How digital experiences can transform arts and culture (in the UAE)

By Anijo Mathew
Head of Department of Art and Design/American University of Sharjah + Founder/Vamonde

A few weeks ago, Her Highness Sheikha Latifa bint Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Chairperson of Dubai Culture & Arts Authority, described a vision for the future of art experiences in the UAE. I was especially thrilled to see her challenge to the community to come up with ideas and proposals for projects and events in a post-COVID-19 world. As we slowly emerge out of this crisis, this is a great opportunity for the UAE community to take a leadership role in this new reality. To do, so we must explore the intersection of physical and digital experiences. In this article, I compile a set of takeaways, tactics, and examples to add to this conversation, gleaned from my experience in digital arts as well as the work that students, faculty, and alumni colleagues are doing at the American University of Sharjah.

The UAE already has a vibrant digital arts scene. Take, for example, this installation at the Theatre of Digital Art Dubai — read more about this ambitious project here

My story

Chicago, 2011. Rahm Emanuel is running for the office of Mayor of Chicago. If elected, he promises, one of the first things he will do is create a new Cultural Plan for the city. Emanuel is not a culture aficionado. Being an economically savvy politician, he understands the economic value of creative industries. Emanuel saw culture as a way to elevate the city as a global destination for creativity, innovation and cultural tourism. So in 2012, when he was elected Mayor, Emanuel appointed Michelle Boone as the Commissioner of Culture and lay groundwork on the 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan. Around this period, I had actively started to engage with the arts and culture community in Chicago, evangelising new hybrid digital-physical art opportunities on the horizon. Commissioner Boone asked me to join her team as an advisor, to look specifically at digital attributes of Plan and gather data about citizen engagement in digital culture.

The 2012 Chicago Cultural Plan — how it all came together

In October 2012, Mayor Emanuel unveiled the Plan to the world. Almost immediately, the impact of the Plan was evident. Cultural institutions all across in Chicago redefined their strategies based on the proposals laid out in the Plan. In 2018, Chicago broke records to became a favoured international cultural destination with over 58 million visitors, most of them cultural tourists. A 2017 study showed that Chicago’s non-profit and culture industries were valued at US$4.3 billion (up from US$2.75 billion in 2010), contributed around US$247 million to local government revenue, and supported more 111,000 full-time equivalent jobs in the city (up from 78,455 in 2010). The Plan was a success!

My work on the Plan had a deep impact on my own work. I was nominated to the Executive Committee for cultural tourism for Choose Chicago (the tourism body for Chicago), elected to the Board of the Chicago Loop Alliance, and until recently, the Leading Forum Advisory Board of the world-renowned Chicago Architecture Center (CAC). Most importantly, my experiences led to the founding of my startup, Vamonde, in 2015. Today, Vamonde provides end-to-end location-based digital experiences for cultural tourism all around the world.

At the American University of Sharjah

At the Department of Art and Design at the American University of Sharjah (AUS), we are working on several projects in digital arts and design. Many AUS faculty and alumni are leaders in this field and constantly experimenting with different forms of digital arts and culture. Here are a few examples from the many projects at the department.

Prof Zlatan Filipovic’s recent research project digitally mapped the Wadi Al Helo valley and the Bronze Age ruins situated there. The video was then presented through VR with augmented layers showing different eras and usage patterns of the valley.
Students in Prof Frederic Gmeiner and Rebecca Beamer’s studios designed and implemented an entire digital interactive exhibition for Sharjah Museums Authority. The exhibition, titled Maknoon, explored the rich history of pearl diving in the region through intricate maps, sound design, interactive displays and vibrant imagery.
Prof Hala Al-Ani and Prof Marian Misiak are working on a project to archive and digitise Arabic type from the GCC in an attempt to create the first digital Arabic Type Foundry in the region.

In addition, we have several projects at the department that are focused on the future. We are building a close relationship with Sharjah Museums Authority and with IRTHI, the Contemporary Crafts Council to engage students in the design of future art, craft and culture experiences in the region. Recently, Prof Zena Adhami and I received a two-year research grant to engage Design Fiction to imagine the future of Al Quoz district to support the ruler of Dubai, HH Sheikh Mohammed’s exciting new vision to reframe the district as a hub for creative entrepreneurship.

As a research-driven University, students in the department are constantly exposed to new technologies in classes. They are encouraged to integrate these technologies into their projects in class. We aim to graduate design leaders within the art and design community in the UAE who may one day shape the conversation and the field in the region.

So what can we learn from all of this to add to the conversation about the UAE’s future in arts and culture?

Five takeaways and tactics for transitioning to digital

1. Meet Gen Z’s fluid expectations

Fluid expectations is a new behaviour where we port expectations from one experience into other experiences. Some time ago, I wrote a Medium article about this, which you can read here. In short, it can be described as the perceptual gap that consumers feel when they encounter inconsistencies between a good experience they have had in the past and the current experience they are having.

Accenture/Fjord’s model for (fluid/) liquid expectations. Note how the expectations cross from your direct competitors to perceptual competitors who may not even be in the same business as you

For many young citizens of the UAE, the best experience they have had is often a digital one. So when they encounter new experiences, physical or digital, they port expectations over. Most young patrons who experience arts and culture are probably wondering: why can’t this museum be more like the Amazon? Why can’t it tell me what I should see next? Can I read more by clicking somewhere? Why can I not share this experience with my friend as I do on Instagram?

Tactic: Ensure that your patrons feel at home in your physical and digital spaces as they might in any other space they visit (even non-art spaces). Design your physical platform with recommendations on how they might extend their experience; help them make digital annotations, bookmarks to be reviewed in the future; support their need to record, participate, and share the experience across their networks. In short, be fluid!

2. Support time-and-space surfing

In a post-COVID era, we have realised that co-location is no longer necessary for experiencing the arts and engaging with new cultures. In the UAE, for example, Alserkal Avenue’s digital #VernissageFromHome was enjoyed by over 3,000 patrons from the comfort of their own homes. VR tech has advanced to the point that even mute artefacts and spaces can take on a life of their own through interactive videos and walkthroughs.

Engaging with a physical sculpture in VR is of course not the same as seeing it in person. However such digital experiences can do something physical cannot; they can make sure the experiences never disappear. Imagine returning to Al Serkal Avenue through VR in 2030 to walk around a show that took place in 2020. Or sitting on the steps of Al Majaz Waterfront aurally and visually immersed in a ballet performance that took place several years ago.

One of my favourite experiences on Vamonde is a historical tour of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition — a perfect time-surf experience. I find it particularly relevant since we have the Dubai Expo coming soon.

Tactic: Use a regular or 360-degree camera to record your physical experiences or events so it can be played back at a later time. Use digital platforms and location-aware technology to embed the experience in the same physical location that it occurred. Encourage patrons to come back, enjoy and share the experience through digital and VR platforms.

3. Unicast instead of broadcast

If you host a physical exhibition or event, you inherently run into one major issue. How do you cater to everyone who attends the event? In most cases, organisers fall to the lowest common denominator — making sure that the information is easy enough for everyone. Thus, most physical art events become broadcast experiences — they have to cast a wide enough net that everyone who attends gains something.

Physical experiences broadcast, which means the content has to appeal to everyone who is watching or listening.
Digital experiences can unicast, creating content that appeals to specific audience members, usually through some augmentation of the physical.

Digital has an advantage. Digital experiences can be unicast — meaning curators can take the same content and slightly modify it based on who is viewing it. Information can be uniquely designed to match the age, demography, language, expertise level of each audience member. The American Writers Museum in Chicago used Vamonde to create two tours of the same space and content. One, directed towards mature audiences and the other targeted kids. The physical experience remained the same, but the digital layers changed as the patrons started interacting with them. The Art Institute of Chicago engages a similar digital layer which encourages children to craft their journeys through the exhibits based on their interests.

The JourneyMaker project at the Art Institute of Chicago

Tactic: Think about the types of audiences that you wish to attract and how different digital journeys can serve them all differently. What are the characteristics of your patrons? What user journeys do they desire? How might you construct different digital versions of your experience without changing or editing the physical content?

4. Engage “public creativity”

Digital experiences have shifted the balance of spectatorship. Patrons of art are no longer satisfied just viewing art; they want to be a part of it. They want to participate. Public creativity is a word I coined to describe the collective result of aggregated user-generated content in digital (often public) art. Take, for example, this 2015 installation by Lozano-Hemmer at the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi called Pulse Corniche. The art consists of powerful beams of light that lit up the Corniche. The intensity and direction of the lights were powered by biometric rhythms of visitors to the corniche, captured through specially designed sensors.

Lozano-Hemmer’s Pulse Corniche in Abu Dhabi, 2015

This shift in expectation is an opportunity for artists and curators to get audience members to move from a mute observer to an active participant. Artists may have to set up constraints to limit variability and redundancies so the art can still be enjoyed if no one participates. The output can be continuous (the art changes as the audience contributes) or fixed (the final product is only visible when everyone has finished contributing). Public creativity is a powerful model for art, and if used properly, can lead to some wonderful experiences for audiences.

Tactic: Create art experiences that change with audience participation. Many different input technologies are available today to support this sort of interaction. Coders and developers can also help in the construction of these systems. Think about what type of technology works best for you and how comfortable you are with coding and implementation.

5. Empower interest-based learning

In 2013, Mimi Ito’s team at UC Irvine did a behavioural study of young people engaging on the internet. They found young people (and most of us today) engage across two different networks — a friendship network to connect to the people who are our friends in real life. We share our social experiences with our friendship network. And an interest network to connect to “experts” in specialised fields that we want to learn about. This is a network of knowledgable people who support us to “geek out”. We turn to them when we need advice in their area of expertise.

Mimi Ito describes the team’s study on learning in social media spaces

This behaviour is especially interesting from the perspective of digital arts and culture. Artists and curators have an opportunity to digital platforms to support these patron’s quest to learn new skills, discover new journeys, and link up with experts. Imagine you are at a gallery to view an exhibition and an augmented video layer enables you to query the artist with questions about brushstrokes, choice of materials, or quality of lighting. You can ask almost anything that piques your interest. The experience entices you to learn more about art. You can take these videos home with you and try out the techniques in your work. Pro-users might even have the ability to contact the artist in person. Thus, every new exhibition becomes an opportunity to learn from the experts themselves.

Friendship networks vs Interest networks

Tactic: Younger patrons are full of passion and can shape the future of art in the region. Use the digital layer to power your patron’s curiosity and passion. Enable audiences to digitally connect with artists during and beyond the actual event to learn about techniques, methods, decisions and maybe even take the lessons home to improve their own craft.

I want to conclude by saying that digital is important. Not because it signals the end of physical experiences, nor because it will replace human interactions. But because it has the potential to extend the physical; to catalyse human interactions. Most importantly it will lead to the emergence of new forms of engagement, many of which our generation cannot even imagine. This is why HH Sheikha Latifa’s call is so important for the region. We must forge ahead, or we will be left behind. At AUS, our faculty and students have already set off on this journey and we hope you will join us in this long march.

Academic, startup founder, and innovator who works with organisations globally on design-led innovation and urban technology.