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What Manchester’s Virtual Factory tells us about digital audiences


Culture after COVID

As chaos descended on culture with the outbreak of COVID-19, institutions, organisations and collectives quickly turned attention online to reach audiences rendered housebound by the pandemic and its lockdowns. Festivals platformed weekend-long live streams, museums developed digital tours, the city of Helsinki was even ‘twinned’ with a virtual version of itself. But in North West England these ideas were already being explored more than six months before we heard the word ‘coronavirus’. 

The Factory will be a landmark £110million cultural space and permanent home for the Manchester International Festival (MIF) when it opens in the city next year. The festival has one remit — showcase world premieres across various performance disciplines, from music to theatre. In 2019 the organisation started work on another first, only this time in the digital world, building a publicly accessible, immersive online replica of a cultural destination that doesn’t exist yet. 

Made ‘playable’ on 1st July 2020, Virtual Factory is set in the free online gaming environment Fortnite, on its own ‘island’ designed on the central Manchester area the real building is being constructed in. It received one million visitors within three weeks of going live, which is impressive considering the clamour for online attention at that time, and The Factory’s maximum real world capacity of 850,000 per year. 

We don’t quite know what that will look like, but the version in Fortnite comprises large exhibition areas that feel cavernous and appropriately desolate. The ‘rave space’ is certainly loudest, with its LED dancefloor and realistic sound engineering pounding out house music, suggesting long-term potential as an online performance venue the likes of which have taken on new significance during the pandemic. The fact it’s empty, the ghost of a digital gig, makes it all the more poignant.

LaTurbo Avedon in Fortnite Creative 1
LaTurbo Avedon in Fortnite Creative 1
Your Progress Will Be Saved installation
Your Progress Will Be Saved installation

The warehouse area gives us more to think about still. Spread over multiple levels, it hosts Virtual Factory’s first in-game exhibition — Your Progress Will Be Saved, by LaTurbo Avedon. Best known as the curator of file-based exhibition space Panther Modern, the artist is a digital avatar ‘born’ during the process of creating profiles on various online platforms and networks. In this instance, their work takes the form of box rooms depicting jobs and technology invading domesticity. It can be read to reflect our work-from-home present, but should probably be seen as a comment on the direction we’ve been heading for years. 

They’ve also set up a mini-game across Virtual Factory. Challenges, such as reaching difficult to access platforms, must be completed to find messages hidden around the complex. It’s a lot to take in before anyone mentions you assumed LaTurbo Avedon’s avatar when you entered Virtual Factory. You become the artist, and playing the game is an act of participation in your exhibition. 

Factory Still
Factory Still

At this point it’s easy to slip into conversations about digital-physical realities that go beyond the COVID-19 context we can rarely escape right now. And Virtual Factory needs to do this, because it will outlive the pandemic (it could technically be open longer than the physical building stays standing). It also predates the pandemic. As does the idea of staging events within digital, and specifically gaming environments. Grand Theft Auto Online, for example, had opened its own nightclub by 2018. And it wasn’t the first video game to do so, but it was the first to offer famous DJs residencies to perform as in-game avatars. 

In 2020 we’ve been exploring these opportunities more enthusiastically (or perhaps desperately) for obvious reasons. But a trend was already emerging. It may not be mainstream right now, but given the necessary infrastructure to offer immersive digital culture is still in relative infancy and this is where we’re at you see how much deeper the rabbit hole can go. Especially now there is an urgent need to explore how mixed realities can keep events, institutions and artists accessible in the short and medium-term. 

“It’s mind-blowing isn’t it,” says Gaby Jenks, MIF’s Digital Director, of mixed reality concepts, before explaining Virtual Factory actually has roots in the built digital environment, rather than content or ideas to fill those spaces. “It was one project among many asking practitioners to actively expand on what architecture potentially could be and could mean. This translates that into a really meta and also quite literal way, placing it into a gaming world to help us understand what that environment can do. 

“We ended up with really interesting questions — by the building being in the virtual space, was it already open? Should the digital building be any different? What do you class as meaningful engagement? Where do audiences really lie? To me it’s really important to understand that you can have an equally engaging experience online as you can in an off-line environment,” she continues. “You can’t replicate the intimacy and connection of a live gig, but there are so many people out there who aren’t arts audiences. They live and interact in these digital spaces. We need to understand what that is to understand future forms of creativity.” 

COVID-19 has resulted in a cultural crisis — creative networks and funding have been decimated by the pandemic. So has access, and even in the mid-term this is likely to be a major problem. Capacities could remain severely reduced well into next year, if not longer. Travel will continue to be disrupted and budget cuts inevitably threaten the number and scope of events with or without social distancing. But problems attracting broad audiences have existed within arts and culture for much longer than this emergency, with just 50% of UK adults visiting museums or galleries in an average year. 

Not everyone online is playing Fortnite, not every Fornite player will visit Virtual Factory, but the potential to reach new audiences with projects like this is clear when you consider how many people are unable or unwilling to go to physical cultural spaces. Virtual realities have exclusivity problems too — not everyone is ‘into gaming’, 10% of UK households still didn’t have an internet connection at the start of 2019. But as connectivity and technology improves environments will become more immersive and accessible, experiences will be much richer. The popularity of digital culture, and the platforms it uses, also seem destined to grow. 

“There was a time when these digital spaces were so clunky, and fairly inaccessible to most people,” Jenks says. “There are still some problems but the technology is impressive now. And what’s great is the in-game features, capturing experiences and recording play. It turns this into user-generated content, which we see a lot in Fornite but also in other games. This gives a sense of belonging and ownership to audiences, which is one of the things you can’t find in other settings.” 

“That’s something we’ve been observing during this time — what you get from these digital spaces you don’t get from others. What does that allow people to do? On social media, younger audiences have been retreating from traditional platforms because they were exposed to everyone — family, co-workers. It’s like being at a wedding where you can’t be yourself. Going into these gaming environments, could that allow for the kind of expression and engagement we don’t see in other digital spaces?” 

Building an arts centre inside a gaming world also makes us think about how we define ‘art’. Video games are not considered high art by the vast majority of people, but if we’re putting art and culture as an institution within the gaming environment surely the argument becomes much more complex? 

“In a way there’s a new paradigm we’re entering through these spaces and we don’t fully understand the potential yet,” says Jenks after we find a way back from the philosophical digressions. “There’s massive experimentation across web, VR, these multi-user spaces. There are some interesting ways you can interact with players and ideas. There are still some limitations in terms of feedback, and especially live feedback, the way virtual audiences will work is going to be very different. It won’t be replicated from the physical world, but I think that’s actually quite exciting.” 

Just as COVID-19 has sped up what was already happening in retail, sounding alarm bells over the chances of high streets ever really recovering, mixed-reality art and culture has been taking place for years but suddenly and unexpectedly finds itself on the frontline. But this isn’t about replacing physical spaces and events like websites threaten to do with shops. Instead, what’s exciting about projects like Virtual Factory is the way they can offer new ways to diversify, extend and augment connections between audiences, creators and organisations, which must surely be a worthwhile investment for the future. 

The Factory street view_across the river - copyright OMA
The Factory street view_across the river – copyright OMA
The Factory build May 2020. Photo ©Pawel Paniczko
The Factory build May 2020. Photo ©Pawel Paniczko

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