe a time in the future when it works but for now and for me they are offering a lot but delivering very little.

Grant Scott is the founder/curator of United Nations of Photography, a Senior Lecturer and Subject Co-ordinator: Photography at Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, a working photographer, and the author of Professional Photography: The New Global Landscape Explained (Routledge 2014), The Essential Student Guide to Professional Photography (Routledge 2015), New Ways of Seeing: The Democratic Language of Photography (Routledge 2019).

His book What Does Photography Mean to You? including 89 photographers who have contributed to the A Photographic Life podcast is on sale now £9.99

© Grant Scott 2021

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