Curating a digital exhibition

 8 February 2011

To provide a platform for talented digital artists, Jean-Robert Saintil and Andrew McPhee set up Grok Institute. They gave advice on curating a digital art event.

Grok Institute provides a platform for talented digital artists.
Grok Institute provides a platform for talented digital artists.

Getting started with art events

Grok Institute started because of Andrew and Jean-Robert felt digital art was not being recognised in the UK as an art form. Both share an interest in digital art. Andrew runs Harmonypark, a digital strategy and mobile applications company, while Jean-Robert writes and works in fine arts events.

"We both know a lot of digital artists working commercially for companies like Toshiba but not being recognised as artists in their own right," Jean- Robert says. "The more we talked about it, the more we realised there isn't really space for digital art in the UK.

"So we started thinking about how we could provide this. We wanted to do something beyond the normal gallery experience, something inclusive, that people would be part of and not just observe."

Grok Institute: a digital art event

"Be flexible. Plans needn't be set in stone, sometimes great things come from being able to adapt to changing surroundings."

The name Grok was chosen to reflect Jean-Robert and Andrew's aims. The Oxford English Dictionary defines Grok as: 'to understand intuitively; to establish rapport with; to experience enjoyment.'

"That's definitely the kind of ethos we have. For us, it has to be about getting people together and sharing ideas, thoughts, ways of working and having a good time in the process."

According to Jean-Robert, the best way to understand digital art by experiencing it. "For the impact digital media is having on our daily lives, it is still massively unrecognized for its artistic possibilities. Digital, interactive or light work is too often viewed on tiny computers or stuck deep within corporate foyers and airport lounges.

"Good examples of digital art include the artists we chose for Grok Institute. Guys like Andreas Müller and Digital Club. They make art that reflects the world in which we live, and the impact of technology. But at the same time they succeed commercially. They've done pretty amazing things with Sony and Nokia respectively."

Organising an art event

The first Grok Institute event ran for two weeks in February 2009, over five spaces in London's Newburgh Quarter.

"Finding the right venue took time, but I used contacts I made working in events. We also had to think about how to use the different spaces. Curating digital art is different to curating fine art. It's more 360 degrees.

"It's almost like throwing a party or a club night. You have to think about how light projections will work. For our galleries, we turned the large glass fronted spaces into screens, projecting the work of the artists which worked incredibly well."

Lessons from curating an art event

"We begged, borrowed and cloud-sourced items! It was amazing how many people helped out."

"The first Grok Institute was phenomenal, but we learnt some pretty important lessons. Like having an event for two weeks over five spaces is a lot of work!

"It was the little things that caught us out, like making sure we had enough people to invigilate the gallery spaces and timings for opening and shutting the galleries."

Grok Institute have gone on to curate more events, including a collaboration with the London leg of the 2009 Wish You Were Here. This was a two month cultural exchange that saw independent London fashion boutiques move to New York's Lower East Side for 30 days, followed by a reciprocal visit from New York designers to London.

Curating your own exhibition

  • Find your niche
    "Grok Institute worked because we are passionate about what we're doing. And there was nowhere to see digital art! There was a gap in the market."
  • Collaborate
    "Working with others is essential. There is always something you can't do, and also for the perspective you get. The different opinions and ideas that come out of collaboration can be wonderful."
  • Use your networks
    "We begged, borrowed and cloud-sourced items! It was amazing how many people helped out. We'd email friends saying we needed a projector and companies we'd never heard of got in touch saying: 'yes you can borrow ours'."
  • Agility
    "Be prepared to be flexible. Plans needn't be set in stone, sometimes great things come from being able to adapt to changing surroundings."
  • Aim for the stars at all times
    "It doesn't matter if you don't make it, but if you are prepared to put in the hours and get down to it, the results can be awesome."

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