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Staging Tech

The COVID-19 pandemic has sent everyone rushing into the arms of technology. We take a look at some of the most inspiring solutions embraced by the art and culture sector.

Photo by Guillaume de Germain on Unsplash

Most of the world seems to have gone through the seven stages of pandemic grief. In the last seven months since the news first broke, we’ve gone from shock and denial to anger and depression, to acceptance and hope. The great driving force of economics has forced us back on our feet, pushing us to make the best of these critical circumstances. And while at it, technology has turned out to be our single greatest saviour, and has infiltrated all sectors at this time, whether for creation, delivery or consumption. The art & culture sector is no exception.

Artists, art organisations and culture professionals, who have the bandwidth, have embraced technology to keep the arts alive. From art exhibitions to fashion shows, from pride parades to concerts to literature and film festivals, everything has been translated virtually. There are now even exclusive virtual performance venues, where performing artists can present their shows, having rehearsed virtually! Even for those cautiously re-opening the doors of their physical cultural spaces, the event formats will likely remain hybrid in the foreseeable future, and their reliance on technology to maintain online standards and offline safety will be big. So, what has the transition been like and how is the culture sector adapting to the use of technology?

Topping up with Digital

After television and content-streaming platforms, the medium most of us turned to, to compensate for the lack of human interactions, were video conferencing tools. Both business and pleasure started taking place through these platforms and artists and event companies put on all manner of shows. However, four months into the pandemic and many are now experiencing ‘Zoom fatigue’, a term used to describe the mental exhaustion associated with online video conferencing and named after the world’s most popular web conference tool. A push for alternate digital means of consumption and engagement then led to many other digital innovations.

A Europe-based virtual art event serves as a good example. In early July 2020, the National Interdisciplinary Theater Ensemble (NITE) hosted a 24-hour long virtual Art Carousel to help raise funds for Doctors without Borders fighting in the frontlines of the global pandemic. NITE, a Dutch-origin open movement initiated by an ensemble of actors, dancers and musicians, is based in the Netherlands.

The Art Carousel, dubbed as the NITE Hotel, served as a platform for artistes across the globe, who performed simultaneously or in quick succession over two days.

Figure 2: A screenshot of the NITE Hotel that hosted the Art Carousel on July 3-4, 2020

Online portals such as ‘theater’, ‘rooms’, ‘bar’ and ‘lobby’ hosted different art performances and activities. These included shows by Batsheva Dance Company, Hong Kong Ballet, Schaubühne Berlin, La Mama New York, Navdhara Indian Dance Theatre, Barak Marshall, and Polish Dance Theatre Poznan. A viewer could watch at the ‘theatre’ with everyone, enter one of the 23 rooms and watch an artiste of their choice, simply hang out at the bar to ‘meet’ other attendees and chat with them, and even go to a ‘loo’ (presumably for watercooler conversations). Although the event was free for all, one could shop for merchandise or make a donation to support their cause. With their compelling website design, unique format and offerings, and a judicious mix of tools and platforms, the Art Carousel proved to be a robust attempt at replicating the live festival experience context digitally.

Meanwhile, Lighthouse Immersive in Toronto, Canada, have created a drive-in art gallery with readily available projection tools. A warehouse has been reimagined as a gallery space with projections of Van Gogh’s art on its massive walls, which visitors can drive by. As creative solutions go, this one helps patrons enjoy art from within the safety bubbles of their respective cars and uses existing technology, instead of creating new ones.

A virtual serving coming up

Mobile applications and virtual reality are other popular solutions that the sector has quickly adopted to sustain an audience connection. Museums and art galleries, for instance, have used these means to create new exhibitions.

Take for example, the National Museum in New Delhi, which launched an audiovisual tour on an audio guide application (app) called HopOn India, after the start of the lockdown. The app offers immersive do-it-yourself audio guides for various themes, destinations and monuments, across various cities in India. Shalini Bansal, co-founder of HopOn India, says, “This technology does not need any audio instruments, charging docks or staff and is highly scalable and very economical. It can also allow access of destination tours from any remote location and complies well with the new no-touch, no shared devices and no tour escort (physical distancing) norms.”

Closer home, the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya (CSMVS Museum) has also chosen to go down the virtual path to present a new exhibition on maritime and boat-building history titled ‘Kashti Kinara’. Anirban Majumder, a Museology and Conservation diploma student, who worked on the project told Culture Wire while 3D software like Max, Maya with V-Ray renderer, Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator were used for designing and editing the virtual exhibits, a lot of the sketching and planning of the exhibition happened online as well. The final interactive walkthrough was uploaded on Google Poly using Google Tour Creator.

A completely virtual exhibition may be a first for CSMVS, but the museum has been regularly working with technology. Regular visitors will know that in the past, the museum has used technology as add-ons to exhibitions and galleries to create interactive experiences and to convey additional information about exhibits through digital kiosks, holographic displays, etc. Also to note is their collaboration with Google Arts and Culture (GAC) since 2016 that has resulted in online exhibitions and virtual tours of the museum galleries, including an experiment called ‘Future Relics’.

The lockdown has challenged museum spaces to think a lot more about the relationship with technology beyond its use as a tool. Access to new audiences and digital ‘visits’ is one instance. CSMVS’s Kashti Kinara has seen over 3000 and counting since it was launched on June 14, and the museum has been contemplating what success means in this case According to Vaidehi Savnal, Assistant Curator, International Relations and Education, CSMVS, “The charm of real-life exhibitions cannot be contested, but virtual exhibitions certainly have positive aspects such as lower budgets, less paperwork, more efficient use of time. On the other hand, you stand to lose out on building personal relationships with your audience to a certain extent. By the time their responses make their way to you, they have lost that spontaneity. You also run the risk of going overboard when presenting something online – what you offer in terms of information, the scale of an exhibition, experiences and it requires a great deal of restraint in deciding how much is just right.”

Figure 3&4: Views from the virtual exhibition organised by the CSMVS Museum, Mumbai

The limitations of tech-based substitutes notwithstanding, they are here to stay and our reliance on them seems only set to increase. It may unnerve curators to learn that the 2022 edition of the Bucharest Biennale will be curated by an AI (Artificial Intelligence) programme called Jarvis!

Bring in the doctors, robots and interaction technology

Interestingly, AI is also being employed in the realm of medical technology, combining it with robotics. UV-C light-emitting robots and similar technology for disinfecting and sanitizing spaces have become increasingly popular in hospitals and may soon find applications in a number of public spaces. Drones may also find wider applications beyond filming performances. Thermal screening and may also be an important function for these flying robots for public events in the near future. These ‘fever-detecting’ drones operate on the technology used in IR (infra-red) thermometers presently, but there is some skepticism around their efficacy. Dr. Munjaal Kapadia, Director, Namaha Healthcare, Mumbai and Ramaben Hospital, Navsari, also concurs that IR technology isn’t too reliable. He says, “More than technology, protection of patrons would be better achieved by common sense and enforcing the standard practices of social distancing, mask-wearing and sanitisation.”

Robots and drones may be expensive investments for culture organisations, but more viable wearable solutions have also started presenting themselves. Museums around the world are exploring options like voice or gesture-based interactive tools instead of touch-based ones; using disposable styluses where screen touching is imperative; and having visitors wear buzzing devices that use UWB (Ultra-Wideband) radio technology, to remind them to maintain social distance.

Riding the wave

For many organisations and individuals in the resource-strapped Indian culture sector, choosing high-end technological solutions may not be feasible but where there is a will, some virtual way seems to present itself. That Wave, an American virtual entertainment company which uses broadcast and gaming technology to create motion-captured performances of artists and turns them into animated characters in virtual worlds, has recently raised USD 30 million, is a sign of things to come.

Technology, at least in popular imagination, was the handmaiden of commerce thus far. Barring VFX in expensive Hollywood productions, it wasn’t associated much with the arts. But the pandemic has placed it squarely in the court of the arts too. Verily, technology has changed the ways in which a lot of art and cultural products are created and consumed. In a post-corona world, maybe going out will truly become a matter of choice rather than a necessity. Maybe artists will learn to take over the world from their computer screens in their spunky new virtual avataars!


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