Digital art in the post-pandemic museum

At this point, it is obvious to state that during the COVID-19 pandemic, many digitization processes that were underway or latent in many environments were accelerated. But it never hurts to remember it, especially in the case of museums, since it is a fundamental transformation that points directly to a paradigm shift in the sector. This is reflected in a recent book coordinated by art critic Marisol Salanova and the director of the Centre del Carme Cultura Contemporània, José Luis Pérez Pont, with contributions from different specialists in the world of contemporary art. In Innovation from the museum. Essays on cultural emergence include texts that analyze from different angles how the digital has come to museums not to replace the presential but to complement, enrich and expand the museum experience, predicting a future in which the online presence of museums will not be merely informative but will have its own production department, with digital art increasingly consolidated and in a universe where concepts such as aura, cultural tourism, urbanism, mediation or otherness are in full debate and will have new meanings.

One of the signatures present in the book is that of Semíramis González, art curator and director of the JUSTMAD fair in Madrid and JUSTLX in Lisbon. She was one of the guests at the round table “The digital revolution: this world is already another”, an initiative of Ideas Digitales in which Semíramis González commented that, currently, the physical art buyer who visits an exhibition in a museum or gallery is joined by another international buyer, increasingly less hypothetical and more palpable, to which artists can reach in a delocalized way.

It is in this scenario where NFTs (Non-Fungible Tokens) come in, digital certificates of authenticity created through blockchain technology (the same technology used in cryptocurrencies) that allow artworks to be associated with a single digital file. This means that an NFT is a unique work of art, within a system designed to guarantee the originality of the works of art circulating on the Internet, avoiding plagiarism, forgery, and fraud. Although the NFTs are not exempt from controversy and Semiramis Gonzalez herself in her speech spoke of their negative and positive points. Among the bad things that NFTs bring with them is the fact that this system contains a “financial architecture that is not very clear and not very transparent, with other interests that do not have to do exclusively with aesthetics” and that the pollution of the carbon footprint left by the servers in which the NFTs are housed is also beginning to be a cause for concern. Regarding the positive aspects of this technology for buying and selling authentic digital art, Semíramis González believes in “the possibility of always having control of where the works you make are, something that did not happen in the physical work”. And she gives a graphic example: “I was a painter, I painted a landscape, someone else sold it to me, it could be my gallery or my art dealer, I knew who had made that first sale but if that person sold the painting again I had no control of where the work was and I had no payment for it. That changes with the NFTs because in the code itself is embedded the right of authorship and you always have control over it”. In other words, they open the door to greater transparency in the art market and allow creators to have better control over their works.

Be that as it may, the NFTs, with the good and the bad, have come to stay and more and more exhibitions and spaces in Spain, both physical and virtual, take them into account within the art market. Even in the last edition of Sónar+D in Barcelona, SonarMàtica by Tezos – NFT Exhibition was presented, an exhibition curated by specialists of the festival and the cryptocurrency Tezos, which consisted of an installation on twelve multichannel screens with the works of some artists working in the digital field and from multiple languages and aesthetics: with the help of artificial intelligence, with representations of the post-human body or from the concern about climate change. It was also one of the first face-to-face exhibitions in Spain of works of art conceived from the NFT.

New exhibition environments

The growth of digital art forces, on the one hand, many museums to innovate in their collections and bet on this type of work in the curatorship of their exhibitions. And, on the other hand, it means a call for the emergence of platforms and exhibition environments of a purely digital nature, even mixed, because the post-pandemic museum has that double aspect that feeds back between the face-to-face and the virtual. And where interaction with the public acquires a fundamental role.

A clear example of this union between face-to-face and digital environments is the artistic collective Desmusea, formed by Clara Harguindey and Daniel Pecharromán, which bases its activity on promoting the connection between different audiences with museums and cultural institutions through digital projects, always moving in the interstices of virtuality and face-to-face. Between 2019 and 2021 they were resident artists at Matadero Madrid and with Desmusea they have created projects for Caixafórum and the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, among other cultural spaces and museums.

Clara Harguindey was one of the guests invited by Ideas Digitales for the conference “Emotionalizing in the digital world”, a round table on how to use digital communication tools and storytelling to dialogue with audiences, communities, and followers. “Beyond the work and the entire exhibition, the most important thing in a museum is everything that is generated and shared from this institution,” said Harguindey on that occasion and added: “With our work in cultural mediation we try to make the public and its gaze have the same value as the artist’s gaze, because it is only through the public that the work is activated.” One of Desmusea‘s latest projects is, a virtual gallery that hosts projects (a genre of artistic productions created expressly for the Internet) inspired by collections, spaces, and histories of museums in Spain.

One of the precursors and referents in Spain in this line of thinking about new exhibition spaces in the digital environment is the artist Solimán López, founder in 2015 of Harddiskmuseum, a unique art repository that was born as a sort of performance and, at the same time, as a great work of art in itself, since it is a tribute to the digital archive and tries to answer the questions that arise from the new temporal codes of humanity, artistic production, and cultural heritage. Harddiskmuseum is based on a 2 Terabyte hard disk where the figure of the artist and cultural management merge with reflections on the knowledge society, memory, and the art system. At the round table “From the bottom up”, organized by Ideas Digitales around the implosion of digital media and the space that opens up with the number of projects and processes led by independent cultural agents, Solimán López commented on the foundational bases of Harddiskmuseum: “The project approaches the figure of the archive from many points of view, not only from the fact of storing digital art inside a hard drive but, in another way it also gives them a certain value that without that symbolic action the archive ceases to exist because it is in the amalgam, in the ocean of the internet.”

The Harddiskmuseum has a collection of more than 200 artists working in multiple languages: video art, video games, sound art, pdf, web pages, and more. And where the concept of the intangible acquires a fundamental value, as Solimán López himself writes in his manifesto: “In nothingness is everything, in the intangible is the apprehension of that which has more value than gold, the thought, the idea, the projection of the intimate, the deepest self, the corner of the void of my mind, of yours, of the collective, of the dead space due to inaccessibility, of the marine abyss charged with strange life, of the subconscious. Let’s put the just and justified means to make of that primordial idea, rendered in bits and codified for our understanding, the visual product that our eyes deserve. Let’s keep it in a little drawer, in a hard disk so that it does not die in the abyss, nor is it swallowed by the octopus, it does not sink, but floats, at full sail in the thick liquid of the digital world”.

More spaces, debates, and tools for digital artists

Digital art, blockchain, cultural mediation, curating in digital environments, and other aspects that are and will be decisive when thinking about the post-pandemic museum are of vital importance for Ideas Digitales and its ecosystem of artists, projects, and cultural hackers. And Desmusea and Harddiskmuseum are joined by other initiatives such as Internet Moon Gallery, a digital art exhibition platform with a very particular format in its exhibition and curatorial proposal, with indexed content, virtual reality, and various formats. Every night of the full moon, this exclusively virtual gallery opens a new exhibition with different artists but in all cases investigating virtual reality and 360-degree languages.

Another very interesting proposal regarding new exhibition environments for digital art is People Art Factory, a technological platform that allows exhibitions in 3D and is currently developing a new version for its tenth anniversary with the liberalization of the code of the viewer so that all exhibitions can be incorporated into the public domain for free.

From Barcelona, IDEAL Centre D’Arts Digitals has a unique technological team in Europe that is dedicated, on the one hand, to developing immersive audiovisual projections, with augmented reality, virtual reality, and holography, always thinking about the relationship between art and society. On the other hand, every October IDEAL dedicates a special conference to the use of XR technologies in the educational sector, with demonstrations and masterclasses.

Within this type of educational initiative and space for reflection within the digital world is Media Musea, a space for reflection on what is happening with technology, innovation, and new media for the dissemination of culture in general and historical heritage. And also the 3dinteractivo project is headed by Ana Marcos, an art and research collective focused on new artistic experimentations with the most innovative technologies, mainly Artificial Intelligence, Big data, and Control Systems. Currently, 3dinteractivo is working on a virtual AI museum accessible from the Internet that seeks to recreate the heritage that disappeared in the 19th century.

It is so fundamental to think of contemporary art exhibitions and digital art in two aspects, the face-to-face and the virtual, that many museums and exhibition spaces of a physical nature are adapting very quickly to this new era. For example, Espronceda, an innovative contemporary art gallery founded in Barcelona in 2013 promotes the Immensiva project, an international virtual platform to promote emerging and recognized artists beyond their physical stay in the exhibition space. But it does not cover any artist but those who work with advanced technologies such as VR, AR, AI, and sensors.

And perhaps where this new situation is best condensed is in the Network of Museums and Digital Strategies, a participatory and evolving project that articulates and coordinates the connection beyond the physical space of museums and promotes exchange within this paradigm shift, incorporating the visitor as co-responsible in the creation of content. REMED is made up of public and private museums, large, medium, and small, as well as a large ecosystem of researchers, teachers, and professionals from cultural and technological companies. A community of people with shared interests, aware of the qualitative leap that digital technology offers to the arts.

We are living in a fascinating moment in the link between the art world and the new digital environments. Thanks to the technology of cryptocurrencies, digital work recovers its aura and, as long as the environmental impact of NFTs is controlled, artists can expand their field of arrival to buyers located anywhere in the world and not exclusively located in the same geographical area. And all this within an ecosystem in which new digital exhibition environments continue to emerge with performative, renovating, and ambitious proposals, in a post-pandemic context that has forced the museum to accelerate a process that was already latent and is now beginning to consolidate: to become a mixed and amphibious concept, physical and digital.

By: Laureano Debat