Last month Mike Goldby and Jillian Kay Ross curated and organized the launch of a new virtual gallery project space called Barmecidal Projects with an inaugural showcase called FREE 4 ALL. The release of this project occurred in conjunction with an opening at Butcher Gallery in Toronto by projecting a virtual walk-through of a 3D rendered fictional space modeled after Mathew Marks Gallery in NYC.

Although Barmecidal Projects is not the first of it’s kind to present online works in this fashion (notable precursors include Chrystal Gallery curated and rendered by Timur Si-Qin, and An Immaterial Survey of our Peers curated by Lauren Christiansen and Brad Troemel), this recent exhibition reignited questions I’ve been mulling over regarding this model of presentation. I addressed some of these concerns with Goldby and Ross last week and will interweave our conversation into an ongoing debate I’ve been having with myself about the future and current potential of the virtual gallery space.

Although I had visited the project site and gone through the walk-through a handful of times, it was only after I read a critical response/review to FREE 4 ALL on it’s not about the art that made me decide to try to put some of the thoughts I was having about this work into a more solid frame of reference. I applaud moderators/authors Joanna Sheridan and Ginger Scott on their taking to task some of the technical aspects of the project by delving into the infrastructural short-comings that Barmecidal suffered as a result of appearing to do too much with too little (in ways of time, resources, rendering power, etc.) I do, however, disagree that these lacking elements influence my overall appreciation for what this project aims to explore.

In one particularly instance I thought it unfair to pit the efforts of Goldby and Ross against the virtual gallery tools developed by Google’s Art Project. Measuring the scope of each exhibition is in itself a gesture that undermines the fact that exhibitions like Barmecidal Projects can even be mounted through the limited DIY resources available to the artists represented. Galvanizing and organizing the work shown in FREE 4 ALL is a task all on it’s own, especially since a portion of the artists participating in the exhibition have never even attempted to work in 3D before or are forced to use unstable bootleg versions of animation software. Goldby and Ross expressed to me that some of the most exciting parts of putting together this exhibition came from the dialog generated between themselves and artists whose work they had to render.

G+R: we wanted a wide range
N O’B: i see
G+R: people who use the language of 3d rendering, people who use the language of net art, people who work exclusively IRL (offline)
we really enjoyed working with them
they gave us an idea or sketch and we produced a piece
N O’B: interesting
G+R: it was fun working with them because we would send them renders and they would tell us if they liked it etc.
but there’s also something to be said about the idea that we are “re-creating” their works
N O’B: so you guys facilitated the production of works
G+R: yeah, we facilitated their works

I cannot fault inata for not knowing how Goldby and Ross committed themselves to incorporating non-net-based artists into this exhibition, but I do take issue with neglecting to take into consideration how the decisions and outcomes that occurred as a result of the feedback between artists and organizers (a working methodology that good artists, curators, and cultural commentators engage with as often as they can) appear evident in the presentation of this exhibition. In this way, I felt as though this comparison made between Barmecidal and Google typifies how inata had missed the point of Barmecidal’s initial objective.

Through exhibiting these works in such a manner, Barmecidal Projects is attempting to make audience members “suspend certainty” in a way that calls into question the arbitrary distinction between what is considered real and virtual. If we allow ourselves to quickly let go of the visual gimmick of this show – albeit a somewhat difficult task given the deliberate direction and perspective of the camera angle in the video – then we can hold FREE 4 ALL to the same traditional success standards we would regard non-virtual galleries sites. Thus I think the show is successful by the standard that Ralph Rugoff has suggested in that it the works “engage in a dialogue with one another,” in way that allows for “artists [to] offer us their talent for making unexpected connections.”

Rachael Milton - Maldoror, 2011

Without that consideration, one can see that the concentration on craft and render quality found within the above mentioned review are evidence of an over-emphasis on technique as a way of not discussing the content and concept behind a singular piece or a group dynamic. To that end, one of the more interesting aspects of the project can be found between the discrepancies between the varying rendering engines and their native lighting environments. By exposing differing skills sets and aesthetic acumen, Goldby and Ross highlight a tension that spaces like Barmecidal Projects can very purposefully embody in way that a physical representation cannot. For instance, the stark contrast between Georgia Dickie‘s Fusilli with Rachel Milton‘s Malador should be observed as a bridging of a gap between the rhetorics that inform the production of works made on or around the web. The diversity of works, and their subsequent levels of rendered “believability,” point to the variety of perspectives and influences that shape the content of contemporary net-based artworks. In the instance above, we can see how minimalism and manga hold equal places of interest within the vernacular of the contemporary community represented within FREE 4 ALL.

However, there are some technical aspects of the project that do have some interesting considerations to take into account. For instance, the walk-through loop creates an unintentional structural narrative as a result of the sequences visible beginning and end. In this way, viewers aware of this (knowledge that might not occur in the Butcher Gallery installation) can mistake that continuity as containing crescendoes and moments of rest. As a result, a viewer of the loop must would have to take into consideration that certain pieces are unintentionally prioritized over others.

Shelbi Chew - Untitled, 2011

Goldby and Ross admit that rendering limitations prevented a more dynamic viewing situation. Allowances for wandering and lingering around any given piece might prevent these hindrances, but I am still curious what this visual guidance/dictation does to the pieces included in this show. Although the camera view that we get roams the various rooms and objects in a relatively democratic way, the static-ness of that perspective speaks to some of the incumbered limitations contemporary artists are facing when deciding to work within and around screens. Whenever an artist choses to emulate three-dimensions, regardless if your medium is computer rendered imagery or 16mm film, one is still faced with the consequence of working with a singular image surface/plane.

This quandary plays itself out – even if only accidently – in the visual framework that Barmecidal Projects provides in their tour. One would think that browsing could be a guiding paradigm to try and tackle this problem, either through the inclusion of multiple screens or through multiple offered perspectives. In our conversation, the curators seemed to agree that a more interactive approach would help solve some of these constraints. They also stressed the fact that in future iterations there will be more emphasis made in making the theme more evident through specific selections of artists working in around similar content:

G+R: in the future
briefs and themes [like “FREE 4 ALL”] will be more directed
working with smaller groups on tighter themes and taking advantage of the immaterial space
N O’B: this was more like an inaugural show
G+R: yeah
sort of like a showcase
N O’B: i see
G+R:i know
after the first show was finished
i started to really think about the idea of the space (mike)
as a showcase, using the space as a vessel worked
but when themes become tighter the space will become increasingly important
it’s exciting to have a mutable space
N O’B: rite
G+R: and also exterior space to the gallery as well
N O’B: like a whole building?
G+R: exactly, and it could be placed in any location
it becomes a lot to consider

In some ways these concerns that Goldby and Ross shared with me are recapitulations of some of the more poignant parts of the inata review, but instead of pointing to potential failure on that part of the orchestrators of this exhibition, I’m instead wanting to consider what alternatives and options might be available for future iterations of this gallery and others. In particular, the question regarding the decision to use familiar iconography found within a traditional gallery is an acute critique that also speaks to my own curiosity:

… there are monitors in the Barmecidal gallery that represent installations of video work. This is perplexing because they serve no utilitarian function besides standing in for recognizable objects. All the same, why adhere to this standard when the virtual model renders it completely unnecessary and when there are seemingly infinite alternative possibilities? Without having to adhere to the confines of physical space, and other annoyances like gravity, why do monitors have to stand in to separate the video work from any other media in this transitory space?

Lee Ormerod - Bulldog Clip #7, 2011.

The one piece that actually comes quite close to challenging the austerity of the artificiality of the space is a very quiet piece by Lee Ormerod entitled Bulldog Clip #7. This piece uses an enlarged, almost Oldenburg-esque, bulldog clip to pinch and elevate the floor of the gallery is a gesture that shows the otherwise hidden mutability to the conventional white cube. Ormerod’s piece is almost like a wink to the viewer, reminding audience members that the strict standard geometry of a space meant to disappear is only a visual launching pad for a potential plethora of subversive statements. Work that immediately addresses and challenges what is considered the “standard” within a screen-only based gallery can be the segue into turning a conversation about technique into a discourse of aesthetic breakdown of technical expectations within computer rendered environments.

I’m convinced that the excitement Goldby and Ross expressed to me has been able to translate into a strong reaction to FREE 4 ALL that enthusiasts of net-based practices have been able to share with their non-net cohorts. This being said, I still think that the occasionally anecdotal and “so close of non-art” tight-rope walking has a long way to go before any kind of agreed upon model of presentation can be found. The proximity to “the real thing” needs to be more critically examined as not just a by-product of lack of government of gallery funding, but instead as a way of critically examining how the whole model of production and distribution of works online has forever changed the face of the gallery world (both visually and conceptually). Even though Barmecidal Projects is not the first of it’s kind, its wide exposure and current spotlight provide a telling example of how contemporary digital artwork can potentially be exhibited in a way that simultaneously uses and challenges the familiarity of the idealized white cube gallery system.

Nicholas O'Brien