5. Scare City

There were standards we had to let go of. Some were very recent standards. Standards or tropes? Maybe tropes is a better description. Many will be familiar already (hence tropes). Some of these tropes included: staff member addressing a camera and proceeding to give a guided tour of a space… and the show within a space. The eerily anonymous tour where a camera panned through a space accompanied by a disembodied voice intoning various exhibits as a camera lingered momentarily in various areas. The was the self-guided Google maps style 360° capturing of various rooms within a space. The forced perspective, assumedly a result of the type of lens and technique required in taking spherical images of spaces, giving these ‘portals’ a signature ‘zooming’ effect, as if you were suspended above the ground within a crystal clear bubble, floating from room to room. These all required staring at the hard pixels on a screen as if trying to stare through them. Needless to say their (measurable) success was stymied by the predicability of the screen as surrogate camera lens approach. There was something of a genre to these events too. No matter where they were enacted from there was an unavoidable sameness.

We did look at places where potential visitors were amassing online, and had been for sometime, which took us to gaming and the coded language of the server, and of discord and streaming services. We looked briefly at VR chat rooms and Minecraft servers or realms. I attended a music festival as part of my research after a friend’s 11-year-old son set up access to a Minecraft server for me. I didn’t get into the main stage unfortunately. The server reached capacity before most of the visitors, and their avatars could be allowed in. A colleague recalled reading, some time ago, about all these brands and organisations constructing buildings in Second Life. We attempted to meet up there as a group to meet and exchange thoughts about virtual exhibits but only a couple of the team managed to login, set up a profile and find one another. They reported back later. It sounded too baffling… and niche to be helpful... as did a lot of the virtual, gaming associated, server based options.

Why were we skirting around re-opening a physical space? Sure there were restrictions to take into account but supermarkets were open. Could we exhibit there? Public transport was running as usual. There were people walking on the streets, past posters for events that were cancelled or postponed. Physical space was available and there was a type of measurable audience there. The group consensus became, ‘How do we meet current restrictions head on instead of having to dodge around them?’ Also, if the many online or virtual options prove unsatisfying, unengaging and unhelpful then let’s not overuse it. If being online is about fast and easy access to information, to short reads, to bits and bytes then that’s what we will use it for.

Turns out there were funds available due to savings made by not having any active visitors for a few months. We started planning out a space that would adhere, not especially to government supplied regulations, but to a sense of caution that potential visitors seemed to be expressing online. The first aspect we all agreed on was utilising a 1.5 metre grid throughout the space. It would be on the floor, but could also inform the size of, and distance between, the exhibits. Grids are potent. The trick would be not to let it overwhelm anything else in the space. Visitor numbers would be restricted per room, a 5 to 10 person limit depending on the size of the room and number of exhibits made sense.

There would be a number of precautions embedded within the entrance to the space. A thermal scan could be displayed that alert a visitor to their body temperature if they seemed to be running a temperature. We would then have to turn these visitors away and encouraged them to seek medical attention, but if you were fine you could continue. If they are using a tracing app, this information could also be displayed somehow… it would have to be as a reassurance rather than being interpreted as prejudice. That might be tricky. Any banquette or seating would need to be made for one person only and spaced as far apart as possible. No toilets or similar onsite facilities would be available and staff would have to remain masked, behind perspex whilst on premises. Oh and… hand sanitiser. An abundance of hand sanitiser for visitors and staff. Maybe some custom designed masks for sale… we’d need vending machines that are easy to clean at the end of the day.

There is still more planning to do but the wheels are in motion now. This is where we are. The question still hovering over all this activity is what effect will diminished numbers of visitors really have. Because physical visitor numbers will be diminished for some time.

I have been trying not to focus on the economic concerns. I keep thinking about an interview with a radical immersive theatre director in which they were asked about their ideal performance. They described an fantastically elaborate show involving a high speed taxi ride that started at dusk and rode into the night, arriving at an empty church where they were notes and clues to follow to a similarly empty farm house where there was evidence of other people having just vacated the building, eventually leading out to a field full of scarecrows that would light up on approach. The key to the show was that it would only be for one person. One participant. Thinking about it… in terms of social distancing alone, this made a whole lot of sense.


Follow the research embedded within this text by visiting this research pool at are.na/many-rooms/how-to-stage-visit-an-exhibition.

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