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arebyte Gallery, the avant-garde of the contemporary digital renaissance

Interview by Agata Kik

RGBFAQ, Alan Warburton (2020)
RGBFAQ, Alan Warburton (2020)

arebyte is a London-based art organisation paving a pioneering path through digital art programming, marking new points, peaks and perspectives at innovative intersections of art and new technologies. It operates within four main streams: an art gallery, an online programme, a place for education and an artists’ studios space. Multidimensionality characterises arebyte as a practice which blurs the boundaries between work concepts in physical and virtual realities.

Broadly labelled as digital arts, arebyte spotlights groundbreaking achievements in artist-computer work. The gallery commissions emerging and established artists, nurturing digital cultures in the UK and internationally. The inclusive character of its art community combines new philosophical perspectives from social sciences with unconventional practicalities and cutting-edge technologies within the digital domain of the art world. 

Located in Canning Town in London, the gallery showcases displays, physically engaging visitors into ephemeral environments, which originate on the screen and are reinvented at arebyte into space with depth. The exhibition RGBFAQ by artist Alan Warburton captures the viewer in a black-box setting, populated by gigantic sculptures on which the artist’s new video essay is projected. Imagery oscillating between ‘x-rays and z-buffers, radar and Pixar, video games and machine learning’ raises questions on contemporary representation and reproduction of data, influencing contemporary man’s vision and life experience. 

At arebyte, artists revolutionise the current possibilities, exploring the potential of the everyday. Realities, this year’s programming, brings together computational, cultural and political perspectives on how life is conducted on many different layers, in many other surroundings, by living or non-living beings. It marks the contemporary moment of limited physical experience and the vehemently widening digital ether. Scientific and speculative, this year’s art programme takes on a task to project what it could mean for us to live ‘A New Normal’. Finally, the future is here, but for arebyte, it has been long there. 

arebyte on Screen (AOS) offers an innovative digital platform for artists and curators to experiment with mediums such as digital animations, videos, web-based interactive experiences and curatorial interventions.

Some of its programmes include Artist Chain, a self-curated artist-led programme. Losing agency, reflecting associative searches of the world wide web, arebyte selects the first artist of the chain, who then invites the next artist to participate. On the other hand, Open Screen is a yearly open call for digital artists working online who self-identify as disabled, developed in partnership with Shape Arts.

An educational enterprise on the top layer of its functioning, arebyte Skills is a programme of workshops led by digital artists providing theoretical and practical insights into coding, 3D designing, sound editing, cross-platform game engines, and virtual world-making. Though, 150 affordable artist’s studio spaces for interdisciplinary practitioners lie at the base of its business plan. 

RGBFAQ, Alan Warburton (2020)
RGBFAQ, Alan Warburton (2020)

For our audience not familiar with your work, could you tell us a bit about your background and inspirations?

Nimrod Vardi: arebyte is an arts organisation working in digital and media-based arts, such as Virtual Reality, Animation, Video, Net.Art and more. arebyte was set up in 2013, and in 2016 as the organisation grew and developed, we registered as a charity. We moved from Hackney Wick to our current location in Canning town in Oct 2017 and have been growing strong ever since.

Our artistic programmes are planned 12 – 18 months in advance, and for each artistic year, we select a theme which helps us develop the thinking and the artists and curators we would like to invite to take part in our programmes – for 2021, its ‘Realities’; 2020 was ‘Systems’, 2019 was ‘Home’ and so forth.

arebyte has four main strands of operation: arebyte Gallery, our onsite exhibition programme consisting of 2 solo commissions per year, a group exhibition and our young artist development programme, ‘hotel generation’, which supports young artists outside London. During our programme, we also hold a series of digital performance events.

arebyte on Screen (AOS), our online programme that invites digital artists and curators worldwide to experiment with new forms of creating, curating, and showing work online. Arebyte Skills is our educational output featuring short courses and introductory classes on given subjects, theory and introductions to software. And Arebyte Studios provide affordable workspaces to over 150  artists and makers working across the creative industries. 

We’re excited by new developments in the tech industry and seeing how the artists we work with and, in general, use these advancements in innovative ways. Ultimately we would position ourselves firmly within emerging media. However, we’re also sensitive and conscious of older ways of working in digital art – such as early web development or gif making – and we try to have a good mix of old and new. 

arebyte Gallery has been running since 2013. What were the main ideas and aims for the inception of the project and the ethos behind it? Have these kept the same throughout the years, or is it something that has been evolving?

NV: In 2013 – 2017, arebyte had a much smaller gallery space situated as part of an artist studio complex. We had different visibility and accessibility, and our exhibitions and commissions were smaller in scale. However, the central concept is still the same; to champion artists working in the digital arts and show what can be done within the field. The aims are the same; the ambition grew bigger, and the possibilities faster.

As arebyte continues to develop, some elements change, but Covid-19 highlighted arebyte’s real strength – a fast-paced, flexible and dynamic organisation that can adapt quickly to change. When we flourish and emphasize our curatorial approach – to respond to internal and external change, work with the change and allow our artists and curators to think dynamically with us about what it means to be digital and operate within this realm.

At its core, arebyte aims to rethink and define what a space for art is or what it should be or could be. We are a place to exhibit digital art and emerging media, but we’re also a place to meet, converse, learn, work, and think.

We hope this brings about openness or inclusiveness to our programme of exhibitions, workshops, and events. We also aim to bring innovative perspectives to art through an interdisciplinary approach at the intersection of new technologies and social sciences. 

And what have been the most significant challenges?

NV: Since its inception, our main challenges were surrounding funding and resources. Working within digital technologies is expensive, especially having access to the latest software and hardware that requires constant updating. 

To produce and develop projects to the level and ambition we wanted, we had to find new sources of funding. Therefore we have expanded our business model, which relies on providing affordable workspaces for artists and creatives. We have managed to secure our current gallery site through this model, giving us a lot more credibility within the art world and with councils and other stakeholders and partners.

What would you say makes arebyte Gallery different from other galleries and cultural institutions? How do you position it in the experimental London scene? And how do you see the London experimental scene doing these days?

Rebecca Edwards: The digital art ‘scene’ in London is somewhat limited. Each organisation working in that field offers a slightly different approach and ethos. Together, we can present the incredible breadth of what the field has to offer. 

Although arebyte grew rapidly in the past few years, we have positioned ourselves as a national and international leader in the digital art landscape. There is, of course, still a lot more to do and develop further, but in a relatively short period, we have created solid ground to keep our ambition growing. Since Covid-19 shifted the cultural landscape online, we have increased our online audience to all of our platforms from around 80k to over 200k and have shown our expertise and enthusiasm in this field.

arebyte’s strength is within experimenting and presenting new formats and ideas for exhibition-making and curating. Although the term ‘experimental’ might give a sense of unfinished or as developed as other means, this is not to say that the artists and projects we are promoting and working with are as such. Working in cutting-edge technologies forces the artists and us to constantly experiment and push boundaries on both practical and theoretical levels. We pride ourselves that our exhibitions are at a very high level of thinking, production and finish.

From web-based work to multimedia installations, arebyte gallery commissions new works from emerging and more established artists. How is roughly the process when you envisage all these different formats articulating and balancing? Is it something planned, or does that happen naturally? And why does it make sense from your point of view to integrate all this? 

RE: Each year, arebyte has a different theme selected by our curatorial team, who then choose artists to participate in our activities, whether it’s solo commissions or group exhibitions. The solo shows are usually new commissions, whereas the group shows consist of existing projects and artworks.

We aim to consider a range of factors when we curate a programme and look at work regarding the theme and diversity, accessibility, and broader contexts of the work, the artist, and the gallery as we focus on the intersection of art and digital, all artworks must-have technology in their development, presentation and conceptualisation.

Still, we don’t have any preference for the type of media – we don’t prioritise VR over another tech, which is not a factor in our curatorial process.

Due to Covid-19, we had to move some of our activities online, which turned out very well and in the future; we will be implementing more online activities. A couple of notable online activities and exhibitions we curated include In-Grid (a residency with Goldsmiths Computational Arts students), Real-Time Constraints (a browser-based plug-in), and a virtual reality flythrough an exhibition we had to postpone that was due to open in Zimbabwe called POWERPLAY

Also, during the lockdown, we moved all of our arebyte Skills activities online, which are going very well, with all workshops fully booked until Nov 2021. The demand and enthusiasm to learn new skills are very high, and it’s terrific to see more and more artists working and making their first steps in digital making!

And a bit of reflection on that, In times of societal crisis, complicated relationships with technology and political strain, what role do you think art plays today in describing contemporary society?

NV: The current crisis emphasised our societal reliance on technologies and the need to understand how they affect our lives and world fully – from health, relationships, and behaviour to education, culture, and work – we all moved online in a matter of days or weeks.

It would have been hard to imagine coping with the crisis without these tools, and luckily as humans, we adapt rather quickly in times of trouble. Still, it also showed the lack of criticality and challenged the ease with which we accepted such changes. 

Nevertheless, many artists and creatives in general, whose rule is to push boundaries, adapted and have found new ways of expression, solidarity and invention, which affected not only the ‘art lovers’ but many others.

How do you envision the gallery of the so-called ‘new normal’ after the global lockdown? Do you think the online exhibitions and events we are experiencing these days will continue? 

NV/RE: We think hybrid forms in identity, practice and ambition would be the way forward. It seems that so far, there was a clear definition of art in a physical gallery space (or any other space for that matter) and online – where online was always a ’lesser’ experience – Covid-19 have proven to the broader audience that great art could be found online and has been for many years. In March 2020, before the first Lockdown, we launched the physical exhibition ‘Best Effort Network’ by Net. Art pioneer Olia Liana has been working online since the mid-’90s. The exhibition was quickly reconfigured online and received very well, with immense coverage across local and international news. 

This period gave us, as well as many others, a better understanding of how to engage with audiences, what people are looking for and what they are willing to ‘spend’ their time on, as well as understand our role as an organisation and a charity from society and artistic matters and issues such as diversity, accessibility and opportunities. 

(Images courtesy of arebyte Gallery. Photo credit: Max Colson)
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