by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
When the COVID pandemic hit in 2020, my regular gallery weekends came to a rapid and rude halt. As an art collective, we were painfully separated from the physical and visceral experience of being in the presence of art. Sure, there was also the financial toll it took on the creative economy itself but there was an unspoken emotional cost as well. Attribute it partly to the loss of community, and partly to the deprivation of beauty. However, the art world picked itself up quickly. We dusted ourselves off and created the wave of virtual art galleries with immersive experiences that we all succumbed to. We were somewhat disappointed but not fully discouraged. However, each visit to one of these digital spaces left me feeling like there was something more to be desired. I turned to video games instead, finding them to be a much more sophisticated form of experiencing art online. I ended up writing a series titled Art Of Games too. The Zium Gallery, founded by Michael Berto, is the first project to encourage me to see virtual galleries in a new light. The Zium brings together the video game experience, transposing on top of it the feeling of being smack in the middle of an art gallery. Curious to understand why this stood apart from the rest, I catch up with Berto to learn about the process of building and curating this space.
The Zium is what happens when an art-loving video game developer is motivated to share his own profound experience of art with the world. He tells STIR, "A huge inspiration was the feeling I got when I first saw Salvador Dali's The Metamorphosis of Narcissus in person at the Tate Modern Gallery in London. I wanted to create a place that could make people feel like that, seeing a piece of artwork and being impacted, inspired, and enthralled all at once." Berto uses Unity, a development software, to create a three-dimensional virtual space for viewers to visit and experience conceptual digital art. The curation focuses on digital as well as physical artworks, presenting them with high image quality and realistic spatial rendering. While other online galleries are often poorly constructed and tacky, The Zium manages to maintain the tactile and textured nature of the artworks presented. The Zium also connects its visitors via Discord, an application for social connectivity, popularly used by gamers. This creates a sense of community, something which is sorely missed in the e-gallery experience. After all, art is the great driver of discussion, debate and deliberation.
The Zium Gallery is downloadable on any device for free, with optional donation to keep the space running. This makes the space accessible to people across socio-economic boundaries, breaking past the glass ceiling of art exclusivity. Because many art galleries online were built to replicate real-life museum spaces they were restricted in terms of their architecture. Berto takes advantage of the infinite amount of space one can create in a video game, making the viewing a rather inspiring affair. The result is a spacious venue that can host artworks of all sizes. It incorporates interactive elements, so you can pick up a map or catalogue and look closer at an artwork. A gallery like Zium also encourages a sense of democracy in the art world, with low costs and few overheads keeping the space free to promote artists at any stage of their career, destroying the infectious elitism that plagues the industry today. Berto says, "I think the video game medium is the most compelling and special medium. Every day people are challenging and changing what a video game can be, and that is very special. Because a video game can really be anything. The interactive experience, both on the development side and the experiential side, is so enriching. The more I make games, the more I really think that game development might be my favourite game."
Berto is the sole founder of The Zium Gallery, with collaborators and artists he works with on occasion. The gallery was released online in 2018, constructed with the assistance of co-creators Quinn Spence and Richard Walsh and others. While Berto lives and works in Australia, the others are located in the USA and Canada. The artists presented in the exhibitions come from across the globe: another advantage of digital curation is zero transport costs! Berto says, “Doing everything myself can become a lot of work, but I do enjoy it very much. Working alone with the support of my collaborators to turn to is a bit of an ideal situation for me, creatively."
The gallery space, like most modern museums, holds space for a permanent collection as well as rotational art exhibitions. The ongoing exhibition, which was opened in February earlier this year, showcases works by painter Cat Graffam, video game maker Pol Clarissou, multimedia artist Titouan Millet and several others. The Zium Gallery is an effective demonstration of the capabilities of a well-constructed, digitally curated art gallery experience. It is proof that there is still hope for e-galleries to flourish, and that it is not yet condemned to be the drab, one-dimensional experience that we were forced to settle for during the global lockdowns of 2020. Even though I am free to walk into galleries and museums in my city today, I would still love to visit The Zium. The virtual visit is no longer just a poor substitute for an actual one, but a playful exploration into an entirely new format - expanding the scope of gallery visits as we know it.