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A Reflection on Photography Online Exhibitions

The shift to digital exhibitions formats for institutions, curators, and photographers themselves have had quite an acceleration since the start of the pandemic, even though considerable of long duration.

Demonised by some, considered an opportunity by others, the online world can signify a threat or a real advantage. When delving into the benefits and challenges of the digital turn, questions on the need and utility of exhibitions in the current situation emerge.

Essentially promotional events designed to communicate for marketing and selling purposes, photography exhibitions have slowly become more places for visitors to network, make personal or institutional connections, and nurture their social status. Physical exhibits are found in traditional museums, fairs, private galleries, or unconventional places such as streets, abandoned buildings, etc. Targets and specific groups are addressed through subtle means and strategies to attract and build loyalty. Photographies are exhibited and re-exhibited within different frames of narration, discourses, activities to produce a variety of resources. From the perspective of visitors, physical exhibitions are visited to enjoy, or understand the works of a group or a particular photographer, explore culture, get inspired, study. Demographics are then limited and stuck in exhibits’ physical nature while creating a certain level of exclusion to those who live in areas where photography exhibition do not exist. Moreover, the physical production of photographies does not allow the fluidity and openness of information gathered online, causing sometimes adverse effects of cognitive barriers, “because they block, limit or hamper information seeking, or give rise to negative reactions such as frustration.” (Savolanein 2015).

On the other hand, online exhibitions present practical and cost-effective solutions because they have no limits in time, distance and space. Indeed, they are available around the clock, permitting access to a global audience. The kind of experience is quite different in terms of physicality, social relations, and another type of learning. The drastic turn to digitalisation has been challenging for many institutions, resistant to the online world, especially in countries where technological skills are not as advanced, resulting in

considerably full benefits. Online exhibitions could enhance learning and symmetrical information because they provide more detailed information on the institutions’ mission, values and cultural offers. The exhibitions materials can be used for teaching and learning, stimulating and connecting people. Various levels of information can be displayed. The contexts and contents expand through links to external sources, also permitting an increase in information comprehensiveness. The perception of memory and experience of these photographic resources are augmented and potentially efficient.

Many new possibilities and advantages could be discovered, invented and re-invented. Simultaneously, a few questions linger at the back of the mind: why are photography exhibitions still needed? What are the benefits of viewing online versions of artworks supposed to be experienced physically? Many would say that the arts and creativity in all their forms are now more relevant than ever because of their power to make people feeling hopeful. They build connections creating a sense of understanding between people and a company. Engaging with the arts provides solace, stimulates curiosity and allows to be in the present with thought and feelings. This is the time for framing the past, re-thinking the present and imagining the future through new ways of doing and demonstrating the arts’ fluidity and resilience. Looking at photographs, and images of any kind, has different outcomes, as Alain de Botton argues in his book Art as Therapy (2018): they make people remembering, hoping, feeling sorrow, rebalancing, self-understanding, growing, appreciating. There is no such thing as feeling connected in these isolated days.

Otherwise, from the artists’ perspective, participating in online exhibitions is a way to connect with other likeminded people, network and spread their projects faster, considering the potentiality of Instagram accounts, websites and many other platforms to let contents travel. One of the best ways to start showing their art online, and building bridges with other peers often distant in space, is through online group exhibits. For gallerists and curators, the online show has the advantage to reach a wider community of viewers, together with the fact that logistics prices are minimised. For independent spaces, this formula of a curated online platform helps to find new talents through open calls and open submissions.

Not to mention, the viewer room is another considerable opportunity: it is a small virtual space where a limited number of works are displayed. Very specific, it gives a real space where to slow look and take some time to reflect on the images proposed.

Another discourse is linked to museums’ online resources, becoming more concentrated on creating resources related to art and wellbeing. Photography serves the purpose, somehow more understood and less intimidating than any other form of contemporary art. Offering videos, curatorial talks, online events, discovery resources and activities, together with virtual views, institutions are finding ways to strengthen their already-existent communities and attracting more followers.

Online photo festivals are also approaching the online world happening not to lose their essence: the fusion of local and global. Contexts, concepts, and contexts intermingle and build new narratives that quickly travel on the web and keep changing meaning.

The closest experience to a gallery visit is that given by virtual exhibitions. Although the most used and desired, it is the most difficult to produce because of the difficulty, it is expensive and time-consuming to develop. Indeed, not many excel in giving justice to the works featured in virtual exhibitions spaces. Renderings are very hard to be made realistic, and highly skilled people are required for the task. Hidden Histories virtual exhibition held by In Conversation With (a visual platform founded by Michaela Nagyidaiová & Kristina Sergeeva) is a case to bring to the table as an example and inspiration. The exhibit aims to be a visual conversation, a space for encounter and positive discussions. Collaboration is the platform’s key belief, yet set up to bring photographic artists more opportunities and connections around the world, through open calls, online exhibitions, features on our social media and more. Although visual conversations have always been a diffuse practice, the first lockdown has undoubtedly fostered the need for visual artists such as photographers to get in touch through images and narrate their days, fears, and hopes.

Indeed, virtual exhibits cannot only be considered under this light: the future implications of this format cannot be fully imagined. Indeed, the political is involved under the issue of accessibility. In Western countries, it seems normal to have access to online sources, while it is not the same in others when there is no freedom to choose what to see and connect with the globalised world. Another argument that should be observed is that museums’ and galleries’ viewers may be less likely to make a special trip to see the original object when facilities are available to see a quite reasonable facsimile at their homework station. Not to mention, museums seem to be proposing wellbeing resources to build up their own inclusive but liquid facade while not questioning themselves and the legitimacy to do so. It is somewhat outside them that sparkles of inclusion and real changes appear. The key is now to contaminate and be contaminated, promote networking, and make space for a playground where to experiment and think differently and critically to construct rather than disrupt any (im)possible future, although as Jean Baudrillard puts it, “when the real is no longer what it used to be, nostalgia assumes its full meaning” (qtd. in Poster 1988). According to the mass, the feeling of nostalgia is, above its weak appearance, a sign of resilience and resistance, against a power that is taking advantage of the pandemic to numb the vitality of the social, live experiences and critical thinking practices in physical spaces – where changes really happen. Nowadays photography exhibitions are in a transitory state, in a transformation and renewal process to hopefully re-emerge from the crisis more conscious of their social power.

Ilaria Sponda is a Master Student in Culture Studies, specialising in Management of the Arts and Culture at Universidade Católica Portuguesa (Lisbon). She holds a BA in Arts, Performing Arts and Cultural Events at IULM (Milan). Her current research interests lie in visual arts, particularly photography, and their use in community and identity building contexts. Furthermore, she focuses on visual education and techniques of dialogue facilitation around photography. She is also interested in curatorship, and she is an artist herself actively participating in exhibitions and collaborations.

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