Please Moore, can we have more? The Biennale of Sydney

The Biennale of Sydney (BoS) opened on 14 March at six venues across the city and shut ten days later as the result of government restrictions put in place to arrest the spread of COVID-19.

The Biennale was not alone in shutting, many other museums and galleries across the country had already done so and many had shifted to online platforms, as a way of delivering virtual tours and walk-throughs to their constituents. In comparison, BoS seemed to enter into what some might describe as, at best, a trading halt. While its 700 artworks from 101 global artists gathered dust in the shuttered venues, BoS refused to entertain the idea of offering online walk-throughs and tours over and above short video clips on its social media channels. Dyed in the wool visitors to previous iterations of the Biennale of Sydney, those who had over the years helped lift visitation numbers to record breaking levels – the 2018 iteration ‘SUPERPOSITION: Equilibrium & Engagement’ reached a staggering 850,000 visitors – and who had missed the ten days of physical access, this year suddenly faced the prospect of having to wait weeks to see an online virtual tour.

The Biennale’s lack of planning and oversight concerning the digital world was not the reason for the absence of any digital offering. Far from it. As Barbara Moore, the CEO of BoS, explained when we spoke in April, weeks after the enforced closure, ‘to put a walk-through online is not our immediate necessity … (or) our immediate push.’ A curious admission but one that addresses the fact that the digital priority for BoS is ‘community engagement’, learning and education, which also somehow embraces an online recipe for curry. BoS’s concern – in the short term at least – was more about ‘creating spaces for artists and audiences to connect, collaborate and express powerful ideas through performances, readings and conversations’, according to a media release issued days after closure. It also promised that ‘details about how audiences can experience the 700 artworks … will be announced in the coming weeks.’ The promised platform – through Google Arts and Culture – would bring artworks from all six venues ‘online for audiences to experience in compelling new ways including 360-degree tours, (and) video walk-throughs.’

COVID-19 has roiled the world, visiting death and misery wherever it has touched down. Museums and galleries have been shuttered everywhere, and the art world decimated. But it has also delivered opportunities that many galleries and museums have been quick to exploit. Pop-up online exhibitions, digital tours and art gallery walk-throughs are proliferating. As a result we have all become avid Netizens glued to our screens. While no substitute for the real thing, these virtual tours and walk-throughs do offer an alternative for those of us who had become culturally impoverished quarantined captives, myself included. They offer comfort and a distraction from the encroaching horrors to which we are all currently subjected. Commercial galleries, never slow to jump in when an opportunity appears, were also quick to spruik their artists through imaginative, and sophisticated, content. Sydney’s Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery posted a thirteen minute cinematic quality video walk-through of its Dale Frank exhibition, ‘Shaun taught piano’, which amounted to a perfect synthesis of visuals, music and space.

The Biennale was always going to be one like Sydney had never before experienced, with work that inevitably reflected the primary concerns of its Artistic Director, Brook Andrew, the first Indigenous Australian appointed to the role. Andrew is himself one of Australia’s leading artists with a practice where the central trope is nuanced activism. His intention, as he explained to me on a previous occasion, was that his biennale would be political, iconoclastic and would challenge, perhaps even fracture, the prevailing grip that the Western art canon had, both now and in the past, on the art world.

Moore reminded me when we talked, that ‘NIRIN’ – the name given to the Biennale by Andrew and which is a Wiradjuri word meaning ‘edge’ – was a First Nations-led biennale and that its main thrust would be public and community engagement, a point reiterated by Andrew who said via text that ‘NIRIN’ ‘is an exhibition with a program that is still to be rolled out over the next few months.’

At the time of writing in late-April, it remained unclear as to when the promise of a digital platform ‘uniting people across the world’ would be delivered. Moore became increasingly agitated when I pressed her several times during our interview asking when we might expect to see a comprehensive virtual tour online that would take the incipient audience on a journey through the now shuttered Biennale locations. But she adamantly refused to be drawn on the subject.

Moore’s hesitation in rolling out online virtual tours was not one shared by Elizabeth Ann Macgregor, the Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Australia (MCA), an exhibiting Biennale partner. As soon as the shutdown occurred, the MCA’s in-house technology team expedited the development of an app – Your MCA – which was launched in mid-April. Available on smartphone, tablet and desktop, the app offered, among other things, a 360-degree walk-through plus close-up views of the MCA’s Biennale artworks. ‘It’s a shame if audiences can’t see the Biennale’, a spokesperson for the MCA told Artist Profile.

As its front doors closed, the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) also rushed to launch a new digital platform. While happy to leave the promotion of its Biennale artists to BoS’s own resources, the gallery launched a new app, Together In Art, which was their response to the possibility that its audience would be feeling isolated through the long periods of quarantine. ‘Once we realised the closure of the Gallery was imminent, we worked as hard as we could to create a new virtual space. Connecting with others through art and imagination seems even more important when we are separated physically’, explained Justin Paton, head of International Art at AGNSW. Together In Art will deliver behind the scenes tours, art experiences and much more.

Notwithstanding BoS’s perceived reluctance to leap into the online world, ‘NIRIN’, with its pedagogical purview, is a Biennale unlike any that had gone before and is, unashamedly, driven by activism.

Whether ‘NIRIN’ will be remembered solely for its activism and its attempts at community engagement, or simply as the Biennale that struggled for relevance in the face of the COVID-19 shutdown, remains to be seen. Judging from previous Biennale visitation figures, what is certain is that among the wider art-going community there exists an insatiable hunger for online museum walk-throughs and tours delivered, in extremis, through digital platforms when physical ones are inaccessible.

One need only digitally drop into the current Raphael exhibition at the Scuderie del Quirinale in Rome to see exactly what can, and should, be done online in times like these. Marking the 500th anniversary of Raphael’s death, this exhibition was forced to close four days after opening in early March. It immediately uploaded to its website a thirteen-minute virtual tour of the exhibition, which, over its first three days, was viewed 380,000 times.

NIRIN: 22nd Biennale of Sydney
Until September 2020
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Artspace, Blacktown Native Institution Site, Campbelltown Arts Centre, Cockatoo Island, Museum of Contemporary Art Australia, Parramatta Female Factory

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