Virtual exhibitions and art for all

A year into our new virtual reality, Siobhan McGuirk suggests a silver lining: once-exclusive degree shows are more accessible than ever

April 4, 2021 · 4 min read
A screenshot of the home page for the BA Art and Design graduate show at the Birmingham School of Art

This time last year, I was tapping out a column on video games to introduce the culture section of our Spring 2020 issue. That thematic choice seemed a bit risky, in terms of timing. March-May in Britain is usually packed full of exhibition openings and exciting new theatre – a bumper period for film as distributors ride the coat tails of awards show success to boost big winners. It’s a time for shaking off the winter dust and getting out and about as the first shoots of festival season appear. Usually. On reflection, dedicating a section to screen-based, at-home activities was well ahead of the curve.

A year later, and we’re accustomed to looking online – and staying there – for our arts, culture and leisure diversions. Many of this spring’s shows, films and festivals have gone fully digital, in some cases for the second year running. It’s a (virtual) reality that could prompt groans or sighs as we reflect on yet another moment of downtime spent in front of a screen. But amid a disarming number of rote Zoom-based panel debates and clunky 3D gallery ‘walk throughs’, there are some genuinely innovative creative experiments to be found online.

Recently, from a kitchen table in Nottingham, I took part in a free workshop entitled ‘Curating in the time of Covid-19’, hosted by artist Barry Sykes and the Croydon-based arts space Turf Projects. Attendees emphasised the ‘pros’ of online exhibitions: being able to participate in places and events held far away, or ones finally made more accessible to people with disabilities; the freedom to make a cup of tea while perusing a show, or to quietly leave spaces that failed to engage. Among the more memorable events people had to recommend were degree shows, led by students who, in frustrating circumstances, had seized the opportunity to try something new.

Many 2020 graduation showcases are still online, free to explore from anywhere with a net connection – at least until 2021’s cohorts take over. Seeing how creative young people are digesting and commenting on the pandemic, or simply making art during it, has been illuminating and therapeutic. The standouts, for me, have been from the BA Art and Design at Birmingham School of Art, the Glasgow School of Art and Coventry University. I return to these sites often, and often find something new there to enjoy.

This year has clearly forced a rethinking of art-show audience

In previous years, campus-based degree shows might have seemed insular or elitist, unwelcoming to passers-by. Certainly, a failing repeated by many universities is not reaching out and connecting with local residents and communities when hosting such events. This year has clearly forced a rethinking of audience, with signs pointing towards a renewed, welcome understanding of art as a public good.

In the current context, degree shows – incubators of emerging artistic talent – feel especially important. Art galleries and projects continue to face existential threat. University workers and students, meanwhile, have been trammelled during the pandemic: ignored, neglected or actively put in harm’s way by the government, and suffering the ever-deepening wounds of neoliberalisation. Arts education everywhere is facing ‘budget balancing’ chopping blocks. In these unusual times, it’s worth seeking out immersive artworlds where we still can – including from at home, behind a screen.

Siobhán McGuirk is a Red Pepper co-editor. This article originally appeared in Issue #231, ‘People, Power, Place’, published March 2021. Subscribe to grab your copy!

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