'Data is the oil of the 21st century', says digital art consultant JiaJia Fei

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JiaJia Fei (Photo: Michael Avedon/ Supplied)
JiaJia Fei (Photo: Michael Avedon/ Supplied)

Arts24: In your TED talk "Art in the Age of Instagram", you open with the anecdote telling of how light and space artist James Turrell insisted on not having his work (as installed at the Guggenheim) photographed. The artist describes the work as non-vicarious, meaning that reproductions of are just approximations of the work itself. The work is not meant to be experienced this way. With the lockdown, the art world is scrambling to find ways to exist in meaningful ways during this time. You have been an art world digital consultant for some time now. To start off, can you please tell us a little about yourself, and what it means to be a digital art consultant and how you got started in this space?

JiaJia Fei: I’ve spent my entire career trying to reconcile how technology can make art experiences more accessible to more people, but not necessarily with the goal of replacing the experience of art itself. Despite the incredible opportunities the web has allowed to share images and its reproductions, art (made from physical objects) will always be about an interaction between the object, the space around the object, and you. The internet can’t replace that, and never will. 

Earlier this year, I started my own consultancy after leading digital teams within museums for over 10 years, to expand my capabilities beyond the museum world. Although the internet has transformed almost every other creative sector - from publishing to music and movies - the art world has been notoriously slow to evolve, until now.

The urgency for museums, galleries and arts organisations to go online, especially when propelled by the global closure of cultural spaces, is not unlike the transformation newspapers went through decades ago. If the entire world is now only able to engage with art online, how do these spaces shift business operations online? More importantly, how can we make sure these organisations stay in business? 

James Turrell at the Guggenheim

Arts24: You have mentioned before that many museums harboured a fear of being replaced by the online experience. However, today it may be argued that the fear is (or should be) not existing in these digital spaces. How has this reluctance resulted in what we see right now? Almost a desperate attempt to access consumers in new ways, like Instagram Live talks and virtual exhibitions?

JiaJia Fei: Fear of reproduction quickly became irrelevant as museums eventually realised social media influence could quickly translate into in-person attendance, then revenue. The bubble that is the "like" economy eventually began to burst as various "food museums" were conceptualised entirely around the purpose of taking and sharing images on social media (i.e. The Museum of Ice Cream). However antithetical this was to the mission of a museum, the critical turning point that occurred post Covid-19 in the form of forced translation of physical to digital spaces, presented a scenario that became just as problematic.

Almost overnight, museums and galleries began aggressively promoting virtual experiences and online viewing rooms as if they were entirely new products that could serve as replacements. These initiatives always fell flat because they attempted to reproduce art viewing within a gallery space—ultimately, a social experience—into one that was solitary, isolating and, not to mention, prohibitively expensive for most. 

Arts24: I was recently talking to a friend who is a curator based in South Africa. As in en mode for these times, we were exchanging concerns about how our industry would fare during this time. Speaking about art and the relationship to the object, she said that the object is one thing, but that art has always been about ideas. And that lockdown does nothing to arrest these ideas. That, as an art writer, the ideas are still accessible even when the galleries aren’t. Do you have any opinions about our relationship with and to art as the object, and what it means when the object is not within access?

JiaJia Fei: That’s a great way of looking at things. Since the social web (and, arguably, the beginning of conceptual art), art has become a social object, increasingly defined by the conversation happening around it. This goes all the way back to why art exists in the first place: although comprised of physical material, art objects are instruments for the visual expression of ideas.

Art exists to ask questions about the world around us and the cast of characters which accompany art - historians, curators, and critics - function as interpreters who can help answer these questions for us. This is self-evident in the continued discourse happening online right now, in the form of Zoom conversations, essays/criticism, and rapid exchanges on social media, as the forum has moved from the gallery or the auditorium to the many digital tools at our disposal.

JiaJia Fei talks art in the age of Instagram

Arts24: You talk about yourself as a translator of the arts, a concept I find fascinating. The very idea of translation requires one to negotiate between form and meaning, between poetry and definition. Please can you tell us more about this idea of translation in arts, and also translation as accessibility and a form of, I guess, meaning-making?

JiaJia Fei: I consider myself a translator because I was never a native to art speak, and only upon writing my own 40-page thesis on authorship, appropriation, and Roland Barthes, did I realise how alienating the language of art could be. Although my formal education was in the history of art, I was never interested in pursuing academic work that would only reach the 0.0001% of the world. As a student, I also began teaching myself how to code (a language onto itself) because these were skills not offered as part of my liberal arts education.

I knew that to thrive in my practice, I had to be fluent in both art and technology, and so I constantly operate between worlds for mutual understanding. Whenever I catch myself nerding out too hard either way (in art or tech speak), I ask myself, "would my own mother understand what I'm talking about?" 

We need technology in art because the rest of the world is modernising at rapid succession, and the art world simply needs to catch up. We need art in technology because artists have a unique way of seeing the world, often for the better. The problem at hand is that few technologists see that value, perhaps because they’ve been alienated by art their entire lives: from not being able to access museums from a young age; to the jargon that appears on wall labels (with words like "oeuvre" and "mise-en-scène", which are technically also a foreign language); to the Chelsea gallerina who refuses to say "hello" as you walk into a gallery; and to the inherently stratified culture of art fairs, biennials and auction houses, built on exclusion and hierarchy, by design. 

Oscar Wilde said: "When bankers get together for dinner, they discuss art. When artists get together for dinner, they discuss money." If the largest corporations in the world of our time are tech companies (Apple, Google, Facebook, Amazon), the future of art philanthropy, and the commercial art world at large, also desperately depends on the capital in technology. To forge a greater connection, breaking down barriers for greater accessibility is just the beginning. 

Arts24: How crazy is it that in 2020 you’ve opened the first digital art consultancy? How has the response been? What kind of inquiries are you getting? What do people understand of it, or think you do?

JiaJia Fei: Although the timing couldn’t be better, my intention to start my own company this year was a long-term plan that I envisioned many years ago while observing that so many in the art world needed these types of services. But there were very few digital agencies with the knowledge of how the art world operates, or even cared about art. Since the launch, I’ve never been busier, and a number of projects have been staggered to ensure I can fully dedicate my time and effort to each client.

A rather common scenario starts with "I need help!" as the brief, so it’s my job to first diagnose the problem, then determine how to implement various tools as a solution to meet business goals. From building a new website to developing a social media strategy, every client is treated differently, as they all vary in scale, and there is never a one-size-fits-all blueprint. 

A screengrab of Jiajia Fei's Website

Arts24: What do you think of all the virtual experiences that are currently happening?

JiaJia Fei: At the beginning of the lockdown in New York, a viral article from Travel & Leisure titled "Stuck at Home? These 12 Famous Museums Offer Virtual Tours You Can Take on Your Couch" listed a series of virtual tours from museums around the world. Among them was a 360-degree interactive of the Guggenheim Museum presented on Google Arts & Culture, a project I actually worked on more than five years ago. This was an incredible feat of technology that involved flying drones, drone pilots, and Google Street View cameras; something no museum would ever be able to achieve without a partner like Google. Although, of course, I long to visit any museum right now, I would never desire to do so virtually.

The feeling I get while exploring any virtual museum is always the same: the UX is frustrating, the quality inadequate, and, too often, the walls are empty (because: copyright). This feeling of dissatisfaction immediately points back to the reality that although museums are spaces for displaying art and cultural objects, they are also social spaces for interaction. Architecture is its own type of interface, and any attempt to recreate this 3-D environment in 2-D form completely changes its purpose. 

The exception? Nintendo’s wildly popular game Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Reaching 13 million worldwide, the game now incorporates thousands of images from the collections of major institutions such as the Getty and Metropolitan Museum of Art. Users assume customisable characters that can explore these artworks within virtual spaces with other players, thus alluding to the social experience one might have while visiting a museum with friends and family. Although a complete departure from the premise of an educational museum visit, incorporating art within widely available platforms can vastly broaden reach at unprecedented scale. 

At the end of the day, these initiatives are also reminders museums are not technology companies, and only with continued partnership with companies like Google and Nintendo, can museums ensure the wide impact of art to such mass effect.  

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 21: JiaJia Fei attends th
JiaJia Fei attends the 2019 High Line Spring Benefit on May 21, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Jared Siskin/Patrick McMullan via Getty Images)

Arts24: In what ways can both artists and art institutions use digital technology better at this time?

JiaJia Fei: As the presentation of art moves further onto the screen, the urgency to replicate physical spaces online should no longer be the focus. Instead, artists and institutions should embrace the limitations of the screen, and present art that was designed for visual consumption on digital interfaces, using widely available devices that reach the lowest common denominator. Although most people at home may have a laptop or mobile phone, very few have VR headsets or will elect to download apps with AR capabilities.

However radical and cutting edge, focusing on emerging technologies paradoxically limits the number of people who can potentially access your content. Furthermore, as with all technology products, these projects must be continually updated over time to be functional, as operating systems and devices upgrade over time. 

For artists, this is still an incredible time to begin exploring art that is born digital; replacing canvases and paintbrushes with code and software. Why do paintings exist? Because there are walls. If our screens are the new walls, then a digital Renaissance should be ahead of us. 

Arts24: You've described your role at the Jewish Museum as the "first case study in how creative approaches to technology as a design solution can be transformative and have a lasting impact on an organisation". What have the results of the study been?

JiaJia Fei: When I accepted my position as the first Director of Digital at the Jewish Museum, I simultaneously accepted the challenge of taking on my first client. I intended for the Jewish Museum to be my first case study for digital transformation, as I was then charged to build a brand-new digital team within a 100+ year-old institution. During my tenure, we increased our Instagram following from 7 000 to more than 70 000; built a new widely accessible web-based mobile app to power the Museum’s audio tours; and established many "invisible" yet critical technology infrastructure projects allowing for enhanced capture and exchange of data across the institution.

I've never been particularly interested in the creation of "shiny products" or technology for the sake of technology. I believe technology should be implemented as a design solution, and one that is sustainable and future-proof. Few realise that data is the oil of the 21st century and being smart about data - from artwork to audience data - is the key to the future. 

* Interview by Lindokuhle Nkosi. Lindokuhle Nkosi is the editor of Arts24.

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