Usually at this time of year the Johannesburg art world is abuzz with the excitement and expectation of what the annual pilgrimage to the Sandton Convention Centre for the FNB Art Joburg might bring. What crass piece of kneejerk controversy will Ayanda Mabula upset the suburban brunch set with this time around? Which international Art Power 100 curator will be spotted being taken into the whispered confidence of gallerists and organisers in the discreet meeting corners of their booths? Who among the don’t-give-a-fuck-what-anybody-thinks-artists-behaving-badly crowd will put their foot in their mouth and then proceed to drink the champagne bar dry? And of course, what will this year’s show if anything say about the state and concerns of the continent’s art and practitioners, how much of the work on offer will be sold and will we still be back again here next year to bitch and moan and do it all over again?
As no one needs reminding 2020 has not turned out to be an ordinary year and faced with the challenges of a global pandemic, FNB Art Joburg has, like all other major fairs, had to go online. No pilgrimages, no gossip, no champagne, no socializing – no distractions from anything other than the art its participating galleries have brought to now invisible homebound buyers able to peruse and explore in their own time from anywhere with an internet connection.
Much noise was made by the organisers this year about the fair’s having had to deal with these undoubtedly unexpected and difficult challenges in a short period with not nearly enough time to possibly come to grips with all the complicated ins-and-outs of unfamiliar tech needed to make it happen. In spite of this they’d like us to know that they’ve met these challenges and produced something that’s exciting fresh and which will keep their brand firmly afloat. They’d be half right.
On one hand there certainly was an online edition of the fair this year. On the other the attempt to use technology to deliver a similar experience to that of the physical event has resulted in a mixed bag of a few gamely brave attempts at meaningful interaction and a predominance of half-hearted acceptances of a new reality for these types of shows that does little other than offer a few tech benefits for those buyers whose biggest question remains, ‘but how will it look on my wall?’
Given that an important part of the art fair experience, whether you’re in the market to buy or just want to have a look, is the opportunity to physically interact with works of arts, meet artists and find out information from gallerists, FNB Joburg’s offering is overall something of a damp squib. The main galleries have mostly chosen to opt for 2D pictures of their work, with selections connected to an AR tool that through the use of a QR Code Scanner allows you to see how the work may look on your wall. Some have included video works or brief interviews with artists but overall the experience on offer is not much different to browsing through an e-catalogue.
You would think that one of the benefits of removing all the human and physical distractions of a fair and hosting it over a longer period, might at least be that it allows audiences to have a longer time to contemplate work in their own time but the failings of the presentation of works by means of rows of reproductions quickly become obvious and make the experience tedious for anyone who isn’t in the market to buy.
While buyers are the heart and lungs of any art fair and its success, the enthusiasm and hunger for exposure to art for the sake of experiencing art that ordinary, curious and enthusiastic art lovers bring to a fair can’t be ignored. Sure there are Zoom talk programs, which offer a chance to interact with artists and experts but these don’t have the immediacy of in-situ talks at the fair itself and may be watched at any time really.
The only section of the fair where some attempts have been made to utilize AR technology in more direct ways is in the gallery labs section where artists have provided approaches including virtual gallery installations and Instagram filters that at least take viewers a tiptoe further into the possibilities of the online space. None of these are going to break the internet or the online art fair paradigm just yet but at least they’re making baby steps in the right direction.
Given that the Covid 19 virus may still be with us this time next year and faced with a reality in which the physical walls and social interaction that have formed so much of its previous existence are impossible, FNB Art Joburg, like every other art fair, will need to start seriously exploring ways to make its mark on an increasingly oversubscribed virtual art landscape. Next time its organisers will have more than enough forewarning and its artists will hopefully be ready to meet the challenges of presenting work in a new, very different but enticingly challenging new landscape.
As in the world of art fairs so it is in the broader real world current moment – we’re all just trying to get through this thing as best we can, learning and adapting as we navigate it. Hopefully that leads to some imagination and unpredictable but rewarding new ways of experiencing what promises to be a decidedly different world. For now there’s certainly plenty to look at in this year’s virtual edition of the fair even if there’s depressingly little to really feel or remember about the whole somewhat shabby simulacrum of the real thing.