At the height of the global pandemic in 2020, Elektra Montreal presented a hybrid biennial that hovered between virtual and real spaces in both Montreal and Seoul. It was also an opportunity to prototype a virtual museum environment in three phases. Makery spoke with Alain Thibault, founder and artistic director of Elektra festival and BIAN (International Digital Art Biennial).
Postponing, canceling, opening, closing… It wasn’t easy to organize an international cultural event amidst all the uncertainties and restrictions of the global pandemic. After considering various alternatives, the Elektra team in Montreal finally decided to digitize and create a virtual museum, which was prototyped in June 2020. In it, they presented three versions of Metamorphosis, a series of three exhibitions by Elektra/BIAN, including one produced for Arsenal contemporary art space in Montreal, and two co-produced with Hyundai in Seoul. For artistic director Alain Thibault, this virtual museum was an old dream. Today, it’s a (virtual) reality.
Makery: How did you finally work around all the logistical and symbolic obstacles of the pandemic to successfully present Elektra/BIAN 2020?
Alain Thibault: We had to be very flexible and very agile. This year’s program was indeed quite complex. It consisted of a pre-biennial exhibition (Metamorphosis 2020) at Arsenal in Montreal, pre-biennial events and hybrid exhibitions (Metamorphosis Vol.1 & Vol.2) in Seoul, preparing and canceling, plan A, plan B, even plan C… It required a lot of patience and a lot of imagination from all the teams, even if, working in the field of digital arts, we already had the training and the tools to digitize the events that we wanted to present.
Practically speaking, how did the Elektra team work together, and what was your strategy at the very beginning of the crisis?
It all started with our first hybrid experience in Seoul in 2020 (which was also the biennial year of Elektra-BIAN). Like everyone else, we had to close on March 15, so we canceled everything, and the team worked remotely from home. At the same time, our guest curator DooEun Choi, who is Korean and based in New York, became the artistic director for Hyundai. Thanks to her, we were able to present Metamorphosis Vol.1, our first hybrid exhibition in both real and virtual spaces, in Seoul as a co-production with Hyundai. At that point, I had the idea of doing a 3D virtual-reality exhibition, and we decided to create a first digital version of the event. The goal was to reproduce the experience as faithfully as possible, while also respecting the representation of the artworks, in order to involve the artists.
What about the other two exhibitions?
Afterward, Arsenal art space in Montreal gave us the opportunity to present a new exhibition in October 2020. We decided to hold a pre-biennial event in real space, also around the theme of Metamorphosis, while respecting all health and safety regulations. But this meant that we couldn’t receive the works by the Korean artists we had programmed together with our guest curator. So we applied the same concept as we did in Seoul. We created a hybrid exhibition, where we presented both physical works by local artists on site, and digital artworks by international artists (videos and interactive pieces) that could be uploaded online.
That was our first experience digitizing part of an exhibition presented in public space. Despite all the technical challenges, everything was ready on time. Unfortunately, three days before the opening, the Quebec government decided to shut everything down. We had already prepared a digital version of the exhibition as our plan B, so we could still document it in images, and a few professionals were able to visit it. In the end, we exported this exhibition to Seoul in hybrid mode, and it became Metamorphosis Vol.2, which be can viewed online with the others.
So the ongoing pandemic finally gave you the opportunity to test out new techniques and esthetics for presenting an event, an exhibition…
At the very beginning of the pandemic, I thought of the old concept of cyberspace and what we could do as cultural distributors. So we decided to use this time as an opportunity to develop the concept of the virtual museum, also so that we could be well prepared and ready to present hybrid or entirely digital exhibitions in the future, in case this kind of situation arises again or continues in the coming years.
Actually, I had already been thinking about this for quite a long time. When we presented the first biennial in 2012, we launched the CIAN (International Center for Digital Arts) project, working with architects, financial supporters, the City of Montreal, etc. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out. But when the pandemic hit, I thought this would be a good time to dig deeper into that idea, and bring it entirely online, into what we used to call “cyberspace”. The pandemic and its restrictions have given us a chance to finally create and test out virtual spaces where we can host a whole range of activities, taking inspiration from what we see in online video games—spaces that could generate their own revenue, that could be places for exhibiting and performing, a marketplace for the arts. These three exhibitions in 2020 were important prototyping phases for us. In 2021 and 2022 we plan to develop all these missing aspects of our virtual museum, such as interactivity and the possibility of presenting artworks in their entirety—especially video pieces, of which we can only present excerpts at the moment, for both technical and legal reasons.
Did you need to adapt the artworks specifically to this virtual exhibition format?
Yes, and it wasn’t easy. Even the video pieces were sometimes a technical challenge to reproduce online. For example, Ryoichi Kurokawa’s piece unfold is presented in real space on three screens with surround sound—it wasn’t easy to adapt this installation for a virtual space. It was the same thing with Matthew Biederman’s (Serial Mutation (z-axis) v04, N.d.A.), which had to be re-adapted to the large outdoor and indoor screens of Hyundai Motorstudio in Seoul, etc.
How did Elektra’s international partnership with Hyundai come about?
We were really lucky to have DooEun Choi as artistic director just as she joined Hyundai. She was the one who initiated this encounter and this partnership. Everything went extremely well. The people at Hyundai were enthusiastic and responsive. We worked together on the programming and production. It was a true collaboration, as we had to do everything remotely, even the production part, which involved quite a lot of working hours. Hyundai Motor Group are quite remarkable in the sense that they have long actively supported artistic development. In fact, they have three art galleries: one in Moscow, one in Beijing, and the biggest one, Hyundai Motorstudio in Seoul.
What technologies did you use to create and implement this virtual museum and the exhibitions inside it?
We worked with software such as Cinema 4D and the Unity game engine to render the 3D environments of the exhibitions. We have an artist-programmer who digitizes spaces using Cinema 4D. Then we transfer the data into Unity, where another programmer does the integration. At the same time, other people are working on the whole digitizing process, photography, video, optimizing the rendered artworks… plus a few technical maneuvers to make sure that everything is working properly.
Then there’s the whole web integration part. We work with a company that assures us that the landing page will appear exactly the same for all users and is compatible with Chrome and Firefox browsers, which are recommended for the fullest experience. We want it to be easily accessible and fluid for anyone with a decent Internet connection.
Are the physical artworks actually rendered in 3D, or is it videos and photos of the works that we see in the museum?
I decided to recreate the spaces with the artworks in situ, even if not all the works can be reproduced within this virtual context. So besides the videos, most of the works presented are digitized or photographed. Since we couldn’t send a team to Seoul during the pandemic, we worked with photographs of the works. This year at Elektra, we’re thinking of developing our photogrammetry process, because in order to get good 3D scans, you need to have optimal technical conditions in the studio, it’s very complicated. We were able to give an impression of the presence of the artwork, just with photos. On the other hand, we also had works that were entirely rendered in 3D as faithfully as possible.
As Elektra’s artistic director, how do you see the future of these forms of exhibition? Do you think that all future events associated with Elektra and the biennial should be digitized this way?
Absolutely. For me, this process democratizes access to art. Anyone with a decent Internet connection can view artworks and attend events, even if they’re locked down at home. This year, we plan to hold exhibitions that are entirely virtual, given the ongoing health situation, (un)availability of venues, rescheduling of events, etc. So the concept of the virtual museum becomes all the more relevant.
What advantages does this digitalization bring to the original event?
In addition to all the advantages I just mentioned, we also want the museum we are developing to be a place of spectacular architecture in itself. We spend so much time in front of our screens, online, that in order to attract people to enter your virtual space, you need to offer them a truly extraordinary experience. So we took inspiration from online video games. People aged 18-40 are already familiar with this world, so it’s a way to introduce them to these already extraordinary artworks. We’re also trying to imagine future audiences, who will certainly be even more open to virtual spaces and more inclined to wander through them. So it’s important to imagine striking architectures, containing either reproductions of existing works, or even more interestingly, works that have been specially created for this type of environment, that could not be presented in a physical space. We also need to consider the documentation aspect. With this form of exhibition, we could potentially revisit past events, like the 2020 biennial in 2022, etc.
What kind of things do you have in mind so far—avatars, VR immersion?
We thought about the possibility of introducing avatars within our environment, again taking inspiration from video games. But we need to be careful to avoid falling prey to bad taste in this type of approach. Still, the “meeting and socializing” aspect is important, especially today, so it would be interesting to develop a system with some kind of personalized players in the form of avatars. For example, it might be interesting if we could meet inside the museum to do this interview.
In terms of virtual reality, I wanted people to be able to access the exhibition more simply and more widely through their own web browsers. Not everyone has their own VR headset, it hasn’t yet become a massively adopted technology. We keep it in mind, but right now we’re more focused on the problems of resolution and rendering power that these new technologies require. Our priority remains to make our events widely accessible, in order to benefit the greatest number of people.
Short demo reel of the three virtual exhibitions produced in 2020: