How do you take a compelling exhibition from one of the world’s leading visual artists and create an accompanying, immersive online experience? This case study explains how the Royal Academy of Arts used 360-degree photography and interactivity to bring Ai Weiwei’s retrospective exhibition to a large online audience. Find out the challenges they faced and the practical tips they have for other arts organisations attempting something similar.
Creating a sensational exhibition can also offer the opportunity to extend the reach of the work online. This may be to extend access to those who can’t attend the physical gallery for reasons of geography, cost or time, but it also offers the chance to curate an online experience rich in itself.
The Royal Academy’s 2015 exhibition of works by Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei was such a sell-out success for the gallery that opening hours had to be extended. In the background, a 360º online version of the exhibition was developed, with the aim of extending the life and reach of this important survey of the artist’s work. The resulting experience, Ai Weiwei 360 allowed audiences anywhere in the world with a desktop, laptop, smartphone or a VR headset to walk through the exhibition, guided by the Royal Academy’s curators.
Nick Sharp, Digital Director at the Royal Academy says that, for them, it was about finding out whether: “it was possible to take as many of the elements that the Royal Academy is known for – the sort of rigorous, accessible, high-quality show with interpretation – and make it into something that lasts longer than the three months that we have in our galleries. It was a bit of an experiment to see if we could also reach more than the three or four hundred thousand people who can get to our Mayfair gallery.”
London’s Royal Academy of Arts was already producing digital content such as webpages and social media work but in discussions with The Space were keen to do more, and the Ai Weiwei exhibition presented an ideal opportunity to explore new technologies like virtual reality art.
Independent production company Animal Vegetable Mineral was appointed to scope and produce the online exhibition and Fish in a Bottle supported the development of the online interface. Animal Vegetable Mineral’s founder and creative director Rupert Harris, says that: “Normally you’d start planning six to eight months in advance but the timings on this project meant that we were discussing this with the Academy when the exhibition was announced. So that was a matter of weeks before it began. It’s an unusual example in this case but it demonstrates that actually you can turn these things around much quicker than you might think.”
“Originally the idea was whether we could do something with this Ai Weiwei show,” says Sharp. “We have a model of doing temporary exhibitions, we don’t tend to do projects that are going to last five years. We’re very much on a ‘get them in, get them out’ model every three months. So our internal resources alone probably wouldn’t have permitted us to make an online experience like this.
“The things we were already doing for this show included the audio guide, which for the first time we devised to include as part of the general ticket price. So by the stage we were talking with The Space and AVM, we had already put quite a lot of effort into gathering the content, doing sound design, doing video interviews.”
The work that the Royal Academy was already doing helped define what more was needed and what AVM could do to bring that online. However, both Nick Sharp and Rupert Harris say that it was the Ai Weiwei show that lent itself to what they produced.
Sharp: “The exhibition was curated by Ai Weiwei himself and he had his own ideas about how to put the show together. He didn’t want masses of interpretive text on the walls, for instance, so from the beginning we had been thinking about this audio/multimedia guide that people could carry around with them.”
Both men say that having longer to make the online experience would have been better but even under time pressures they made hard choices based on artistic considerations.
So once the exhibition was ready and then opened to the public, AVM shot footage for the experience. It had to be done overnight when the galleries were closed and it was a long shoot. It was similar to having a television documentary crew except that, instead of selecting elements of the exhibition to cover, AVM had to shoot everything.
The aim from the start was to create a walkthrough experience, to make it possible for online audiences to step through the galleries.
“If you can be gathering audio and video material from the beginning, even if it seems quite ephemeral, you will find a use for it in the end” Nick Sharp, RA
However, AVM decided that the results of this first shoot weren’t good enough. Rupert Harris: “We initially approached it as a video shoot, that was the initial plan. But having shot a lot of content, we saw that for what we were trying to do and for the quality we needed, video wasn’t the best solution. What you see on the final experience is stills, still photography and that means images load faster plus you have much higher quality images.
“There’s also much less use of lighting because video needs that more than stills do, so there are lots and lots of reasons why it works better this way. However, the final experience has to have movement to the images so that they weren’t static and dead. We digitally treated it to look like video so you got that same movement effect but none of the data weight and none of the disadvantages of video such as lack of quality and resolution.”
The Ai Weiwei 360º Experience is a constantly moving one which lets you control moving around but also draws you in closer to details. Along the way there are also audio and video interviews from the Royal Academy’s experts and from Ai Weiwei himself.
An online experience can’t be the same as physically visiting a gallery but the aim here wasn’t to replicate precisely what you see in the building. It was to enhance what you see in ways that suited this show.
“If you work in an art gallery or museum then you have this very lucky kind of privileged access to the place when it’s quite quiet, before it’s open or after it’s closed,” explains Nick Sharp. “Quite often the curators will walk you around and they’ll tell you the stories about it. For me, that’s what we tried to get with the online experience because you forget when you work here that for the public, most of the time it’s incredibly busy. You’re peering around people to read the labels, you’re trying to get closer to the work and see what’s going on.
“So you can miss out on things, especially if you’re not an audio guide type of person. I think that for me, personally, the success of it is that you get something of the experience of the quiet galleries and it gives you the close-up texture and detail of the work.”
Rupert Harris agrees and again specifically for the Ai Weiwei show where sometimes quite abstract pieces were displayed in a minimalist way. One gallery had a large central piece that was clearly explained in text by it but around every wall there were beautiful roundels whose details you can easily miss.
Harris: “Actually when you stand in front of them they all look very similar, you don’t appreciate the crenellations in them, all reflecting what’s on the floor. It’s very subtle and the online experience lets you draw attention to it by your choices of framing and focus.”
Engaging the audience
Creating the experience is one thing but of course getting it to audiences is another – and that starts with trying to decide who you’re aiming the work at.
Nick Sharp says: “For us this was more of an experimental cast-the-net kind of thing. At the Royal Academy we have an attitude that our audience segmentation broadly splits into two groups who are the connoisseurs and the enthusiasts. In our internal marketing speak we always want to be reaching the particular audience segments whom we call creative networkers and enthusiasts. Broadly what it means is younger people, people who are more comfortable with technology. It’s about people who are looking for experiential rather than academic experiences.
“So for us this was helping us tick those boxes. A lot of our digital content strategy is about going for this core audience, a really core and loyal audience that we’re delighted to continue to serve, but this online experience can help us stretch into these younger, more tech-savvy, more time-poor audiences.
“Ai Weiwei was a good example: over half of our visitors to the galleries were under 34, which for the Royal Academy is extremely young. So the physical show and then the experience were an opportunity to open more people’s eyes to the Royal Academy, which can be a forbidding-looking building but has an eclectic and unusual mix of art.”
So the Royal Academy had its existing audience and it already had aims for whom it wanted to reach next, but the Ai Weiwei experience was an experiment to find who they could engage with. Consequently, the opportunity was both a matter of getting the word out and then monitoring the response.
Three things helped the Ai Weiwei experience gain traction, beginning with the launch as the exhibition was finishing, when demand to see the work was high but there was no further physical access to the exhibition. Then there was the relationship with BBC Taster, which The Space had initiated. BBC Taster encourages audiences to try new online experiences, and it featured a prominent link to the online exhibition for some time, with supporting promotion across BBC online channels including a link on the BBC website home page in its universal footer for four days. Finally, in another partnership facilitated by The Space with global file transfer site WeTransfer, a video promoting the experience played whilst users were waiting for their files to download, with a click through to Ai Weiwei 360. These primary traffic drivers were also supported by promotion across the RA digital channels and by recommendations on Twitter by Ai Weiwei to his followers.
The impact of this was monitored and recorded by Google Analytics which not only records how many people are visiting each page but also where they come from.
Nick Sharp: “Google Analytics also has a kind of demographic element to it – which is a bit scary when you think about how Google puts this together – but it showed us we definitely reached a younger audience. It reached a national audience too, as you might expect. I think the profile was not a million miles away from the visitors in the exhibition.”
The online exhibition was experienced 174,000 times by 153,000 users between January 2016 and March 2017, with users from around the world engaging with the work. Most people accessed Ai Weiwei 360 from a desktop computer or laptop, but many also accessed the work from their mobiles and some tried the versions for Google Cardboard and Samsung Gear VR.
Production company Animal Vegetable Mineral has already moved on to making more online experience projects and the Royal Academy intends to – when they have the right exhibition.
“It has definitely opened our eyes to the opportunities,” says Sharp. “I think also the technology has moved on very quickly since we did this so doing it now would be cheaper and easier. I think there’s an element that is about finding the right kind of experiences that you might want to take online. Sometimes an art exhibition is more a kind of spiritual experience, it’s about the aesthetic and how you’re in a room full of paintings. The difficulty that has really held us back, though, is the issue of rights.”
“It can kill any situation if you haven’t thought about the rights and made sure that lenders and artists are behind the project” Nick Sharp, RA
One reason that Ai Weiwei was a good show to experiment with online was precisely because of how complex it is to negotiate the rights to show or film pieces of art. The Royal Academy has four staff working on this full time for their regular exhibitions.
“It would be nice to go, oh, we’ll capture all of the shows like this,” says Sharp. “But Ai Weiwei held the copyright to all of his works and I think there were only about two or three lenders we had to negotiate with. You could instead have hundreds of lenders, all with different conditions.”
That’s something that an art organisation is often better coping with than a technology or production company as the art organisation often holds these relationships, so building the online experience pulls on the skill sets of both types of expert.
- Start as early in the exhibition project as you can: ideally you would be doing this simultaneously with the production and six to eight months ahead
- Have a backup plan: assume you’ll need at least some time to reshoot or change your mind about what you’re filming.
- Think about where your work can be shown: PCs and Macs are different from smartphones and different still from VR headsets. They use the same footage but you’ll need to prepare them in different ways.
- Break up interview topics so that several people can contribute usefully and no one is overstretched.
- Plan to cover everything: online experiences are not like television shoots where you film what you need to tell a certain story
- Think about audio: sound is vital to an online experience
- Think about storage and keeping assets so you can reuse them in future productions
- Get your rights discussions in as early as you can.
To find out how an audience was reached for this project, refer to our ‘Finding an Audience‘ guide or for insights into why and how Ai Weiwei 360 came to life online read ‘Virtual gallery. Visit whilst you’re sitting at home‘ from our resources section.
About the Royal Academy
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About Animal Vegetable Mineral
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