Why Facebook’s Virtual Office Initiative Raises Big Questions About the Return of Live Art Fairs (and Other Insights)
Our columnist examines what the tech giant's new remote office software says about virtual art fairs just ahead of their IRL return.
Every Wednesday morning, Artnet News brings you The Gray Market. The column decodes important stories from the previous week—and offers unparalleled insight into the inner workings of the art industry in the process.
This week, contemplating other options at the threshold of a return to form…
Are we really about to do this again? That’s a more pointed formulation of the question animating a recent piece by my colleague Eileen Kinsella about the imminent return of large-scale in-person art fairs roughly 18 months after COVID-19 shut down much of the New York art scene. Along with her reporting among a broad base of players, results from a survey sent by the Association of Professional Art Advisors (APAA) to its 40 members indicate the industry is, in Eileen’s telling, “split down the middle” on its willingness to take the familiar plunge back into domestic and international convention centers.
Yet asking whether industry insiders want to participate in 100-plus-exhibitor fairs this fall is only as important as asking how appealing the alternatives are. The answer to the latter is, “not very.” But recent advances in remote-office software illustrate how different things could be—and also how difficult it is to change the status quo, even if you happen to be one of the largest, richest, and most technologically advanced companies on earth.
Eight days after I lit up the art market for it uninspiring lack of innovation in response to the pandemic, Facebook introduced the world to an “open beta” version of its Horizon Workrooms, an app the company hopes will usher in what founder and C.E.O. Mark Zuckerberg has called an “embodied internet that you’re inside of, rather than just looking at.”
Yet despite the ambitious rhetoric, Horizon Workrooms largely reinforces that even the boy-kings of Silicon Valley—a constituency often portrayed as should-be role models for art-industry barrier-breakers—are sometimes inclined to use their nearly unlimited resources to rebuild old structures on new frontiers.
After witnessing the launch event and its surrounding promo materials (such as the video above), it seems that Facebook’s vision of the internet’s next evolutionary phase is… a V.R. stage set of a traditional office, crafted in the low-poly aesthetic of Fortnite and populated by Memoji-style avatars instead of our physical bodies (except apparently here, no one has legs). The crux is that you (or your Horizon Workrooms alter ego, anyway) meet with colleagues around virtual conference tables, type away at a virtual desk, huddle around virtual PowerPoint presentations, and conduct more weirdly familiar/familiarly weird tasks, only in digi-space.
(The dissonance between sci-fi promise and Silicon Valley actualization explains why I am joining Charlie Warzel of the excellent Galaxy Brain newsletter in refusing to use Facebook’s preferred term for this world, the “metaverse,” until the company manages to trademark it.)
The consensus reaction to Horizon Workrooms among tech and business journalists was, um, not wildly positive, even setting aside concerns about whether Zuckerberg’s kingdom should really be entrusted with safekeeping the sensitive corporate and personal data that would appear in any company’s use of the app.
For instance, Buzzfeed’s Katie Notopoulos scorched the project, calling Facebook’s new virtual realm “a sad little office veal-penned in by floating whiteboards” that excels in providing “just another way to attend the work meetings we’re already sick of attending.” If that sentence doesn’t connect with you on a deep spiritual level, then you and I have had very different remote-office experiences these past 18 months.
Why has the looming prospect of gathering around an in-person Armory Show and Art Basel Miami Beach with hundreds of exhibitors led me to rope in Facebook’s virtual office tech? Because it reminds me that something broadly similar to Horizon Workrooms already premiered for a specific art industry trade event last year.
In summer 2020, the Untitled Art Fair and the startup Artland launched a 3.D.-modeled virtual art fair replete with fully navigable booths displaying computer renderings of available artworks. Think of the effort as a Myst-like video-game update of the typical online viewing room—or retrospectively, as the Horizon Workrooms of art fairs. A year later, in light of subsequent developments in art-industry attitudes, public-health dynamics, and now, the product line of one of the wealthiest tech companies on the planet, the pros and cons of the approach seem worthy of a little more analysis.
LOOKING BACK, LOOKING FORWARD
This is not meant to be a belated review of Untitled x Artland; that would be weird given that nearly 13 months have elapsed since the online experiment ended. (Reps from Untitled did not respond immediately to a request for comment, but you can read an op-ed about the project from the fair’s founder here.) I also would not want that initiative to be tainted by association with either Facebook or the lukewarm-at-best reception of the Horizon Workrooms beta, which seems to stem in no small part from embedded antipathy toward Zuckerberg and the fact that his company had so much money, infrastructure, and expert personnel to pursue bluer-sky possibilities. (For what it’s worth, a panel of extended-reality experts convened by the Art Newspaper gave Untitled x Artland 3.5 stars out of five during its run, and I applaud the initiative in principle for aspiring to more than grid-based e-commerce.)
Instead, with large-scale IRL art fairs poised to unfurl all around, I think the existence of a virtual approximation—no matter its identity or its pros and cons—raises the same future-facing questions as Horizon Workrooms raised for Warzel about remote work (just replace “work spaces” and “office” with “art fair” in the below):
Virtual work spaces force us to start asking weird questions like, what is an office, really? Is it the people? The space itself? The proximity? All of the above? None of it? Even failed or flawed attempts at virtual spaces might also teach us something about how we work or what the office means to us.
Looking back, Untitled x Artland had at least one major advantage over a typical grid-based O.V.R.: Moving and looking around a fully rendered convention hall better resembles the discovery process in an away-from-the-keyboard fair. A work can still catch a buyer’s eye as they round a corner in the virtual venue; a booth can more effectively grab their attention with its overall installation than a carousel of expandable thumbnails. From a user/visitor experience standpoint, this attribute is as meaningful in virtual space as it is in a thoughtfully laid out physical art fair.
(It’s also a step closer to what one collector I know wished for during the initial wave of point-and-click art-fair online viewing rooms last spring: an even more game-ified version of what Untitled and Artland created, where users might, for example, try to outrun each other through virtual convention halls for first dibs on in-demand artworks for sale in particular booths.)
Aside from the cosmic disparity in resources used to create them, the biggest difference between Horizon Workrooms and Untitled x Artland is that the former is filled with interactive avatars, and the latter played out in their absence. As one of the Art Newspaper’s reviewers put it: “The hall is silent; no people to mingle with; no fashion to watch; no critical arguments to overhear; you walk alone in the forever frozen moment amidst the soft digital sunlight falling at a slight angle.” (Poetic!)
Compare that to Warzel’s reaction to a scrappier virtual-office platform called Branch that incorporates “proximity-based audio,” a feature familiar to anyone who has played a decent first-person-point-of-view video game in the last 20 years:
I found the effect of walking past actual people in a virtual cafeteria and hearing their voices get louder curiously disarming—maybe even a bit profound. It mimicked some very small but important sensations of the office (especially the ambient presence of others) quite well. During my demo I watched the employees work. They didn’t lean on the software too much—most of the time they were working in other browser tabs. The platform was used like an always-running voice chat. If you needed something you could just speak up.
This type of person-to-person interactivity is what so many participants missed most when live art fairs had to be mothballed during the pandemic. Untitled x Artland may not have been able to provide a virtual equivalent, but such an upgrade could be closer than you might think.
Branch was built by a group of teenagers who had only secured $1.5 million in investment as of last November—no doubt only a keychain-sized version of Facebook’s gargantuan war chest. (The latter’s market cap was just shy of $1.1 trillion as of this writing.) If the art trade can’t muster as much funding as Branch had circa fall 2020 to chase a similar power-up, we might as well all just start applying for jobs at the post office.
At the same time, fixating on any one specific platform or upgrade steers us away from the overarching question: Would even a fully interactive, sensory-optimized virtualization of an art fair be a transformative solution for the art market? Or is the real lesson of the past 18 months that we should be trying to imagine something that satisfies the same needs as an art fair, but in fundamentally different ways?
Despite some temporary limitations, the large-scale in-person fair isn’t going away anytime soon in a vaccine-protected world. But as the format surges back to the forefront of the industry this fall, the relief of familiarity should not prevent us from asking how much its return is driven by old habits and sunk costs, rather than awareness of what has changed since the last time we did this—and how much more still could if we stepped outside our comfort zone.
That’s all for this week. ‘Til next time, remember: most people are drawn back to what they know intimately—even (and especially) when it’s not good for them.
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