Online forever?

December 14, 2020

I’ve been so busy teaching and marking assignments during Melbourne’s COVID-19 lockdown that I haven’t had time to do any of my own writing. Last week I watched a session on Artshub Visions 2020 conference called ‘post-pivot digital access’ and I was reminded about how little art I’d consumed digitally in this strange year. And that’s a strange outcome because most arts organisations immediately pivoted to online product.

Before I go further, I do have to acknowledge that the digital world is a boon for people with disabilities; that it saves the environment as people travel less to get to work or meetings or conferences; that it usually means that arts experiences are more affordable.

Therefore, my comments come from a position of acknowledged privilege. I can access theatres and galleries. I can afford to buy (some) tickets. But I don’t like consuming the art experiences I normally enjoy live via the digital world.

My favourite art form is theatre and I did watch some recorded work. Yes, Hamilton worked – as a well edited experience based on a series of performances to make the digital work as good as it could be. Yes, One Man, Two Guvnors was funny  – but I’d seen it a couple of times before so I knew the play. Jane Eyre didn’t work for me. Neither did The Deep Blue Sea. I was thrilled to be able to see the Black Swan production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll but it didn’t have the emotional impact of the live versions I’d seen. The challenge for filmed theatre is that it’s so close in form to other digital material such as films or series. Those works are made for the digital eye and live theatre is made for the human eye. And as a result, most of the time recorded theatre looks second best.

When it comes to the visual arts, most of my experiences occur when I’m travelling. I go into museums and galleries and craft shops to find out more about the towns and cities and regions in which I find myself. The physicality of the place I’m in is just as important as the art I experience. Therefore, the idea of doing an online gallery tour is of (almost) no interest. This year, one of my students explored a variety of art gallery tours and some of her insights are worth sharing.

As she said, immersive technology expands accessibility and creates a free, unrestricted environment and yet the vast and empty digital exhibition hall makes the spectator feel lonely, given that nobody else it there to accompany them. She also noted a common aspect of the digital experience – being easily distracted by online ads and notices as well as being able to multitask. She also found herself felling “dizzy, disoriented and irritable” trying to use the arrow icons to ‘walk’ through the 360-degree rooms. I confess that in the few times I did look at virtual exhibitions, I usually gave up after a few minutes of fiddling with the keyboard.

The wonder and joy of exploring a gallery or museum is not just what’s on the wall, the floor or the display box. It’s being in a physical space with its multisensory aspects including everything from chance encounters with others to tea and cake in the café as one reflects on the experience.

All the arts organisations that I know did some sort of pivot this year to digital presentation. Partly it was to retain connection with audiences. Partly it was to provide work for artists. Partly it was to try and generate some income. Partly it was to experiment with digital art making as a replacement for live art. All of these are great reasons for doing so. But I’m not the audience that was engaged. As an example, I thought I’d watch  the Melbourne International Film Festival online. The price was about the same that I’d cheerfully pay to see a film in a cinema. But I ummed and ahhhed and eventually didn’t. Why not? When I pay $15 to go to the movies, I buy the film but also the experience of catching up with friends or eating a choc top or having shopping/eating experiences before or after. For the same amount of money I can get a month of Netflix or Stan streaming rather than risking it on one film. So I found other international films to watch in other ways.

There are arts experiences that I have always enjoyed through non-live means. I’ve learnt to love reading books via my phone when I’m travelling. I consume music daily via digital platforms but I’ve listened to recorded music even before I received my first pale blue and white portable 45 record player in my childhood. Music has always been both live and recorded for me. But for the same length of time, I’ve experienced theatre live. Am I just too stuck in my ways to give up on this way of experiencing stories, learning empathy, exercising my emotional muscles?

I’m sure that part of my ambivalence about art in the digital world is that too much of my life is already online. Each day, when we couldn’t go out, I sat staring at a computer screen. Each night, when we couldn’t go out, I sat staring at a television screen. Each day, when the libraries were closed, I read on my screen. Each night, when I couldn’t visit friends, I talking to them via zoom. I want to save up for the potential pleasure of a great night in the theatre rather than trying to replace it with a less than satisfactory outcome. I want to save up for the potential pleasure of exploring traditional and contemporary Japanese art when I finally get to go on my cancelled trip rather than looking at examples on a flat screen.

Is it selfish of me to want to explore the world again? Both the emotional world and the real world but not much more of the digital world?