It’s time to get the future started.
Since March 2020, the COVID-19 crisis has separated Massachusetts artists and arts patrons from in-person cultural experiences.
There are some exceptions, like outdoor performances at Starlight Square in Cambridge or socially-distanced, timed-entrance indoor attendance at spacious venues like MASS MoCA in North Adams. But there’s no arguing that in-person experiences of live performance, visual art, film, literary readings, and other cultural events have been severely restrained – often completely halted – by the pandemic.
As an artist, you may be at some stage of exploring the idea of virtual programming. That is, creating online art experiences as part of your creative practice.
This article explores some basic considerations as you embark on the process.
Three Questions to Ask as You Begin
1. What is your particular reason for doing virtual programming?
You may be inspired by other artists or organizations who are presenting in innovative, virtual ways. But what is your unique goal? For example, you might approach things differently if there is a tangible object you’d like to draw attention to (say, an album or a painting series or a film available to stream) than you would if it’s more of a general effort to connect.
Defining your “why” will go a long way toward guiding the early decisions.
2. How would your discipline and your work best be presented online?
In an interesting HowlRound article about creating a Zoom opera, Kamala Sankaram notes how, as a society, we often try to bring our old ways of doing things to new technologies – and sometimes those conventions don’t fit with the new model. What aspects of your art would work really well in an online environment? And what might need to be reconsidered?
3. Are there any cultural organizations or other artists with whom you can collaborate?
This is an important one. First, collaborating allows you to pool resources and expertise – maybe one of you brings knowledge of teleconferencing while another is well-versed in video and sound. If you have an organizational partner, they may have more robust technological platforms (they go for the Pro Account!) or even staff support.
Plus, collaborators help you break through the noise (this is perhaps especially true with organizational partners). It’s not as if the tools to present art online only materialized once the pandemic crisis began. Artists have been presenting their work online for years and years. The trick has always been how to break through the chaos of options. If an artist collaborator or cultural organization is vouching for you, it’s a big boost.
Some Basic Types
There are a few basic ways to present your work online.
1. You could present or perform live. A music or theater performance, a literary reading, a discussion of visual art, a performative conceptual installation. This would be synchronous (the audience would see it live at a scheduled time) as opposed to asynchronous (the audience would see a recording at a time of their choosing). In this case, you’d use the livestreaming capabilities of YouTube, Facebook, or a video conferencing platform like Zoom or Google Meet. (It’s even possible you’d want to use more than one platform at once. In a great article about producing a livestreamed event, Vijay Mathew from HowlRound discussed how his organization used four platforms/services, Zoom, Livestream.com, Recapd, and YouTube, for one event.)
Pros: livestreaming maintains the immediacy of in-person performance. It’s also spontaneous and potentially exciting and fun.
Cons: a lot can go wrong, from WiFi cut-outs to Mute/Unmute errors to firetrucks blaring in the background. Also, multiple performers in different locales can’t rely on syncing their audio, so simultaneous playing or singing is very difficult, if not impossible. And it’s hard to ensure high quality.
Tip: If possible, always enlist a co-host or support person that can help as glitches or issues come up, so that the host/performer isn’t simultaneously managing tech problems. Also, keep in mind that some of the things you might be used to in your art – say, a crowd laughing – will be very different in a livestream environment.
2. You could present a recorded video. You may have time-based work to present but don’t need or want the experience to be live.
Pros: you have more control of many details. You can ensure higher quality. As long as the video is hosted somewhere and available, your audience can access it at a time that works for them, rather than on a limited schedule.
Cons: since it’s recorded video, the audience may expect higher quality and be less forgiving of flaws. Also, it’s not as spontaneous as live. It may require some knowledge of video creation/editing and the resources to purchase equipment or hire a videographer.
Tip: local media access organizations often have video-making tutorials and resources available to the public (some are listed below).
3. An online gallery. On the Internet, there are an incalculable number of images at our fingertips, available at all times. An online gallery or curated virtual exhibition is a gift to your audience, a way of bypassing the noise to deliver an intentional, crafted online art experience.
Pros: curation and organized presentation can enhance the experience of each individual work of art. Also, virtual exhibitions can actually offer some advantages in integrating text and storytelling. For an example, check out the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art’s terrific online exhibition Now and Then: Contemporary Illustrators and Their Childhood Art, which presents art as well as the fascinating stories of artists.
Cons: some works of art may not lend themselves to online exhibition. And if you’re creating the gallery/exhibition DIY, it can take bit of legwork to find and learn how to use the right tools.
Tip: if you’ve seen a virtual exhibition or gallery you’ve enjoyed, try to figure out which software or tool the creators used. Investigate if it’s a good match for your goals. For instance, as mentioned above, we were impressed by the Eric Carle Museum’s virtual exhibitions and began experimenting ourselves with the software they used, a Microsoft program called Sway.
4. An audio project. Examples are a podcast or an audio experience, like this audio tour from the Emily Dickinson Museum. Many audio experiences could be accessed through a smart phone. They could even correspond to GPS coordinates, such as composer Ellen Reid’s compositions for different locations in Central Park.
Pros: this is a user-friendly program that literally meets the audience where it is. It can also extend an art experience far beyond its usual reach and has the potential to be more accessible.
Cons: may not be as spontaneous as an in-person tour or experience.
Tip: there are numerous apps that can help in creating audio content, and most laptops/phones/tablets arrive with recording capability. But it’s worth it to take the time/effort to ensure sound quality, whether that’s acquiring a good microphone or experimenting recording in different rooms to compare sound quality.
5. A webpage. Here, we’re using “webpage” as differentiated from an online gallery. We would consider scrolling or advancing images to be an essential part of a gallery, whereas a webpage might have a grid or rows of images.
Pros: if you already have a website, you probably already have the capacity to present your art this way.
Cons: unless there’s something unique about the design, the experience may not feel as special if it’s on your own site. It might be to your advantage if it’s an organization’s site, such as Easthampton City Arts hosting Western Mass. artists on its site for the online exhibition Post Pause.
Tip: many website-organizing platforms, like WordPress, allow you to add tools (called plug-ins) to accomplish tasks like presenting video, hosting online exhibitions, and more. So there are ways to customize your site that may not require extensive web design know-how.
Mix It Up
When you’re building your virtual programming, you may want to create a blend of more than one of the above-mentioned methods. For example, when traditional Irish step dancers Rebecca McGowan and Jackie O’Riley wanted to create an experience around From the Floor, their visual album of dance and music, the artists screened the video on Facebook at scheduled events. So while it wasn’t a live performance per se, they were able to showcase the work’s strong, filmed content while allowing for live spontaneous interactions like comments and reactions in the social media format.
You could create a virtual exhibition using a tool like Sway or a WordPress plug-in, then embed the exhibition directly onto your website or in a blog post. The same goes for a video hosted on Vimeo or YouTube – all of these tools offer ways to be embedded within web pages. Then, you could augment the presentation with a scheduled videoconferencing event, like a panel discussion on Zoom.
The point is you don’t need to feel locked down; you may be able to address some of the shortfalls of one online presentation model by augmenting it with another. And keep in mind that no matter how you choose to share your work, you can use social media to invite and engage your audiences.
Worth the Effort
Creating a strong virtual program will likely require you to learn new skills. It may take you way out of your comfort zone. If you have technical questions, get comfortable using a search engine (the answer is almost certainly out there somewhere!). And don’t hesitate to seek out help. Reach out to organizational partners or other artists whose programs you admire.
Let us know your virtual programming experiences or questions in the comments.
Google Arts & Culture’s digital toolkit for bringing cultural programming online (written for organizations but there’s useful information for individuals)
Thinking about Livestreaming: Read This First by Creative Capital
How to Prevent Zoombombing by the Anti-Defamation League
How to Make a Compelling Artist Website by Creative Capital
Social Media Tips for Visual Arts by The Art Prof
What Do You Strive to Capture When Documenting Your Work? ArtSake discussion