Prompted by Marty Spellerberg
In this roundtable, we’ll discuss and survey the impact of the Internet on cultural organizations; and explore the nature and relevance of digitally-influenced physical spaces. This event is titled “Proud to Be Flesh.” This was the tagline of Mute, a magazine founded in 1994, when the World Wide Web was newborn, to discuss the interrelationship of art and new technologies. We chose this title because it captures the frisson that our physical experience is now distinct from another possible way of being. That the flesh matters, still.
In their exhibitions, museum curators are starting to grapple with the fact that a generation has grown up not knowing a world without the Internet.
As much of the world moves online, what’s next for engaging, enriching, in-real-life experiences of art and culture?
Earlier this year the MCA Chicago staged I Was Raised on the Internet. The show focused on:
The ways we interact with each other have shifted through the connected nature of telecommunications devices across the internet, including mobile applications, social media platforms, and large search engines that have become everyday tools for individuals from all walks of life. New modes, not only of seeing but also of feeling, have emerged in response to this.
Also this year, ICA Boston staged Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today, which examined:
How the internet has radically changed the field of art, especially in its production, distribution, and reception … Themes include emergent ideas of the body and notions of human enhancement; the internet as a site of both surveillance and resistance; the circulation and control of images and information; possibilities for new subjectivities, communities, and virtual worlds; and new economies of visibility initiated by social media.
These are valuable endeavors. But we’re still talking about traditional exhibitions staged by traditional institutions. This is the paradigm that is strained by conditions like those found at the Met in 2017:
In a move that upset many curators, (Thomas) Campbell directed considerable resources toward the new, ‘digital’ department … There were more people working in the digital department than there were in any five or six other departments combined,” says (a) former administrator. “That was (a) big expenditure, and it tied together with this ever growing sense that the Met was going to be young and cool,” he says. “I think that it just got out of proportion.” 
Expressing a similar sentiment, The Glenstone, a new museum in Maryland, “will discourage taking pictures in the galleries and will instead invite visitors to engage with guides in the galleries, or look up information when they get home, or buy a book from the bookstore.”
“We don’t have a digital strategy,” they say.
Art In America has the rebuttal: “It’s no longer a question of whether art institutions should have a virtual presence. Rather, the onus is being placed on designers to facilitate meaningful interactions with art that might occur in the gallery, via Web-based applications or in new hybrid spaces that merge the real and the virtual.” 
So what is different about these spaces from the ones that came before? Let’s look to the example of a digital-native.
Artsy bills itself as a “place to learn about and collect art online.” Rather than a having an online office within a larger offline organization, they’ve flipped the ratios. Their “special projects” initiative applies online resources toward offline activations.
Their decision to work with artist Misha Kahn on an offline project followed from the success of an online profile. “We knew that he had resonated with our online audience and would likely excite our offline audience as well,” they explained.
Or consider the work of artists such as Kara Walker, whose work was so prolific on Instagram that people skipped seeing a piece because they felt that they had already sufficiently experienced it. As Sarah Hromack, then director of digital media at the Whitney, reported:
I witnessed a conversation wherein a handful of New York-based arts professionals admitted to having willfully refrained from seeing Kara Walker’s recent installation, A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby—a magnificent larger-than-life sphinx made of refined white sugar—in Brooklyn’s Domino Sugar factory, because they felt that they had already sufficiently experienced the piece through images seen in others’ Instagram feeds. … To think that now, in 2014, we would allow ourselves to be dissuaded from a physical experience by the effects of a digital interface is sad … Seeing an image pop up over and over again in various social media feeds might make me feel a sense of familiarity with the work, but it cannot approximate my sensorial experience—and I say this as a person that has experienced augmented and virtual reality in military-grade computer labs!
What may have been an obvious, settled fact in 2014 has become less-so four years later, as the New York Times is now compelled to ask: “Does the availability of virtual reality tours, videos and photographs of museum collections worldwide make physical museums themselves obsolete?”
Of what a visitor may find within museum walls, they write:
In the presence of the “Mona Lisa,” digital photography, more than looking at the actual artwork, has become the primary experience. … The way the “Mona Lisa” is viewed is, in fact, soberingly representative of the way most art is viewed in today’s saturated, digitally mediated, visual culture. How many more (or fewer) seconds do cellphone-wielding visitors spend looking at individual works at a commercial art fair or exhibition than at the Louvre? How is an artistic reputation made these days, other than through Instagram? 
To which the New Yorker responds:
Visual art in 2018 is increasingly a set piece of sorts, an aesthetic signifier that can mean “taste,” or “contemplation,” or “having a good time,” depending on the artwork in question. Rothko paintings are particularly good for this, judging by their popularity online; they flatten easily into bright swaths of color, while maintaining a certain cultural cachet. 
Responding to these conditions, a new form has emerged. Consider Candytopia, a recent installation staged in New York and San Francisco:
(It) doesn’t purport to be a museum, exactly, or an amusement park, or a retail location. It’s a combination of all those things, but it’s billed mostly as an experience. … What the creators of these experiences have realized is that a lot of people want to take pictures of themselves in a museum, without going to a traditional museum. So they’ve created temporary, overstuffed spaces that are geared toward online aesthetics and in-real-life consumption. 
Alas, the critics are underwhelmed:
The most that these spaces can offer is the facsimile of traditional pleasures. They take nature and art and knowledge seeking, flatten them into sight gags and stick them to every stray surface. … Observing a work of art or climbing a mountain actually invites us to create meaning in our lives. But in these spaces, the idea of “interacting” with the world is made so slickly transactional that our role is hugely diminished. 
Luckily, others are making better use of the raw materials. Meow Wolf’s 20,000-square-foot House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe “aims to offer more than just photo ops.”
Rather, (Founder Vince) Kadlubek and his colleagues are working towards a future where high-quality, thought-provoking art environments are the norm. … Meow Wolf took cues from other buzz-worthy immersive art experiences—like Kusama’s “Infinity Rooms,” James Turrell’s light installations, and enveloping animations by teamLAB. “We’ve been inspired by them because they showcased credibility in this type of space,” Kadlubek explained. But at its core, Meow Wolf has looked to fellow collectives—like Wham City in Baltimore and the Do LaB in Los Angeles—as well as the art that gets made annually at the Burning Man festival. 
That same energy is finding expression in Denver, where a new generation of artist-run spaces are “devising new models to replace the old-school ones that aren’t working anymore.” 
Which brings us to our present moment.
So let’s begin at the beginning: As much of the world moves online, what’s next for engaging, enriching, in-real-life experiences of art and culture?
About the Prompter
Marty Spellerberg is the director of Spellerberg Projects, a cultural incubator in Lockhart, Texas. He has 20 years experience in interactive design and development, including a decade working specifically with cultural institutions. He is the co-lead of the National Museum Website Visitor Motivation Study and co-author of the resulting paper in the Journal of Digital and Social Media Marketing. He presents regularly at industry conferences such as Museum Computer Network, Museums and the Web, SXSW Interactive and WordCamp. He has worked with the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh; the Clyfford Still Museum, Denver; the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago; the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History; and the Toronto International Film Festival, among others. He is a graduate of the Ontario College of Art & Design, Toronto.