On 30 April, 3000 eager clubbers lined up outside a dockside warehouse in Liverpool, England, dressed to dance. It was the first time any of them had been able to party properly in over a year—and this time they were doing it in the name of science.
This experimental rave was organised by Public Health England to test the feasibility and safety of large-scale events coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic. There was no social distancing between dancers in the club but hand sanitizer was on hand, as well as plastic screens to protect bar staff. Only those who had recently tested negative for coronavirus were allowed to enter. Unseen sensors tracked the movement of people and airflow in the space, to be analysed by scientists after the event.
Everywhere else in the country, and around much of the world, such events remain strictly prohibited, but it’s no surprise that so many young people were eager to get back to the dancefloor. For a year, our entire lives have been virtual—birthday parties on Zoom, visiting grandparents via FaceTime, business meetings on Slack. We have mourned the daily minutia of social living that we didn’t even know we needed—spontaneity, casual conversation, touch.
The arts had to evolve too. The music, theatre and art worlds rushed to find virtual ways to reach their audiences, who were suffering from the monotony of lockdown. This resulted in an unexpected flurry of innovation at the intersection of culture and technology, with forward-thinking virtual experiences launched by museums, singers and writers.
People flocked to these virtual experiences because there was nothing else out there. But now that countries performing well with vaccinations are planning to reopen, will the technological scaffolding built around virtual events simply disappear as we return to analog experiences? Or can our innovative technological solutions survive in a post-pandemic world?
Tech-savvy attendees of virtual events over the past year noticed that many boasted unique qualities which cannot be replicated in physical space. Artists were able to use digital space as a flexible creative canvas to make experiences unbound by the laws of reality and physics. Witness Post Malone’s performance in the world of Pokémon, viewed by 5m on YouTube, which had the singer flying through volcanoes and deep underwater, flanked by a friendly audience of familiar beasts like Charizard, Eevie and Pikachu.
‘When The Weeknd performed a virtual concert in digital avatar form, audience members could vote whether or not he should lick a psychedelic frog’
One key advantage to virtual performances is the opportunity to allow each audience member to interact with a performance, to influence what happens onstage. In the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Dream, a high-tech reinterpretation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream performed in March, the audience at home were represented by fireflies on the stage, using their mice or touchscreens to guide the actors around the stage in real time.
When The Weeknd performed a virtual concert through TikTok in digital avatar form, audience members could vote whether or not he should lick a psychedelic frog. They voted yes, naturally, triggering an onslaught of trippy visuals to flood the screen. Such experiments asked audience members to become more than spectators, to collaborate in the artistic experience and therefore achieve a more personal, meaningful connection to the performance.
For some artists, performing over the internet allowed them to reach fans that might never normally get the opportunity to come to a live show. While in the west fans bought $18.50 tickets to watch Dua Lipa’s livestream variety show last November, in countries such as China and India the show’s producers made deals with local streaming services to air it for free, racking up an additional two million viewers in countries where she might never usually tour. Lipa stood to expand her fanbase in unexpected territories, her farflung fans got a rare chance to be part of the action, and the streaming companies attracted huge traffic due to the show.
Virtual experiences have also been welcomed by disabled audience members, who are sometimes excluded from music venues or nightclubs due to poor accessibility options. In a virtual performance space everyone is equal, regardless of movement impairments in the real world.
‘With livestreaming, Dua Lipa’s farflung fans got a rare chance to be part of the action’
The business benefits of continuing virtual concerts are also a key draw in the music world—you can sell more tickets because there is no limit to capacity, while there is huge potential for virtual merchandise and collaborations with brands in digital space.
Naturally the appetite for virtual performances will diminish as the real-life rituals of culture become permitted once more, but this does not mean they have to die completely. Digital creators must accept that they cannot offer a substitute for the euphoric feeling of losing yourself in a crowd of screaming fans, but they can offer something meaningfully different. They should focus on these qualities that make virtual experiences not just distinct, but in some ways preferable to real-world shows. In the future we can envision a cultural diet where physical and digital performance coexist, both used for their specific advantages according to the visions of each artist.
Virtual performances will not disappear after the pandemic—this fledgling technology simply has too much to offer. But they will have to innovate and fight harder to compete in an increasingly busy space. A little competition might be just what they need to take their digital dreams to the next stage.
Image credit: Travis Scott concert, Epic Games / Liverpool club, Getty Images / Dream performance, RSC