The line-up for BiennaleOnline consists of 180 artists from across the globe, all under the age of 45. Selected by an international team of curators, amongst who are professionals and seasoned veterans like Hans Ulrich Obrist of the Serpentine Gallery in London and Lorenzo Benedetti, curator of the Dutch pavilion at the Venice Biennale. But the list boasts emerging talents as well, such as Martin Germann, senior curator at the SMAK in Ghent, and the likes of Chang Tsong-zung from Hong-Kong and Rodrigo Alonso from Argentina, who are less well known in Europe.
Probabilité pour que rien ne se passe, by Guillaume Leblon. Curator: Jan Hoet.
The curators have each selected five artists, with a minimum of two from their own country. The number of works per artist is unlimited, a mixture of old and recent pieces, covering all of the following mediums: photography, installation, new media, performance, and the more traditional: painting, drawing and sculpture. Some work has been made specifically for the exhibition - for instance, the video by Slovenian artists Leja Jurisic and Teja Reba.
Scrolling through BiennaleOnline is like strolling down an uncharted, unpredictably winding avenue lined with studios and galleries. Organisers David Dehaeck and Nathalie Haveman of Antwerp-based Art+ have conceived the virtual exhibition as a new way to discover work by as-yet less known artists. "We want to revive the old gallery experience whereby visitors enter into a dialogue about what they see", says Haveman. "Only here, the interaction is not limited to the relatively small number of people in the gallery and those who know each other, but to a much larger network, spanning the entire digitally connected world."
Agnieszka Polska, My Favourite Things, film still; 2010, 5 min 55 sec., HD animation, courtesy Żak| Branicka Galerie, Berlin. Curator Fulya Erdemci.
By utilising the specific nature of the Internet, or better yet: of social media, the dialogue is fuelled. Visitors can place the works they are interested in into a special binder, which can be viewed by other users. The binders thus function as endorsements, comparable with ‘likes’ on Facebook. Unlike Facebook, though, BiennaleOnline is not about popularity-by-numbers. For the first couple of weeks, only 200 selected art professionals – museum directors, influential collectors, curators - were granted access. The next batch of visitors allowed in, some five- to six thousand, use their binders as expert guidelines. Where an educational tool like ArtSite - not unlike Spotify - employs an algorithm to compile sets of artworks, BiennaleOnline believes in live ambassadors and communities. Dehaeck: "You can’t trust a computer with taste, especially with a phenomenon as essentially subjective as contemporary art."
Of course, this approach only works in a heavily curated environment where the supply has been pre-filtered. Enter the curators. When reading their statements, a diversity of approaches unfolds. Nancy Spector has an extremely personal approach. Jan Hoet, the artistic director of BiennaleOnline, toes a more thematic line, staying close to the biennale’s theme of Reflection & Imagination. But the curators are nowhere near as influential as the godlike creators of super exhibitions, the direct descendents of Grossausstellung inventor Harald Szeemann, who have in the past 20 years become the true stars of the international art circuit. The non-hierarchical presentation does not allow for a superimposed discourse in which the art is reduced to illustration. BiennaleOnline is more about the user/visitor. It is more about the art.
Francesco Cavaliere, Time Machine for 7 objects, 2012 wooden boxes, 20 good luck coins 50x10x7cm, Courtesy, Grimmuseum, Berlin. Curator: Katerina Gregos.
Art+ pushes the envelope digitally. But not without precedent. In the early 1990s Dehaeck had already done some pioneering on the web. He built an Internet service collecting and disclosing auction catalogues and results. Two decades later Dehaeck and Haveman experimented with a virtual art fair. But as was the case with VIP Art Fair, the American virtual art fair launched in 2011, he has experienced technical hiccups. For BiennaleOnline, Art+ therefore takes a trial-and-error approach, constantly updating the system.
The technological heart of BiennaleOnline is a specially-built conversion engine that can transfer all formats onto all platforms, ensuring high-quality streaming. Predictably, video art works best onscreen, but for more traditional 2D-media, the viewing experience is enhanced by extremely high resolutions. And enlargement is possible to the level of single paint drops. Many works have been photographed from several angles, enabling a kind of virtual walk-round. Reactions from participating artists have been overwhelmingly positive. Gallerists are divided. Some fear the online competition as endangering their livelihood. Others hail the initiative as the way of the future and recognise a fruitful clicks-to-bricks potential – website visitors may be lured to cross the notoriously high threshold of physical galleries.
Although organising an online event costs only a fraction of the millions budgeted for real-life extravaganzas such as the Venice Biennale, it is not cheap. Still, BiennaleOnline does not extract an entrance fee. Instead, after having surfed amongst the art for half-an-hour, a pop-up screen requests a voluntary donation, the size of which is to be determined by the visitor her/himself. Art+ realises that a traditional paywall wouldn’t have worked with a new, unknown initiative. The organisation first wants to build the brand and amass a community of followers whose ongoing involvement is ensured by customised updates related to personal binders. In future, BiennaleOnline hopes to attract sponsors. For now it is experimenting with modestly priced editions of prints and videos. The first instalment of BiennaleOnline will remain accessible indefinitely, functioning as an organically growing archive. The thematic exhibitions of the coming years will broaden the scope of this supply. And for the next edition, to be launched in 2015, Art+ is already thinking about exploring web-based technologies such as augmented reality, in order to stretch the practice of exhibiting art even further.
Analogue Series (neck), by Michael Dean.Curated by Lorenzo Benedetti.