Covid-19 sparks questions about arts in the digital age

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In the space of a day, a lover of the arts can pace the corridors of Italy's Uffizi Gallery, zip across the Atlantic to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art before lunch, and tour Singapore's ArtScience Museum before enjoying a Chinese orchestra concert or the staging of a play.

All for free, and without stepping out of the front door. I am referring, of course, to the smorgasbord of cultural offerings that can now be found on the Internet - 360-degree museum tours on Google Arts & Culture, and videos on museum websites, social media and more.

Such online avenues have been a welcome respite amid the Covid-19 pandemic, which has killed more than 200,000 worldwide since the outbreak began late last year.

The outbreak and the attendant social distancing measures have hit arts groups hard, forcing them to cancel or postpone their shows and the industry to chalk up multimillion-dollar losses. But the crisis has also been a catalyst for digitalisation, as artists put works online and explore new ways of interacting with one another and their audiences across a screen.

Virtual platforms complement but cannot yet replicate the power of live theatre, or the experience of poring over the textures of an oil painting. Posting videos online in this period of social distancing can feel like a stopgap measure, rather than something likely to usher in a brave new digital revolution.

Still, this raises questions of how the arts may be presented and experienced in the future: Will social media and the Internet play even more important roles in the way art is mediated?

Public institutions in Singapore have been encouraging the use of technology in the arts .

The National Arts Council's Our SG Arts Plan, which details "focus areas" for Singapore's arts sectors from 2018 to 2022, lists "utilising digital technology to improve art-making and outreach efforts" as one of its priorities.

More recently, the Government unveiled a raft of measures to help the industry tide through the coronavirus pandemic. One of these is a Digitalisation Fund for the arts and culture sector that will help make museums' exhibitions and collections accessible on virtual platforms, and support the digital presentation of large events such as the Singapore Writers Festival and Singapore Art Week. The fund will also go towards a new Digital Presentation Grant for the Arts, which offers groups or individuals up to $20,000 per project.

The marriage of art and technology is not new. Technology - be it photography, silk-screening or computers - has often been part of the art-making process.

The two are increasingly interlinked, with virtual exhibitions, online concerts and contemporary artists whose works hold up a mirror to our times - be it by grappling with social issues of the digital age, or by weaving new technologies such as coding, electronics and virtual reality (VR) into the warp and woof of their practice.

Sonic Womb by Randy Chan on display during Singapore Art Week last year. The coronavirus outbreak has hit arts groups hard, forcing them to cancel or postpone their shows and the industry to chalk up huge losses. But it has also been a catalyst for d
Sonic Womb by Randy Chan on display during Singapore Art Week last year. The coronavirus outbreak has hit arts groups hard, forcing them to cancel or postpone their shows and the industry to chalk up huge losses. But it has also been a catalyst for digitalisation, as artists put works online and explore new ways of interacting with one another and their audiences across a screen, says the writer. ST FILE PHOTO
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The boundaries continue to be pushed. In 2016, London's National Theatre launched an Immersive Storytelling Studio to explore the role VR technology could play in dramatic storytelling.

In 2018, Christie's became the first auction house to offer a work of art created by artificial intelligence - and would go on to sell the Portrait Of Edmond Belamy for US$432,500 (S$616,000).


Singaporean tech artist Eugene Soh, 32, dreams of a future where VR and AR (augmented reality) headsets will be as compact and commonplace as smartphones. People can wear these gadgets when they walk down the street, and encounter "floating" works of art.

Soh is one of the world's first Instagram custom filter creators. His quirky AR effects, which overlay the actual image displayed by a smartphone camera, include My Fellow Citizens, inspired by a clip of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pausing to drink water while addressing the nation.

He has also created immersive experiences for nursing home residents, using motion technology to simulate the act of walking down the streets of old Chinatown.

"Many people think art and tech are two different things," Soh says, "but they both fall under the umbrella of 'creation'. The painter's brush is his tool. My medium is code, and doing 3D models."

Soh, who had also created a virtual art gallery built on a multi-player gaming platform, is not alone in marrying tech with art. There is Berlin-based Singaporean artist Choy Ka Fai, who has "controlled" dancers' movements by applying electricity to their bodies. And visual artists such as Yeo Shih Yun, who uses robots to paint with Chinese ink, and Debbie Ding, who makes her own electronics and codes and recently did a series of computer-aided oil paintings.

In 2016, artists Urich Lau and Teow Yue Han started Inter-Mission, an art collective dedicated to discourses of technology in art. Both men feel that Singapore lags behind places such as Taiwan and Japan when it comes to works pushing the boundaries between art and technology. They would also like to see people engage with technology more critically.

Lau, 45, admits he feels frustrated when he visits a big festival and sees lots of "spectacular" digital art that does not have much else to say.

Teow, 32, notes that the new media art scene in Singapore is "very loose, with different groups doing their own things... and there is no concerted canon we can draw on".

Still, there are a few places where such artists have converged - for example, the ArtScience Museum (founded in 2011) and indie arts space Supernormal.

The museum recently launched an online programme, ArtScience at Home, featuring video tours, online workshops and a virtual conference. It will continue even after the circuit breaker measures are lifted.

"We are entering a new phase of museum culture internationally, and it's one shaped by Covid-19," says ArtScience Museum executive director Honor Harger.

While Singapore may not be at the forefront of experimenting with tech in the performing arts, some groups continue to push the boundaries.

TheatreWorks last year commissioned a binaural and multi-sensory performance by singer-songwriter Inch Chua, who drew on her expedition to Antarctica.

Contemporary dance company Raw Moves and artist Teow last year responded to the Government's Smart Nation initiative in a work that explored how digital technologies choreograph our movement in society.


The word "digital" comes from the Latin term for "finger" or "toe" - pointing, perhaps, to a desire for human connection that lies at the heart of those who use technology.

Teow, for one, says his interest in new media art came about more than a decade ago because he was concerned that human interaction had been getting more mediated, for instance by technology.

Others want to use technology to make the arts more accessible.

Singapore Chinese Orchestra executive director Terence Ho, who is also a Nominated MP, has proposed starting an platform to collate Singapore artworks and productions. Performer Marcus Tan, one-half of dance duo ScRach MarcS, is trying to start an online directory that maps, in real time, where events are happening across the island.

In the time of Covid-19, galleries the world over have been putting works online.

Major fair Art Basel Hong Kong launched its online viewing rooms last month, and Singapore-based galleries such as Fost Gallery and Gajah Gallery are presenting online exhibitions, which are Web pages with images of the artworks and more information.

Some have gone a step further to create virtual exhibitions that simulate the feeling of being in the gallery itself.

Local Web platform Artsphere.Net, which was founded last year, uses DSLR cameras to capture images of actual exhibition spaces, before stitching them together to offer a 360-degree virtual tour - the sort you might see on a real estate website. They also help to create 3D-rendered art exhibitions, working with the curator to place images of artworks in a virtual simulation of the gallery.

More inquiries have been coming in, co-founder Kelvin Ong says.

Fost Gallery founder Stephanie Fong, who gave Artsphere.Net a try last year for a separate show, says she has no plans to move her entire business online. But she notes a shift towards digital platforms, with a growing number of collectors buying art online in recent years.

Meanwhile, the National Museum of Singapore has launched an immersive, virtual version of its physical exhibition An Old New World: From the East Indies to the Founding of Singapore, 1600s-1819, which closed this year.

The museum worked with AP Media to produce videos of curators, as well as a 360-degree experience where visitors move around the museum space and zoom in on artefacts.

While this is the first time they have mounted a show of this kind, these plans were already afoot before Covid-19.

"The best thing about digital is that it lives on," says the National Heritage Board's deputy director for organisational design and innovation Jervais Choo.

"A lot of work and thought go into designing an exhibition and curating the artefacts. It's always a pity when everything gets lost (at the end of the show). Not just the physical showcase, but (also) the tours, and the experts who come to give talks."


Theatre groups such as The Necessary Stage, Wild Rice, Nine Years Theatre and Pangdemonium have put some old shows online for free for a limited time amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

But it is not just about putting material out there digitally, says The Necessary Stage general manager Melissa Lim.

Earlier this month, the company held an online "watch party" that saw scores of people tuning in for a screening of Haresh Sharma's Those Who Can't, Teach. It is also thinking of running courses online, and will look for new ways of interacting with audiences .

"Is it possible to do forum theatre through livestreams?" Ms Lim wonders. "And, aside from livestreaming, are there other forms you can use to create theatre, such as audio plays? It's going to require a fair bit of innovation."

Using VR technology may also be on the cards, she adds.

While the push to go digital has its perks - such as lowering the intimidation factor - there are issues too. Not everyone has access to computers and smartphones, let alone VR and AR headsets.

Ms Lim also worries about what this could mean for freelancers, who could find it harder to get jobs if groups hire fewer people.

Filming live productions without losing the nuances or compromising on artistic merit doesn't come cheap either.

In 2017, the Singapore Chinese Orchestra hired a professional producer and video crew to film and livestream three concerts - amounting to about $30,000 per production, with eight cameras trained on the musicians from different angles.

Copyright and intellectual property issues have to be ironed out. Cybercrime also rears its head.

Earlier this year, news broke that hackers posing as a London art dealer had duped the Rijksmuseum Twenthe in the Netherlands into parting with £2.4 million (S$4.2 million).

Artist Teow adds that, even as art on the Internet distances itself from the authoritative forces of the museum, there are still gatekeepers online - big corporations that control these platforms.

"When Net art came out (in the 1990s), there was that optimism, everyone was putting their art online. The Internet felt like a free space.

"Now the Internet is increasingly corporatised. Are we giving our data to just a few corporations?"

These questions swirling around the arts in the digital age are vast, but there is little doubt that the pandemic has prompted artists to think harder and deeper about the ways technology might enhance their practice.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2020, with the headline Covid-19 sparks questions about arts in the digital age. Subscribe