Over Zoom, Brendon McNaughton, co-founder and CEO of Art Gate VR and its upcoming art fair Art Gate International, talks about the development of his platform and the role virtual reality can play in today’s art world.
TEXT: Reena Devi
IMAGES: Courtesy of Art Gate VR
In 2016, Toronto-based artist Brendon McNaughton, inspired by his work at an Australian outback gold mine, worked with MRI scans and a 3D printer to create an anatomically accurate golden human heart. The work intended to raise questions amongst viewers about the value of precious metals and the risks taken by those who mine them.
This very same artist also co-founded Art Gate VR in 2019, a virtual reality (VR) space showcasing post-war and contemporary art and attempting to bring people together to view art in a socially interactive way that closely reflects reality. All with a simple use of an Oculus headset while at your desk or at home.
The whole point of Art Gate, McNaughton explains, is fostering a connection between person and artwork, and person to person, because “connections are where art happens”.
Speaking with CoBo Social via Zoom, the CEO of Art Gate VR says, “One of the things that makes Art Gate so special is the sense of community and sense of connection you have in there. We have put a lot of attention into being able to see people in VR—you can see them, you can talk to them, you can see their head movement and hand movement, and when you’re in a room, there might be 20 people in a room and when you get closer to them, all of their voices get louder, when you get further away, all of their voices get quieter.”
McNaughton arrived at the idea of Art Gate VR before the pandemic hit, mostly motivated by his own challenges and needs as an artist. “As my career began moving internationally, it became obvious how challenging it was to ship large scale sculptures and attend all the international fairs. So just out of that frustration, I was talking to a friend who was a virtual reality developer and he suggested putting the artwork in there,” he says.
McNaughton and the developer, co-founder Justin O’Heir, placed one of his sculptures in VR. It was “very well received” when they showed it to a couple of collectors. Subsequently, he put another work in the virtual space and his artist friends who heard about it requested to place their art in VR as well. Then it began to snowball, starting off as “this little art movement, as a new way to explore work,” says McNaughton.
Initially, the VR space was used by mostly artists. However, galleries began to join Art Gate VR and started uploading their art. This was followed by collectors and from that point, it moved very quickly. Art Gate VR has expanded from 1 to 50 galleries since it started two years ago, each gallery occupying up to five virtual rooms each. Exhibitors largely hail from North America, South and Central America, and Europe.
The virtual space showcases art by blue chip artists such as Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Cindy Sherman, and Nan Goldin, among others. It also features contemporary artists such as Endless, who showed his latest “Lizzy Vuitton” works as part of “The Queen & Culture Exhibition” last October in London.
Art Gate VR has also begun hosting its own art fair. In its second year, Art Gate International 2021 is slated to run from 15 to 18 April this year, showcasing works by contemporary artists such as Erin Loree, Dr. Piloto Obdulio, and Jai Mitchell as well as blue-chip names.
The first edition of Art Gate International was held in April 2020, in response to the cancellation of Art Basel Hong Kong. After getting “a really great response” and since it was such “an incredible moment”, organisers decided to go ahead with another edition to commemorate the VR fair’s one year anniversary.
McNaughton explains the difference between the fair experience and a typical visit to Art Gate VR on a daily basis, “What we do is throughout the year, different galleries and community members host events individually (in Art Gate), and during Art Gate International, we bring the whole community together—every one of the artists and galleries bring out their friends and their community for a big international gathering in VR.”
The millennial artist cited the real-world experience of gallerists, collectors and artists from all over the world coming together at Art Basel or Frieze so that they could interact in an international space. “That’s what we are doing in VR,” he quips.
If done right, it certainly does seem like VR is the most apt digital space available right now for a more connected and interactive experience, where you can see an artwork at scale, talk to other people, shake their hand even if they are physically on the other side of the world.
McNaughton is a believer in this capacity of VR, describing the “incredible the sense of presence you can have” which websites do not typically provide since the viewer is not able to see the art in true scale and there is minimal social interaction for the viewer.
This is also the reason he was “frustrated” by the efforts of the art world during the past year to create virtual art fairs, galleries or viewing rooms.
“When I first heard about it, I ran to my computer to have a look…I opened up the virtual viewing room and it was a webpage, and I opened another one and it was a webpage, and I opened another one and it was a webpage.”
“It doesn’t really line up in my mind that there’s such an incredible opportunity to bring people together, and a lot of the major institutions are using websites and calling them virtual galleries,” he adds.
Nonetheless, some art fairs did attempt to go beyond the webpage last year. In August, the international curated art fair UNTITLED, Art and online contemporary art platform Artland teamed up to present the world’s first virtual reality art fair called UNTITLED, ART Online.
Also, Indonesia’s biggest art fair, Art Jakarta partnered with OPPO for its virtual 2020 edition to allows artists, collectors and enthusiasts to engage with their showcase of art through a 3D virtual experience.
While McNaughton found such initiatives “incredible”, he observed that he was not seeing any effort to give people a chance to connect to one another and to the artwork in these platforms.
The Art Gate VR experience, including their art fair, intends to be very similar to the real-world social experience. McNaughton believes a lot of these experiences are missing in other platforms, “which means they are missing the human connection and that is a very core part of what we are doing in Art Gate.”
Nonetheless, McNaughton looks forward to the moment when there are more such spaces in VR, envisioning a diverse array of art districts in the virtual world, akin to the way various art communities co-exist in the physical world from New York’s Chelsea to Paris’ Marais.
“The same thing is going to happen in VR: you’re going to have all these art districts co-exist and grow over time. I’m looking forward to when this chapter continues to unfold with a lot more groups, other than the community we are building at Art Gate,” he says.