F.U.V. with Virginia Bianchi Gallery

Off Site Project
19 min readJul 25, 2022

Adapting Roman architect Vitruvius’s three characteristics of good architecture, outlined in his treatise ‘De Architectura’ more than 2,000 years ago, the F.U.V. interview series builds discourse around online curatorial platforms and projects, addressing the experience of UX design as well as the human structures that underpin the production and maintenance of these spaces.

Firmatis (aka Durability)It should stand up robustly and remain in good condition; Utilitas (aka Utility) It should be useful and function well for the people using it; Venustatis (aka Beauty)It should delight people and raise their spirits.

Each question is marked with a F, a U, or a V to denote which of Vitruvius’s three principals it was written in relation to. Text in bold is by the interviewee. Collectively the F.U.V. series intends to explore multiple interpretations of these terms by focusing on various facets of curatorial practice online.

Landing page of Virginia Bianchi Gallery, showing details of upcoming online exhibition by Léa Porré.

For the second interview of our F.U.V. series, we got the chance to speak with Virginia Bianchi of the eponymously named Virginia Bianchi Gallery, an Italian online gallery and experimental art space. Opening in September of 2020, Bianchi’s gallery stands out as one of a few digital ventures that started out with sales in mind, with early shows making prints, video and GIFs available for purchase. After less than a year the gallery entered the IRL with an AR exhibition in Bologna, a solo-show at the Biennale di Chiasso and a booth at ArtVerona. To date the gallery has produced eleven online shows, principally in-site though three of the most recent projects have adopted Mozilla Hubs as a off-site location to develop 3D experiences. Now about to enter its third year, the gallery has moved it’s digital location to a custom coded website and looks to expand the types of installation it is able to achieve for its featured artists.

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(U) When the gallery first took shape in late 2020, you began with web based exhibitions, solo and duo shows such as Dear One by Léa Porré and The Anteater’s Transmutation by Giuliana Rosso and Wednesday Kim. However, by the summer of 2021 you’d moved off screen (well partially) with Warped Passages, an augmented reality exhibition specific to the DumBO area of Bologna. Could you talk us through the inspiration behind this move? And how important is it for the gallery to be responding to and an early adopter of new technological trends?

When I initially started having this outlandish idea of becoming a curator, my focus was mainly on IRL shows: those were what I had mostly been exposed to since they seemingly are the only exhibition method the traditional art world was and is comfortable in. COVID has been what really forced me to look for alternative ways to start my practice: I graduated in January 2020 right after moving back to Italy, and the first weeks of lockdown crushed all the hopes and dreams of curating physical exhibitions. At that moment, I had the epiphany that I could not just wait for everything to be over, for galleries and museums to open up again: I did not have the patience for it. I decided to take my courage in both hands and started developing the idea that has then evolved into Virginia Bianchi Gallery (VBG). Here is how I discovered the world of online exhibitions!

Installation view of ‘The Anteater’s Transmutation’ (2020) by Giuliana Rosso & Wednesday Kim.

The development of the platform has certainly been a long process, but at the same time it happened organically, as if it was unavoidable: I managed to assemble all the inputs I had gathered from previous years and experiences (university, curatorial courses and an internship in a gallery that focuses on digital art) and to make sense of them all. I understood that digital works of art have a completely different meaning when exhibited online and come with a whole new variety of installation possibilities. For this reason, IRL and virtual shows lead to completely different experiences and reactions, though neither one of them is better or worse than the other. It just needs to be remembered that there are two worlds where digital works can be exhibited, two different trajectories that envision and contextualise a piece differently.

For this reason, I feel drawn towards both realities: to understand their perks and faults, and unique mechanisms to exhibit digital artworks.

At the same time, it is not necessarily my priority to adopt early technological trends (e.g. NFTs). There are two factors that drive my work: the first is to explore themes that can bring new perspectives to the relationship between humans and technology. The second is to support the artists that can help us achieve these visions. Sometimes, doing these things may also mean embracing new technological trends, but that is not necessarily my main concern.

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(U) A slight continuation of the previous question. Reflecting on the mixture of online and hybrid art exhibitions and experiences you’ve curated, have you felt or do you see a difference in the ways audiences engage? Do you find different visitors come to online shows than will partake in an AR tour, and if so what distinguishes them?

From my experience, audiences that visit online VBG shows will also visit an IRL exhibition, but the reverse isn’t true. Visitors that come to online tours are tech enthusiasts more generally interested in media art and new artistic tendencies, and are also part of the wider category of showgoers. However, those who normally visit IRL shows may not care about virtual experiences — maybe precisely because they are used to face-to-face events. Online shows are usually for insiders, tech-savvy individuals that want to explore how to go beyond the world of IRL shows, which on the other hand attract a more diverse and varied audience.

Documentation of ‘Warped Passages’ (2021) ft: Martina Menegon, Lauren Moffatt, Rory Scott, Laura Shepherd, Alexis Zerafa and Alice Yuan Zhang. Showing AR artwork by Rory Scott.
Documentation of ‘Warped Passages’ (2021) ft: Martina Menegon, Lauren Moffatt, Rory Scott, Laura Shepherd, Alexis Zerafa and Alice Yuan Zhang. Showing AR artwork by Martina Menegon.

There are also other elements that have an important impact on online audiences: first of all, in the absence of offline promotion, virtual exhibitions almost solely rely on digital marketing and social media to attract visitors, thus depending on the mercy of social media algorithms and on those age groups used to browse social media feeds. A second and more important issue is that, although virtual realms can be visited from anywhere in the world, they require a fast Internet connection and device. Both are needed to load and properly experience complex and heavy web pages.

Concerning how online audiences engage with a virtual show, I am not entirely sure since you cannot observe how they interact in and with the space. This is also one of the factors that made me want to explore different virtual platforms for VBG shows such as Mozilla Hubs — so that I could connect, observe and dialogue with the visitors.

However, if there is one thing I noticed in both virtual shows and offline AR exhibitions is that audiences sometimes are not sure how they should engage with digital pieces. Museums and galleries continuously teach us to see works from afar, that touching and physical engagement are forbidden, and therefore visitors are taken aback when they need to interact with a piece to discover its full potential. They tend to ask what they should do with it, if they are correctly engaging with it.. as if there was a right and wrong answer!

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(F) You’ve raised the potential of spaces like Mozilla Hubs offering the digital gallerist more direct interaction with visitors. The past two exhibitions you’ve realised in this medium, the duo show Rechannelled Corporealities and the group show of Chinese born artists Connections, each lasted about a month, were you able to spend much time ‘invigilating’ the space and meeting with visitors? Did you schedule VIP appointments? It’d be interesting to hear your thoughts on both the types of engagement that can take place and also what it means to reintroduce the requirement of a ‘physical’ presence into the digital gallery.

As mentioned, I am always looking for new ways to improve visitors’ experience in the gallery: initially, after I had experimented with browser-based exhibitions for more than a year, I felt the need to create a more direct connection with whoever was choosing to visit the shows since, until that moment, visitors were just a number on a Google Analytics page. Thus the decision to build a dedicated Mozilla Hubs gallery and attempt to move all of our activities there: at the time, I was working from home as a freelancer and therefore had the idea of implementing gallery opening hours where I would stay inside the gallery space and welcome visitors, basically replicating digitally an afk (away-from-keyboard) dynamic — one of the things I miss the most from IRL exhibitions.

Installation view of ‘Connections’ (2022), an exhibition on Mozilla Hubs, ft: Snow Yunxue Fu, Funa Ye, Chengan Xia and Tingwei Li.

Unfortunately (or luckily), after a few weeks I had to change to a more stable 9–5 office job, and for this reason, I never had the opportunity to implement my initial idea. I have, however, organised some exhibition tours and digital openings, and for these activities I must say that virtual spaces like Mozilla Hubs are highly valuable: not only because they of course allow for a social experience but, maybe even more importantly, because they give agency to the visitors. What differentiates Mozilla Hubs from browser-based tours is that these platforms allow visitors to actively engage with the gallery, leaving them open to any path and understanding of the space. On the contrary, tours of browser-based exhibitions normally happen on Zoom or Google Meet where one person (the gallerist) gives the tour while sharing their screen, thus engaging and indirectly giving their interpretation of the show space: in this case, visitors become mere watchers and do not have direct nor active participation in the experience.

Despite this last point, I am still sceptical towards platforms that are based on a three-dimensional perception of the digital space because I believe they are too coercive for native digital art: by exhibiting on a platform that is just an extension of the physical world, artists are forced to approach the space as if they were in an IRL gallery, respecting the same rules and requirements and often forgetting the more experimental opportunities offered by online installations. I often think that all these shows realised in the so-called metaverse are just bad copies of IRL shows, and I do not see the point in merging the two — just like in all those online shows that popped up during lockdowns organised by galleries or curators that had no connection whatsoever with the digital. This is the reason why I usually prefer to conceive Mozilla Hubs shows that cannot be replicated in the real world: a digital show needs to have a reason why it is online.

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(V) When surveying the artists the gallery has supported and featured, there’s a distinct sense of a certain aesthetic prerogative. The artists’ often communicate in high pigmented tones and reflective glossy surfaces; biological and technical apparatus come together lending a sense of posthuman studies. How have you come to think collectively of the artists you represent? Can they easily be described as a school or genre? And what are you actively seeking as a curator?

One quick point I want to underline is that the gallery does not represent artists. I took this choice because I still could not assure any of them regular shows nor a base of collectors that can support them: it is important for me to leave them open to all the opportunities they may encounter since I, as well, am growing and learning from each show.

Going back to the question, yes, I see your point there! Concerning aesthetic, that merely reflects my personal taste. I have always been attracted by that hyper-saturated, glossy aesthetic that is typical of digital worlds probably because my taste has also been greatly determined by the time I spent (not anymore, unfortunately) playing video games growing up.

Installation view of ‘Subterranean Virtualscapes’ (2022) ft: S()fia Braga, Fred Cosci, The Cool Couple, Federica Di Pietrantonio, Andrea Frosolini, Kamilia Kard, Rachele Maistrello, Martina Menegon, Deborah Mora, Alessandro Moroni, Alice Palamenghi, Veronica Petukhov, Valeria Segna, Olia Svetlanova and Matteo Zamagni. Showing work by Deborah Mora.

There is a clear pattern also concerning the show themes: as mentioned, one of the main missions of the gallery and of my curatorial journey is to exhibit works that can generate reflections and critical reasoning concerning our world’s relationship with technology. All the shows are correlated by the fil rouge of wanting to develop new awareness and discussions concerning new technologies: posthumanism, the natural vs the artificial, (dystopian) views of the future and society are only some of the themes that have a huge interest for me. That is why I tend to work with artists that create immersive visions of present and future realities… so that visitors can experience atypical and uncanny developments of society and can, hopefully, envision new ways to positively coexist with technology.

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(V) Do any specific video games stick in your mind as having had a particularly important aesthetic influence? Or for having introduced you to posthumanist or dystopian narratives and ideas?

If there is one video game that defined my childhood, it is of course The Sims: I do not know how many hours I spent in front of my computer playing The Sims 2… I suppose that from this game comes my fascination with online identities and worlds — even if, in retrospect, those weird narratives with aliens, mutant plants and the Grim Reaper coming to seize your Sim were quite dystopic as well!

Cowplant from ‘Sims 4’ (2014).

I also was a big fan of Skyrim and Horizon Zero Dawn, as well as of Limbo and Inside, two very eerie titles created by the Danish independent developer Playdead. I am too ashamed to mention other video games I used to play!

Apart from video games, my interest in dystopian narratives mostly comes from books and movies: I started getting more interested in sci-fi relatively recently, but if there is one book I should mention that is Stories of Your Life and Others by Ted Chiang. I absolutely fell in love with his thought-provoking narratives and accurate accounts of how life could be in the future, while also giving brilliant unique perspectives on human intelligence enhancement, posthumanism, religion and many more.

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(U) A notable aspect to your gallery’s online offering has been the plurality of design styles and navigations. Shows such as Organic Engagement by Erin Mitchell and the group show Subterranean Virtualscape have the visitors hyperlink navigating back-and-forth between fixed pages, whilst Porré’s aforementioned show utilised a horizontal scrolling system to approximate a historical tapestry. What has been your experience balancing the artists’ intention against the practicalities of coding? And how open do you make the discussion that leads to these decisions?

The practical side of things has been one of the main challenges but, at the same time, satisfactions I have experienced when creating online shows. I do not know coding but it deeply fascinates me for its ability to transform letters and numbers into visual elements, as if it was a secret language — which, in some ways, is. With each show the artist and I design, I encounter new challenges that force me to slowly discover new pieces of the puzzle. Thankfully, my partner knows a lot more about coding than I do, and he is usually the person that supports me in translating the starting ideas into the practicalities of the web.

To give you an overview of how usually the process works, the first step is one or more video calls between me and the artist(s), where we put together our ideas and try to envision how the show would look. I later bring these ideas to my partner, who usually shatters at least half of them because they are too laborious or even impossible to realise. Thus, we sometimes manage to give life to what we first envisioned, but mostly we experience unexpected issues and bugs that force us to take a step back and find, together with the artist, a plan B.

It is a continuous challenge because the aesthetics and the visitor’s experience of an online show depend largely on the usability of a webpage (loading time especially), which in turn depends on how the webpage has been coded or on the platform used. When I visit online shows of other digital-based galleries — Epoch Gallery the first that comes to my mind — I always feel minuscule because it seems we will never reach that level. And because of that, I always ruminate on new ways to implement shows (e.g. the most recent move onto Mozilla Hubs) — but at the same time, I guess it is a learning and trial and error process which also depends on finances and how much can be invested into the back-end design of each show.

For this reason, I always really appreciate the open-mindedness and tolerance of the artists when accepting that their initial idea cannot be implemented: they are also aware that when working online, it is not only a matter of planning but also of what can ultimately be achieved to assure a smooth and enjoyable experience to the visitors.

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(U) Love that moment of exchange between you and your partner. It doesn’t sound dissimilar to the types of conversation we might have with a gallery technician, who when hearing the artist’s or curator’s intent faces making the impossible or the implausible a reality. There’s also a sense of momentarily protecting the artist from the reality of a coded exhibition and allowing them to dream big before scaling down. Was there any ambition that got ‘shelved’ that you’d particularly like to return to and make possible?

Despite all the difficulties and although we learn as we go, luck has always assisted us because up until now we have always managed to find a way to create what the artist had in mind. Of course, as mentioned, effective artist-curator communication before show planning begins is really important, so that we both know how far to go. At the same time, the more we experiment and work on shows, the more I know beforehand what we could achieve.

Since our first shows, we have always attempted to question conventional web pages usability and navigation: for instance, with Léa Porré’s Dear One show with the gallery (we are working right now on our second collaboration, which will inaugurate in the first half of September) I was particularly happy to discover that we could have the page scroll horizontally. We took this further with Christiane Peschek’s show GYM, an all-around experience without boundaries: visitors could scroll in any direction to explore the space and find hidden elements. Easter eggs are also something I am very passionate about — I love inserting secret icons that, when open, take you to an external link or to a text or image that is apparently nonsense but that gives a deeper and additional layer of meaning to the whole show.

But it is not always this easy: in Erin Mitchell’s Organic Engagement solo exhibition, the horizontal scrolling was clashing with same-page hyperlinks, therefore we had to decide which of the two was most important and, eventually, we returned to the ordinary, vertical scrolling. This is one of the instances where we have had to change our initial idea because of a website limitation, but often it is just one element that needs to be adjusted, not the whole design idea.

A screen capture GIF of the code of Virginia Bianchi Gallery.

Up until a few months ago, the gallery website was created on Wordpress and I have developed all the aforementioned shows on Divi, a plugin website builder. However, more recently we have renovated the website, which is currently fully developed with code: Léa’s second show is the first one fully developed with HTML, CSS and JavaScript — it’s going to be fun!

Therefore, up until today, we more or less always managed to realise what we had in mind and never had to completely back away from a project. I can say that some ideas have been shelved because they are way too ambitious, but they have never been shared with artists because I am aware that the only way we would be able to realise them is with a dedicated budget and outside support. One of these would be an immersive environment visitors can explore in the first person, as if in a video game. Another idea would be to have a kind of infinitely-structured randomised website, where visitors can lose themselves and never find a way back to the homepage. These are all very generic approaches I would love to hopefully employ for exhibitions in the future, once I will be able to allocate more budget to the online iteration of the gallery.

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(F) Although some online art spaces have previously tested commercial waters, you were one of the first galleries we noticed that began life with an element of sales. Initially selling prints, you’ve also explored the potential of selling gifs and more recently begun trading NFT officiated artworks — of every option available do you see one gaining more traction or becoming the primary medium the gallery deals in?

One of the main issues with this is that the commercial side of the gallery is ironically the most undeveloped, because when I opened it I did not have any contacts whatsoever with collectors. The gallery is far from being self-sustainable, and because of this I am not sure which one of the mediums we proposed is the most appealing to potential buyers. Since I do not have this information, I do not see why the gallery should focus only on one medium, if not in those cases where the medium is the message (e.g. the 2021 show Subterannean Virtualscapes, where the works proposed were only NFTs minted on the Tezos blockchain).

If I was to dictate the preferred work medium, I am afraid I would force the artists to respect some guidelines that are not necessarily in line with their practice. For instance, some of the artists I work with are still unsure (just like I am) whether to start minting NFTs: it would not be fair to force them to use this medium if it is not in line with their convictions.

My main difficulty with all of this is probably the fact that my curatorial side takes over and I mostly care about the artists’ vision and how it can be correctly conveyed to the show visitors: this usually causes the commercial aspect to downgrade to second place.

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(F) In relation to your recent experience exhibiting at ArtVerona, to what extent do you feel that digital art practices and online galleries are finally being accepted by the traditional art market? And what more needs to be done to encourage this integration?

In the last few months, I have surprisingly seen a gradual opening to the world of digital art in the Italian art scene, where institutions had rarely been open to experimentation. This change had already started during COVID, when we have been forced to move online, but I feel that what really changed the order of things was the boom of NFTs last year. If there had not been that unforeseen rise, I am quite sure institutions and art fairs would not have accepted so many screens in their spaces.

Installation view of ‘Supreme’ (2021) exhibition Virginia Bianchi booth at ArtVerona 2021, ft: Marija Avramovic and Sam Twidale.

Related to this, however, something really troubles me: NFTs are the only focus point, as if digital art was born with them. The NFT boom has had the kind of positive result of drawing attention to the world of new media and virtual experiences, but at the same time it monopolised everyone’s attention without giving credit nor acknowledging the artists, curators and institutions that had already worked with the digital or started critical reasoning concerning blockchain and cryptos. This is causing huge confusion concerning what is an NFT and what is digital art: when I was exhibiting Supreme (2021), a generative work by Marija Avramovic & Sam Twidale, in ArtVerona, the fair in the city by the same name, I got asked many times by visitors with shining eyes whether the piece they were looking at was an NFT — however not all works of art on screens are NFTs.

Artwork view of ‘Supreme’ (2021) by Marija Avramović & Sam Twidale.

For this reason, I think institutions should start contextualising the rise of NFTs and not just riding the wave of whatever attracts visitors and sells tickets (see Florence’s Palazzo Strozzi super awaited show Let’s Get Digital about NFTs). They should adopt change with a critical approach, so that artists and galleries who have challenged and are challenging the status quo can be legitimised and have the space they deserve.

At the same time, change comes from those who dare: as mentioned, Italy has such a traditional artistic context that several galleries and curators working with the digital migrate abroad, and those who stay hardly choose to experiment with digital art — earning a living is already difficult enough. It is impossible to encourage the integration of realities experimenting with digital art when there are none.

I just want to mention the positive example of ArtVerona, in which I have participated last year and will take part again in October 2022: it is one of the only Italian fairs I know that purposely decided to implement a section dedicated to new media artistic tendencies. This year, the section is going to be curated by one of the most well-known Italian voices of digital practices, Domenico Quaranta. From what I have experienced, I am sure visitors would give very positive feedback if more changes like this were implemented — the main difficulty would be finding collectors willing to purchase digital pieces.

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Massive thanks to Virginia for taking part in the F.U.V. interview series and for sharing her experience of opening an online gallery and taking it into the IRL. Our next interview will be further exploring the 3D as we speak with Don Hanson and Sammie Veeler of New Art City. In our chat we discuss the intersectional accessibility consideration they’ve factored into their exhibition builder and whether the community of creators working NAC are developing an aesthetic language.



Off Site Project

Online gallery founded by Pita Arreola-Burns & Elliott Burns. Research blog exploring the ideologies, systems, architecture and design of digital art spaces.