Research Methodologies for Digital Art Exhibitions

by Doreen Ríos, 2017

Avedon, LaTurbo (2016), Untitled, image seen in December 2016

Introduction

I clearly remember the moment when I started to develop a personal interest in digital art. While I was completing my degree during an architectural design class, one of my professors said, “paper architecture is not architecture; just as no digital drawing is architecture.” This made me wonder why we weren’t exploring digital visualisations as architectural spaces if, after all, digital tools tend to shape part of the outcome while providing an appropriate space for experimentation that would not be possible to duplicate in any other way.

One thing led to another. Through the use of digital visualisation software, I became hooked on digital art, particularly that which challenges physical standards through the web. Following Peter Lunenfeld’s vision, I was convinced that the internet is architecture’s first serious contender, where developers, artists, and the general public have created spaces to be, spaces to see, spaces to interact, and even spaces that contain art exhibitions.

This seems an abstract idea in terms of defining what it means to transform into a digital state. However, digital art is commonly defined as art made and/or exhibited using digital technology. It contains a whole universe of techniques: from hacktivism through net.art to data visualisation, to mention a few examples.

In this essay, I will specifically address digitally based pieces that must be viewed online (without forgetting that digital art goes beyond the internet). I will refer to these pieces that have been created to inhabit the web and find their way online through being shared on social networks, as well as being placed in virtual galleries/museums, and critically analyse which set of research methods are most appropriate to determine the impact and success of exhibitions containing this type of work.

Key concepts

Digital art can be defined as all artistic practices that use digital tools for its creation and/or display within an exhibition space, which describes a significant part of the work produced after World War II. According to Christiane Paul, curator of new media at the Whitney Museum of American Art, during the early 1980’s, the digital art concept gained strength through the work of such figures as Harold Cohen and Kenneth Snelson. However, several artists started experimenting with technological tools from the early 1950s, among such pioneers was artist and mathematician Ben Laposky.

Clearly, from the moment we started to have an everyday approach to machines and technological devices, artistic practices have come closer to them to the point where they have become completely submerged within the contemporary art circuit. This idea is quite familiar within the statements of artist Allan Kaprow, who claimed that there were only two types of artists: those who wake up and make art and those who wake up and ask themselves, “what can art be?”. Digital artists tend to belong to the second type because with technological tools, they seek to reinvent what art means by creating new discourses. The latter is what interests me most as a curator.

Digital art takes many forms and does not respond to a single technique; for this particular essay, I will talk about pieces that are entirely virtual and can be incorporated into the following areas: hacktivism, art with search engines, art with software, hypermedia/hypertext, ASCII code, identity activism, cyber performance, art within social networks, programming, video, gif, virtual reality, and data visualisation.

The space concept can be assigned to the universe itself or a condensed fragment of specific dimensions. However, for this essay, I will define this concept under the architectural logic of Louis I. Kahn, who once said, “Architecture is the conscious creation of space. The continuous renewal of architecture comes from modifying the concept of space.” By which I conclude that space refers to a three-dimensional fragment surrounded by the use of architecture; thus, in this sense, architecture is the creation of space within space.

We find ourselves living within the fine line between online and offline space, which on one hand can be understood as the 3D spaces we inhabit daily such as our homes, schools, and even the city we live in, and then there are those spaces, we can only inhabit as digital entities, such as social networks, virtual communities and the internet in general. I agree with Nathan Jurgenson when he states that both — online and offline life — are equally accurate. Everything we do or say within them has consequences that directly affect us and affect those around us. Online life and offline life are complementary.

Central Topics

I am particularly interested in developing digital art exhibitions that are informed and appropriate for these practices, and this requires investigating the various ways to manage such an exhibition. One of the main questions is: what is the best space for an exhibition of this nature? Is it online? Is it within a physical space? Or both? And why?

These questions define the curatorial approach needed for the exhibition because the requirements to create each option are very different.

It is essential to deal with these curatorial issues surrounding digital production because art continues to take root within these areas and because the impact of art depends mainly on the interaction it generates with the audience. Curators must be able to establish a conversation touching on these issues and propose intelligent solutions that are beneficial to showcasing these types of practices and creating valuable experiences for those who are part of them. The curator is a translator between the artist and the viewer. Therefore, he/she must be able to develop exhibitions that reaffirm the dialogue between them.

To answer these questions and develop projects of this nature, I will investigate various solutions used to display this type of work in exhibition spaces.

Interpretation

To develop a research methodology, I decided that it is crucial to use qualitative and quantitative aspects to identify and positively influence the atmosphere surrounding digital art exhibitions. For this, I decided to follow Hito Steyerl’s research patterns and divide the research into three areas: audiences and social networks, interaction with the artwork, and feedback after the exhibition.

To make the research accessible, it is advisable to choose three examples from the same category: an online exhibition, a physical exhibition, and an exhibition using both resources. To do this, it is essential to locate the institutions that are leading the development of this type of exhibition, for example, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Panther Modern, Whitechapel Gallery, O-Fluxo, Barbican Centre, Institution of Contemporary Arts London, TRANSFER gallery, Vngravity, 15 folds gallery and offspace.xyz, and choose samples of their digital art exhibitions.

For the first category — audience and social networks — it is interesting to know the hard data. Thus, it is necessary to use a quantitative method within which a sample will be taken to carry it out. For example: choose three days to conduct the research. I propose to use surveys to know how many people entered the exhibition and how long they spent inside the exhibition. Since surveys about the online exhibition can be complex, the gallery will need to be contacted to analyse the data. Subsequently, it will be necessary to visualise this data through a platform such as GraphCommons to filter the results and obtain hard data reflecting the entry of viewers and their time spent. This statistical analysis will yield data to evaluate growth within the exhibition.

Regarding quantification within social networks, it can be measured through likes, retweets, comments, and other interactions available within social networks such as Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. It is possible to limit ourselves to these platforms as they are the most used as well as the use of analysis provided by search engines such as Google to search for articles and reviews within magazines, newspapers and virtual platforms that share information about these exhibitions. For this, it is required to become a direct observer of the chosen gallery’s social networks and conduct a thorough observation during the days chosen as a sample.

The conflicts that can arise when using a survey as a baseline method to obtain attendance data and the time viewers spend inside the exhibition are that the results may depend on the sample days chosen to conduct the research, so the results may not be 100% reliable. On the other hand, it may be complex to obtain permission to conduct the analysis online. If the exhibitions are not as successful as planned, it may not be convenient for the gallery/museum to share this type of information. Also, to conduct the surveys, it is necessary to organise a team that responds to the needs of the space and obtains the required permissions to carry them out, and finally get every one of the visitors to take part in this exercise. As far as direct observation is concerned, it is necessary to develop a strategy to interpret the level of interest depending on the results; by this, I mean that a numerical system must be created to evaluate comments, likes, retweets, etc. differently since they do not represent the same thing in terms of interaction with the exhibition.

For the second category — interaction with the work — it is advisable to use the same sample for the previous exercise. This time, it is necessary to focus on a qualitative approach. In this case, I propose developing an unstructured interview as the method to be used since it will provide us with crucial information without losing detail. By this, I mean that direct interaction with randomly selected individuals will be required. The approach can be guided by questions about how they interacted with the work and how curatorial decisions impacted it. It is necessary to maintain an open dialogue to move freely and explore the subject in detail. The online exhibition will be required to develop these interviews through a Skype-type means to have the same flexibility. However, the method will remain the same for both exhibitions. The level of engagement of each viewer interviewed may be challenging to measure in terms of how the audience approaches the work and the curatorial methods that were successful; with this in mind, the initial questions will be crucial to establish the appropriate ground and will need to be designed specifically for each exhibition being researched.

The problem that can be associated with using an unstructured interview to investigate audience interaction with the play is that the initial questions are the ones that will set the tone for the entire dialogue, so if they are not effective, the whole conversation will be compromised. It can also be challenging to put into words the audience’s relationship and interaction with the play. If interviewees are unfamiliar with the terminology used within the conversation, many of their responses may be lost in the translation of data. However, the results may lead in different directions, which can be complex to interpret when creating conclusions.

For the third category — post-exhibition feedback — it is necessary to wait until the chosen exhibitions are over. For this, I suggest using participatory observation to immerse ourselves inside the exhibition spaces after the exhibitions have taken place to see if the audience needs to create post-exhibition dialogues. To achieve this, it is necessary to create an archive and documentation of the exhibition, such as catalogs, books, videos, etc. and actively seek events based on the exhibition, either symposiums, workshops, and/or conferences where artists, curators, and/or managers are invited to talk more in-depth about the exhibition or topics related to it. Additionally, I suggest developing a focus group with audience members of these events as well as a group of participating artists belonging to the three types of exhibitions investigated (online, in a physical space, and both spaces) to obtain data through discussions and dynamic interaction among participants (Morgan 2003), to generate conclusions about the curatorial approach of the exhibitions as well as to gather opinions about how participants suggest digital-based art should be exhibited and why.

The potential failure factor in conducting this research using the participatory observation method is that it can be complicated to track all of these exhibitions’ activities significantly if they overlap. Measuring feedback and impact on society can be subjective as a particular group of participants will have to be chosen. Often, distance is required to truly understand the long-term impact.

Therefore, one solution may be to use past exhibitions and conduct research on them, however, because many of these online galleries are pretty new — several with less than a decade of activity — and are usually visited by a particular audience — in the case of virtual galleries, we could say that they are seen mainly by people between 18 and 40 years old, interested in the arts, who also have access to the internet and can surf it without a problem — the audience may vary a lot. It will not be possible to generate a 100% readable picture of a whole community. As for the focus group, the problems are similar, but the solution is not so simple as it can be complex to find people who attended key exhibitions, especially if they took place a long time ago. Even if we can locate them, we need a decent number of participants who remember possible details of the exhibitions involved. On the other hand, if we decide to choose recent exhibitions to develop this part of the study, the first part of the research — the observation of activities and the archiving of the exhibitions — may not coincide with the focus group’s results so that it could be useless. It is also likely that gathering a group of artists who have been part of the three exhibitions could be complex as they are likely to belong to different places. However, one solution could be to conduct this activity online, although care must be taken to ensure the necessary interaction and discussion to obtain ideal results.

It seems to me that dividing the research into three areas makes it easier to conduct. For the first category, the methods will only be helpful if we can obtain permission from the exhibition spaces, so this should be one of the points to consider when generating a strategy to develop the research. Finally, to conduct focus groups with the artists from the three types of exhibitions is extremely important so as to be able to understand the way in which they perceived their work once it was exhibited inside the spaces. As for the direct observation of social networks, it is necessary to create an efficient scale to measure the interaction within them. As for the second category, it is possible to cover it successfully through unstructured interviews as long as the base questions are planned and a sample group proportional to the size of the exhibitions is generated; for the third category, we could consider developing only the focus groups since in this way a deep dialogue can be developed from which vital information can be obtained for the development of future curatorial proposals. Finally, conducting focus groups with artists from the three types of exhibitions is extremely important to understand how they perceive their work exhibited within these spaces.

Conclusion

It is possible to approach the curation of digital art exhibitions in terms of the use of space — online and physical — by creating an effective strategy that is attractive, engaging, and conscious. The central issues in terms of exhibiting digital-based art and its relationship to the exhibition space and how it connects with the audience through the curatorial decisions made will be revealed through in-depth research. Thus, it is necessary to focus on a methodology that allows us to obtain information directly from the artists and the audience to identify problems and seek solutions.

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Imagen de portada: Avedon, LaTurbo (2016), Untitled, image viewed December 2016

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Outsiders Gallery, Querétaro, México.