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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Virtually yours

by Gillian Raymond, 19 January 2022

Blue light hypnosis, 2020 Jill Velinos
Blue light hypnosis, 2020 Jill Velinos. Courtesy of the artist. © The artist

We humans love co-opting and adapting language in response to world events, and the past two years have impelled some serious thesaurus-trawling in an effort to describe the spirit of our shared experiences. The word ‘times’ has picked up an entire extended family of descriptors: extraordinary, unprecedented, uncertain. We’ve been in lockdown, in bubbles, in ISO, and that dreaded ‘pivot’ has launched itself off the netball court and into our pandemic vernacular.

Jill Velinos’ portrait Blue light hypnosis, a finalist in the 2021 National Photographic Portrait Prize: Living Memory, captures her eight-year-old daughter, Poppy, lying in a darkened room staring blankly at her laptop, illuminated only by the blue light emanating from the screen. The pathos and apathy transmitted by this image will be a familiar reminder of enduring yet another tedious Zoom meeting in lockdown.

Despite the struggles of recent times, the digital teams here at the National Portrait Gallery have experienced many moments of absolute ‘techno-joy’, and I would like to share with you three highlights which run counter to the negative aspects of ‘screen fatigue’. During Canberra’s first lockdown in March and April 2020, the National Portrait Gallery’s digital teams busied themselves perfecting the technical and production aspects of a suite of virtual public programs. Our mission was to use technology to do what we already do so well in the physical Gallery space – our onsite tours and programs were renowned for being highly interactive, thought-provoking and, very often, joyfully entertaining – so we were determined to transport this vibe to the digital space.

This philosophy informs the digital programs we deliver using cameras on a trolley roaming through the physical galleries, hybrid programs that broadcast onsite programs with a physical audience out to the virtual space, through to the hastily implemented distributed broadcast model which saw staff members in our most recent lockdown producing programs from their bedrooms and living rooms across Canberra and the South Coast. This last effort was aided by some urgent shipments of ‘greenscreens’ (apple poplin fabric from Spotlight), and several extroverted household pets quickly found new-found fame Zoom-bombing one of our virtual programs!

But our first highlight, and one of our biggest success stories, has been our artist-led online workshops which have proven that lockdowns or geographic location are no barriers to creativity. Hundreds of Australians have attended one of these practical hands-on sessions covering a range of mediums from life-drawing to watercolour painting, charcoal pounces to portrait soap sculptures. Our production team were a little concerned during the first workshop, as there was much less interaction than our usual programs, but we quickly realised when the participants’ cameras showed hundreds of focused eyes or the tops of people’s heads, that everyone was just completely absorbed in the activity of drawing. At the end of the program we asked participants to hold up their work. Seeing the life model reflected in hundreds of little Zoom windows as participants proudly shared the results of their creativity was a joy to behold.

The interactivity and connection with our audiences at the heart of these programs is our second highlight. To see hundreds of participants flooding in ready to connect with our presenters, our portraits and each other is incredibly inspiring. Our virtual programs are not like watching a video that you passively consume; the live and interactive elements can take them in unexpected directions and you never really know what you’re going to get. We’ve discovered through combining collaboration and connection with engaging content, that, despite the fact they are online, our audiences are actually using these programs as an escape from the drudgery of screen time.

Our third highlight has been getting to know the wonderful people who have supported the NPG’s digital programs. Our audience is coming from all over Australia and around the world and over the past year, the digital teams have started to recognise regulars; audience members whose names we noticed appearing again, and again. Nita, living in Sweden, is reconnecting with her Australian heritage through portraiture and, despite the terrible time zone difference, has joined us in the early hours of her mornings for nearly every single virtual program we have run. Artist Neil, from Queensland, is also a familiar face for our presenters and – in a case of virtual meets reality – he was able to visit the Portrait Gallery in between lockdowns in May 2021 and meet the team. We are so very grateful to the audiences who have supported the arts, logged on, leaned in and become part of the National Portrait Gallery family.

I’d like to think that we have managed to take the edge off some of these uncertain, extraordinary and unprecedented times with a dash of creativity, connection and community. But don’t take our word for it, join us for a virtual program and find out for yourselves!

© National Portrait Gallery 2024
King Edward Terrace, Parkes
Canberra, ACT 2600, Australia

Phone +61 2 6102 7000
ABN: 54 74 277 1196

The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders past and present. We respectfully advise that this site includes works by, images of, names of, voices of and references to deceased people.

This website comprises and contains copyrighted materials and works. Copyright in all materials and/or works comprising or contained within this website remains with the National Portrait Gallery and other copyright owners as specified.

The National Portrait Gallery respects the artistic and intellectual property rights of others. The use of images of works of art reproduced on this website and all other content may be restricted under the Australian Copyright Act 1968 (Cth). Requests for a reproduction of a work of art or other content can be made through a Reproduction request. For further information please contact NPG Copyright.

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