Jordi Sellas: “Cultural activity that requires presentiality must reinvent itself”

Journalist and manager of cultural enterprises Jordi Sellas is the director of IDEAL, a new digital arts space in Poblenou where you can enjoy an immersive experience of Monet’s work. First opened in 1917 as a neighborhood cinema, today art, technology and science join hands to create a new cultural experience with the spectator at the centre. This October, IDEAL will be launching an immersive experience about the ’50s and ’60s in Barcelona, through the photography of Francesc Català-Roca, Oriol Maspons, Joana Biarnés and more.

We speak to Jordi about the cultural digitalisation of image and environment, how the pandemic has accelerated this phenomenon, and the immediate (or already present) future of arts and culture.

You speak about IDEAL as “the future of cinemas and museums”. What do you mean by this?

We say “the future of cinemas” because audiovisual content consumed out of the house is increasingly requiring something that goes further than the screen. The audiovisual needs an added value. And we say “the future of museums” because their educational function is also demanding more use of technology and digital tools, in order to make their contents more attractive. We don’t want to be alternatives to anything, we’re only setting ourselves as a “post” dimension to what would be the traditional function of one or the other.

How was the project born? 

It was started by a company called Layers of Reality, which works in the areas of XR and immersive technology. Some of these include virtual reality, holography, and AI applied to voice interfaces. We realised that, if we wanted to begin a new project, we had to start from scratch, with a new idea that would not be subject to any prejudice or institution that would tell us what to do.

Can we enjoy art, as we have done until now, with technological means? 

Definitely. Art and culture are dynamic concepts; they don’t mean the same thing today that they did 50, 200 or 500 years ago. Everything which characterises a society in a determined time must be reflected in the art and culture of that time. Now digitalisation takes up a lot of space in our lives; so it becomes expected that digital arts do the same in culture. Far from seeking to replace anything, their intention is the opposite: in fact, at IDEAL many people have told us that they come out of the Monet experience keener to go to a traditional art museum and see the original paintings.

How is an immersive experience created?

Artists from very different disciplines have to come together. Digital artists, who handle traditional concepts, combined with those who have a good command of technology and Artificial Intelligence, working together to develop one single project. It reminds me a lot of the production process of a movie or a play, where there are people from lighting, direction, costume design, scenography… and everything ends up working as a whole. At IDEAL the coordination is between specialists from disciplines that may have not ever been related before, and I like it because I feel we are breaking new ground. 

How willing are we to explore this ground here, in Catalonia?

Catalonia, but Barcelona especially, are immensely lucky to have hosted, for many decades, events like SónarMIRA and ArtFutura. These events have opened the way for us, because they’ve always brave enough to go further in their artistic proposal, really explaining that the digital world is not necessarily linked to frivolous entertainment, as it is often prejudged. I feel lucky to have the scene we have here, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that one space like IDEAL appears in Barcelona, because nowhere else in the Iberian Peninsula or Europe is there a digital arts centre which is an exhibition and creation space at the same time, that has artists in residency, and that is linked to the education and formative area. 

These prejudices also exist with videogames. 

The narrative generated by the interactivity of video games is really interesting, and in fact, they’re opening up to educational fields as well as audiovisual narrative. What determines if we like something or not is our subjectivity, but I don’t think we should judge it only according to the chosen medium or language. You can listen to a reggaeton song which is a marvelous composition or a total disaster. There are classical music compositions which are terrible, as well as really bad literature. Listening to a sonata or reading a book doesn’t make what you’re doing good in itself.

During lockdown many digital initiatives have been launched so that we can continue to enjoy culture from home. What does this mean for the future of the arts?

Digital culture has been with us for decades. Lately it’s accelerated because there is more connectivity, more powerful bandwidths and technology is more economic. What I think has really been proved during lockdown is that presentiality will tend to be more and more restricted or reserved to those activities where it is really irreplaceable. This means that cultural activities which require presentiality –music festivals, opera, music halls, museums– have a lot of work to do in very little time. We must reinvent ourselves. 

During the past months, we have also seen that there is a wide digital divide. How can digital arts be made accessible to a population that is not yet digitalised?

Over the last few years, there has been a social consensus that every person needs a roof to live under and enough energy to have a livable space. We have established, at least in theory, a series of basic principles of which should be the basics in order to live. I think that the next step is connectivity; it’s an increasingly essential good. If we can’t manage to do it, we are risking that a part of society gets left behind. 

Are we walking towards a digital life?

Experiences like immersion have come to stay. In two years' time, Apple will introduce its augmented reality glasses, and this will set the way in everyday use technology. We will have new devices which will put an end to our phones and screens and will transform our whole world on a screen. This has no end, and here is where we will need artists: sensitive, talented and creative people, to manage the strength of this wave and to channel it towards a better, more open, tolerant, critical and empathic society. This cannot be done from any other area than art. To me, the critical purpose of art and culture now makes more sense than ever.

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