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Experiencing the virtual ArtFairPH

By SCOTT GARCEAU, The Philippine STAR Published May 17, 2021 5:00 am

I’ve just finished streaming through several videos by Jeremy Couillard, the female collective Keiken, and Petra Cortright, all part of the Daata exhibition shown online for this year’s Art Fair Philippines.

They’re brain-tickling, giddily explosive, and sometimes contemplative. Then I click on over to a Zoom talk about how local artists can start cranking out their own non-fungible tokens (NFTs) for the digital market, while a more measured session by Art Week magazine later questions whether this is an actual revolution, or just a “get-rich-quick” scheme designed to create “artificial scarcity” on the art market.

After a week of deep-diving into Art Fair 2021, to say we’re interfacing with art very differently these days doesn’t begin to cover it.

We are sitting in our homes, generally, padding through the ArtFair Philippines website on our laptops and phones, and it’s a gloriously redefined space: there are side rooms and chat areas, and exhibitor niches with elaborately filmed videos on each gallery. It’s a lot.

But that’s what we’ve come to expect from ArtFairPH: a somewhat heady, overwhelming experience. An overdose of art. But in a good way.

AFP x Daata presented talks with digital artists Petra Cortright, Jeremy Couillard and Keiken.

I’ve dropped in on NFT talks, seen demos of photography, heard lectures about art conservation (all of these were free, by the way, with prearranged times and pre-registration), toured virtual galleries in a vast digital space known as Decentraland, where Narra Gallery shows off its collection of NFT pieces.

These are generally digital images, some with a .gif component that makes them seem animated, with a pirate-punk avatar leading us through the virtual space.

A lot of the buzz for this year’s Art Fair focused on NFTs, posited as the “future” of art authentication and ownership.

Works can be bid upon, using the cryptocurrency ethereum. It’s all very James Cameron/Avatar and otherworldly, and not exactly warm and comforting, but it’s carefully visualized. The digital world is starting to burrow in quite deeply.

It’s unavoidable to compare this online experience with what we usually experience during Art Fair — that is, a shared, human space in which lots of bodies are crowded together on several huge floors (even imagining all those physical bodies packed together in one space, in this moment, seems somehow perverse, even wicked!) and there’s a fairly constant din of human noise around you that one can think of as “art murmur” — an almost collective, ongoing reflection on the art installations in your midst, rising to a level of art babble.

Digital artist Luis Buenaventura looked at "How to Become a Crypto Artist."

Art murmur is absent in the metaverse. We are confined, almost all of us, to our personal screens, clicking through pathways and submenus here and there.

It’s not so different from our daily sojourns on laptops — unexpected encounters, but not of the physical kind. The only murmur is in our heads, trying to engage with a very new art-viewing plateau. It’s not unpleasant at all, but it is more solitary: we become the filter, collecting and recollecting our thoughts in tranquility, or absorbing them on the fly.

Some of these pathways are more conventional. You could (if you’re basic) opt to simply click on various gallery images, zoom in a bit on what’s being sold, make price inquiries via email or message. (The embedded gallery videos are an in-depth treat.)

But even that is different: anyone who’s grown accustomed to viewing art on a tiny Instagram page or online knows that the super-bright illumination of an LCD screen is just way different from seeing an artwork in a physical space: the natural lighting, the tactility of canvas, plays a big part in our sense of a work. Onscreen? It’s super bright, lit from within, crystal clear; not part of the real world, almost by design.

ArtReview held a session called “NFT: A New Revolution or the Emperor’s New Clothes?” A little of both, it turns out.

A lot of the buzz for this year’s Art Fair focused on NFTs, posited as the “future” of art authentication and ownership.

Many questions raised, and some left unanswered in forums run by “crypto-natives” Chris Fussner, director of Tropical Futures Institute in Cebu, and Gabby Dizon and Colin Goltra, digital owners of Narra Art Gallery, the only Filipino outpost set up in Decentraland, a virtual space where everything is crypto-decentralized, including art and purchasing.

Questions arise about the environmental impact of blockchain, mining cryptocurrency and creating NTFs, which they assure us is as negligible as streaming videos on YouTube in terms of energy consumption. Hmm. Maybe. Unless the trend shows staying power beyond the Beeple bubble.

By the end of Art Fair 2021, that online world is still unfolding, the art murmur still lingering. Such questions we might’ve contemplated during the old days of perusing The Link until our feet gave out, when we’d sit and stare at an unmoving wall for a few minutes, to gather our scattered thoughts. Maybe the virtual Art Fair provides more respite for personal exploration, more deep dives and shallow skims, at our leisure.

An illustrated talk by art historian Dr. Anne Wieck explored the art career of Fernando Zóbel.

All this is, in a way, exciting, and the work is often engaging and opens up whole new cans of worms, contemplation-wise.

The Art Fair 2021 space is a marketplace, but also a meeting-of-minds space, with lots of openings for online chat during and after sessions. It was a formidable task, and Art Fair organizers Trickie Colayco-Lopa, Lisa Ongpin-Periquet and Geraldine “Din-din” Araneta deserve a whole lot of credit for making it happen as smoothly as it did. Despite “bandwidth” considerations, and being in a place where internet speeds are famously dodgy, this all worked as well as promised.

Of course, the organizers want to return to the physical Art Fair, probably next year. Personally, I feel it will probably end up being a hybrid of sorts — partly physical Art Fair, with a heavily virtual component as well — though this might be working against the fair itself, if too many people become too lazy to head out into the real world.

I get it. We all want physical spaces again. Even if, deep inside, we admit the experiences over the past year have changed us in subtle ways that technology has only started to tease out of us.