While the digital experience can never replicate or replace traditional ways of engaging with culture, it does certainly facilitate several unique advantages of its own; that new possibility of a global audience, and giving agency to the individual in finding new international experiences. We have also seen digital engagement reduce the enormous carbon footprint created by cultural tourism. Museums such as the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington to the Seoul Museum of Contemporary and Modern Art and the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City, have innovated, making their collection available online.
Choreographer Omar Rajeh is one artist who was forced to adapt when his plans to move his theatre into a new premises in April 2020 became financially unfeasible. Moving from Beirut to Lyon, he co-founded Citerne.live, an interdisciplinary digital space, designed to serve as an artistic asylum for artists without an audience. For Omar Rajeh, the main benefit of this enforced move towards digital engagement is the opportunity to transcend the existing geographical and structural barriers that had previously obstructed access to culture for millions of people.
Change always offers new opportunities, however it arises. Currently, the changes brought about by the pandemic seem to have empowered an audience now able to visit great collections and performances from anywhere in the world without leaving their living room. Yet artists such as Rajeh are seeing a chance to not only widen audience engagement, but also the potential to transform and reshape the art world into a more democratic model and to provide platforms that allow artists and audiences to create a new cultural solidarity that is – potentially at least – limitless in scope.
Even before the pandemic cultural spaces were beginning to think more and more about engagement online and curating a digital presence. In some ways, the COVID pandemic has only accelerated a modern social trend. Platforms such as Citerne.live will not be dismantled when social distancing comes to an end, digital engagement will remain an option alongside live experiences with the aim of creating more opportunities for interaction, collaboration and learning, ultimately trying to create a more informed art world that is inclusive, egalitarian, and more environmentally sustainable.
For artists such as Omar Rajeh, this is the aim. It is not, however, the current reality. Divorced from the traditional paying audience, many international artists and venues are finding their situation economically unviable. We are all too used to receiving digital content for free. Yet if we truly value culture we need to ensure that artists are given the space to create and perform – creating a dialogue both physically and digitally.
These questions inform our upcoming panel on what being international means in a year of no travel. Sign up now for our Culture and Sustainability online panel with Edinburgh International Festival Artists, taking place Tue 24 August.