Ai Weiwei’s exhibition in London was one of the most talked-about art shows of 2015. Thousands of people crowded into the Royal Academy to get up close and personal with the dissident Chinese artist’s work. But for anyone who missed out – or anyone who went and wanted to see it again – the Academy and cultural organisation The Space co-commissioned Ai Weiwei 360, an online walkthrough of the exhibition bringing together 360º imagery, video and audio.
With this high-tech cultural experience currently running as a wallpaper on WeTransfer, we sat down with executive producer Rupert Harris, of Animal Vegetable Mineral, to talk about putting together such an innovative artistic project.
WeTransfer: Can you explain how Ai Weiwei 360 came about…
Rupert Harris: It was a massive blockbuster exhibition at a time when China’s position in the world was much in the news. Lots of stars were aligned to make this the kind of event that would get a lot of interest.
And also Weiwei’s art is very accessible – he is both a clown and a freedom fighter if you like. It’s not like some contemporary art where you are forced to draw your own inferences, it’s something people can grasp very easily and it has a big impact.
WT: What were the creative challenges you faced?
RH: You are trying to deliver something that is a physical experience and to get as close to that as possible. We are not making our own show, we are making a piece about Ai Weiwei’s show. But we also recognise that there are things that happen in a physical environment that can’t happen in a digital environment, and vice versa.
You always have to tailor the message to the medium. With digital stuff there are things you can do which are brilliant, and take you closer to the subject matter than in the physical space.
WT: Like the soundtrack you have added in?
RH: Yes, audio is a good example. We composed soundtracks for each of the 12 rooms in the gallery and one for the courtyard. Each of them was written to reflect the materials and the content in that particular room.
So in Room 6, where the pots are, you can hear the sound of pots smashing in the background. Or if you go into the room where the sculpture Straight is, you can hear sounds of iron being hammered and steel being banged.
Weiwei said that when he came out of prison and went back to his gallery, the first sound he heard was those steel rods being straightened. We wanted to give people a sense of that atmosphere, which of course you can’t do in a physical space.
The question of how much you try to deliver a faithful version of what the artist has created, and how much you editorialise, is a big challenge. Especially with artists, because the notion of authenticity is critical. You are logging in to see Ai Weiwei, not Rupert Harris doing Ai Weiwei.
We had a very talented British composer called Rob Lord and together we discussed what the soundtracks for the rooms should be. But at that point we were layering something over the top of his work – an English perspective on what a Chinese artist’s work might sound like. That’s an interesting challenge, how to tackle that.
Creatively, another example is that when you are looking at an object like a sculpture in the space itself, you walk around and peer at it. To do that in a digital environment is slightly more cumbersome and we didn’t want it to be clumsy or awkward for people.
So we made a creative decision that rather than building the whole environment in 3D, so you could walk around the sculptures, we would do it photographically and then shoot video of the sculptures. The camera would move round the sculptures when you click a link, with beautiful, elegant tracking shots giving you a better experience than you might have walking around it.
You could sit back and enjoy it, rather than worrying about what you were doing with the mouse.
WT: And so the technological and the creative challenges are intertwined…
RH: If you are building stuff in 3D, that has its own set of challenges. We took a hybrid approach, we shot a lot of 360º video because the initial plan was to do it all like that. But then we realised quite quickly the data weight of that video made the loading very slow, and the resolution wasn’t as good.
Also with video you need a lot of light, but we shot a lot of this at night because that’s the only time the gallery was available. It was winter, and if you are using 360º video you can’t hide the lights. So the only way of doing it is to use the available light, and then the video is quite dim.
It was good enough, but it wasn’t as good as the results you see with the stills. That’s a classic case of technological limitations making a difference to the decisions you end up making. But in this case it was win-win because we got lower page weight, better resolution and a better effect at the end.
WT: It seems that as a viewer you can get a lot out of the experience whether you have seen the show or not?
RH: It had to appeal to people who weren’t that familiar with him, and we also wanted it to appeal to people who had been to the exhibition already.
In that way, the concerns one might have about cannibalising your market and discouraging people from going are taken away. A huge number of people who did go to the show came back to the digital version.
WT: In the future, do you think we will see physical exhibitions coexisting with digital versions like this?
RH: Yes, that is critical. There is something lovely about being in the same space as the art, the tangible presence of something, and you can’t replicate that. But what you can do is give people an experience that transports them in a different way, where it’s like your own private view. That can feel quite intimate.
It’s been a big success in terms of numbers of users and the feedback has reinforced that message that it doesn’t replace the physical experience. You read the book and see the film – it’s that sort of thing.