Experiencing Art in a Digital World with JiaJia Fei

20 Dec 2022 Episode 8 Back to episodes
Digital Citizen:

Experiencing Art in a Digital World with JiaJia Fei

20 Dec 2022 Season 2

On the final episode of season two of the Digital Citizen podcast, JiaJia Fei talks to Fastmail CTO, Ricardo Signes, in this special extra-long conversation. They discuss how museums and the art world have changed in the past few years and how they may continue to evolve.

JiaJia Fei is a Digital Strategist working at the intersection of digital marketing, web, social media, art, and culture. She has been featured in Vanity Fair and Vogue and has worked in digital marketing for 15 years for organizations, including the Guggenheim Museum and the Jewish Museum. Now, she runs her own digital media agency working with clients in the art world to help broaden their audience.

▶️ Guest Interview – JiaJia Fei

🗣️ Discussion Points

  • Museums are essentially repositories for telling stories. It is the job of a museum to interpret why objects have value and help visitors better understand them. Many museums are beginning to put effort into digitizing their collection for people from all over the world to enjoy. It is the job of museum technologists to speak the language of art and technology.
  • Many activities which existed as analog, such as shopping and watching films, have quickly adapted to the digital world. However, the art world has moved very slowly into the tech space. JiaJia believes that this is largely due to the fact that art as a whole is largely experiential and requires an in-person experience.
  • The most interesting project JiaJia saw during the pandemic was the MET and the Getty putting all of their images online for the video game, Animal Crossing. This allowed players of the game to interact with the artwork in an environment totally outside of the museums. Ultimately, this encouraged interactive digital experiences.
  • At the beginning of social media, museums were hesitant to participate because of the protection of their images. It is the responsibility of museums in the digital world to be the steward and authority when it comes to the digital representations of art. The more museums fear reproduction, the more bad images are likely to reproduce on the internet. Thus, institutions need to share images of the artwork they house online. The most important thing the art world can do is improve access to their collection for everyone. As consumers of culture, it is important that people continue to support them and their work.

⭐ Takeaways

  • Don’t be afraid to try new artistic experiences. Digital technology gives us new ways of engaging with art which we should all try out and see how we feel about them.
  • If you have a favorite cultural institution, check out their social media. It can be a great way to engage more expansively with their collection, hear about new openings and events, and find out about new institutions you might not have heard of on your own.
  • Museums exist to preserve pieces of our culture and the stories that accompany them. If you aren’t taking the time to visit the museums around you, virtually or in-person, you should. You will likely be surprised by what you learn about the greater world and the place where you live!

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Ricardo Signes: Welcome back to the Digital Citizen Podcast. I’m Ricardo Signes, the CTO of Fastmail, the email provider of choice for savvy digital citizens everywhere. Here with me is my colleague Fastmail COO, Helen Horstmann-Allen.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Hi, I’m Helen. Today is our final episode of season two, and because of that we’ve decided to bring you an extra long episode packed with bonus conversation. So grab a cup of hot chocolate and settle down to listen to our show. Rik, we’ll be talking to JiaJia Fei today. Can you tell our listeners a little bit about her?

Ricardo Signes: Yeah. JiaJia is a digital strategist working at the intersection of digital marketing, web, social media, art and culture, who’s been featured in Vanity Fair and Vogue. She’s worked in digital marketing for 15 years, including with the Guggenheim Museum and the Jewish Museum, and now she runs her own digital media agency that works with clients in the art world to help broaden their audience.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: So, what will the two of you be talking about this week?

Ricardo Signes: We’ll talk about museums, and how people’s experience of art has changed in the last few years, as more cultural institutions have shifted into both digital and in-person programming. We’ll talk about the pros of engaging with art online, and some of the pain points both for individuals viewing the art, and the institutions presenting it. And we finish our conversation talking about the art world’s future, and how it intertwines with digital culture.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Wow. I’m so excited to hear your conversation. But before that, let’s take a look back on this season of Digital Citizen. Did you have any favorite moments from this season?

Ricardo Signes: I really enjoyed talking with the folks from Hopeworks. I think they’ve got a really interesting project going on, and it sounds successful and sincere, both of which are nice to see together. I had a lot of fun talking to Alex Beckett. They wrote a book that I read, and I got to ask them questions about, which is, you know, not a thing you get to do very often. Talking to Troy Hunt was good. Troy has since said nice things about our product, which is delightful. But also, it was just good to get to ask questions of a security expert who thinks about questions that sometimes stump me. And Zack Fine and Arielle Yoder from Recess were great to talk to also, trying to figure out how are we going to continue to deal with the problem of having so much of our life now be virtual. Even as more things are getting back into the real world, this remains a big question. So they were all good episodes, they were all good conversations, and I don’t think I want to pick anything more specific than that.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Fair enough, fair enough. I really liked the breadth of the conversations you had, and really taking a broader view about what digital citizenship really means. Because the reality is we are all citizens of both the digital world and the real world. And so, I’m really glad that we got to explore the connection between the two a bit more, and hopefully finding some ways for your digital life to enhance your real life.

Ricardo Signes: For sure. All right. Well, if you have feedback on the season as a whole, even if you just want to say yeah, like Rik said, the whole thing was great, or maybe especially you can fill out our end of season survey at digitalcitizenshow.com/survey. And you can stick around until the end of this episode, which of course you should do. At the end, I’ll give you some takeaways. We’ll talk about things you could actually do to become a better digital citizen. You can also find those on our website at fastmail.com/digitalcitizen.

Ricardo Signes: Before we jump into talking about your work, can you define for our listeners what it means to be an artist in this digital world we live in today?

JiaJia Fei: I think everyone is an artist, right? Everyone is a creator. Every human being has this innate ability to make images. I think art as defined by the art world in the kind of more professional sense, is these works that go through multiple levels of selection, and therefore exclusion, I will say that. But I don’t think that means that people should be concerned about making art with a capital A. I think the internet has basically shown the world that anyone can be a publisher, anyone can be an artist, anyone can be a creator.

Ricardo Signes: Could you tell us about your work as a digital strategist in the art world?

JiaJia Fei: Yeah. I have been spending most of my life as an art lover, an art professional working inside museums. So for the past 10 years I worked with these institutions to really help take them online. Museums are historically institutions that have been around for hundreds of years, and in the past couple of years especially, they’ve needed to rapidly digitize, understand what it means to engage with a digital audience. So after doing that, I sort of took my show on the road and started working with other cultural organizations, including galleries, other artists, to really try to think about how to use technology to make themselves more visible. I guess most importantly, just identify as a problem solver and try to use technology as a design solution.

Ricardo Signes: So when a client comes to you and they want your expertise, what kind of questions do they normally come to you with?

JiaJia Fei: To be perfectly honest, a lot of people come to me just with the ask of, “I need help.” I think lots of people realize how critical and almost mission essential and business critical technology is right now to the operation of your organization or your business, if you’re trying to make a profit. A lot of times people don’t know where to begin. I think, you know, within the art world, there isn’t always this inherent fluency in technology. It’s really one of the last creative industries to digitize. And I, you know, sort of start by trying to understand their goals, trying to understand their audience, and then hopefully give them the right tools to figure out how to show up best and with the right resources.

Ricardo Signes: Yeah. Like you say, everybody has gone digital. Everybody has a webpage now, everybody has some kind of social media presence, or close to everybody. And what they’re looking for is to generate interest in what it is they do, get people to care about what this institution is. Other than posting directions to the museum and hours, what does a museum have to do to engage with potential visitors on the web, on social media?

JiaJia Fei: If you think about why museums exist and what museums do, they’re essentially repositories for telling stories. So museums collect objects that people have assigned some type of cultural value over time. Whether it’s a historic museum, whether it’s a museum of contemporary art, these are objects that people want to keep around because there’s some type of story. So there’s inherent storytelling happening all the time within museums. The problem is that the people who work in museums don’t necessarily know how to tell that story in a very accessible way. So you know, I’m sure you have this experience as well, as do I. Walk into a gallery, walk into a museum, I read the label, have no idea what they’re talking about. Really the process of trying to tell that story in a way that’s urgent, and relevant, and interesting for the average person today is like a whole exercise in and of itself. And that’s sort of what they need to do to reach more people. So, it’s the job of the museum to help interpret why this object has value. And because you’re paying, ideally, you know, I’m of the belief that museums should all be free, but you’re paying an admission ticket to better understand these objects. And in an environment where normally things that you might only be able to see in a private collection are now available to you, because they are objects that should belong to a broader community.

Ricardo Signes: This makes me wonder if the more important part of outreach is giving people tools so they understand what they’re seeing once they’re in the door. And this does feel like a place where there’s room for growth. I guess, I’m curious if there’s a lot of work being done on digital engagement inside the museum walls.

JiaJia Fei: Yeah, I would say so. Especially in the last couple of years, where museums have now realized they’re reaching both a physical audience of people who come in through the door, and then a digital audience of people who might be using their websites, their social media channels, other ways of communicating to really better understand what the museum does, the artists and the works that are being presented. Without even having to travel to a city, having to book a ticket and have that whole kind of traditional museum experience. I think so many museums have put in the effort of digitizing their objects, trying to create didactic and educational materials, not only for students, and school groups, and scholars and researchers, but for the average curious person. The typical person who goes to a museum is probably someone who’s intellectually curious, but not an expert. So we can’t assume that most people who walk in the door have some type of PhD in the subject matter, otherwise they’d be working at the museum. So you know, it’s our job as museum technologists to really speak the language of art and technology, of using the everyday tools that people have, whether it’s your phone, your social media platforms, to reach them in these places where they are, and bring that knowledge to them.

Ricardo Signes: When you describe it this way, it sounds like something everyone’s going to be really excited about. I can imagine when we talk about museums being the last group to go all in on digital, do you have obstacles to overcome with this kind of movement?

JiaJia Fei: You know, I’ve thought about this a lot, and it’s very easy to make the direct translation of there’s Spotify for music, there’s Netflix for film, there’s Amazon for shopping. All of these experiences that used to be in-person analog, have very quickly translated into some type of singular platform. And that platform doesn’t exist for art. And I think it’s not just because the art world is traditional, and people move very slowly, which is partially true. I think the other big part of it is the fact that art itself is experiential. So, you know, in a way that the format of music or movies can be like a file extension, right, art can be a painting, art can be a performance, art can be a four channel video installation. Art could now be a digital file as well. It could be, digital art has also been around for a really long time. And there is no singular way of translating those experiences into technology, at least not for now, even though there have been certain attempts. And so I think the way that you go to a museum and the way that you have this social experience, you go with friends, you have conversations, a lot of that actually requires an in-person experience.

Ricardo Signes: I have a lot of questions in this area. You mentioned earlier museums in the last few years spending more time on this, right, and surely this is about lockdown. If you can’t bring people in, you have to take the museum to them. During lockdown, I watched a lot of concerts live streamed, and it was okay, but it wasn’t great. But the idea of going on a virtual visit to the museum, to me doesn’t feel like it makes sense. But it sounds like you’ve said this is something people have been moving toward. Does it make sense? How does that work?

JiaJia Fei: Yeah, that’s a great question. And you’re absolutely right, a lot of, I would say advancement, not necessarily innovation, has happened since the pandemic. When a lot of institutions, art spaces all around the world had to close, people had to come up with very creative solutions to figure out how to continue their programming, continue their engagement, you know, with just the technology and digital tools they have. So we saw a lot of experimentation, we saw museums trying to resurface, not really invent virtual experiences. We know that Google Art and Culture has been doing these 3D tours of museums for years, definitely pre-lockdown. But nobody used them, and there was a reason why. My mantra has always been, if technology is the answer, what was the question? It’s not necessarily about the shiny object that they’re producing. I think the most interesting projects have been ones that really are a design solution, especially. I think video has been one of the best ways of translating art experiences, capturing a moment in time, especially when you’re talking about the live, kind of living archive testimony of an artist, that really captures the idea of this very complex set of experiences that you can’t really capture through, whether it’s like an app, or something that’s just kind of static on social media. But at the same time, I think it depends on what the work is, too. I think there’s so many different ways that very simple projects can also be incredibly impactful. And of course, when everything shut down March 2020, there was this huge spike in museum virtual experiences. And it was fun for a minute, and then people just very quickly lost interest. And again, I think it’s because these are isolating environments. Every single time I do some type of VR or 360 tour on any type of web-based platform, I just get so bored. And, you know, the technology also isn’t quite there either. It’s really not as slick, and frictionless, and just seamless as we expect other experiences to be. So there’s truly no replacement still, I would say. Like just going back to the idea of experience, the rest of the art world, especially these days now that things are back open, we say that we’ve made some progress and have tried to make certain things that weren’t efficient or sensible, more contemporary and, you know, tech focused. But at the end of the day, people just want to do things together, in person, with objects, with architecture, with environment that is in and of itself an interface. Your physical environment of the museum is not something that can be easily recreated. So, I think there were a lot of learnings, but people just want to see art in person again.

Ricardo Signes: As you say, going to see art is a very social experience and browsing the web tends to be a solo experience. What can museums do to build engaging experiences for their digital viewers?

JiaJia Fei: You know, I think the most interesting project I saw during the pandemic had nothing to do with something a museum built, but it was something to do with what a museum did to open up its collection with someone who knows what they’re doing. Which was the fact that the Met and the Getty put all of their images online for Animal Crossing, the video game. So everyone was playing video games, the Met by way of licensing their images, allowed players to basically interact with artworks from their collection in this environment that was, you know, obviously not built by the Met. And by partnering with Nintendo to make those images available, you’re getting in front of millions and millions of people, and encouraging interactive digital experiences. So, as someone who’s not really a gamer, I did not participate. However, I really admired what that project did. And I think there’s a lot more potential for thinking about what are the things that people already doing? They’re playing games, they’re taking pictures on their phone. How do we tap into existing digital experiences, but making our objects and collections more relevant?

Ricardo Signes: Earlier in lockdown, I was a big Animal Crossing player, and I do remember that, and it was terrific. I’d love to talk a little bit more about digital-based programming and how engagement with art this way differs from the traditional experience of going to a museum. What are the positive effects of moving some art experiences to a digital space?

JiaJia Fei: I think a really good example of what’s been happening the last couple of years has been the fact that a lot of institutions have recognized the fact that screen-based experiences are not lost when you try to reach a digital audience. So a lot of museums started screening their video art, films, doing any type of digitally based programs on their websites because of course, it makes lots of sense. People are already in front of their computers. Depending on the work, and whether or not it is installation based or interactive, that could vary. But personally, I would much rather watch a 10, 30 minute video from my house somewhere comfy, than like in a black box theater at MoMA where there’s a line to get in. And I think that also accommodates the fact that museums, in terms of their square footage and physical footprint, only have space for a certain number of objects. So you have a limited number of artwork that you can display at a single time. Very few people know that when you walk into a museum, most of what you’re seeing is typically less than 5% of their holdings. A majority of their stuff is somewhere in storage. Some of it will never even see the light of day. And particularly the video based work, so there’s a lot of potential right now, I think, in thinking about the fact that contemporary art is digital art. Everything we do right now is digital. And so, if artists are going to be using the tools of our time, then most of the art we see from now on hopefully should be vastly available through our screens. I think we’re entering this time where there’s a lot of potential of defining what is art? Can art exist in multiples? Can art exist in this online dimension that is massively available to a lot of people? But at the same time, the paradox of like the uniqueness of that object, the authenticity of that object is still called into question, which is really interesting.

Ricardo Signes: I’m curious to talk a little bit about the infinity of online content. What’s the responsibility of the institution when it comes to sharing images of their art online?

JiaJia Fei: At the very beginning of social media, I think museums were a bit reticent to participate. Because they were always so protective of their images. Everything is under copyright. We want to make sure we only release the perfect version of that image. It’s not cropped, it’s not color corrected. But you look at what’s on the internet, Google Picasso, Google Van Gogh, like any famous artist, you’ll see the worst version of that image. And the responsibility of museums, I would say in the digital world, in the same way that the museum should be taking care of the actual physical objects, museums should also be the steward and authority when it comes to the representation, and the digital file that is circulating and that permeates throughout the internet. And I think what’s happening instead, is that people are just sharing their own images, whether it’s on Pinterest or all these other sites. And the more museums are fearful of reproduction, the more bad images will reproduce on the internet. As someone who’s worked on the inside, it was always my intention to communicate that, and really help institutions understand that they need to put their images online. They need to be the authority and assert the rightful disseminator of that original file. Because otherwise, social media is something that is going to take a life of its own. And a question that I always think about is if we look at the internet 5, 10 years from now, does social media change the course of art history? We’re now seeing that artists, and I guess you would say content producers, essentially creating content to fit how the Instagram algorithm will optimize that image. So we’re going to see vertical 15 second videos of the rest of the world, at least for the time being. How do we try to make sure that the institutions who represent these artists, and collect these objects, do their due diligence in making sure that they’re making their images accessible?

Ricardo Signes: That’s really interesting. On the flip side, in the museum’s physical space, do you see museums bringing more digital art into their collection?

JiaJia Fei: I think museums are starting to do that. I think there have been a number of exhibitions that have been, I think a bit more sociological in examining the state of the internet today. The state of how social media has been shaping the way we see. I think especially when it comes to photography and Instagram. MoMA, for example, now collects typefaces and gifs, objects that aren’t objects. These are all part of the modern day cultural experience, whether it’s a masterpiece or not. I think it depends on the mission and objectives of the museum, but I think we’re slowly starting to see that these are artifacts of history that are being made almost in real time. And in the long term as technology continues to evolve so quickly, I’m sure we’ll see exhibitions of the things that you see live on your phone.

Ricardo Signes: Speaking about things we see on our phones, what does a museum have to do to stand out and get someone’s attention on social media? Is it just about striking photography, or is there more than that that has to be taken into account to get the right kind of attention?

JiaJia Fei: Yeah. So, how do museums stand out among the sea of trillions and trillions of other images? Among cat videos and… Yeah. The museums I follow that are doing really well in terms of relevance and just making their collections more relatable to the average kind of non-art person, are really good at thinking about what’s in it for you? So even if you’re looking at a historic object, how do we prove that all art was once contemporary? Because if you look back at art history, Van Gogh was basically taking a selfie when he was painting his self-portrait. Monet was taking a picture, with his paintbrush of a sunset, things that people do every day. And I think it’s the job of a museum to show you that these were all human experiences that people had throughout time. And there might be something happening in the news, there might be something happening in your local community that will perhaps strike a conversation around an artwork. Most of the time it’s probably an artwork that’s not even on view, but you have the power through social media to make that object relevant again.

Ricardo Signes: What I wonder in terms of the question of the social aspect of seeing art, is what do museums replace person to person communication with in these virtual galleries? Are there places for viewers to leave comments?

JiaJia Fei: That happens every day on social media. So those conversations are happening in real time whenever something gets published. But I think we’re perhaps not yet in the environment of like a Yelp for artwork. But I think there are other ways that museums have thought about making their data more open source, whether it’s connecting artist biographies to a source like Wikipedia, or allowing their metadata to be available and open source. So, I think there are other ways that museums have thought about being more open, but not necessarily in a way that might invite unwelcome conversations.

Ricardo Signes: Right. If I wanted to subscribe to social media feeds that are going to stimulate my mind and maybe spur my interest, are there any you would recommend?

JiaJia Fei: Yeah, I follow pretty much all the museums. I think the museum world isn’t competitive. I think if you like one museum, you like them all. Of course, some of my favorite museums in New York are MoMA, the Whitney Museum, the Brooklyn Museum, which I think does a really good job on social media to be very community oriented and engaging. There’s an account I follow called The Great Women Artists, that features all work by women artists. There’s also a project that I work on with the collector called Young, Gifted and Black, and it’s this roundup of contemporary art shows by Black artists around the world. I think we’re in this moment where anyone can be on social media, as you said, including museums. So I think anyone can be an artist, anyone can be a curator, and there are actually probably better social media feeds out there about art that aren’t even run by institutions.

Ricardo Signes: On the show, our general theme is the question of digital citizenship. If the art world takes to heart the idea that they can and should be making an effort to improve the experience of our connected life generally, what do you think is maybe the most important thing they could do?

JiaJia Fei: I’ve always thought the most important thing that the art world can do is improve access. So in the way that you look to trusted sources like libraries, I feel like we don’t really have that association when it comes to museums, because of this perception of exclusion. I think in the way that libraries are free and open, anyone can have a library card, anyone can go in and borrow a book, I feel like you should have that same type of welcoming interaction when you walk into a museum. The other aspect that I think is really undervalued is the fact that when you think about how information, and perhaps even more so disinformation travels these days online, museums are really one of the last remaining institutions in our culture where we dedicate resources to painstaking scholarly research. So any time a museum is publishing information, you can probably guarantee that someone fact checked that information to a T, whereas you can’t really expect that anywhere else. And so, I think we really undervalue the amount of research and trust that we should be paying attention to when it comes to these organizations and what they put out into the world. And as consumers of culture too, I think it’s our responsibility to make sure that we continue supporting them, we continue supporting their work, and try to support the artists, and the creators, and the people who are part of that community too, even if they’re not technically part of the museum. I think there are many different art worlds, and because of the internet, because of social media, we now have the possibility of creating our own.

Ricardo Signes: Well, I hope our listeners will take that advice and support the art community and the local culture.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: Well Rik, you and I have gotten to see a lot of art in the real world together, and I was thinking about how we engage with it in the digital world beyond, “Oh man, we saw this amazing thing. Let us send you a link so you can also see it.”

Ricardo Signes: Yeah, I think that having had this conversation, I will try to be more mindful of what the virtual presence of the museum is. It’s very easy for me anyway, to go into a museum and take in the works that are there, and think about them, and think about what they mean or what they mean to me, and if I take in anything other than the object itself, it’s the plaque. It’s the little piece of paper next to the object. And I tend to stop there. I think I’d probably be happier if I spent a little more time looking at those materials, and I’m going to make that my experiment on my next museum trip.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: All right. Well, what do you think the key takeaways of your conversation today were?

Ricardo Signes: Number one, don’t be afraid to try a new artistic experience. Digital technology gives us new ways of engaging with art. And that might be covering your Animal Crossing island in historic paintings, or it might be going to a VR gallery, or it just might be new forms of art that you don’t even know what they’re called because they don’t have a name yet. All these things are still artistic experience that you can try, and see how you feel about them, how they affect you, and you should just go for it. Second, if you have a favorite cultural institution, check out their social media. It can be a great way to engage more expansively with a collection, to find out what’s going on there, new events, new openings, and maybe to find out other institutions that they want to tell you about that you wouldn’t find out about on your own. And finally, museums exist to preserve pieces of our culture, and the stories that accompany them. And if you aren’t taking the time to visit the museums around you, either in person or virtually, you should try that. You could be surprised at what you learn both about the wider world and just about the place that you live.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: It doesn’t have to just be a museum. There are art galleries all over the place, and most of them are super duper delighted if you walk in just to see what’s going on, and say, “Hi, I live, work, was walking nearby. Just thought I’d stop in and see what you have in here.”

Ricardo Signes: Absolutely. I remember when I first realized that all these galleries were not just extremely expensive stores for art, that you could go in and appreciate what was there, it was a really good moment.

Helen Horstmann-Allen: We hope that you can take these actionable steps towards better digital citizenship. As we said earlier, this is the last episode of our regular season, do you have feedback for us? Have a favorite episode you want to talk about, just a moment that’s stuck in your mind for the last couple of months? Go to digitalcitizenshow.com/survey, and tell us what you think.

Ricardo Signes: All right, well, that’s it. We’ll see you next season for more conversations about how to live your best digital life. Until then, good luck.

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