Has the COVID-19 pandemic been the catalyst for art to become more accessible?
In our first-ever episode of Scrap the Manual, Angelica and Rushali explore how the pandemic influenced art throughout the last couple of years, and how it will move the industry forward, too. Throughout the conversation, the hosts align on their shared passion for creativity and technology as the world of fine arts—including museums, art galleries and experiential activations—quickly pivoted and adapted to emerging technology, which until now has been waiting for its moment.
You can read the discussion below, or listen to the episode on your preferred podcast platform.
Angelica: Hey everyone! Welcome to Scrap the Manual, a podcast where we prompt “aha!” moments through discussions of technology, creativity, experimentation, and how all those work together to address cultural and business challenges. My name's Angelica.
Rushali: And my name's Rushali. We're both creative technologists with Labs.Monks, which is an innovation group within Media.Monks with a goal to steer and drive global solutions focused on technology and design evolution.
Angelica: With this podcast, our goal is to share our learnings in another form, thinking beyond physical and digital and go towards an auditory experimentation mindset. This is a form ripe for disruption. We're here to…scrap the manual…of what you typically expect from podcasts like these. There will be informative moments like when we do a deep dive of lab reports. There will also be moments of fun, exploration, and just having this experimentation mindset carry over during our segments.
Rushali: Like the one today called “Challenge The Hosts.” In this segment we are randomly assigned an industry and a challenge, and we brainstorm on the fly what the potential opportunities are in the space leveraging existing as well as emerging technologies.
Angelica: So let's say, for example, we did gaming and data. How would we break that down? First, we would start by discussing where the industry is, current opportunities, and challenges. Then, we would have an open discussion where we're thinking about what technologies that could help augment and push the industry forward in new and exciting ways. And then we'll have a nice tidy conclusion where we break it down into concrete takeaways that our audience can think about and ruminate on as we’re going about our day-to-day lives and apply it wherever you are.
Rushali: But that was just an example. So we're going to be picking an industry and a challenge that we've never seen before. And the ones today are…Art and COVID-19.
Angelica: Oh, okay. Okay.
Rushali: What happened with the art industry through the pandemic and how did we face the challenge of COVID-19?
Angelica: Well typically pre-pandemic, art was primarily in the physical space, like perusing around having this sort of aimless, "let's see what inspires me today" type of mentality. There was the type that had art being more interactive, like actually putting people within a particular space, and a time, and a moment. This is seen a lot within experiential activations. In addition to the immersive art installations we're familiar with, another way it manifested itself was within the digital space.
But it wasn't necessarily as popular or there wasn't as much investment in it because there wasn't as much of a reason for being as now there is because of COVID. With people being separated for safety and health reasons, it changed the whole dynamic of how people interact with art. And it's this open question of how does that change art moving forward?
Does it make things worse? Does it make it better? Is it yes? Both worse and better, you know?
Rushali: Yeah, I just say it's a little different. Pre-pandemic life was like, “let's buy a ticket to a museum or an art gallery.” And oh, there is something that is being exhibited in this part of the world or in a public space.
And then you would get a grant and New York City would be like, “why don't you put this piece of art in the middle of Times Square?”
Rushali: But Times Square is not as crowded as it used to be. Or maybe it is crowded right now…who knows what's happening over there.
Angelica: Yeah, just like caution to the wind. We don't know what's going on.
Rushali: Yeah maybe the masks are off, we don't really know what's happening there…we are in Amsterdam. But what has happened is that museums and art galleries have come up with a concept of putting up their physical presence in a digital space. All of these museums and art galleries are trying to create 3D digital experiences. There are ways to push the boundaries of just consuming something on a 2d screen, because you could potentially have VR headsets or like a Google cardboard and immerse yourself and feel like you are in the physical space of that particular museum or an art gallery.
But there's limitations to that as well. So computation has limits and you will never get an IRL (in real life) experience. Maybe you'll get something that's more fantastical, maybe Metaverse-y to not say the buzzword, but that's where initially everyone was like, “Okay, drop the physical space. Museums are closed, let's put everything online.”
Angelica: Yeah. And that's something that happened through Google even a little bit before the pandemic. They had certain partnerships with museums where they actually did their famous Google 360 view of what we're familiar with but they did that for museums as well. And they put them online for everybody to see, and that became one way of accessing it.
But there's another level of it for this experience called Museum of Other Realities where you can put on a six degrees of freedom (6DOF) VR headset and be able to have this experience of feeling like you are physically perusing a museum of how we usually would. What I really like about those types of experiences is they use VR to its potential and what it's capable of.
They understand the constraints and they also understand the possibilities and they say, “let's figure out what are the opportunities within VR and really play that out.” Like in VR, physics is something that the creator can really play with. So if you don't want to have gravity, you don't have to have gravity.
Or if you want to have this giant chaos of particles swimming around you, that's also totally doable. And obviously that's really difficult to create in real life without like millions or billions of dollars, but it's something that's really possible in VR.
There was even one I remember about a year or two ago where people could actually try on a particular outfit and actually strut the runway in that particular outfit and what it looked like. It was something that I was able to partake in because it had different opportunities. I wouldn't normally go into museum and just wear the art pieces. That's just something that's really frowned upon in a lot of places. But in VR, that's something that is an opportunity.
Rushali: Yeah, you can't walk into the Louvre and touch the Mona Lisa Right?
Angelica: All the oily fingers of people. No, it’d ruin the artwork, but you could within this particular medium.
Rushali: Yeah their digital space allows for that level of immersion and interaction.
Rushali: Okay, so do you think people are going to go back to the way of consuming art that we used to? Like, are people going to go back to museums or has the world changed…for the better?
Angelica: I would say overall, “yes and.” Because there's a museum out in the UK where they had an Alice in Wonderland experience that was actually hosted during the pandemic and they had two different versions.
They had a version that was physically on site for those who were able to attend and were able to align to COVID protocols that were set up. But then there was the other group of people who may not be in the UK or maybe just didn't feel comfortable attending at a particular moment in time. So they had a VR version of it.
And that's sort of the thing that I'm really optimistic about the silver lining of all of this: that there is another level of physical and digital accessibility of experiences where we don't necessarily have to be in these huge large markets like New York or LA to be able to partake. These are the types of things that people can experience at home, or if they're in a smaller location, still being able to have access to those cultural moments that push humanity forward in interesting ways and inspire artists and creators in different ways. It doesn't necessarily have to be location-specific anymore. It can be just wherever there's an internet connection. Or not even in VR, we’ve been focusing a lot on VR. It can also be in a WebGL experience, or some of these other mediums that could be more accessible to people.
Rushali: Absolutely. There's been a big push towards accessibility and you really don't have to be in the big spaces, the big cities, right? When I look back and I think of a lot of the initial interactive exhibits, they were reliant on activations by touch or by people coming together and moving their hands and arms.
And their presence, the heat of people in a particular space. But all of those interactions are going to have to be reprocessed and rethought and redesigned. And they're going to have to be able to activate these experiences in a different way, because people are just not going to hug each other.
This is reminding me of a pop-up window display in New York city that, when you touched the window, there were lights that were going all the way from the window to the center of the installation, where there was a heart. And everyone touching the window was collectively pumping the heart with lights. So that sort of activation is kind of questionable today. Not many people are going to want to touch windows at the same time, or like just after someone else has touched it, like what, even is the sanitization process of that interaction.
Angelica: Yeah, or there's just like a huge jug of hand sanitizer nearby. Like, it's interesting though, because there's touch as we typically think about it in terms of like the hands touching each other or hands touching a window, but then there's other ways that we can really push that and think about it further than what we're used to because we have to. Because there's people that still want to have that physicality. That's not going to go away and it's never going to go away because that's just part of humanity and how we connect with people is that physicality aspect.
There is technology available that allows the feeling of touching something, but not actually having to touch something like, “How can that work?” Well, actually it could be through these pulsating air bursts. So you could be touching a screen in air quotes, but you're not actually doing that because there are these air bursts that are actually hitting your palm. Making it feel like you're touching it, but you're not, it's a lot more safe.
Rushali: To add to that there's another way that we could possibly detect an interaction and that would be blinking or winking.
Angelica: Okay, okay.
Rushali: Cause when you're wearing a mask, your face is covered except for your eyes. Those are the only things that are visible. You could possibly have a lot of interactions with blinks and winks, and we are going to get really good at signing through our eyes.
Angelica: Yeah. Or it could just be Morse code which…it has to be taken in stride because if they're blinking too much then it's like, “Are you okay? Should I call the doctor?” It's like, “Oh no, I'm just participating in this experiential activation.” It's like, “Mmhmm. Yeah, uh huh, it's a lot of blinking you doing there.”
Rushali: What is interesting is that everyone has had to innovate and that has directly impacted a lot of trends. In your opinion, would NFTs have had such a huge spike in our lives if people weren't locked down or if we weren't in a pandemic because blockchain and NFTs and cryptocurrencies are concepts and technologies that have been here for a while, but only recently surged…why is that? And yes, the world was headed towards a more democratised currency situation but this convergence of art and NFTs has come up in the middle of the pandemic and it seems like they're probably related, you know?
Angelica: Yeah. I think it was because for a lot of emerging technologies, there wasn't a clear reason for being. Or there might have been, but people might've been really skeptical about it or can maybe see it in action and visualize how it would play within this larger ecosystem. Technologies like VR, AR, cryptocurrencies, NFT’s, these are…they are all in a very similar boat, but now because of the pandemic, people are like, “Oh yeah, of course. That totally makes sense for VR.” Or even for augmented reality, they're like, “Oh phish duh. Why didn't we do AR before?” You know?
And it's sort of like hindsight's 20/20 where if the pandemic hadn't happened, there might not have been as clear of a reason to be doing this. Because for augmented reality, you don't necessarily have to touch a shared device to be able to participate. It could be something that's personal or individualized with each individual's phone kind of helps go around a lot of the COVID safety protocols that are happening and actually be able to be compliant to those.
Now that we have the sort of reason for being, it's pushed these technologies much further than it would have been ordinarily. And it has not just been exclusive to those innovators, but everybody has had to become an innovator in order to really keep up and catch up with the pace.
Rushali: Absolutely. Everyone has been forced to put on the shoes of an innovator or at least someone who has to start applying these technologies in a way that is usable on a day to day basis.
And you bring up VR because I remember pre-pandemic, a lot of museums would have these installations where you would have to touch and pick up a headphone or a headset and put it on and watch a screen. And you'd have to engage with the art piece in that way. But doing all of that is not kosher anymore.
Angelica: Or not without a bunch of protocols. Or disinfecting and sanitizing between people…there's just a lot more to think about now. Where before it was like, “Oh, just put on a headset. Leave it there for the afternoon.” People do what they want. Yeah.
Rushali: Now people have started doing AR activations where you kind of click on your phone and you see the description of what the art piece is about on your phone and the phone plays an audio.
So instead of you touching a third party headphone that everybody else is touching, you are only touching your phone. I think the other part of the story is, again, that there will be museums that are going to use VR headsets, but I wouldn't want to go into one anymore. Like personally, I would try to invest in a headset myself rather than going into a space that is publicly open and wear a headset that a lot of people have been wearing. And there's more access to technology, and as we see technology evolving, we also see it becoming more accessible and affordable. And the pandemic has created a lot of disruption and opportunities.
Angelica: Yeah, it's all just because our shared reality has become different now.
And from a psychological standpoint, people have had the sort of shared trauma that has happened. Like globally to varying degrees, we all have familiarity of COVID and what it has done to people, businesses, places, governments. And now it's just thinking: how do we move on from the shared trauma and push it towards an opportunity or opportunities to make the most out of the situation. Because unfortunately we can't change what has happened in the past, but what we can do is make sure that we’re prepared for the next pandemic. Hopefully not for a very, very, very, very long while, but it's also being able to figure out how to adapt to everybody's new realities on what each individual feels comfortable with.
Because some people are like, it's super easy for them to move on. But there's others that it's really going to take a while. And how brands, museums, artists…they're kind of in this middle ground where we have to be open and accepting to these audiences. Both types of audiences. But truly trying to be critical about how we do this through the technologies that we really love so much,
Rushali: 100% on point.
So, Angelica, we've covered a lot. What do you think are the main takeaways from this?
Angelica: COVID has affected a lot of industries, art being one of many of them. And we've covered really only art in particular, but art has a really interesting way of affecting other types of industries. Like how entertainment and brands get inspiration from art. Even like obscure industries like construction, right?
Rushali: Yeah, like banking and currencies, even. For example, what's happening with NFTs is people are buying art and it's also influencing how copyrights work and the policies are being rewritten. The interesting part is the world seems to be more polarized, but at the same time, the world seems to want to be more democratized.
So the pandemic, in my mind, really has been an eye-opener of sorts to a lot of people. The ecosystems that we are living within one, not working well for us, not that what we were doing before the pandemic was gloriously terrible, but the way that things are right now, we have to reevaluate our way of life.
And art comes right in the middle of the questioning. And of the rethinking, the philosophy, and the prospect of redesigning and coming up with new solutions and new perspectives and looking at things differently. And we are headed in a very interesting direction.
Angelica: Yeah, there's this rapid digitization of sorts that's happening, but there's also been this increasing need to feel connected to other people.
Those are the two things that the pandemic has been able to affect people by. And people who've thought they might've been introverts or maybe somewhere in between are now reevaluating. Like, “Oh, I actually like to see people more than I usually would.” Or people who thought they're extroverts are like, “Hmm, I kind of like just staying at home more.”
And the lockdowns didn't really affect them as much. It's just thinking about, okay, now with this rapid digitization: how do we have this nice middle ground of meeting up in the physical world and being able to connect with people how we felt was normal at the time and it was natural to us. And how do we connect that to ways we can connect people physically or digitally together without necessarily having to be in the same place.
And it's just thinking about how these other platforms can help us with that. Thinking about the accessibility of it. How do they collide and in just really thinking: where do we even go with this and the next five years? It's a whole new world out there.
Rushali: Yeah, humanity's priorities have changed. People are trying to figure out what's more relevant and what is more important?
Angelica: Yeah, for sure.
So we made it! We made our very first episode of Scrap the Manual. We did this for a multitude of reasons, but one is just to give you a little sample of what it's like and what you can expect from the multitude of Scrap the Manual podcast episodes that we'll have up and coming.
So we'll be doing other ones like Lab Reports, more of these “Challenge The Hosts,” and we'll also be doing other segments as well which will be announced very soon. So just stay tuned to how be able to share those with you all. In the meantime if you like what you hear, please subscribe and share! You can find us on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, and wherever you get your podcasts.
Rushali: If you want to suggest topics, segment ideas, or general feedback, feel free to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you want to partner with Media.Monks Labs, feel free to reach out to us over there as well.
Angelica: Until next time, see ya later.