What does social distancing portend for the future of cultural experiences?

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XR Fashion Show for xAD/Groundswell. Courtesy of Meta in collaboration with Superbright.

France and Italy are on lockdown; Boris Johnson has instructed citizens of the United Kingdom to avoid non-essential contact; and the White House recommends that Americans restrict gatherings to 10 people or fewer. With health experts and global leaders urging citizens to stay home to stop the spread of COVID-19, social distancing has become the new normal across the world. But what does that mean for culture?

In the midst of this global health crisis, the usual channels for social interaction are disappearing. As venues close and events are cancelled, the connective infrastructure of communities is being rewired. With in-person get-togethers no longer an option, a new paradigm for community engagement is emerging—one that is defined by collective responsibility rather than physical proximity.

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Olympic flame Handover Ceremony in Athens, Greece for the summer Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Courtesy of IOC.

The way we participate in cultural events and experience cultural institutions is shifting in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, fundamentally transforming cultural touchstones. The Coachella and Glastonbury music festivals have been rescheduled, the Met Gala has been postponed indefinitely, sports leagues are on hiatus and museums and theaters worldwide have shut their doors. Even the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo could be cancelled—in a March 18 op-ed for the New York Times, Jules Boykoff, a political scientist who studies the Olympics, argues that it would be “wildly irresponsible for the Games to go on.”

In the absence of in-person programming, cultural gatherings are being reformatted for virtual participation. Recent findings show that with people hunkering down at home, digital consumption is spiking. From the Louvre to Coachella, can these iconic places and emblematic events at the core of culture be virtualized?

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Chris Martin and John Legend performing #TogetherAtHome concerts on Instagram Live. Courtesy of Instagram.
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Artists and institutions are certainly trying. John Legend, Chris Martin and Keith Urban are among the musicians who have taken to Instagram Live over the past week to perform free virtual concerts with the hashtag #TogetherAtHome, playing songs requested by viewers. Country music star Brad Paisley took song requests by text in advance of his March 19 livestream performance on Facebook, which was part of Sony Music Nashville’s artist showcase. Also on March 19, Billboard put on a virtual concert with livestreamed performances by JoJo, Luke Bryan and Josh Groban. Ultra Music Festival, which was cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak, instead presented the Ultra Virtual Audio Festival on SiriusXM’s UMF Radio on March 20, featuring exclusive sets by Major Lazer, Afrojack and Martin Garrix.

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Met Opera's nightly live stream. Courtesy of Instagram.

Audiences will be able to watch performances from their couches as theaters from Broadway to Hollywood close and blockbuster releases are postponed. On March 16, the Metropolitan Opera began streaming nightly performances of classic operas from its archive, starting with the 2010 production of Carmen. The Melbourne Symphony Orchestra is livestreaming performances on YouTube while the opera house is closed, and the Philharmonie Berlin has made its library of digital performances available to the public for 30 days.

Broadway officially shut down on March 12, but musical theater fans can stream past performances on BroadwayHD, which is currently offering a one-week free trial. And the 24 Hour Play Festival, during which anyone from Broadway veterans to theater students write and perform a play in 24 hours, posted a surprise staging on Instagram; from 6pm EST March 17 to 6pm EST March 18, the festival released a special production called Viral Monologues, featuring celebrity actors performing monologues by famous writers, posted to Instagram every 15 minutes. Those lamenting the silver screen amid cinema closures and film premier postponements will be able to view new movies at home instead of at theaters—movies like The Invisible Man, The Hunt, Emma and Frozen II are all being released early online.

Museums and zoos are inviting would-be visitors to experience their art and animals digitally. Some of the world’s most renowned art destinations, including the Louvre, the Vatican and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, all offer virtual tours while they are closed to visitors during the COVID-19 pandemic. The New England Aquarium in Boston has scheduled daily airings of feedings, tours and behind-the-scenes looks on Facebook Live, as have the National Aquarium in Baltimore, the Philadelphia Zoo, and the Melbourne Zoo.

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Microdose VR at Coachella by Vision Agency, Executive Produced by Meta

“What you’re seeing immediately are a lot of Zoom conferences and virtual conferences and online streaming,” Justin Bolognino, founder and CEO of multi-sensory experience company Meta, tells Wunderman Thompson Intelligence. But, Bolognino argues, a physical element is still needed to fully translate the cultural experience for at-home participation. We need experiences “where there is a tactility, there is a human energy component, there is a human creativity component—something you can actually touch and feel and make,” Bolognino says. Looking to the future of virtual culture, we should be “focused on maintaining that tactility, somehow, and maintaining that sense of awe and wonder.” And while there will certainly be a learning curve, he’s confident that “there’s no reason we can’t take that and translate it into this situation.”

For more on COVID-19 read “Pandemic paralysis,”  “Philanthropic brands,” “Distanced dining,” “Pandemic brands” and keep an eye out for additional coverage as events unfold.

Main image of Android Jones Playa VR Experience by Android Jones, Executive Produced by Meta