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Culture

Visiting a virtual art gallery

Abigail Smith
We interviewed Dr Vesna Petresin Robert, one half of art collective Rubedo whose groundbreaking immersive experiment at London's Paynes and Borthwick gallery allows visitors to take a virtual tour.

You’ve trained at the highest levels in architecture, fine art and performance, and you’ve gained a unique understanding of all things digital – what do you do now? Let people walk through a gallery that hasn’t even been built yet, of course.

We meet Dr Vesna Petresin Robert – one half of art outfit Rubedo – who has worked with her video-game savvy partner to devise a real-time alternate world.

Your digital version of the Paynes & Borthwick gallery is an incredible, interactive space: you can admire the view from the Thameside jetty, step in through the automatic doors and experience the art as though you were there. Where did the idea come from?

Creating a digital version of a gallery currently under construction in Greenwich was a completely new challenge, but also very close to the idea we have at Rubedo about taking art out of the ‘white cube’. Rather than using traditional gallery spaces, we like using the city as a canvas or finding interesting architectural spaces for our installations. Laurent [Laurent-Paul Robert, the other member of Rubedo] used to direct a video games company that supported our art practice and majored on the educational aspects of gaming – walking through a historic site from a first-person perspective, for example – so he’d had access to all sorts of exciting tools and technology that are usually out of reach for artists. Future City, the company commissioned to bring the space to life for artists, curators and visitors before its opening, realised if they came to us they could create a real-time online experience.

What challenges or surprises did you encounter in the gallery-creation process?

There is no precedent for this project, so there were lots of unknowns that we had to try to anticipate. We had to think about how to create a narrative experience in the gallery – we used translucent membranes to hold text about the art, for example – and then we had to create a way of moving through the space that would work for everyone. Our audience stretches from people who’ve never viewed a computer game up close to those who would get bored if it wasn’t challenging enough; we created something that is intelligible to anyone who can read the spatial cues – I actually tested it on my mum.

The second challenge was around creating artworks in this totally new medium. For Rubedo, it was perfect because we already use the combination of sound and space a lot in our work, which means putting sound, movement and light responses together in very close association – I move a hand and a light comes on, for example. It has to be so smooth it almost feels like magic. In a real-time experience, you can achieve this effect with 3D modelling and animation: it means we can do the sort of installation we’ve always dreamed of.

Your inaugural installation involved visitors disappearing through a portal in the gallery and emerging into a pulsing universe of light and sound, making it unique to the digital space. Can a digital gallery replace a physical one?

I think this is a question for neuroscience really. We all know about illusions, phantom limbs, hallucinations and so on and very often in our work we use synaesthesia – the phenomenon in which one sensory input can trigger a response in another, such as being so overwhelmed by music that you have a visual impressions and that can feel completely real – so I think in a sense technology is just going to support whatever it is that we try to express as artists but it’s not the ultimate aim. It’s not about replacing, it’s just about enhancing and augmenting the experience.

A sense of place and how we locate ourselves as the ‘me’ in the experience is also very important – which is why it was so exciting to work closely with a property developer. It gives you a very good platform from which you immerse people in something experimental; it’s very out there and challenging but still has ties to the physical world, rather than just throwing visitors into a wormhole.

How can other artists realise their ideas in a digital space? Will they need a high level of technical knowledge?

For this initial set of projects, we are going to be collaborating on co-creating the forthcoming artworks. It’s partly sharing the experiences and skills we have, but it’s also about challenging the artist and pushing the boundaries of what they think they can create safely, making them rethink their practice in a new way from a fresh perspective. It’s like giving someone a new set of instruments to play with.

I hope that there will be lots of new artists who try to experiment with this medium more and more but it’s like with anything else: you have to hone your skills before you can express what you want to with them. I’m also really looking forward to the next generation coming up who will be more at home with the technology, but equally it’s often artists from an older generation who are most fascinated by what you can achieve in this space. Sculptors who work with big blocks of heavy materials are excited about being able to go beyond what the laws of physics condition you to do: what if the bigger an object is, the more it floats, for example? It’s all about being more conceptually challenging, trying out new ideas and that’s always been fun for artists.

Each installation only stays online for a short period, like a real-world exhibition. What implications does this have for artworks and longevity?

With time-based works such as performances, you usually can’t accurately document or replicate an experience that happens in time – a theatre or concert experience is never the same recorded. But with digital exhibitions, the online work can be viewed simultaneously from all corners of the world, so we’re not just actually starting at point A in time and finishing at point B, we’re saying there’s a multitude of times and possible experiences, because you can go forward and backwards, reverse it, play with it. It’s not a reproduction of an artwork, it literally is the artwork. The problems related to time-based work fall away. So it’s not about adapting something that exists somewhere in the physical space, it’s actually producing art in a new kind of space with its own laws.

From a curatorial point of view, there’s a whole new branch of experts shaping up – mainly from New York – to consult on how to curate, protect and preserve this type of work for museums and private collections. We‘ve also had a lot from collectors because this kind of work cannot be copied – you would need to physically steal the code, as everything’s encrypted and password protected. It’s not like a film that someone can snatch and put on Youtube because this will never allow you access to the key elements: control and navigation of the space. This makes it very exciting for collectors because it has value.

Looking to the future, what other spaces could benefit from a digital reimagining, and how would you like to see the gallery evolve?

What this real time platform gives is a new type of event space: it can be used as a social media space so users can interact in it, and it could serve everything from film screenings and fashion shows to lots of new architectural design projects. Architects today create buildings in 3D environments, so they basically script the whole building from scratch; you don’t need the drawings any more. We use digital tools so much that it makes sense to also translate the communications of the designs in this way – you don’t have to get back to the physical unless you want to.

As for this gallery, I would like to see it become one of the many. I would like to see real-time art centres making the most of freedom to combine different media on this new platform, stimulating audience participation and functioning as a social space. We spend so much time online that it makes sense that we would also enjoy and share aesthetic experiences online too. We’ve always used tools throughout history and I simply see digital as a new extension of that.

Abigail Smith is a freelance editor. The gallery is free to visit and is open 24 hours a day; visit paynesandborthwickgallery.com. Image:  Paynes & Borthwick gallery.

we created something that is intelligible to anyone who can read the spatial cues – I actually tested it on my mum

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