FORMAT21 Online: An insider’s view

FORMAT21 Online: An insider’s view

Has the digital and virtual space of FORMAT21 changed how viewers engage in the gallery?
By FORMAT21 volunteer, Jessica Miller.

Over the last year, Covid19 has materially disrupted our lifestyles, ways of working and interacting with others; the pandemic has proven that finding new ways to reach and continue engaging audiences, especially virtually, are more important than ever. The change has been seismic and to some degree is likely to be irreversible.

In common with all cultural organisations, FORMAT International Photography Festival has had to adapt to this new normal. Part of FORMAT’s mission comprises of offering new ways to engage with and experience an incredible range of photography through creating opportunities to see, debate, contribute and participate. Arguably the Covid19 world has played to this mission and encouraged the Festival to become more accessible this year to meet the needs of an audience desperate for what it can offer. For the 2021 instalment of the festival, FORMAT collaborated with LA based tech company New Art City to offer a unique opportunity to experience a diverse display of photography at a time when we cannot physically visit gallery spaces.

Alongside a programme of online events and talks, the purpose built multi-player gallery that hosts FORMAT21 has opened the opportunity for presenting a huge variety of projects and photographs within 20 individual and distinct spaces. These spaces display works created by international emerging and established artists; including the selected photographs from the 40,000 submitted from 90 countries as part of the #MassIsolationFORMAT Open Call. As a result, FORMAT21 has provided viewers with a mentally engaging and visually impressive gallery experience.

Going virtual has made it possible for more visitors to visit at once and engage with the galleries from thousands of miles away. The FORMAT21 gallery has been accessible from a broad range of devices and viewed from 94 countries including USA, India and China, with visitors from across Europe being the most frequent. On launch night alone, FORMAT21 received 2,222 attendees from 60 different countries. Throughout the first four weeks of the festival a total of 56,818 visits to individual spaces were recorded. Despite the online space not having the charm of Derby, it is clear from statistics and evaluation that this year’s audience has been more diverse and globally widespread than in previous years.

A huge benefit of this virtual platform is the ability for visitors to take control of their own self-led experience and engagement with artworks and spaces; as seen within audience development studies (such as Falk, Dierking and Adams, 2006) these opportunities drive curiosity and exploration, adding value to the visitor experience. The gallery provides varying levels of information and entry points for engagement, suitable for different audience groups and the opportunity to keep revisiting at their leisure. The live chat and guestbook features allow visitors to communicate with others and leave feedback, facilitating conversation between different users that possibly would not have happened so openly in the physical gallery space. Similarly, visitors have been able to screenshot and share photographs from the gallery, practically the virtual equivalent to taking photos in the physical gallery.

Although visitors have needed to accustom themselves with new methods of navigating a gallery via the use of keyboards and screens, guestbook responders have stated they found the feeling of being connected to the exhibition, works and artists even though they were not able to be there in person. Once the novelty of controlling movement was in hand, plenty also experimented with jumping and running through gallery walls. This sense of “being” in this space created a captivating dynamic between virtual and physical presence. New Art City also provided another dimension to the family friendly experience by including a virtual Easter egg hunt over Easter Weekend.

It is likely in the future that digital and virtual experiences will become increasingly popular and necessary to continue engaging audiences, with more experimental approaches available. They cannot fully replace what a physical experience can offer, such as the excitement of the day out or the physical sensation of being within a gallery and up close with masterpieces. However, focus should continue to be put on giving the best virtual experience possible alongside physical offerings to leave audiences wanting more.

FORMAT and New Art City have proven that virtual exhibitions can be a success and more than just a temporary substitute for physical exhibitions. Described by its visitors as an amazing use of space that is “refreshing” and “bizarre but brilliant” to visit from the comfort and warmth of our homes, FORMAT21 has shown how online exhibitions can democratise the arts, save culture in times of crises and not be defeated during a lockdown.

Although the virtual festival time period is over, the FORMAT21 gallery experience is still accessible until the spring of 2023.

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