Art or capitalism? Inside the rise of Instagrammable immersive exhibitions in London – Screen Shot
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Art or capitalism? Inside the rise of Instagrammable immersive exhibitions in London

In 2022, immersive experiences dominated the British art scene. Following two years of exclusively digital and online exhibitions—spurred by the isolating COVID-19 pandemic—art has now officially been dismantled from the gallery walls, stepping outside of the frame to become a fully-fledged immersive and Instagram-friendly experience.

For some years now, subterranean exhibition space 180 The Strand has offered multiple digitally innovative art installations such as LUX and Future Shock—although these often felt more like demonstrations of technology’s updated potential rather than engaging and forward-thinking art exhibitions.

Contemporary artist Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirror Rooms exhibition at Tate Modern immediately sells out whenever tickets become available online, usually months in advance. All this to say, are immersive experiences the future of modern art, and if so, should we be worried?

The biggest trend pushing forward this shift could well be the dedicated exhibitions of 360° digital art dotted around the UK. These often incorporate impressive projections, large-scale digital screens, and VR. One prominent example would be the Van Gogh: The Immersive Experience—organised by Exhibition Hub and Fever—which marked the first major example to open in London, and is also currently available to view in Belfast, Dublin, Leicester, Naples and York, as well as a dozen cities across North America.

There are also upcoming plans to launch similar exhibitions focused on the works of impressionist artist Claude Monet and surrealist René Magritte. However, if you’re itching to get your immersion on, don’t fret—Dalí Cybernetics recently opened in East London and brings the renowned Spanish surrealist’s optical illusions to life.

@mvlondonreviews

Tate Modern - infinity mirror rooms #visitlondon #placestogo #londonartgallery #yayoikusama #thingstodoinlondon

♬ Heat Waves - Glass Animals

It’s a simple but effective premise: paintings by famous artists are chopped and collaged to fill the floor and four walls of dedicated venues while gentle animations bring still lives to life and landscapes are endlessly remixed. Some exhibitions offer holograms while others are aided by artificial intelligence (AI) that responds to the audience.

A number of installations offer these VR experiences to allow visitors to explore the real-life settings of an artist’s life and present a brief contextual study of their work, largely by relying on reproductions and replicas. Often, production will claim these innovations reinvent the concept of a museum, and perhaps it does, but was it really needed?

Both Klimt: The Immersive Experience and Mexican Geniuses: A Frida and Diego Immersive Experience were opened in London in 2022. The latter, I take umbrage with. Rivera and Kahlo were members of the Mexican Communist Party, and close friends of former Soviet leader Leon Trotsky. Their work is therefore intrinsically political and avowedly anti-capitalist, despite works by both artists having been sold for millions of dollars in recent years. Such an aesthetic spectacle strips away at this fundamental context, to the detriment of both the artists and their work.

That being said, it should be noted that, to credit the curators, they didn’t gloss over Kahlo’s disability—she was badly injured in a bus accident aged 18—and included replicas of both her surgical corset and wheelchair.

In terms of cost, immersive exhibitions tend to be on the pricier side. Adult tickets predominantly range between £20 and £30 (approximately $36) while children’s tickets hover around the £20 mark. This is as much as, if not more than, a major gallery exhibition at Tate or the National Gallery—but the main displays at these iconic institutions, which include works by the likes of Van Gogh and Monet, are often free to visit.

@brettrigg

Van Gogh Immersion was a total immersion rip off. #vangogh #ripoff #vangoghexhibition #expensive #funny #goofy

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Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to encourage greater engagement with art and its history—but it needs to be done in an accessible and affordable manner. And does such spectacular engagement honestly offer more than an hour in a gallery? Some of these shows tour, but most are focussed on London, already home to the majority of iconic cultural institutions.

Frameless, a permanent 30,000-square-foot venue near Marble Arch and Oxford Street, offers the biggest immersive art experience currently in the UK, showcasing 40 “masterpieces” from four different galleries. Its website promises the audience that “inside Frameless, art seeps into every inch of space. It’s in front of you, behind you, above and below you. You won’t simply be looking at a picture, you’ll be in the picture, with every brush stroke, every splash of colour, every moment of inspiration.” A sensitively and creatively curated gallery exhibition can offer precisely the same, often in a less commercial and inauthentic environment.

@emalou__

New digital exhibition near Marble Arch❗️sooo cool I highly recommend @Frameless LDN #framelesslondon #artlondon #whattodoinlondon #londontiktok #londonart #salvadordali

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Many of the works here, such as ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch or ‘The Persistence of Memory’ by Salvador Dalí,—are reworked to the point where they’re practically unrecognisable from the source material. Can these really be called the same pieces of art? The beauty of Bosch’s altarpiece lies in its intimate intricacies as much as its fantastical imagery.

It’s hard to pinpoint why these establishments don’t support and highlight contemporary artists who produce work specifically intended for such scales and vast spaces. In this way, immersive exhibitions can be the driving force behind creating new digestible art installations, rather than manipulating historic works to fit unsuitable parameters.

There aren’t enough spaces, even in London, to establish and support infrastructure for new media artists. So, supporting up-and-coming creators who work with projections, virtual reality, augmented reality, and more is vital.

One such example is the Lightroom installation in King’s Cross, which opens in 2023. According to the website, audiences will be able to experience “a new home for spectacular artist-led shows.”

And while the space’s first exhibition is dedicated to the work of octogenarian David Hockney, it’s understandable as to why. Hockney has been at the cutting edge of digital art for some years now, producing work art on an iPad for well over a decade. However, when this art is printed off and displayed on paper in gallery spaces, it feels flat and lacking. Therefore, an immersive digital space is perfectly suited to showcase Hockney’s creations. A longer programme of exhibitions is yet to be announced.

Let’s just hope this marks the beginning of an exciting new chapter in the world of art and exhibitions, rather than another superficial reworking of classic art.

Rail, nurses, postal, border control: What’s the deal with the UK’s current strike action?

If you’re living in the UK right now, you’ll most certainly have seen the masses of news coverage dissecting and analysing the country-wide strikes which have been taking place throughout December 2022. Spanning across a number of public sector industries, the broadcasting in regard to the strike action has been extensive and, at times, overwhelming.

Here’s a full breakdown of all the upcoming strikes and stresses that led to them. A word of advice—buckle in, because we’ve witnessed a decade of underfunding and lack of understanding. It’s time for things to change.

Why are there railwork strikes?

Railway strikes have existed in the UK since the dawn of the industrial revolution and they’ve been labourers’ most valuable arsenal when it comes to demanding better working conditions and fairer pay. Over the past few years, tensions have grown exponentially between rail workers and the Tory government—primarily due to the minister’s reluctance, and often downright refusal to facilitate negotiations and pursue resolutions.

Enter Mick Lynch, aka the rail network’s equivalent to Jason Statham. Bald, bold, and assertive, Lynch—who is the General Secretary of the National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT)—has dominated news coverage with his calm assurance and stoic stature. In summary, the strikes are occurring as a part of a continual labour movement disputing the government in relation to pay, job cuts, and changes to terms and conditions. Most importantly, the unions are emphasising the fact that their pay should reflect the mounting pressures of the cost of living crisis.

Coverage of the strikes has been varied and Lynch recently stated that the BBC had been purporting false claims surrounding public support. During a heated interview with BBC presenter Mishal Husain, the general secretary rebutted the questions posed to him regarding how much pay workers had lost through strike action, instead saying: “Why are you pursuing an editorial line I could read in The Sun or The Daily Mail or any of the right-wing press in this country, and you’re not pursuing the fact that working people—millions of them—are being impoverished and some of them being made destitute by the attitude of this government and by their employers?”

Two of the rail strikes have already occurred, having taken place on 13 and 15 December. The next series of strikes will happen on 16, 17, 24, 25, 26, and 27 December and 3, 4, 6, and 7 January 2023. During this time, over 40,000 network rail workers are set to walk out.

Britain’s workers have reached their limits, and what’s clear is that the extensive growth in action runs directly in correlation with the breakdown and collapse of trust and confidence in the conservative government. Rishi Sunak has done little to reassure both the workforce and the general public as they toil through one of the most catastrophic energy crises the UK has ever faced.

Strikes which clash with valuable public holidays are often met with public criticism, and recent YouGov polls have depicted that 47 per cent of the British population oppose the current action. However, there is an equally important 41 per cent of people who support the strikes.

Why are the nurses striking?

Potentially the most controversial public strike currently taking place is the nurses’ action. Today, Thursday 15 December, tens of thousands of nurses across England, Wales, and Northern Ireland staged a mass walkout. Similarly to the rail strikes, the nurses’ labour action symbolises the utter fragility of the public sector, and the government’s outright refusal to provide genuine financial compensation—choosing instead to publicise empty words of affection for the National Health Service (NHS).

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) balloted its members over industrial action in a dispute over pay, arguing that low pay is driving chronic understaffing which directly puts patients at risk and leaves nursing staff overworked, underpaid, and undervalued, as reported by The Guardian.

According to Sky News, RCN chief executive Pat Cullen accused Health Secretary Steve Barclay of “belligerence” after he reportedly dismissed negotiations on the issue of pay despite the government having already accepted recommendations made by the NHS Pay Review Body (PRB) to give below inflation pay rises of around 4 per cent.

Critical care including chemotherapy, emergency cancer services, dialysis, critical care units, neonatal, and paediatric intensive care are all going to stay staffed. Care will also remain available when it comes to accident and emergency (A&E) services.

While the rail strikes have become commonplace, nurses are often regarded as the backbone of the British healthcare system—a constant that remains steadfast despite mounting challenges. However, the combination of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic, soaring inflation, and a damaged system has finally broken the back of a sea of workers whose vital public role is often taken for granted. It is a decade of underfunding that has ultimately caused this strike action.

A further walkout is due to take place on 20 December.

Why are the postal workers striking?

The dark horse of this season’s strikes may be the postal action. As an often-overlooked sector, Royal Mail workers are also striking due to a breakdown in disputes over pay and working conditions.

The Communications Workers Union (CWU) have stated: “Posties are in the fight of their lives against the Uberisation of Royal Mail and the destruction of their conditions. But 115,000 of our members will not just accept this war on their livelihoods and their industry.”

The postal strikes are quite extensive, some of the events have already taken place but there is further action planned for 15, 23, and 24 December. So, if you’ve been putting off your Christmas shopping—now would be the ideal time to get your cart rolling.

Why are the border control officials striking?

As an even darker horse, the Public and Commercial Service (PCS) union has announced Civil Service industrial action that will impact Border Force services. According to The Independent, In a dispute over pay, jobs, and conditions, the people who normally check passports and assess arriving travellers have staged walk outs at the three biggest airports: London Heathrow, London Gatwick, and Manchester. There will also be sporadic strikes across other UK airports.

Anyone who is travelling into the UK this Christmas period should be aware of the extreme disruptions they could face. Action is due to take place from 23 December all the way to New Year’s Eve, excluding 27 December. While some military personnel and volunteers have been given emergency training in order to alleviate the interference, it’s likely to still be a total mess.

Recent data has shown that, not only is inflation at an all-time high at 11 per cent, but when average weekly earnings are adjusted for inflation, total pay in the public sector is around 5 per cent lower than the current 11.1 per cent rate. This works out to a total take-home salary of £597, versus the equivalent of £626 per week back in 2010.

While this mass wave of strikes will undoubtedly impact the general public more so than similar actions of the past, it’s important to recognise the primary cause behind labour unrest. There’s a reason why nurses are striking for the very first time in the UK. Industrial action is always a last resort, spurred on due to a lack of government support.