6 tips for digital critics

With programs, performances and exhibitions all moving online, how do we filter what’s good and what’s not? And how has streaming changed art criticism?

While arts companies are rushing to take their programs online during COVID-19 shutdowns, art critics are having to recalibrate how they review new work that is being streamed or otherwise presented online.

To help us all move forward in this new normal, we have corralled a few tips for digital critics.

1. How was the audience experience

It goes without saying that there is something about the whole body experience of walking through a gallery or having a performance wash over you in a theatre, that can’t be captured online.

So the first rule of thumb is, don’t expect that. You can never make an apple an orange. But it doesn’t mean that the quality of the audience experience no longer counts either. You must assess whether the viewing experience feels rich and textured? Does it hold your interest? Does it trigger emotions – wonder, curiosity, intrigue, frustration?

When we go to the theatre or the art gallery we are choosing to alter our regular environment, so a digital critic needs to judge whether the online experience significantly transports the audience, and diverts you to another contemplation.

2. Does it work as a digital platform

You do not have to be a tech-guru to be an online digital critic, however like all arts criticism the advice is to ‘see lots’ and ‘read lots’ to get a sound understanding of the medium.

Attending the theatre – or streaming online – come from the same desire: to be entertained. So flicking through a slideshow of images is less engaging than a virtual tour of an exhibition, for example.

As quick as we are making this transition to programming online, so too are the number of platforms available to us. Without getting too bogged down in technical prowess – stick to the simple question: Is this the best digital platform for this medium? Is it a viewer-controlled experience or just a sit back and watch, and how satisfying is that?

Some of the options currently circulating are:

  • Hyperlapse recordings of visitors roaming through the space that you virtually ‘join’
  • 3D video tours which is largely user-directed
  • YouTube-style curator tours through an exhibition (aka the new actors of the gallery sector)
  • Live streamed performances on stage
  • Broader point-of-view perspectives with accompanying soundtrack

Get a grasp of what platform best suits the medium and ask whether it is in sync with the art form.

3. Don’t nit-pick the little stuff

If your streaming is slow, or the program you are reviewing doesn’t use the most sophisticated top-drawer (aka expensive) technology, don’t let that overwhelm your reading of the artistic experience.

Embrace the philosophy that sometimes the simple things are best. Take a holistic view over what you are viewing, with plenty of weight given to artistic content.

4. Be honest

Whether siting in a theatre or your home office streaming a production for review, the same rules apply. Your integrity as an art critic is everything.

Don’t skirt the problems if they are impacting the artwork, just because they have ‘given it a go’ or they are ‘going through tough times’. Like all good criticism, sound judgement is the framework to constructing an argument – be it good or bad – and basing that judgement in context and reason.

With the volume of digital content emerging during COVID-19 lockdown, this is an opportunity for the sector to celebrate and learn from great examples and innovation, and equally to see how we can improve as a sector for this new future we face.

5. Ask yourself, ‘Is it memorable?’

If you ask critics themselves whether their work has shelf life, most would say no – especially an online critic who is filing on a daily basis. Frequency forces us to filter. The question then is what gets cut through – or to use a techy term, ‘stickability’.

As a critic of online arts programming you need to ask two things: Is it sticky? Does it hold your interest to get through the production/exhibition and watch another after this one, and secondly, is the production/exhibition memorable in a more traditional reading. Is it still playing on your mind the day after; have you discussed it with friends; did it strike a chord that stays with you?

Just because programming is presented online doesn’t mean that we don’t fall into ‘the swipe’ and move on – indeed we are more likely to as we are being more adept streaming connoisseurs.

6. Lastly, keep it short

Every time I write this in an article I cringe slightly, as I know I am it is my greatest flaw. I write too long for online audiences.

Artshub recommends its reviewers keep to a maximum of 600 words. This is based on plenty of research data and a good decade of heat mapped stories. Simply, one half of the readers that land on a page will ever make it below ‘the fold’ – that is, what sits on the first screen. So say what’s important, and say it quickly.

Whether you are reviewing an exhibition or performance viewed ‘in the flesh’ or experienced as a digital audience, the rule remains the same – kept the opinions brief.

Gina Fairley is ArtsHub's National Visual Arts Editor. For a decade she worked as a freelance writer and curator across Southeast Asia and was previously the Regional Contributing Editor for Hong Kong based magazines Asian Art News and World Sculpture News. Prior to writing she worked as an arts manager in America and Australia for 14 years, including the regional gallery, biennale and commercial sectors. She is based in Mittagong, regional NSW. Twitter: @ginafairley Instagram: fairleygina