Digital Attendance in the Days of Lockdown

Wednesday 3rd February, 2021

Elisabeth Tomlinson surveys four galleries on their journeys through the pandemic, as they navigate new ways to support their programmes. Part 1: Digital Attendance explores the galleries' approach to digitisation.

Download Elisabeth's research around "Appropriation and Opportunism" in the art world here: appropriation-and-opportunism-a-study-of-four-non-commercial-london-art-spaces.pdf

A chaotic, but also somehow paralysing, scramble is an apt summary of how the directors of Triangle Network (Triangle), Exposed Arts Projects (Exposed), iMT Gallery (iMT), and Unit 1 Gallery Workshop (U1GW) described their reaction to the UK’s March lockdown. Many things happened at once for all of us, but most confusing was that it threw unknowns our way: What function do galleries serve under social distancing mandates? How will the online space be utilised? And, of course, what will this moment change in our lives and the art world long term? This article lays out the decisions made by each director for their artists and their audiences, the fallout, and their ideas for a new normal in an art world changed by the Covid-19 crisis.

Covid-19 catapulted us straight into the digital as a necessity. As an artist and art student myself, I can say that adapting artwork for presentation online has become one of the most pressing issues on my and my colleagues’ minds. When lockdown began, it felt like an ever-mounting pressure to innovate the online – a sort of winner takes all, do-or-die moment. Whether Zoom calls and online exhibitions are here to stay or not, it seems that the current pandemic has ended the “should we or shouldn’t we” debate and ushered in the question of how must we.

Alessio Antoniolli, head of Gasworks and Triangle Network, pointed out that the scale of gallery spaces restricts their options for opening up quickly as the flow of foot-traffic in smaller spaces makes it impossible to meet social distancing requirements. They first prioritised what they could manage by extending their studio artists’ tenancies and providing 50% relief on their rent throughout the summer. They then shifted their programming online where appropriate. Out of necessity, formats such as Zoom calls and Instagram Lives have become the norm. Alessio described how working from home and meeting online has altogether shifted the work culture at Triangle and Gasworks:

“ has been an interesting thing for me. A certain rigidity with timing in the office that felt important has changed. When we would have a meeting, you[’d] get on the bus or tube or airplane and go, ’cause that’s the job. Now, maybe we don’t need that to the same extent, and I think that’s been a very positive thing. I met with all of our partners – majority on Zoom – and we’ve been in contact more now than before. Maybe that’s a thing; the normalisation of Zoom has been a positive aspect for the network.” (Antoniolli, Gasworks, Triangle Network, 2020)

Exterior view of Gasworks, London, courtesy the gallery

He went on to explain that this may bring about a shift in Triangle Network’s role. While distributing funding and opportunity still remains important, Alessio says pooling resources and exchanging ideas will hopefully become more of a focus for the Network.

Speaking of Zoom: Lindsay Friend at iMT talked me through how their online exhibition, “This is a Not Me”, stretched over multiple Zoom meetings between artists in which they discussed and developed their work over a longer period than exhibitions generally allow. iMT had a bit of a head start in the online race, as the work they exhibit is already oriented toward new media and digital artwork and Lindsay has focused much effort and thought on how iMT can use and innovate art in a digital age:

“I want to create a feeling [that’s] not about being in the physical space, [the] feeling that you’ve absorbed the work. Our attention span is very different on social media because there’s so much to look at, so how do we grab attention? It comes down to good content. Thoughtful in that way.” (Friend, iMT Gallery, 2020)

Performance of "And we Consume you to Exhume you" by Arianne Churchman, as part of the live event for "Trapped In A Sticky Shed With Side Chain Compression" at iMT Gallery, London, 2019, courtesy the gallery

Lindsay has sought not to replicate the physical setting of the gallery or the experience of attending an event, but rather to create something entirely different. “This is a Not Me” was brought to the public via Instagram and from my standpoint as a viewer, a broad network of texts and visuals connected the different artists’ Instagram accounts. I found myself collecting each of the artists by following their accounts to complete the picture of the exhibition. It was in no way like going to a gallery space, but it was certainly immersive and multifaceted: it’s a new creature altogether.

“There’s so much online, the best thing that I could do is create engagement around iMT and create an audience that is warm. So, they will actually just come like they would come to the gallery. I’m giving them all the facts and where they need to go to get [them] and I just need them to want to come and think that is achievable online, but it’s a different way of working. That’s what I see myself doing more and more now. (Friend, iMT Gallery, 2020)

An interesting thing of note in my discussion with Lindsay is that she is very specifically utilising platforms that already exist and with which audiences are already familiar and engaged. Rather than building an external website and using social media to direct her audience there, she is bringing the artwork, and the artmaking process, straight to the platforms and the tools of engagement that we already know.

On the other hand, Sasha Burkhanova-Khabadze, founder of Exposed Arts Projects, emphasised how the move to digital pushed her to change the purpose and function of their website. She described shifting the website from a static source of information to an interactive platform that can be contributed to:

“...we started to think how can we translate [Exposed] online...To somehow make it show something: That you can actually get [a] response, feedback, feeling like the artists are engaging and brainstorming with you.” (Burkhanova-Khabadze, Exposed Arts Projects, 2020)

Exposed Arts Library, an installation by Gina DeCagna, 1-2 February 2020, courtesy the gallery

Exposed shifted an in-person Live Action Role Play (LARP) event to the online space. This format demands interaction from both the audience and artists. Sasha stated that she’d continue to explore online gaming as a format for exhibition even after they’re able to open their physical space, finding that this approach allows for a deep interaction with the artist’s work.

Stacie McCormick also adapted upcoming and ongoing exhibitions to online walkthroughs, but also launched a new set of programmes. She organised dozens of conversations over Instagram Live, spreading a wide net across geographies and the perspectives of those in conversation. Stacie often speaks of the strength of U1GW lying in the network engaged there. For those that have listened to the Instagram Lives, but also for her and each of the participants, the conversations have built a stronger and wider network, despite the physical isolation and distance. This brings us to another facet of the conversation.

Exhibitions are about seeing work in person and that is, if not invaluable, irreplaceable at the least. But exhibitions are also an event: They require getting dressed, commuting, meeting friends or strangers, and that pressure-ridden drive to “network”. So, it’s not just a question of whether we need to display artwork physically, but also whether we need to see each other physically. Each interview eventually came back around to the necessity of the physical space:

“We have really identified how important it is for people to see work in real life. Everyone has commented: Thank god there’s something we can look at. Something to have an interaction with.” (McCormick, Unit 1 Gallery Workshop, 2020)

Lindsay also echoed this by pointing out that even for the gallerist, having the artwork set up and on display gives them the chance to live in the work and, in the end, better equips them to support the artist and promote the artwork from a place of deep understanding. So yes, we’re all itching to get back to the physical, but this moment has allowed some time to question why things are done the way they are. Gallery exhibitions tend to have certain social codes like providing wine at a private viewing, a certain timeline for display, certain methods of promotion, and that white walled space itself. Both Stacie and Sasha discussed how those methods are being phased out in their spaces, while every director at least stepped back and said, “But why do we do this?”.

“...We have this new booking system, which I actually prefer: I’ve never liked private views, either to go to or host. I find them expensive for us and in fact the disrespect to the work exhibited is really profound, whether that’s overcrowding and backpacks hitting the work, but also people come for a party and that I understand but... limiting the space to ten people at a time means that people really, really get the work, which is why I do this, you know? That’s a permanent change, so we won’t do private views [anymore].” (McCormick, Unit 1 Gallery Workshop, 2020)

Radical Residency® V, Working Studios, 2020, courtesy Unit 1 Gallery | Workshop 53

The expense of gallery spaces, particularly opening events, was also mentioned by Sasha, as she pointed to a shift in the use of their gallery space:

“...we will be having fewer classic exhibitions and public events. Things like artist talks and performance nights, more traditional events. It’s wonderful and I love doing it, but it’s getting more and more difficult to fund those things. (Burkhanova-Khabadze, Exposed Arts Projects, 2020)

Sasha was already toying with the purpose of the art space by building in a library and research room, and allowing artists to use the space for development and experimentation with their work.

Which brings up another point: it’s not only exhibitions that can’t happen at the moment. Triangle, Exposed, and U1GW are all working spaces as well. Artists share and develop work under their roofs. The question of physicality, then, is not just to do with exhibition and display, but also with art making itself. Covid-19 has impaired our ability to access studios and all but ended shared studio space, which means it affects the creative process altogether.

Then of course there’s sculpture, and the texture of paint on canvas, and scale, and eye contact, and hand gestures, and the time set aside to make an event special, and not having that awkward delay after each sentence of a Zoom conversation. The digital space cannot accurately translate or replace the physical space. This isn’t really a debate on whether we can do without in-person exhibitions. I’m interested in analysing the changes this moment has sprung on us, and the innovations that might stick around after. But most of all, I’m interested in questioning the current system of displaying and viewing art. When we talk about the “club culture” of the art world that (at this point quite famously) is difficult if not near impossible to navigate, galleries, their structures, and the social vibe they exude are ground zero. In an art world undergoing change at this rate, all bets are off as to how we make, display and consume artwork: we can’t do what we’re used to doing. These four spaces and many more are worth keeping an eye on for how they reinvent the wheel for whatever post-Covid brings.

Read more on Elisabeth's research around "Appropriation and Opportunism" in the art world here: appropriation-and-opportunism-a-study-of-four-non-commercial-london-art-spaces.pdf

Elisabeth is a London-based artist, filmmaker, researcher, and writer currently undertaking an MA in Fine Art at Central Saint Martins. She is a Mona Hatoum Bursary (2019–2021) recipient and recent participant in Autograph Gallery's PILOT course Rights, Care, Future (2020). In 2018 she earned an MA in Gender, Education, and International Development from University College London's Institute of Education. Recent screenings and exhibitions include: Independent Shorts Awards, Los Angeles, New Cinema Film Festival, Lisbon, Tate Modern, London, Unit 1 Gallery | Workshop, London, and Whitechapel Gallery, London.