The exhibition “AORA V: nature/nurture” (on view through Feb. 27, 2022) takes place within four tranquil galleries that, thanks to ample room-length skylights and picture windows, are awash with natural light. A soothing soundtrack accompanies the spaces, each of which features paintings, photographs, sculpture, and other objects by emerging artists from around the globe. To get a closer look at one of the pieces, there’s no neck-craning required. Visitors simply press the “up” arrow on their keyboards: All works in the show, and the building it’s housed within, only exist online.
The presentation is the fifth spectacle created by AORA, a digital platform that combines art, architecture, and sound to create multisensory experiences that are available to anyone with an internet connection. Its work draws on the proven health benefits of creativity and the arts, including reducing pain, increasing relaxation, and shortening recovery periods from injury or illness. AORA’s exhibitions (or “chapters,” as it calls them), form the nucleus of its efforts, and take place in a sprawling virtual building designed by Benni Allan, the founding director of London’s EBBA Architects, who co-founded AORA with curator Jenn Ellis, in June 2020, when most galleries were closed due to the pandemic. Like a real-life viewing room, AORA’s virtual iteration serves as the backdrop for each exhibition; viewers explore the premises by using their arrow keys and clicking on the artworks and a corresponding “+” button, which reveals details about them in the format of wall text.
To date, AORA has featured artists from Papua New Guinea, South Africa, New Mexico, and beyond, and established Exchange, a series of programs—exhibition-based panel discussions, studio visits, concerts, movement classes, and more—that foster a sense of community. (Last week, AORA hosted a pop-up event in the Mayfair district of London that featured an art sale and a performance by sonic artist James Wilkie, who composed the aural arrangements for “AORA:V.”) Those wanting to engage further with the company can sign up for a membership, which unlocks access to live and in-person activities and discounts to AORA’s online shop, which includes a curated collection of tea, candles, and other calm-inducing everyday objects.
We recently asked Ellis and Allan about putting their project together, and about the ways in which virtual exhibitions can democratize the art world, increase accessibility, and engage the senses.
How did the idea for AORA come about?
Ellis: Five years ago I was in a hospital, and I noticed that there was art on the walls. I started wondering why hospitals would bother putting it there, which sent me down a rabbit hole looking into the neurological benefits of art—specifically, how it’s been proven to alleviate pain, reduce stress, and improve mood. Based on this research, and drawing on my background as a curator, I began to contemplate the ways that I could help bring these benefits to people who are immobile or [otherwise unable to visit museums in person].
I built and tested the first prototype [in 2017], and it was really awful. What it was precisely not doing was activating the senses. I realized it was because I’d tried to mimic reality, replicating a white box in a virtual space.
Then you asked your friend Benni to help you create a better version of the virtual gallery you were envisioning. When designing it, what aspects of the in-person art-viewing experience did you want to replicate, and which aspects of it did you leave behind?
Ellis: We thought about spaces and places that inspire us—ones where art, architecture, and environment come together—like Dia Beacon in New York, Naoshima in Japan, and Yorkshire Sculpture Park in the U.K. When you go into the chapel space at Yorkshire Sculpture Park, for example, the artwork really fits in. There’s a melody between the art and the space. At Naoshima, there’s a beautiful Monet room where you take your shoes off and walk around in your socks, and your chest just expands. It’s beauty. And it’s not beauty just at eye level; it’s in your fingers and toes. That’s the sense of harmony we wanted to achieve. Our mission was to build in the digital world with soul, and to make it for everyone.
Allan: What’s amazing about the virtual world is that you can do anything. But we weren’t interested in creating something that was too fantasy-based or that completely transports you to another world. We want to take people somewhere, but we want them to be reminded of how they sense things in the real world. There are characteristics about the galleries that feel true to how you’d experience things in real life, such as the sense of scale, the openings of doors, and lighting that mimics sunlight.
The galleries also feel surreal, though—almost dreamlike—and create a sense of calm as one toggles through them. What architectural elements did you include to facilitate that serenity?
Allan: Each of the halls is designed with a very specific purpose, and to convey a certain feeling. The main space was a combination of various inspirations, including the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern, which is both a vast space and a meeting place. The entry hall has arches that are envisioned as gateways that invite the viewer to move through the space. The entire environment is meant to feel like a continuous enfilade. And at the end of the central hallway, you have an unobstructed view of the sky—it’s infinity. The rooms are designed in such a way that you can’t really rush through them. You have to take your time, experience the art, and experience the space.
Countless virtual exhibitions have taken place since the pandemic began—many of them, it seems, with the primary aim of enabling the continued sale of art. From a design and curatorial perspective, what are the benefits of creating online art-viewing experiences beyond the art market?
Allan: Prior to AORA, I‘d never done anything in the virtual space and never thought I would. I’m very much about tactility. What it has done is allowed me to completely reimagine how I operate. It’s given me a new set of tools. I’d previously done a couple of projects focused on the ways in which architecture can affect one’s mental state—one about dementia, and one designing spaces for young children—and I was able to apply a lot of that knowledge to creating AORA’s galleries, which has allowed me to learn other things that I use in my [real-life] projects. It’s a really beautiful back-and-forth. That’s one of the most rewarding things about AORA: I’m constantly having to learn. It’s pushing us and allowing us to do things we never would think about doing otherwise.
How do artists benefit from showing work in digital spaces?
Ellis: We’ve collaborated with more than one hundred and forty artists and galleries from all over the world, but not a single one has shipped an artwork. There’s something quite incredible about going to a URL link and being able to engage with artwork from India, Brazil, South Africa—you name it.
We started off showing art that existed in the real world, but then, last November, we did an open call around the theme of sculpture and the body for our third exhibition. That’s when we started exploring the possibilities of digital sculpture, which is interesting because one of artists’ primary limitations is production costs. In the virtual world, they can play a bit more. We’re at the forefront of thinking about creation in the digital space, and understanding how that can be a very real source of opportunity.
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This year has driven many of us to create a de facto home spa—steeping in long, leisurely baths for solace. One such batEkin Balcıoğlu, a Taos, New Mexico–based artist and the founder and editor-in-chief of Hamam, a new quarterly print publication about the culture of bathing that will release its second issue later this month. Hamam, while bursting with originality, has parallels to Wet magazine, the subversive, now-defunct cult classic founded in 1976 by Leonard Koren (who was the guest on Ep. 78 of our At a Distance podcast) that explored pleasure and play through a loosely water-themed lens.
In 2018, when writer Amitav Ghosh appeared at the Brooklyn Public Library to discuss his book The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, Joel Whitney, who manages arts and culture programs at the institution, took note. “I was surprised by Amitav’s main iClimate Reads book club, a yearlong digital initiative launched by Whitney’s department and the advocacy group Writers Rebel NYC earlier this fall, suggests otherwise, with climate-focused fiction titles including Bangkok Wakes to Rain by Pitchaya Sudbanthad, The Veins of the Ocean by Patricia Engel, and Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk on its roster. The club plans to tackle a handful of nonfiction books, too, such as The One-Straw Revolution: An Introduction to Natural Farming by the late Japanese farmer-philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka, and Why We Swim—the focus of next month’s meeting—by swimmer and surfer Bonnie Tsui.
Sometimes—especially in moments of political strife, pandemics, hurricanes, or all of the above—a television plotline caWatch a train wend its way around the fjords and farms of the Norwegian countryside over the course of seven hours, or see a sweater get made, in the time of a typical work day, from A to Z (beginning with shearing a sheep’s wool), set to the tune of cheery foldogs frolicking on a beach, a meandering stroll among flowering cherry blossoms in Japan, and a sailing trip to Tobago, accompanied by the soothing sounds of waves lapping against a boat’s exterior. The format can arguably be traced to n1963 film “Sleep” consisted entirely of his lover, the poet and performance artist John Giorno, napping. Regardless of its subject matter
For those of us who are lucky enough to have a full plate right now, consider helping those who don’t. One avenue for alCoalition for the Homeless, forced to cancel its annual fall fundraising gala due to the pandemic, is launching the Artist Plate Project, a limited-edition collection of porcelain platters depicting works by 50 legendary artists, including Tauba Auerbach, Ep. 25 of our Time Sensitive podcast). The series will be available on the organization’s website beginning Nov. 16. Profits from the heirloom-worthy tableProspect, will go toward serving the 59,000 New Yorkers who currently live in shelters or who struggle to survive on streets andA recent study by Columbia University predicts that homelessness will increase by 40 to 45 percent within the next year due to Covid-19—making the coalition’
Durham, North Carolina–based journalist and filmmaker Saleem Reshamwala has been particularly productive of late: In addBecoming America anthology, he’s host of the TED podcast Pindrop and a mentor to emerging Asian and Asian-American filmmakers through a new fellowship program called The Sauce.
This year has been a blur, but many hard truths remain crystal clear. By now, the Trump administration’s glaring and conthe U.S. hit the 9 million mark in virus cases. While President Trump has continued to shirk responsibility, scapegoat other countries, and callously state that it “is what it is”—even as the White House itself has become a hot zone, seeing two waves of infections in the span of a single month—we kTotally Under Control, director Alex Gibney, along with co-directors Suzanne Hillinger and Ophelia Harutyunyan, bring sharp-eyed clarity to t
At age 3, Spencer Bailey, writer and editor (and co-founder of The Slowdown), survived the crash-landing of United Airlines Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa, on July 19, 1989. In the wake of the tragedy, he found himself the subject of a memorial sculptureIn Memory Of: Designing Contemporary Memorials (Phaidon), examining the power and potential of memorials designed over the past 40 years, from Maya Lin’s Vietnam VeteHere, he describes the process of working on the book, and tells us why the power of abstraction may help us all to heal You began working on this project nearly thirty years after the Flight 232 crash. What has it been like to process and
Japanese artist Makoto Azuma is known for creating poetic botanical sculptures, but the medium in which he works most inFlower Punk, an award-winning film about his work and life, now available for viewing as part of the The New Yorker Documentary series. In just under 30 minutes, director Alison Klayman captures the artist as he creates spectacular arrangements, a“Exobiotanica.” Rigging a camera and a flower bomb to a weather balloon, documenting his terrestrial creation as it soars through the s
Museums and galleries are reopening in New York, and one of the most compelling shows of the season is primed to take plen plein air. Organized by the nonprofit Art at a Time Like This, in collaboration with Save Art Space, “Ministry of Truth: 1984–2020” will reclaim a common component of the city’s visual real estate—the billboard—to display works by an international ran
In 1617, German artist Jobst Harrich completed an oil painting on a copper canvas. The work, which depicts a flaxen-hairposted Harrich’s painting to her feed and tweeted, “maybe if I take my tit out they will stop explaining my own joke back to me.” She applied this tactic to“Conversation in a Park,” depicting a gent gesturing toward a stoic lady (“you would be so much prettier if you smiled”), and a 1959 Norman Rockwell cover for the Saturday Evening Post, which portrays eleven men ganging up on a lone woman in a jury room (“thanks I’m gay now”). The thread went viral. A fMen to Avoid in Art and Life (Chronicle Books), sold out within days of its release. It features more than 90 artworks accompanied by wince-worthy c
An art critic, curator, and author, Antwaun Sargent has become a leading voice for a rising class of Black contemporary The New Black Vanguard: Photography Between Art and Fashion (Aperture), Sargent is serving up his next, as the editor of Young, Gifted and Black: A New Generation of Artists (D.A.P.), highlighting the works of Black artists from the Lumpkin-Boccuzzi Family Collection of Contemporary Art. An exhibition of the same name is currently on view at the Lehmann College Art Gallery (which is temporarily closed due to Covid-19)
New York–based artists and brothers Steven and William Ladd have been creating together for 20 years, using their comple“The Other Side,” on view through Oct. 17 at the Invisible Dog Art Center in Brooklyn’s Boerum Hill neighborhood, the Ladds have welcomed. Offering visceral and emotional depth to a population of society so often silenced and anonymized behind closed doors, t
Election season is upon us here in the U.S., and with all of the anxieties circulating around—pandemic-related risks, poThis is What Democracy Looked Like: A Visual History of the Printed Ballot (Princeton Architectural Press), a new book by Alicia Yin Cheng, a founding partner of the Brooklyn-based graphic design
Brooklyn-based writer and artist Edith Zimmerman served as the founding editor of The Hairpin—the former general-interest women’s website that defined a generation of online journalism, with pieces like the perenn“Women Laughing Alone With Salad”—and has gone on to contribute to outlets including The New York Times Magazine, The Cut, and the podcast This American Life. These days, you can find her work in Drawing Links, a frequently published newsletter of comics and musings. We recently polled Zimmerman about her current media diet. He
You are what you Google and “like.” This is an eerie truism of 21st-century life, where our experience of reality is larThe Social Dilemma, a new docu-drama premiering on Sept. 9 on Netflix, delves into the dangerous human impact that social networking has oCenter for Humane Technology (and our guest on Ep. 35 of At a Distance), says in the trailer: “If technology creates mass chaos, loneliness, polarization, more election hacking, [and] more i
Our summer quarantine days have far too often been spent gazing at web browser windows—far and away from vacation views,Window Swap, a mash-up of the virtual and physical. Designed as a “quarantine project” by creatives Sonali Ranjit and Vaishnav Bala
For the past five years, as one of the co-founders of the annual “JONALDDUDD” exhibition, designer Lydia Cambron has put on one of the most consistently surprising and challenging presentations of
School’s out forever—or at least for the immediate future, depending on what city you live in—and it’s certainly taking hands-on lesson plans, open-sourced and free to download, that are inspired by artists and objects from its permanent collection. “Fashioning
There’s a formula for homicide news stories: Place a TV anchor at the scene of a crime, and state that a victim was shotfatally shot in the U.S., including suicides and accidents. The sheer volume of incidents makes them easy to tune out: We don’t know
Five months on, living in a pandemic has become a new liminal normal, shifting our gaze toward the familiar sights, soun“Pandemic Objects,” an ongoing editorial project that highlights and reflects upon everyday objects (defined in the broadest sense) that hathe gaze of the drone, which has seen a surge in use worldwide in recent months, with people dispatching them in their hometowns—even to takejump rope that gives her pause as she riffles through the museum’s archives, uncovering photos, artworks, and accounts about the
The Internet Archive is one rabbit hole we’ve willingly jumped into more than a handful of times since the quarantine beWhole Earth Catalog, the 1960s counterculture print publication often referred to as “the web before the web existed”—its iconic, jam-packeElectric Whole Earth Catalog, now available on the site. Originally launched in 1998 on CD-ROM (how quaint!), the lo-fi “electric” edition offers a
Home is where the heart is—but, on the silver screen, it can be a bit forlorn. In his recently published broadside publiSad People in Modernist Homes in Popular Films, Los Angeles–based designer and art director Benjamin Critton explores the much-maligned trope of the Modernist home in popular culture, with contributing essays from writers Erik BSad People—the long-awaited follow-up to his 2010 edition, Evil People in Modernist Homes in Popular Films—and what filmic mood may strike him next for volume three of the ongoing project.