What is the purpose of art? It's a question that opens up a cannon loaded with infinite answers; many in contradiction with one another, no doubt. One thing many can (and have) collectively agreed on is how its existence is ingrained into our society, semi-debunking writer James Baldwin's renowned exclamation 'Life is more important than art'... one that ended in the author realising 'that's why art is important'. See, even Baldwin got there in the end. After all, humans haven't enjoyed centring their lives around it for thousands of years for nothing; making, watching, observing, writing and reflecting on the possibilities of 'art' and its frills over and over... an activity which led to the industry welcoming Decentraland's third annual Metaverse Art Week in August.
The Venice Biennale-inspired event, Metaverse Art Week, is impressive for many reasons, one of which boils down to its success in exploring the possibilities of entirely virtual spaces. Until now, the art industry's hesitance towards stepping into a flat-out digital sphere was clear as day. Although it had one foot in the digital realm, the other was firmly planted in the physical gallery space, a tradition that has its roots in exhibitions such as the early 20th century Paris Salon d'Automne, which provided an international stage for avant-garde art groups such as the Fauves and the Cubists.
This collision peaked with the arrival of the pandemic in 2020 as culture vultures en masse cried in unison when the option to go gallery hopping was pulled from underneath them. Trembling needs to feed on art were quickly met by galleries, art institutions and the like when they adapted to meet the demands of a nation locked up in isolation. While fashion weeks suddenly became an online affair, theatre stepped into the virtual sphere, all while the National Gallery, Tate and more delighted in their own interpretations of the future; visions that were no less clearly inspired by Google Street View (360 tours and all). This new way of consuming art had always felt somewhat restrictive when tried and tested before, yet, as if overnight, the physical became digital. Despite some wonkiness, watching these institutions transform so quickly was marginally impressive, but that tag of 'digital art' that followed closely behind became somewhat insulting, an assumption fashion writer and respected curator Robin Muir also aligns himself closely with. 'I've seen projections on the wall, I've taken projections into my own exhibitions, and I've even experienced virtual tours of physical galleries and their collections, but you can hardly call that - in any way - digital art', Muir tells me over the phone.
Two years on from COVID-19, and the industry is still anchoring digital art to physical spaces (Metaverse Art Week aside). This unashamedly limits the breadth and depth offered by digital art, but how did we get here? Our struggle in allowing digital art its own space to breathe opens up unanswered questions about how we move forward in this medium. Even when we do, what will the future consumption of art look like outside the preexisting exhibition space? When speaking with Muir, he told me that the problem doesn't necessarily lie in the art itself but in the institutions we choose to showcase it in, frankly observing that 'the modern gallery is not equipped to display digital exhibitions.' I ask him why he thinks that is the case: 'What we're not doing at the moment is investing in digital curation... as far as I'm aware, that's not happening in any of the museums I go to', Muir affirms. 'Instead, I think we're going to have to find new venues to put on digital art. A lot of it is not going to work in the confines of our major London museums.'
It would be a lie to say digital media didn't offer a bridge to an exciting range of experiences that COVID would have otherwise wiped. However, it's worth thinking about how 'futuristic' it is to digitise entire physical spaces by uploading them online; it is 2022, after all, not 1982. Even when you look at the exhibitions tackling digital art, it all still feels a bit retro, a poignant fact Guardian art critic Jonathan Jones noted when he compared 180 Strand's Future Shock exhibition with the West End's adaptation of Robert Zemeckis' Back To the Future. 'When you've seen one laser carving clouds of smoke to create illusory 3D spaces that warp and shift before your eyes, you've seen them all', Jones retorted in his two-star review. 'And I saw this special effect in Back to the Future: The Musical, so the two installations that use it in the latest subterranean art spectacular in the cavernous club-like depths of 180 The Strand cut no dry ice with me'.
'While the works in Future Shock use digital technology, they are not about the tech', curator at 180 Studios and co-founder of FACT Magazine, Sean Bidder tells me. 'If you're thinking about the tech, then the work has failed to some degree.' What was its purpose if Future Shock isn't about technological advances? Bidder reveals, 'Collectively, the ambition was that these works in the cavernous underground spaces of 180 Studios would transport you somewhere different, a liminal space between physical and virtual reality, where your senses are stimulated, and hopefully, your mind expanded.' In the words of Muir, 'The future is there, but it's not quite there yet; it needs some way in making us bother to engage.' Regardless, the art relied heavily on LED screens and installations to convey 'expansion', both of which can feel quite static when referenced in the conversation of 'thought-provoking' art. The idea of a liminal space also implies a hybrid world that treads water between the physical and digital, an environment founder of SHOWstudio Nick Knight isn't entirely convinced with. 'When talking about how it's best to show digital work, a virtual environment is probably best. Why are we trying to show it in an old environment when it's only going to limit what we can do? Not only does it limit your enjoyment of it, but it also limits the scope of what the work can be.'
This year, there's been a roster of exhibitions popping up here, there, and everywhere, each one feeding into the same theme asking 'what does the future look like for humankind'; a case in point for how every alternative attempt that sets out to challenge our views on digital and immersive art ends up copying what has come before. The potential of this realm should feel like one hell of a thrill, particularly when relying on interactive art as a means of communication, and yet it all still feels quite underwhelming. If anyone can point out fundamental differences in ideas and aesthetics foreseen between Barbican's Our Time on Earth, Selfridges' Superfutures and 180 Strand's Future Shock, then be my guest, but at the end of the day, these exhibitions all happened in real time, in real spaces, confined by real walls and managed by real people. If anyone was wondering, they also all unsurprisingly expressed a similar vision, but we'll blame that on the abundance of LED screens for now.
Although their integration into modern art has become increasingly familiar since galleries had a rethink post-COVID, LED screens have been on the rise for a while, particularly concerning the curation and presentation of digital art. Platform Culturespaces is just one example that would consider this modern way of presenting their bread and butter. Having championed this 'immersive' format since 2012 - dubbing themselves as 'the pioneer of digital art spaces and immersive exhibitions around the world' - the network dedicates itself to projecting the work of famed artists like Van Gogh, Cezanne or Klimt onto 20 ft walls, resulting in moving displays of these works triggered by light. Various renditions from Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and Beethoven's many symphonies often compliment the viewing experience, and yet, despite apparent commercial success (some tickets range upwards of £30, which many willingly pay), this new way of showing dated works couldn't feel more uninspiring. It's fun, it's novel, but it's not much else.
In regards to traditional art exhibitions, Muir told me that part of the problem is 'the attention span of people in regards to the digital screen is very limited. Physical objects encourage you to engage with the art, rather than stand absentmindedly looking at a screen'. A similar LED-inspired swirl graced the facade of the FLANNELS building earlier this month, where the W1 Curates space is currently housed. As walls mutated into digital wave systems that reflected on the moving landscape of virtual creativity, we can only presume many critics wondered, 'Is this the more democratically functioning art gallery system we've all been talking about?' If it is, maybe the future is more underwhelming than previously thought. 'It's the sheer physical presence of objects which makes you stand back, wonder and marvel. You're never going to get that experience of scale and gravitas if you're not really standing in front of the masterpiece that's on show,' Muir concludes.
The horizons offered by digital art are endless, yet the physical limitations placed on these works by the exhibition spaces they're kept in contradict this narrative entirely, making the medium feel comparatively reductive. No one doubts the potential of digital art, but the question of how we unleash it broadly remains unanswered, despite many attempts. The pandemic may have gone away for now, but the viewing experience of art it helped shift along is still propped by the reality and existence of physical 'things', just as a computer screen propped pandemic exhibitions. Whether it be a studio, a gallery, a phone, a laptop or a specialist LED screen; digital art cannot be accessed without the physical. Throughout my conversation with Muir, I was left assured that even 'an old dinosaur' like him firmly believes 'there's no doubt that it can work, it's just how it works and how you replicate that sort of experience in consuming art.' So, what's next? Do we stick to the virtual sphere? Or do we keep trying to collide the physical and digital realms? I don't have the answers, but the more we ask questions, the closer we are to pursuing the truth when it comes to the future of art as we know it.