While many Bay Area residents have had the privilege to work remotely, artists and community organizers have been greatly affected by the pandemic — and are gracefully searching for alternative outlets to foster connection and collective experiences. On Tuesday, July 21st, we welcomed members of San Francisco’s local art community — Josh Keller (of Bohlin Cywinski Jackson), Carissa Potter, Jeannene Przyblysk, Andy Rappaport and Eleanor Harwood — to our third virtual event: “Year of Gathering: Making Being Here Enough — Art and Architecture during a pandemic.” This event showcased a virtual gallery exhibiting works by Carissa Potter, an Oakland-based artist.
The theme of Carissa’s current exhibit is about being in our homes, sheltered-in-place, about our limited experience “being enough.” In San Francisco, Eleanor Harwood Gallery for Minnesota Street Project had planned an exhibition of Carissa’s work this past spring. In the wake of COVID-19, they had to adapt and find ways to bring art to the people, rather than bringing the people to the artwork — Making Being Here Enough, manifested into an interactive virtual 360-degree immersive gallery experience which you as the viewer can tour from your home. Josh Keller and other Bohlin Cywinski Jackson architects worked with Carissa — and gallery owner, Eleanor Hardwood — execute her vision and bring the temporarily shuttered gallery back to life.
Inspired by Carissa’s exhibition, we invited Carissa, Eleanor, Andy, Josh, and Jeannene to join us in a discussion as we considered the relationships between art, place, space, and community. We were fortunate to have had a fantastic lineup of perspectives. We discussed; How to ground ourselves in a place like a gallery when we are at home? How to physically do that? And, how to mentally and emotionally do that? This conversation raised many important questions about — what we’re missing, how we build community, our assumptions about the relationship between virtual experience and art, the importance of physical spaces, and of access.
In our conversation, Carissa expressed her thinking behind “curing sadness with human connection,” and her technique of using “escape as a way to cope with uncertainty.” Though her love for physical objects and being in spaces together is not being met under current circumstances, Carissa encouraged the idea of “embracing meaninglessness.” She hoped that the exhibition “prompts individuals to a place where they feel good.” Carissa wanted viewers to make peace with what is currently available, embracing the idea of accepting and adapting.
Josh pointed out that there was a seemingly natural transition to a virtual gallery space, “as architects, we spend a lot of our life thinking about imagined spaces. We are constantly occupying unrealized spaces. We also wanted to remember and call back to the Minnesota Street Project and our current longing for gathering,” he said. Josh said, by placing the work in the actual space, “we are allowing ourselves to remember there was life outside this pandemic, let that memory help ground us in a reality that is unknown.”
We Are Still Bodies
While we continue to spend much of our time at home, often in isolation, relying on virtual connection and experiences, we need reminders of our physicality as human bodies. For the opening event of Making Being Here Enough, Carissa, Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, and the Eleanor Harwood Gallery provided physical props as part of the virtual experience: Google Cardboard viewers to allow guests to experience the space in virtual reality, paper fan to generate a gentle breeze at a specific point in the guided tour, tea representing flavor, warmth, and joy to be shared collectively during the question and answer period. There was even live music to envelop attendees and stimulate the senses.
Having such sensory experiences in tandem with the virtual tour was a reminder that “we are still bodies,” said Jeannene Przyblysk, Dean Emerita at San Francisco Art Institute. Jeannene explained the props are what “allows us to be mindfully and fully present even as we are mentally projecting ourselves in this digital/imaginary space.” In thinking about virtual space, we discussed emotional connection and the intimacy of the art experiences available to us right now. “Understanding others’ feelings is inherently a virtual experience. You can’t feel what someone else feels”, said Jeannene — prompting us to think about what it means to connect, understand one another and continue to have shared experiences without the physical spaces that typically ground us.
Cinema vs. Gallery
In recent years, viewing artwork has become a predominantly social experience. As Jeannene said, “Museums have become almost oppressively social. Viewing work at the cinema, for example, is quite isolating.” At a gallery, physicality and interaction is an integral part of the experience. How can artists continue to promote their work while facilitating such experiences and remain relevant in such adverse circumstances?
Ironically, when the Minnesota Street Project first launched, co-founder Andy Rappaport described the initial pushback — that people didn’t understand the reason behind physical spaces in a world where digital experiences and technology were constantly in flux and growing in demand. Now, “having had the option of physical spaces taken away from us, we are craving such experiences without a means to satisfy,” said Andy.
Access and Technology
A core theme that arose was access to art now versus in a physical environment. How can technology help or hinder the process of discovering new art? For Eleanor, it was critical to her that the virtual experience welcome everyone just as, “we say hello to everyone who walks in the gallery.” She said, “we are welcoming and open to everyone.” Josh pointed out that opening your door isn’t enough to attract people inside. Just the same as a physical space, you must entice new followers with programs and events. He expressed much like architecture, you must “create moments for people to slow down and ground.” He said, creating connections through activities such as this panel, are vital to providing access. It was imperative to Eleanor that the gallery both in-person and virtually be free, removing financial barriers to view art. She said, “anything that we have will be posted openly” for all to enjoy.
Andy said that technological tools “haven’t been put to their best use yet.” Andy pointed out that, “online tools are usually used as a means to represent a place or event,” rather than embody its experience. This idea prompted the fundamental question: what tools are out there, and how can we utilize technology to not only represent works of art but also deepen the experience of viewing art? Also, a point made by all the panelists was that barriers exist in accessing the internet, a problem that, as a society, we need to help solve.
Designing Virtual Space
One unexpected benefit of hosting a virtual installation was that budget was less of a limiting factor. The physics of hanging art, the materials needed, and manual labor all add up; a virtual gallery space eliminates these costs and allows for time to be spent developing a richer, more immersive experience. Virtually, the design process also becomes more agile. With the freedom of technology, it’s easier to add a painted wall, additions to the room, or experiment and test concepts.
However, “we didn’t want this experience to be too imagined. This seemed like a misstep,” Josh said. The experience created by Carissa, Eleanor, and Bohlin Cywinski Jackson was intended to intentionally and accurately reflect a beloved and greatly missed space. The walls, and the works of art placed onto them, were dimensionally accurate and even hard to distinguish from a photograph. “We felt that including the space in this way grounded participants and encouraged the sort of collective experience that our space provides,” said Eleanor. Eleanor even remarked that she was surprised when some of her Instagram followers didn’t realize that the renderings of the gallery were not actual photos. However, the effect this had was positive.
“What it did was emotionally connect people and give them a sort of joy that I didn’t really expect. A lot of people were sort of delighted to see that this show was ‘in’ the gallery.” — Eleanor Harwood
Now It’s Your Turn
The best way to experience, Making Being Here Enough is to see the gallery yourself! Take a virtual tour, then watch the full recording of the panel discussion. You can also read short biographies about each speaker to learn more about their projects. Be sure to tune into the past Year of Gathering event recordings and follow us to learn about upcoming conversations.