When the pandemic hit and museums and galleries closed their doors, many were forced to quickly adapt their programming to keep speaking with their audiences despite the enforced physical separation. You don’t need me to tell you these results have been a mixed bag: from insightful lectures to slideshows masquerading as exhibitions; poor connections to racist zoom-bombers; poorly-attended livestreams to thrilling new digital platforms. Pre-pandemic, institutional websites were generally places for information and little else. Video content and blogs were typically used as promotional material for the “real” exhibition or event held inside a building. This is an understandable decision when there are tickets to be sold to fill rooms with bodies, but has also felt like a missed opportunity when websites could be the source of important and accessible cultural work that engages with the digital sphere, where we spend much (most?) of our time.
If we can declare a silver lining of the pandemic, this might be one: these mass closures created an opportunity for institutions to take their digital programming more seriously, or at least provided an unanticipated time for those programs and outputs to be developed. That is certainly the case for The Broadcast, the new digital platform published by the New York cultural center Pioneer Works. “We had been dreaming of a virtual Pioneer Works that could reach beyond our walls for some time. A small team of just a couple of people invested well over a year in a thoroughly imagined thought experiment dreaming up The Broadcast—from design, to audience experience, to the interdisciplinary content,” says Janna Levin, the new site’s Editor-in-Chief. “Then we were hit by the pandemic and in April 2020, we raced out a beta version nine months earlier than originally planned.”
In early May—a little over a year after the beta opened—The Broadcast was launched in full, to a design by Pioneer Works’ in-house designer Daniel Kent along with designer Andrew LeClair. According to the team, the Broadcast site aims to echo the character of Pioneer Works itself where disparate groups of people converge around exhibitions, performances, supper clubs and other programs that bridge the arts and sciences. “The organization encourages a lot of different people to come through the door – as residents, artists, scientists, students, collaborators, or as visitors – and the physical building is a space where all these different people can bump into each other,” says LeClair. This means that while scrolling the homepage you’ll come across an article on cloning pets, a conversation between Hanif Abdurraqib and Morgan Parker, a filmed live performance by indie rockers Parquet Courts, and much more in-between.
This editorial approach of varying disciplines covered across different formats is reflected in the dizzying use of 50 different headline fonts across the site, inspired by the proliferation of new typography by independent designers made easily available by the internet. “A patchwork of diverse typographies struck us as an apt visual metaphor for Pioneer Works as an institution, and we were interested in seeing how we could reflect that DIY ethos, sense of tactility, and visual polyphony in a digital environment,” says LeClair. The fonts are largely expressive, bold and range in references from Art Nouveau to Web 3.0. According to LeClair, each font represents the content of each article so that over time readers will build up a “latent understanding” of the system to create a more textured experience.
Somewhat surprisingly, this complex system doesn’t overwhelm the process of browsing or reading, in part thanks to consistent sizing and type-setting as well as a restrained body text font and overall site design. If anything, the grid structure of the site is too conservative. The menu bar which organizes content into formats (video and audio, but strangely not articles) and disciplines (art, music, science and technology) seems almost fragile in contrast to the expressive headlines. What’s more, this rigid division of disciplines arguably contradicts the editorial and curatorial ambition of Pioneer Works; more siloed than bumping together.
This contrast can be explained by The Broadcast’s place in relation to Pioneer Works. The publishing platform and its new identity sits within the rest of the cultural center’s website which has a much more minimal visual identity. The Broadcast’s menu bar is where these two clash visually and it’s also a useful place to think about how the platform will work relative to its host. While much of the content on the site now relates to events that have taken place in Brooklyn, elsewhere its editors seem to be making the most of its multimedia capabilities with digital audiences in mind. For example, the ongoing Monologues series brings together scientists with digital artists to produce animated lectures commissioned specifically for the site that are as easy on the eye as they are tough on the mind – a far cry from a simple Zoom-based artist talk or academic lecture. The most recent, a lecture on free will by Sam Harris accompanied by a trippily seductive animation by Annapurna Kumar, is well worth a watch.
“I think it’s very exciting that we can also begin to produce new shows with multiple episodes on The Broadcast and the cadence is not limited by a physical space,” says Levin. In this sense, it seems that, despite the digital nesting, The Broadcast is an expansion of Pioneer Works, not just something contained within its curatorial remit. This is an attitude other cultural institutions would do well to learn from, particularly as a way to build publics and expand conversations far beyond the vicinity of a particular building in Brooklyn, Beirut or wherever one might be broadcasting from.