The arts, everywhere: bringing culture online

Hear from digital art agency The Space‘s Chief Exec and Creative Director Fiona Morris about bringing art to a wider audience, how artists can make the most of these developments, and her thoughts on the future of art in the digital age.

Sculpture Cam web app allows visitors to interact with the artworks digitally. © Courtesy of The Space

Over 30 years after the launch of the world wide web, online initiatives such as the Google Arts & Culture project, are making high-quality artworks available online, allowing anyone, anywhere to experience visual culture from their desktop or smartphone.

Cultural institutions are capitalising on this new demand for digital experiences. Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum has created travelling immersive exhibitions such as Meet Vincent Van Gogh, featuring videos, reproductions and interactive installations, which aim to bring audiences closer to the artist’s life and work. Cultural organisations are also embracing the web as a tool for encouraging audience participation. The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) has been at the forefront, from staging A Midsummer Night’s Dream for social media audiences, to creating digital avatars for the stage.

Working to increase online audience access to the arts, The Space connects institutions and artists with digital technologies and solutions. Founded by the BBC and Arts Council England, the organisation has worked with cultural partners across the UK to rethink the ways in which art can be made, shared and experienced digitally. We spoke to The Space’s Chief Executive and Creative Director Fiona Morris about how they’ve brought art to a wider audience, how artists can make the most of these developments, and her thoughts on the future of art in the digital age.

Could you tell us about The Space and what you do?

We work primarily with arts organisations, using digital technologies and online platforms to increase their audience reach and impact. We help them make the most of the opportunities that digital technologies present, and in turn increase their sustainability.

In the past three years, we have commissioned more than 200 projects and reached audiences exceeding 20 million through web and broadcast. We want to increase access to artworks that would otherwise be inaccessible for many people due to factors such as cost, disability and geography.

I firmly believe that technology should be used to enhance the artistic experience – improving engagement, rather than being used for its own sake.

Fiona Morris, Chief Exec & Creative Director of The Space

What effect has the web had on the creation and presentation of art?

First and foremost, art can now be shared more widely. Cultural organisations are able to produce great art and distribute it online, potentially to a global audience, which can be transformative for those trying to raise their profile. Audiences are discovering and talking about work online, and sharing it across their networks. This not only helps organisations expand their audiences, but also has an effect on the range of art that can be created, the ways in which it can be created, and by whom. There is no aspect of artistic practice that isn’t being revolutionised by the web and digital technologies.

PlayCraft combined Minecraft with a real-life performance at The Playhouse in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland. © Sara Dominguez

Tell us about some of the projects The Space has commissioned…

Steering away from the usual apps, websites, games and VR experiences, our digital commissions need to be original, have artistic merit and offer a truly compelling user experience. Here are a few of our recent commissions:

Playcraft Live was the world’s first play designed, developed and performed in the online video game Minecraft. It was simultaneously performed on stage at The Playhouse in Derry/Londonderry, Northern Ireland, combining real and virtual worlds for a live and online audience. The work was conceived with the web in mind, and the international audience it could serve. It was seen by approximately half a million people on the night of the performance – and hundreds of thousands more since.

Project Adrift enabled users to adopt a piece of space debris and interact with it in real time via Twitter. The use of live data allowed participants to message the debris and receive a response, and the often-humorous comments posted on Twitter by each piece of debris provided both a narrative and a personality with which users developed a personal connection.

SculptureCam is Yorkshire Sculpture Park’s web-based app that allows visitors to explore, photograph and interact with the sculptures via their phone. Visitors match the sculptures they see with a silhouette frame on their screen, take a photo and then are rewarded with a 360-degree animation of the object. Meanwhile, their photograph contributes directly to an online archive of photographs of the collection – a valuable educational resource.

100 Masters is a project created by Creative Black Country to identify contemporary skilled craftspeople from the Black Country – an area of the West Midlands in central England – and inspire future talent. We worked with them to develop the digital arm of the project, creating a series of short videos that have had over 10 million views in the first six months. We’re really excited that the project went on to win the 2018 European Youth Award for Open Innovation

Watch more about the Sculpture Cam app for Yorkshire Sculpture Park

How can artists and arts organisations harness the digital revolution? What skills are needed?

Artists and organisations need to understand their existing and potential audiences’ behaviour online and in a global context. We now have the ability to track our audiences digitally, identify trends and gather feedback, giving us an insight into the types of work they want to see, share and comment upon. We also have the ability to target and tailor content to specific platforms, engage with online communities and make use of influencers – all vital tools for connecting art with people with whom it will resonate.

It’s also important for arts organisations and artists to consider how this information can be used to help them build on their existing work, and to be prepared to test and iterate in a way that works for them and their audiences.

Which new technologies that will shape the way art is made or experienced particularly excite you?

I am very excited about the opportunities that immersive and interactive technologies are presenting around storytelling and narratives. We are looking forward to seeing what the future of this kind of work might look like. That said, the user experience is paramount – the story and concept should always lead the way, rather than the tech. I firmly believe that technology should be used to enhance the artistic experience – improving engagement, rather than being used for its own sake.

A version of this article was published as part the British Council’s Anyone, Anywhere season to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the web.

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