Covid-19 and virtual reality: The cultural cost of going online

So Art Basel Hong Kong happened last week. But with travel restrictions, curfews and social distancing in place, its organisers abandoned the fair’s physical edition: instead, it took place online. According to contemporary art magazine, ARTnews, the galleries that took part in the fair reported steady sales and positive feedback from buyers, despite there being technical glitches because of high traffic when the platform was launched to the public. “The online iteration is a sobering remedy to the major disruptions that the coronavirus has wrought on the global art calendar,” ARTnews wrote

With Covid-19 recently reaching South African shores, the local contemporary art scene has slowly begun following suit, beginning with the closure of physical spaces. Last week, the Stevenson art gallery announced that although Thenjiwe Nkosi’s solo exhibition, Gymnasium, would be on display in its Johannesburg gallery, it would not have a formal opening. The gallery then confirmed that both Stevenson Cape Town and Johannesburg would remain open and operate with a skeleton staff to help with queries, answer phones, and welcome visitors. As well as Gymnasium, the launch of Mawande Ka Zenzile’s monograph, Uhambo luyazilawula, was also cancelled, after President Cyril Ramaphosa encouraged the public to practice social distancing as a means of hampering the spread of Covid-19. 

During an interview about her solo debut, Nkosi mentions how — although there were moments of uncertainty about whether to carry on exhibiting work while a pandemic was on the rise — she believes that it is “important that artists continue to give their art”.  To ensure that the art gets to the public, Stevenson told the Mail & Guardian that it is “looking into teaming up with filmmakers and sharing additional digital content with our mailing lists in order to keep on telling our artists’ stories.”

Enter virtual reality 

In addition to video content, a handful of South Africa’s leading contemporary art spaces are using virtual reality to bring their galleries to remote and isolated audiences. “I’ve never been busier in my life,” sighs Richard Aldous, who, together with Andrew Larsen, co-owns 3D Tours — a company that specialises in increasing brands’ competitive edge by equipping them with digital tools. 

Since being set up in 2017, 3D Tours’ primary service has been creating digital, 3D impressions of existing spaces. The most common type of impression is one created when a space is captured using a sequence of still images or videos. Unlike a conventional video or slideshow of images, this interactive, moving picture continues uninterrupted and allows the viewer navigation agency. Such an impression allows the viewer to take a virtual walk: their view of the space will change as they pan the room. 

To execute this, 3D Tours makes use of a 360° camera similar to those seen on the roof of a Google Street View car. When this is complete, the media captured by the camera is placed on an artificial intelligence platform that stitches the 360° imagery or videos together to create the moving, immersive and interactive tour. “The artificial intelligence that makes that happen is all housed in Silicon Valley,” adds Aldous.

Since its establishment, 3D Tours has developed a rapport with the local contemporary art scene that has seen it working with establishments including BKhz, Absa Art Gallery, the Goodman Gallery, The Bag Factory, Standard Bank Art Gallery, and the annual FNB Art Joburg fair. 

Although its work with galleries is what brought 3D Tours to the M&G’s attention, they are only responsible for a portion of its income. The company’s other clientele include hotels, lodges, guest houses, schools and retailers. And, during a time where businesses need to find a way of operating under the restrictions of social distancing, 3D Tours’ biggest clients are galleries and realtors. “Apart from galleries, I’m expecting a lot of show house days to be cancelled, so I have reached out to a number of estate agents to create virtual show days,” Aldous says. 

Employee safety

When asked about the safety of 3D Tours’ employees, Aldous argues that the risk is low because “most of the venues that we are scanning are closed to the public or have very few people working on the premises”. 

As well allowing patrons to immerse themselves virtually in spaces that they can’t get to because of self-isolation, 3D Tours can link any web-based content to the virtual tour. In the past few weeks, 3D Tours has developed a way to allow patrons to shop, by linking tours to a shopping cart. Aldous adds that: “It’s like putting together with a mall, from the comfort of your device.” This addition, if requested by gallerists, could make it possible for art to be bought online. 

Because engagement with Nkosi’s work doesn’t necessarily require a live audience, it’s easy to assume that social distancing and the use of virtual walkabouts does not have much of an effect on the work of artists such as her. The show will go on and art buyers will still have the opportunity to add her work to their collections — whether it’s through a phone call or the  click of a button. 

However, Nkosi tells the M&G otherwise. Now that she is focused on painting — after working as a teacher and academic who would take on commissions for a number of years — an integral part of her practice is engaging patrons about their perceptions. “When my work used to involve me engaging the people, it afforded me lateral thinking about how to make social work. It’s become too solitary, which is something that I need to shift,” said Nkosi.

Theatrical effects

Unlike artists who can use other platforms to attract audiences, virtual reality in South Africa is of no use to theatre practitioners, who still need bums on seats to pay the bills. Last week the chief executive officer of the Market Theatre Foundation, Ismail Mahomed, announced that all activities at the Market Theatre complex in Newtown and the Windybrow Arts Centre in Hillbrow are postponed until further notice. “Patrons who have booked for shows can either claim a refund or request their tickets to be deferred to when the government has announced that it is once again safe,” said Mahomed. 

This includes suspending all contact learning at the Market Theatre Laboratory and the Market Photo Workshop. But since the show must go on, Mahomed says the foundation “will shortly announce plans of how [the Market Theatre Foundation] will use livestreaming to continue to keep its audiences engaged”. For the time being, it is unclear whether the streaming services will involve a cover charge for audiences who want to tune in.

Even though they weren’t created with the Covid-19 pandemic in mind, virtual tours almost seem like a perfect response to a widespread demand. As well as making remote engagements with spaces interactive, virtual touring saves time and its geographical reach is unmatched. “You can send links globally so people who would otherwise be excluded from seeing a space can now see it,” adds Aldous. 

But this isn’t the only truth. For the most part, online content, such as live-streaming and virtual touring is accessible. However, access to smartphones and the cost of data need to be considered before cultural institutions can start thinking of URL links and .mp4 file attachments as an all-encompassing solution for engaging diverse audiences across the socioeconomic divide. 

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Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa
Zaza Hlalethwa studies Digital Democracy, New Media and Political Activism, and Digital Politics.

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