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The Lab : Making sense of Immersion
in 2020

Summary from our last episode of the new series of Meetup !


We had the pleasure to welcome Fabien Siouffi, Founder and CEO of FabbulaSara Snyder, Chief of External Affairs and Digital Strategies at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and Renwick Gallery (United States), Nina Diamond, Executive Producer and Editorial Manager at The Metropolitan Museum of Art (United States), Mehdi Mejri, Digital Immersive Exhibitions Director at Atlas V (France) and Mélodie Mousset, XR Artist (France).

The session started by a review of our last sessions, the questions raised and the insights shared: 

> How to foster collaboration between artists and spaces?

Hints: Clearly state the expectations from producers and from museums, start early, define in advance, train museum teams.

> How to distribute immersive contents? 

Solution: We mapped distribution models (subscription / revenue share), listed funding possibilities and outlined the need to join forces for more co-creation.

> Is it all about tech? 

Good to remember: Communication and experience are key for success! A better understanding and knowledge of tech is crucial.  

1- Redefining Time – From early collaboration to extremely short exhibitions, time has different meanings and uses.

From the artist Mélodie Mousset came the first point: the necessity to collaborate early on between spaces and artists/producers. This is the only way to match expectations from both sides and work hand in hand for content co creation. 

Sara Snyder from the Smithsonian American Art Museum recognizes the need to change museum planning. Museums are used to plan exhibitions 3-5 years in advance, but for new tech it’s not possible. Museums should embrace a more agile methodology to give space for new technology oriented projects

Nina Diamond from the MET said that there is a great variety of projects using new technology. As an example she presented a Gerhart Richter special event, “Painting After All” that could only open 9 days because of the pandemic. So they quickly captured the exhibits in 360 videos adding music and quotations for a complete experience to be shared online. There was no early planning, but the museum team had to adapt to the context and could therefore set up this show for a successful online viewing. 

Mehdi Mejri from Atlas V, on the production side, pointed out that because of the very quick evolution of the technology, the writing of a project should remain very agile. Directors and producers work on the writing of scenes as they are crafting the project. They are able to test a scene or a sequence at the time that they are creating it. The media is changing and the storytelling remains very flexible. 

Melodie Mousset gave the example of the production “HanaHana”, a surreal VR multiplayer game, on which she started to work in 2016 for a release in January 2020. It’s been an evolving process. Creating interactive artwork means a lot of testing. There is no standard with a non linear storytelling and interactions to invent. The writing process is about finding solutions on how to trigger curiosity and build interactivity. Something that you think is going to work will be revised after a testing session.

The artist remembered the first VR project she did back in 2015 at the beginning when museums started to experiment with VR. It was at the Art Basel Fair. The main concern was about the safety of the VR headsets and how to show VR content. In fact, it has changed very slowly… Museums teams have learned to install the tech and as an artist, she had to learn how to teach people to access her digital artwork. It was a big step for the museums and still is about any new technology. It’s never working smoothly, so museums have to grow with this and accept cables everywhere that belong to the exhibits and the troubleshooting process!

This iterative process (just like the metaphor of the HanaHana project with the hands interacting) is becoming the new big challenge of production. So museums have to accept that uncertainty and all have to compose with this kind of creating-testing-revising phase. 

2- Eternity, intimacy, social life: Museums go fully online. 

Due to the pandemic, it appears that we need virtual places, obviously for sanitary reasons but also because it’s becoming a trend. How do institutions see this? Is it coming to a point of maturity: building worlds and inviting communities to join and share a virtual moment? Is it something that institutions feel responsible for? 

For Sara Snyder, a lot of museums focus on their collection which is their main mission. Regarding digital art, bringing media art in a collection raises a lot of questions: how to show and archive digital art? It’s a complex problem. Some museums choose to concentrate on their ability in interpretation and engagement with their audience. 

The exhibition “No spectators: the Art of Burning Man” is a good example for sharing an exhibition online. With the help of corporate sponsors, the museum team had the entire Washington museum architecture captured to make it accessible in VR. Viewers can attend the exhibition alone or with friends. Avatars groups can visit together. All artworks are interactive using the Intel Sensar social platform. To Sara Snyder’s opinion, what was very interesting in the project was to have a time capsule of a temporary exhibition that would be gone after a few months, and that it has developed a strong social component. Curators gave virtual tours through the VR media. That’s something that will be used more and more in the next few years. The interaction and immersion were so strong that it felt not very different from IRL exhibition tours.

This points out a new question: will museums curate online exhibitions and not show them in real life? The “MET Unframed” exhibition did that! It used augmented reality to show 50 iconic artworks in 12 galleries that viewers can display at home, offering new Instagram filters options for zooming in, pinning objects, playing with added sounds as an interpretative layer on the MET objects. 

The key challenge remains museums’ audiences: what makes them come back to an artwork? We usually come back to iconic films or music, but is it the same with immersive creations? 

Mehdi Mejri talked about the programme “Oceans, A Digital Immersive Odyssey” produced by MK2+ Agency and showcased in oceanographic museums which fully benefits from the immersive dimension of this kind of 360 video content. For art museums it’s a bit harder to have a digital twin that would be enough to bring a rich experience to the public, compared to IRL exhibition visits. If we are not able to travel, will the digital twin be enough or will the traditional temporary exhibition be the main exhibition offer? 

From the online attendance came 2 questions: 

  • Are museums experts on what makes culture? What do you think is your role as an institution? 

Sara Snyder and Nina Diamond agreed on this: This question is a very big topic, a political topic, who has this power to say what is art, what belongs to culture? Does it come from a curatorial position? For museums, this is the right moment to ask themselves this question indeed. Coming back to our focus on immersive content, museums should think about resources to be pointed to digital media. 

Museums responsibility is not just for sharing resources, expertise and collection. They need to recognize what is happening outside of their doors and include it in their practices. Dealing with stories? What is the sense of producing such stories? with whom and what for? 

  • How is Covid affecting both the artist and the curators? And from a point of view of inclusivity and accessibility, what can we do to progress in those areas?

Mehdi Mejri confirmed that big changes happened due to the pandemic. Cinemas had to close down, companies or departments had to stop their main activities. Atlas V as a producer focused on bringing storytelling to digital platforms and it has actually been a very good year for VR and XR experiences. Mehdi analyzes this as a need to adapt quickly, a need to craft powerful feelings through technology. 

Big efforts from museums should be put to make contents accessible to those who can’t travel or have not much money. Immersive technology can achieve that. In this crisis period we are all thinking about solutions that would benefit everybody. In that way we can say that there is hope!

Melodie told us – also with a hopeful note – that she plans to work on interaction with sound and body as the next challenge in her XR practice. Based on synesthesia, she will try to create unique moments thanks to interaction depending on gestures of the users. Not only for gaming, but to have real time interaction in a virtual situation. This year she works on tools helping new coming artists – who are no tech specialists – to create VR world and develop creative worlds for all of us. 

In that spirit, we wish ourselves the best for the future of our industry!