As part of a closely linked network in London, Off Site Project is using cyberspace as a platform to promote, profile, and reflect on digital art.
Elliott Burns and Pita Arreola-Burns met during their Master's at Central Saint Martins in London. Their mutual interest in digital art coincided strongly. So, in 2017, they decided to work together and founded the platform Off Site Project. The curators code online exhibitions for digital art, each time anew. Thereby it's not the classic white cube in the digital realm, but rather designing the display and so each page in a new format depending on the subject matter. They use vertical and horizontal navigation systems of the classic homepage structure or change it completely - creating display always based on a thoughtful and experimental approach of their curatorial practice. However, Off Site Project is not only limited to online exhibitions but also experiments with downloadable zip file shows and web residencies at google maps, always willing to reveal phenomenons of the internet. Together, the curators explore their own curatorial practice, the potentials of the online display as well as structural problems of the world wide web.
What was your motivation to initiate your platform and create online displays?
We had both spent our Master's degrees exploring issues pertaining to digital technologies and their influence on arts and culture. Pita looking a post-screen art and the way artists expressed the social and economical impact of the internet in everyday life. Elliott, on how the museum faced new digitally fuelled arguments for repatriation of artefacts. Off Site Project was born out of mutual interest, a desire to continue working together, and the geographical challenges of working whilst being geographically separated. Additionally, many of the artists we were both interested in had a digital aspect to their practice. So, we recognized the online gallery as a means of promoting and profiling our peers.
Your formats run on a rolling Open Call basis, so everyone is free to apply. On which foundation do you generate your main online exhibition program?
The homepage exhibitions typically involve a greater degree of planning, revolving around the coding of the website, so generally, we conceive of these shows. We often discuss potential exhibition ideas and begin developing these, some become exhibitions, others are saved for another day. The inspiration for the shows can be very varied. In the case of the solo exhibitions that have taken place on the homepage space, we begin an exchange with the artist. They often have a strong sense of how the show should function. Still, we also bring our experience into the discussion, we always do our best to find a technical way to implement the artist's ideas.
Who codes your exhibitions?
We do. The platform we use facilitates a lot of the groundwork. However, once a template is chosen, we spend a lot of time editing and adjusting it into something unique. The individual exhibitions are then coded on top of that foundation. Because we're using a platform site with various templates to choose between, we can make sudden changes to the aesthetic and functionality of Off Site Project. We may, for instance, decide that a new template is needed to best realise an artist's exhibition. It can sometimes feel like tearing down an existing building and putting it together from scratch again. But equally, it allows a level of flexibility, which helps us keep the format fresh and achieve the artist's intentions.
I was wondering if platforms like this have a real impact on the field of digital exhibiting in comparison to Google Arts and Culture or digital archives of big institutions?
We've been invited to speak about Off Site Project at Central Saint Martins, Modern Art Oxford, Somerset House Studios, and Tate Exchange. Possibly that demonstrates a recognition of the work we're carrying out? Another important aspect to consider is whose art is getting exhibited. As a small organisation, we work with early-career artists who would not be under the radar of Google. The support we give them will hopefully help them develop their careers and fingers crossed they then go onto something bigger. Maybe there is a small impact there. Furthermore, look to the diversity of exhibition spaces present in The Wrong Biennale 2019/20, and you'll see experimental approaches to the display of art, that's important.
Can we see those platforms more like an off space in the digital, or do you think they will be a counter-model to established art institutions?
Many large galleries are expanding to include departments dedicated to commissioning digital art projects viewed online. So, the establishment has an interest in this area. At the same time, there's a keen interest and inclination with digital curatorial projects and artists exhibiting in these spaces to discuss new economic models that are resistant or rest outside the traditional models of art commerce. Already you can find examples of artists setting up revenue streams that operate independently to the established art world and embrace the networked culture.
Your latest exhibition "too beautiful to be real"deals with borders between IRL and URL. How far can we think of the internet as an exclusive and discriminatory system?
Nowadays, there's a general awareness that the internet, against its libertarian foundations, actually replicates forms of discrimination. A system can be structurally non-hierarchical. But if its application and distribution isn't equal, then it only centers power where power previously existed. By opening our practice to the global (in theory) over the local, we've been able to better appreciate the geographical dispersion of the artists we have worked with. This doesn't necessarily mean we can solve any of these problems. However, we can internalise that realisation and consider it when making curatorial decisions.
Although your global interaction could suggest equality, the internet is still a place of privilege. Could we see online exhibitions as democratic displays?
We wouldn't necessarily associate the global potential of the internet with the democratic. Democracy is a structured form of power that, in all instances, perpetuates privilege. Only in its extreme incarnation can it escape that.
Rather back to the previous question slightly, the issue can be formed around a neoliberal policy and the global north / global south divide. To what extent are certain countries enforcing a level of technological colonialism, equatable to arguments for the Raj based on the expansion of rail networks. Regarding online exhibitions, we wouldn't argue that these are innately democratic. We have to make decisions based on the quality of work. However, by being digitally networked, we are able to make those decisions based on the work alone and not the locality of the artist, the costs of shipping.
I understood computational culture as the use and participation of computers, data, and software in our contemporary culture as well as daily life. Up to this, what is the potential of curating in the context of computational culture?
If we're considering the potential in terms of borders, boundaries, scopes, then it's possible to say that the rise of computational culture has led to the broadening of curation as an everyday action. Nowadays, it's easy enough for someone to use the verb 'curate' concerning their personal social media presence. We've become familiarised with the idea that the version of ourselves presented to the world is a construct, and the curation discipline is the best career-based metaphor to characterise this.
Equally, the computational context you reference has broken glass ceilings around who can be called a curator within an art-specific context. By being so inclusive, The Wrong Biennale makes a strong case that the gatekeeping culture around curatorial practice has been broken down. Still, the monetary support structures aren't yet in place. We've concerns how this all feeds into a trickle-up, Wikieconomics, based economy where arts and culture labour is considered a reward in and of itself rather than something which should be remunerated.
Finally, with the recent spread of Covid-19 through mainland Europe and the United States, we might incidentally witness an increased interest in the curatorial models espoused by digital curators. For example, Triennale Milano is running a digitally streamed program called Decameron drawing from a novel by Giovanni Boccaccio about a group of young people staying outside Florence to avoid the plague.