Reading the Gallery, Virtually

The presumption of gallery space as a case of curatorial necessity.

To work in the world of art is to embrace few strict rules, even in a forest of ideologies. One of the apparent constants, however, could be articulated by an equation, or more accurately, an equivalence relation that sustains between the ideas of art as one term, and freedom as the other. The artist is free to create openly, the collector is free to gather or dispose of a collection freely, the viewer is free to engage, interpret, or dismiss work. There is, however, one region of the art world where this equivalence is more problematic, less value-free, in fact, less free, than elsewhere. It happens in the role of the curator.

Much has been made, correctly, I think, of the blows to apparent neutrality that curatorial activity implies. The sequence of work that underlies the exhibition sets into motion not merely the procession of examples aligned within a singular theme — usually perceptual or by school of practice — but by necessity, also the universe of assumptions that the curator reads into this motorcade. Such assumptions, always inferred because they are never articulated, color every constructive dimension within the challenge of erecting a show, down to the selection of wall colors, with the added complication that presentation and representation occur in different discursive worlds. For, what is presented in one space, namely, the gallery, museum or other venue for exhibition, is typically critiqued in another, normally, the newspaper, journal, or other venue for discussion.

Embroiled in this asymmetry, one new media affordance provides a third kind of venue in the form of the virtual gallery, of which there is much to choose from, to include artsteps, a service hosting an entire marketplace of gallery templates like the one above. But conceptually, we should want to ponder the notion of roles and attributes of this kind of meta-venue.  Correspondingly, one survey of such software brings several thoughts and questions to mind. To begin with, we might ask why a virtual gallery makes sense, given that the very non-physical status of the virtual world and its “objects on display” makes feasible the reduction of gallery experience to an array of URLs with descriptive captions. In this minimal possibility, the gallery would be entirely replaced by its function as the basis for a show, something that is in turn the product of curatorial statement. But these virtual galleries do not merely (re)present work in digital space, they reproduce the gallery itself as an object of reception. Why, then, is it necessary to envision artwork in a simulated gallery?

To be sure, the display of a single work, sculptural, filmic, or painterly is an experience already fraught with loss in translation from the physical to the virtual. We know that when a work — even a sculptural one — is brought into the digital screen, several facts take place. It retains all of its recognizable features as a medium; the work does not fail to register as an instance of sculpture, for example. To the inverse extent, however, that the notion of a work’s medium is preserved, its materiality is entirely lost within digital mediation. Gone is the weft in the canvas, the nick in the marble, in fact all evidence of the work as a process and its evolution toward becoming a product disappears. Here, while we can see the work — often with greater clarity — we can no longer touch it with our eyes.

But this transformation, because it is shared by all digital reflections of material objects, can be neither an endorsement nor indictment of the virtual gallery situation, and is therefore not part of the rationale for such a mechanism as the virtual gallery. The answer lies elsewhere, for the experience of an exhibit revolves not around the presence of images but rather their adjacency within a singular spatial context. The theatrical contribution of a gallery simulation is necessary not to the individual integrity of work but to the curatorial operation that accompanies the collective property of works in a show. Beyond being possessed of its autonomous character, every artwork suggests itself in this plural connotation as well. The walls and spaces that provide the reinforcing ground for the ad hoc collection make the sense of a curated show possible, a supporting reality that lends more to each work than critics of “the gallery system” can account for, even with the rather stilted simulated space of the virtual gallery, one of the software genres that replaces architecture with interface design.

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