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Online Exhibition

Michael Connor, 13 Jun 2021

In the museum studies field, exhibitions are traditionally defined along lines like these: “Exhibition involves imposition of order on objects, brought into a particular space and a specific set of relations with one another.”1 Contemporary art has mounted its share of challenges to this kind of definition, but each of the main concepts here (order, space, relations) is placed under particular stress in an online context:

  • Digital artworks that appear to be coherent objects are rather the performance of objecthood.2 Born-digital artworks–works that depend on the computer for their creation and reception–can be experienced only when enacted within complex ensembles of hardware and software, and may also rely on audience participation, external websites or media, APIs, or other inputs and services. They are performed, not merely displayed.
  • Online exhibitions do not take place in a unified, coherent space. For example, every user has a differently sized screen, so the literal screen space in which the exhibition is accessed is highly variable. The online exhibition may be presented in a navigable, pictorial space, but this is only one organizational rubric among many that may be used to arrange works. Rather than a mere arrangement of works in space, online exhibition involves arranging a multifaceted mise-en-scène to accommodate an unfolding event.
  • Specific sets of relations that serve a larger curatorial aim may be often refracted, online, through works that change over time, the input of audiences, the reshuffling of algorithms. Exhibitions as a whole are social processes, and online exhibitions are social processes that play out via computer networks.

With these caveats in mind, the definition could be restated in this way: online exhibition involves the performance of artworks and their objecthood in a particular mise-en-scène, brought into dynamic relationship with one another and a broader network context.

All of the elements that come together to create the performatic scene of an online exhibition can be thought of as aspects of its mise-en-scène. This sounds straightforward enough, but the list of these elements is potentially endless, because online exhibitions rely on complex ensembles of technological and human factors. Listing each concrete element that comes together to shape an online exhibition proves to be a laborious and unproductive undertaking; there are truly endless permutations. And yet each of the parts that make up an online exhibition, from interface design to users’ setups, may be important; “all aspects of an online exhibition are subject to design and presentation choices, and have no ‘natural’ state.”

​​Rather than listing each granular element that makes up the mise-en-scène of an online exhibition, it’s more helpful to focus on productive abstractions, the concepts that can be generalized outside of a specific technological context:

  1. Infrastructure. Online exhibitions are deeply shaped by the technical infrastructure that performs them, and the infrastructure through which users access them.

  2. Arrangement. Online exhibitions involve an arrangement of works (unlike an imposed order, an arrangement suggests open-ended and dynamic situations, and evokes a musical performance metaphor that may be more suitable for born-digital contexts.) Artworks may be arranged in 3D skeuomorphic space, informatic space, in time, and in physical space.

  3. Style. The staging of an online exhibition conveys meaning not only through the arrangement of works, but also through a wide range of technical and aesthetic choices that may be thought of as an exhibition’s style. The style of an online exhibition’s interface—whether it is the “open source open sea” of Kingdom of Piracy or the “just the facts” presentation of—may convey a particular position, or they may simply set a tone.

  4. Social Process. Where traditional mise-en-scène involved the movement of actors on a stage, online exhibition may include or be initiated by curators, artists, and also audience members, all of whom may play an active role in shaping the form and context of a given project.

Online exhibition is an open-ended process, involving the dynamic interplay of many elements that are outside of the curator’s control. This open-endedness is often perceived as a threat, but it is a unique quality of the online exhibition. Creating the mise-en-scène for an online exhibition is a way of considering, embracing, and facilitating the open-ended processes that it will set in motion.

Further Resources

  1. Liz Wells, “Curatorial Strategy as Critical Intervention: The Genius of Facing East,” from Judith Rugg and Michèle Sedgwick, Issues in Curating Contemporary Art and Performance, 29. 

  2. Rhizome, “Preserving Digital Art with Rhizome and Google Arts & Culture,” meeting agenda, April 2017.