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Connecting Spaces: Galleries, Gaming and the calm of co-creating another world

How do you recreate a physical experience online? Short answer — you can’t. But you can unlock the door to something else.

This article explores the worlds of galleries, museums and gaming to consider why their user experiences hold so much weight, and what this means for brands.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of space recently, not the ‘final frontier’ kind — that blows my mind — but more the space in which we spend our time, how we interact with it and how, if at all, brands should be invited in.

I’ve spent the best part of a decade, defining physical experiences, the serendipitous kind that unite a group of people around a shared idea, and in turn to the brand. Over the course of that time e-commerce and social media have obliterated the metaphorical physical walls, and shifted the paradigms of pretty much everything. But the anti-algorithmic joy of serendipity and human connection are what physical experience had over online interaction. Then 2020 came, and ‘connection’ took an extraordinary turn. Real-life, as we knew it, suddenly wasn’t so appealing.

This wasn’t entirely unexpected. The version of reality we were living in was powered by productivity and the pursuit of perfection — it was unsustainable. Forced to stop and appreciate the things that matter it soon became clear that the wholly ironic ‘Instagrammable moments’ which defined the offline, and the addiction to the ‘endless scroll’ have numbed our ability to ‘be there’ — to truly experience.

Now, through choice and necessity we’re pushing back. Characterised by cottage core, creativity and the lure of the virtual experience economy we’re actively seeking out ways to indulge in the space in-between; the moments where we can soak up the therapeutic effects of ‘being’. The moments that, on a good day, this new reality can serve up.

Our concept of space has shifted

Today it can be a ‘singular place or a collection of connected spaces’, each allowing for their own construct and codes of conduct. Many galleries and museums have navigated this by attempting to recreate their real-life experience online; building new audiences and relevance in the process. Whilst in tandem there’s been an explosion of new virtual worlds — gaming worlds — which invite us to socialise, create, play and watch together, alone; each bringing to life a new era of ‘other spaces’ as they go.

Spaces where the mind can travel

Back in 2008 I became fascinated with the concept of ‘other spaces’; ‘Utopias’, ‘Heterotopias’, ‘Non-Places’, ‘Third Places’ ‘worlds-within-worlds’, and spaces of transience. Spaces which are in some way separate to, yet co-exist with the world we’re in. This was born partly feeling of being an observer on a slightly dystopian version of the reality that’d gone before.

Fast forward 12 years and I’ve found myself returning to these concepts with a whole new context. And the feeling is less existentialism, more rejuvenation.

It got me thinking about the reasons that we engage in the first place. What is it about these experiences that we’re looking for? And why does that matter for brands?

And I came to the conclusion that in many ways, the culture of galleries, museums and gaming satisfy two important psychological needs;

1. Escape — a place for the mind to travel, create and heal and;

2. Belonging — a shared meeting point to discover who we are and where we fit.

It’s a tricky combination to get right — not least because it’s context dependent. A context that culture-driven experiences such as galleries, museums and gaming are well placed to set.

And context, after all, is king

So like many, when cultural institutions shut I was curious to see how they would bring their physical experience into the virtual world. After all, they house vast collections of some of the greatest stories in history — with a captive audience waiting to be entertained. But they also have an experience that’s incredibly difficult to recreate online — not least because often the space is the experience as much as the items it houses.

So perhaps it’s not surprising that whilst virtual tours skyrocketed during early March, as times gone on the things which have been successful are less the flattened version of the physical space. But more the initiatives which bring to life the creativity, connection and cultural heritage which is at the heart of these institutions. Unlocking the secret world of art and culture; and in turn creating new ways to escape the endless day.

The appeal of being immersed in this secret world was already gaining a new fan-base pre-lockdown; for example, viewers have been able to embrace the meditative effects of the live-streamed restoration of Rembrandt’s ‘The Night Watch’ since last year. But taking advantage of the upsurge of time spent online, many more cultural institutions have turned to social platforms to entertain, distract and fuel stressed-out creative minds. The Museum of the City of New York caused a social media storm when it started sharing calming artworks with the hashtag #MuseumMomentofZen. Whilst the Serpentine immersed viewers in a virtual forest by live-streaming Jakob Kudsk Steensen’s video piece ‘Catharsis’ on Twitch.

On the flipside others have been providing insider access through curator guided views, YouTube livestreams, TikTok parodies and Instagram Q & As. Accelerating the democratisation of high-brow culture by letting people connect in real-time.

And it’s working. For example, Stedelijk Museum’s IGTV weekly live-streamed tours have reached upwards of 20,000 views, as curators give personal and accessible tours of the work. The Uffizi’s TikTok has acquired over 24,000 followers in the two months since it was set up. Whilst New York’s Gagosian spotlights a different artist each week. Sharing interviews, playlists and studio streams before giving viewers just 48 hours to buy a single piece of their work.

The calm of co-creating another world

Like The Serpentine’s Twitch debut, institutions such as LA’s Getty Museum are realising the potential of capturing a new breed of digitally-savvy high-culture enthusiasts. Giving fans of Nintendo’s much-hyped game ‘Animal Crossing: New Horizons’ access to their open-access collection, so that they can create their own in-game exhibitions. Blurring the lines of culture and creativity, they are recognising that the act of playing is far more than a game. Like the experience of engaging with art and gallery culture, its upsurge in popularity during lockdown shows – as Ashley Abramson points out – the ‘therapeutic effects of building your own world’; co-existing with the real one, with its own rules and codes of conduct.

But beyond that these spaces are also a place for connection, creativity, co-creation and even commerce. For example, Playstation Dreams’ community driven platform gives users the tools to create, collaborate and share their own games, artworks, sculptures, films, music and more. Whilst Fortnite is also being heralded as an example of the emerging Metaverse. A virtual shared space where individual identity exists and evolves in real-time. Showing it’s appeal, incredibly 12.3 million people tuned in for the in-game Travis Scott concert back in April. Whilst its recent addition Party Royale, further fuels its shift from ‘game to platform’.

So what does this mean for the future as we transition back outside?

Blurring the boundaries of escapist entertainment The Museum is Future Experiences hints at where the future of emotion-driven, personalised cultural experiences could lie. Pitting itself as a “60 minute-cerebral exploration” blending immersive theatre and VR. They create experiences, ‘curated to your individual psyche’. Inviting participants to ‘leave [their] world behind and discover another’ as they go. An interesting concept for sure.

Virtual worlds will increasingly co-exist with their real-life incarnations, as we seek connection, creativity and comfort. Whilst art and culture will always serve up a therapeutic dose of belonging. But the dial of experience has shifted once more — from participation to co-creation. A shift that the next generation of culture-driven creatives have embraced with open arms.

Regardless of the context in which they’re served, the draw of cultural institutions and gaming platforms is rooted in their ability to create a space to embrace ideas, to provide escape and shape belonging. And if that’s true, space really can be anywhere. As Cecilia D’Anastasio said ‘a community space doesn’t need a hardwood sign over the door to be a legitimate place; it just needs real people who treat it that way’.

So, perhaps the message here is to create experiences which let people embrace the space in-between. Invite them into your ‘inner world’ whilst giving them the tools to co-create and build it. But importantly give them the space to breathe. To help them to reconnect with themselves and others; and break out of the productivity cycle which burnt them out.

Experience has always and will always be important.

But the niche, emotionally charged and co-created elements of it will be even more so. Physical experience will still have a place. But perhaps their place will be more hyper-localised, hyper-targeted and fragmented. Where experience was an all-encompassing word, it’s now one part of a much richer narrative, to fulfil a need. And it’s likely we’ll see the merging of the technology of gaming impact the worlds of art and culture even more. If recent activity is anything to go by, it has the potential to be a sell-out success.

So yes, space can be anywhere. But one thing’s for sure, for me, the physical act of being in a gallery will always have a place in my heart.

A Strategist’s Guide to Art

Exploring the links between strategy, art and culture

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