The Australian Centre for the Moving Image will reopen its renovated space in early 2021. But ACMI has already unleashed XOS, the shorthand title for its new internet “experience operating system,” which features artworks and performances curated and created specifically for online, and a new video-on-demand service for arthouse and festival films.
An interactive history of television, film, games, digital art and social video is also being built online, and there will be a greater emphasis on Indigenous contributions to the moving image.
ACMI’s director and CEO Katrina Sedgwick began conceptualising the online museum model in 2015, as part of a renewal and replacement of the permanent Screen Worlds exhibition on site at Melbourne’s Federation Square.
Screen Worlds closed in 2019 after 10 years, a decade in which the world rapidly adapted the way it consumed moving images via smart phones, and the on-site exhibition had struggled to keep pace with developments.
Now, Covid-19 has proven to be an accelerator of audience preparedness for XOS, says Sedgwick. The lockdown has meant “everyone has been forced to get over whatever hurdles or anxieties or fears or perceived barriers to engagement with a digital platform,” she says. “So the audience has caught up with the potential of what a digital platform can give you.”
Sedgwick lured Seb Chan, who until 2015 was director of digital and emerging media at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York, to return to Australia to spearhead ACMI’s online project.
In short, XOS is a software architecture that connects ACMI’s internal systems to its galleries and online platforms that will enable visitors to take elements of ACMI exhibitions home with them as well as access special web-only content.
But in an era when so many museums have been offering virtual three-dimensional tours through gallery spaces online, what does XOS offer that elevates it to what ACMI ambitiously dubs the “world’s most digitally transformed museum”?
“We’ve gone with, rather than against, the grain of the internet,” says Chan. “One of the strengths of the internet, going all the way back to the 1990s, was hypertext and the sense of connectedness. XOS drives the delivery of media and content, knowledge and information, to both the galleries and our website.”
Chan adds, “XOS is part of the ‘muscles’ that allow the institution to do things differently; it allows the curators to curate different types of shows, it allows the objects in the galleries to have a life both in the galleries on labels and interpretive media around the objects as well as those flying out to the web.”
When ACMI reopens its physical doors, likely in the first quarter of 2021, there will be a new 1600-square metre year-round exhibition called The Story of the Moving Image, which will have some elements of the old Screen Worlds exhibition, but will also include more interactive installations that encompass current technologies.
The web iteration of The Story of the Moving Image is partly online already with portals on Australian television and film and video games uploaded. Blak Women on Screen, digital art and social video channels are coming soon.
As an example of the “connectedness” fostered by XOS, Chan clicks on an ACMI magazine article about the SBS comedy The Family Law, which links to a display of costumes from the show in an upcoming physical exhibit on site as well as to episodes of the show screening on SBS on Demand.
Gallery 5, a portal for online-only artwork and performance, launched with the premiere of Delusional World by Shanghai-based video, installation and performance artist Lu Yang as part of Asia TOPA 2020.
This “hyper-pop” performance involves fitting the dancer with motion capture technology to project digital avatars. Gallery 5, says Sedgwick, “will be treated like we would a physical gallery, but it’s exclusively for that digital-first content.”
Cinema 3 is a video-on-demand service, a “virtual cinematheque.” Online ticket buyers will purchase a film to watch within 24 or 48 hours, using the same technology utilised this year by the Melbourne Film Festival and Sydney Film Festival for its online iterations during the lockdown.
“It’s something we never would have thought of before [the pandemic], because the cinematheque is so much about the beauty of 35-millimetre print in that shared, darkened space together,” says Sedgwick.
“But when you can’t do that, how do you bring a community together to share in these fantastic works? We’ve found there’s a really hungry audience for that. It will allow us to complement the in-cinema programs, with a series of focus areas. We will be showing digital restorations and limited new releases. You’re going to see much more of a connection between the different stories that we’re telling.”
In 2019, ACMI presented virtual reality works on site: Christian Thompson’s Bayi Gardiya (Singing Desert), 2017, and Joan Ross’s Did you ask the river, 2018. In early 2021 when it reopens, ACMI will present Tully Arnot’s VR work, which has the working title Epiphytes – with Covid-safe protocols in place around physical distancing and wearing headsets.
Might XOS present virtual and augmented reality works online too?
“We’ve always been looking at ways of broadening the reach and accessibility of virtual reality and other content we commission or show,” says Chan. “What the web does well is reach. Before Covid, the trend was towards room-scale VR, which was way more exciting and interesting than 360 [degree] video. That points to the specificities of immersive environments, and it will be interesting to see where those go in a Covid-normal world.”
Sedgwick adds, “There are quite a lot of VR experiences you can have at home that are streamed that are pretty-second rate. We’re interested in giving people the best kind of experience, so we’re only going into streaming environments that most people can access well, and at the moment that’s not VR. So for us, presenting VR in situ continues to be the preferred mode. Having said that, anything could happen. Things change very quickly.”