Virtual Museums Challenge the Art World’s Status Quo

In keeping with his emphasis on accessibility, Semple canned the first version of the VOMA, which his team spent months building. He describes it as “phenomenal,” but it required a powerful computer and gigabytes of downloads and plug-ins to run. “The geeks loved it, he says, “But if you were in a developing country on a small device, you didn’t stand a chance.

Giving people that chance is the point. It’s still too early to tell just how much virtual museums will upend the art world, if at all—VOMA is still only averaging about 500 visitors a day. But it does provide a blueprint for ways to share works people might not see otherwise, even if it can’t ever replace the museum experience. Virtual setups also, Duong notes, make it easy to curate shows. “In the virtual space, there is more flexibility to pick different sizes of rooms,” he says. “You can move the artwork around, you can frame it all the same. The process works so well, Duong used a virtual platform to plan a recent physical show. “On hang day,” he says, “it was seamless.”

While many in the art world debate the pros and cons of virtual and physical spaces, one group—teamLab—is creating immersive experiences that transcend those distinctions. An international collective of several hundred artists, programmers, engineers, CG animators, mathematicians, and architects, teamLab believes the boundaries between the self, the virtual, and the physical world never really existed. To prove it, they use augmented reality and other immersive technologies to remove what they see as artificially imposed barriers.

Their current exhibition at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco, teamLab: Continuity, is a collection of pieces projected across multiple rooms. With nothing prerecorded, the presence and movement of visitors generates and changes each piece so that it’s constantly evolving. Because it requires in-person interaction, anyone who wants to see Continuity has to experience it IRL. In one room, standing still creates images of blooming flora throughout the space. Step on a flower, and it withers and dies. Crows swoop across other rooms, leaving trails of light, scattering what they fly past, but dissolving into giant flowers when they crash into people. “Through an interactive relationship between the visitors and the artwork, human beings become an intrinsic part of that artwork, the collective says.

Floored by the vibrant imagery, yet skeptical of the idea of dissolving the barriers between art and viewer using technology, I wander into a room where a swarm of butterflies spawns at my feet and flies up to join the masses flitting around. A woman reaches out to touch a projected butterfly and visibly recoils as it falls apart to her touch. Watching her respond as if it were a sentient being, I sense, for just a split second, a wall coming down, a boundary disappearing.

Pondering the connections of technology and human experiences, my mind wanders back to 8-year-old Semple and the sunflowers that rocked his world. Could his experience be replicated in a virtual museum? “Sadly, I don’t think it can, he says. “I believe the technology is there, but the vision to use that tech for beauty and art hasn’t quite caught up. Then he perks up. “But it’s coming.”

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