Speculative Pillars: Online art viewing and the white cube curse

After the art world has been forced to shift online, what are the challenges and shortfalls of online exhibiting? How much of the expectation around the white cube experience can undermine the creation of a truly new online existence for artworks? Now, we can explore new ways of creating spaces and introduce architectural alternatives to the ways we display art online.

Since early 2020, the world has been dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, and as with all sectors and businesses, the art world began to respond to the new health restrictions. This occurred – considering art display, not production – by nose diving into the never-before-really-taken-seriously1 online viewing rooms. Now, the method is to some extent diffused and most galleries – local and international – have presented an online exhibition and/or an art fair online booth. The format has finally been fully integrated into the art world’s ways of displaying in a time of not-in-person interaction and due to the additional pressure by art fair organisers to remain relevant. The online viewing room is now solidified as part of the contemporary art world.

Besides creating new possibilities for art purchasing, these spaces try to offer an encounter with the artwork, an experience that ideally would be as close as possible to the “magical” physical encounter. This form of engagement though asks the question, “What are the shortfalls in relying on physical space relations in the online art viewing building?” and “How can the digital space evolve into a truly new art viewing experience?”

In 1976 Brian O’Doherty2 wrote about the long lasting ideas around the white cube as an architectural format preferred by artists and gallerists, where the room in its more common and pure form consists of four white walls, no windows and no additional elements. The outside world is kept physically and conceptually external enabling the viewer to encounter the artwork alone and withheld from external influences.

“The white cube is usually even as an emblem of the estrangement of the artist from a society to which the gallery also provides access. It is a ghetto space, a survival compound, a proto-museum with a direct line to the timeless, a set of conditions, an attitude, a place deprived of location, a reflect [sic] to the bald curtain wall, a magic chamber, a concentration of mind, maybe a mistake. It preserved the possibility of art but made it difficult.”
Brian Doherty3

The white cube is constructed under very simple premises, however, intellectually, it opens an array of forms to discuss how it can be used to display artworks. Much of what O’Doherty is focusing on is what this construction allows all participants in the art viewing game to experience, so more than form, the white cube is about building meaning. Such participants consist of the diverse audience of art, from collectors, gallerists, to the general public as well as other artists and critics. Each of these participants approach the artwork from a different point of view, and this point of view is also influenced by the space where this encounter occurs. The allusion to a game perhaps better illustrates this interplay between space of viewing, viewer and artwork. These variables are all correlated and converge to how the artwork will be perceived and discussed.4

The emptiness of the architectural space sets an abstract space. And even if it can be considered a minimalist legacy, the result gives space to the necessary mindset for challenging art viewing within, and arguably art viewing in general. The white cube quickly became a common denominator for all participants engaged in art-showing, and its implications are so ingrained in art display that many are pulled to its gravitational field without even being aware. In this situation, curators, gallerists and even museums make decisions within this expected set up or around it, as a standard or basis for art displaying in general. 

One situation not foreseen by the theory around the white cube and now all too common for us is of course the online viewing room.5 A room to be physically entered is replaced by a series of flat images, the artwork is stripped from its dimensions and is positioned against a digital white wall (at times a furniture, or a passing ghost is added to give some sense of depth). The 2D flatness of the viewing room is as if cursed by the white cube that precedes it, making it emulate something that is not: a physical space. But, in a situation where viewing rooms will become part – one way or another – of the agenda and plans of galleries and museums in years to come, it is necessary to create a digital art viewing or – in a much more radical position – create new art exclusively for the digital.

The digital is an umbrella term that includes an array of practices from digital painting to software and performance and that now also includes online viewing rooms as new ways of displaying. The artwork is changed, transformed from one medium to another, in its new digital rendering. For example, a photograph taken with an analog camera may be digitalised, impressed on paper, shared on social media. In this form, as an artwork, the piece exists through four different outlets – three being digital – all equally valid even if ultimately different.

Recontextualization in art is more present than one would first imagine. To give an extreme example, we could mention that all Renaissance altar pieces now found in museums were once placed solely in churches and lit by candle lights. In connection to the photograph example above, a shift from previous ways of displaying to new, more adapted to our times forms is not only desirable, but necessary to maintain such artworks available and relevant. Moving our attention to more recent artistic production, considering the case of video art6 (ironically usually shown in a black cube instead of white cube) video files are well translated into the online environment, especially where it contains a duration and some form of narrative. This does not come as a surprise considering the forms we use today to consume moving image content through online platforms in the likes of YouTube or social media.7 The 2D aspect of video naturally lends itself to the domestic and portable screen in stark difference with 3D works that must be bodily engaged with.

In this new space of online exhibition and its crisscross with physical exhibitions, there is a clear necessity to develop new forms of dialogue around these spaces. In this scenario, the conceptual framework provided by architecture and specifically by speculative architecture can be of use to access the issues around online viewing rooms and its construction. Already part of the art world vernacular, speculative architecture shares significant similarities with contemporary art. Imagined stories, structures and the narratives within, there are several ways that comparisons could be made between the two fields. Considering explorations around building structures, all installation artwork could be described as an exercise in speculative architecture. Artists and institutions alike have engaged with the field in different forms.8

Whilst considering online exhibitions, the ideas of speculative architecture can be used in order to further develop augmented spaces that can radically maximize online existence to create a new form of art viewing for digital and physical artworks. New found possibilities can truly break the white cube mold and the expectations around it and at this time, such endeavour is crucial for the diffusion of art. The current pandemic-related changes are accelerating the development of ways we can and will engage with artworks.

In this endeavour, which is a stark break from the past, exhibition makers need to rethink the way that websites are constructed and developed. The web designer becomes a digital architect – they become someone that is designing and creating online spaces for being inhabited and, in this case, to experience art. The different helms of architecture: digital, augmented and speculative,9 may influence and intervene with web design in search of an effective online experience. Perhaps, it is equally important to additionally develop a theory around it so it can be discussed, criticised and spoken of. Taking this into consideration, the white cube as much as it is a largely accepted framework, it is still built from premises and ideas, not unchallengeable truths. Such ideas are weakened when applied to online art viewing, and exhibition makers must find new ways to show art under the risk of not engaging audiences with the same strength as physical endeavours.

In a world that is turning to the digital at a much faster pace than anyone could have predicted, the art world’s attention is laid on the main problems in front of it: the pandemic itself.10 But, beyond this concern that took shape in rushed online image uploading, there was no place to move to, or to think of, for new forms of online existing. As these newly created outlets are distant from an ideal conceptual or digital build, it becomes crucial for creatives to think of the new forms that we interact with artworks with the same disruptive aspirations as social media platforms11 did in the last decade. Contemporary art has pioneered much of the changes we see today in the world at large, from political to aesthetics. It is pivotal at this point when we shift to a more prominent form of online living that art viewing can effectively once again be part of our lives.

The article features work by Esben Holk.

Esben Holk is a digital artist, curator and programmer based in Berlin. Their practice encompasses creative code, performance and digital collage, and produces rhizomatic worlds out of 3D graphics, esoteric systems and soft queer dreams of virtuality. Working in collectives Inkubator Collective,www.play4usnow.com and HOUSE OF KILLING, they exhibit largely in Europe in online and offline spaces.

  1. Although interest regarding the online experience is not to be overlooked, in general, art world participants have concentrated online efforts much more into advertising its artists through social media or artist pages on websites with images, texts, etc. The online was secondary when ranked with physical events. To mention one example, commercial galleries, in face of a more globalised world, did understand the importance of reaching out to new audiences outside their own circles, but this was truly represented by their presence in international art fairs rather than creating an online exhibition. Now this has shifted with the massive reduction of events in the art calendar.
  2. Brian O’Doherty is an Irish art critic and writer based in New York. His  articles for ArtForum on the white cube were influential and can be found in Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of the Gallery Space released in 1986. The author also has an artistic practice under the pseudonym Patrick Ireland.
  3. Brian Doherty. Inside the White Cube: The Ideology of Gallery Space (1986). London: University of  California Press. p.80.
  4. To illustrate this dynamic game: imagine a Dan Flavin work in a home display (e.g. Donald Judd’s flat and studio), auction sale (any lot will do) and museum (e.g. the Dia Beacon 2016’s exhibition). Now add to the equation how these three instances are perceived by another artist or art critic.
  5. While we extensively use commercial galleries and art fairs online exhibition rooms as an example in this article, this is more to do with the fact that such art world agents are able to quickly make decisions and change their strategy in face of the pandemic. Since then, museums and other non-commercial exhibition space have followed similar strategies and equally finding similar difficulties in online art display.
  6. Video art also often referred to as “moving image” is part of “time-based media” umbrella term that includes artworks that have time as one of its elements. There has been a growing interest from artists and curators in exploring these new art forms since the late 1960’s with the diffusion of domestic video camera systems. Early works by Andy Warhol and Nam June Paik are pivotal moments in moving image history.
  7. There is a case to be argued that the form we deal with regarding moving images on social media and websites is a natural unfold from cinema and television, where the relation between content and consumer presents a shifting agency from the former to the latter. To this day, the cinema room functions under restricted rules of engagement (turn off your phone, stay quiet, the movie will play from beginning to end, without interruptions) whereas with online streaming platforms the viewer has full control over all these aspects of content consuming.
  8. To give two recent examples, the Serpentine Gallery in London organised the open call “Serpentine Augmented Architecture” (2019) that built from the famous annual Pavilion asked for projects to be experienced in augmented reality (AR). Another example is the 2018’s exhibition “Call Out Tools” at the Berlin based gallery Kraupa-Tuskany Zeidler where painters Avery Singer, Pieter Schoolwerth and Alexander Carver created works in direct response to a digitally constructed park.
  9. We are not (unfortunately) going in detail on the architecture fields described here. Augmented architecture is the field of 3D modeling and architecture applied into augmented spaces, such as 3D modeling. Speculative architecture explores narratives surrounding future or imaginary spaces, its inhabitants and the way architecture responds to such conditions. Very often technology will play a relevant role as well.
  10. This remark is not to overlook the systematic problems within the art world, but rather highlight the impact of the pandemic into art showing. Arguably some of these problems, such as social responsibility, lack of funding, systematic racism, etc. have been heightened by the pandemic as well.
  11. Beyond the infinite problems around social media platforms and their agency, that can and have been used for perverse objectives, the term “disruptive” here heightens the fact that after social media, the way we inhabit the internet has been forever changed, even if some may argue that it is for the worse.

Originally from São Paulo, Brunno moved to Berlin in 2013. Living in the city has allowed him to access the Berlin art scene from an international perspective following a cross-cultural approach that is present in most of his projects. Recently, Brunno also lived in London for two years, where he undertook an MA in Art Business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art whilst exploring one of the main hubs for contemporary art. With a specialisation in Western (and Western-influenced) contemporary art, Brunno has a particular interest in moving image, installation, sculpture and photography. Whilst working with emerging artists in his curatorial practice, Brunno uses current technological and social-political theory to engage audiences with artworks in the context of broader aesthetics and political debates; interests that are also present in his writing. Brunno has collaborated with Artsy, Artnet and ArtConnect, among others.

  • Esben Holk, VR Landscape 01, 2021.
  • Esben Holk, VR Landscape 03, POV Single Player Ghost City, 2021.
  • Esben Holk, VR Landscape 05, POV Urban Luxury Penthouse, 2021.
  • Esben Holk, VR Landscape 01, POV Single Player Open World, 2021.
  • Esben Holk, VR Landscape 04, POV Autobahn Holyzoism, 2021.
  • Esben Holk, VR Landscape 06, POV Multiplayer Escher Platform, 2021.