Online Exhibiting 1: ‘A practice of possibility’: exhibiting art in a mid-pandemic world
As the first in a series of Sustaining Your Practice-related blog posts on online exhibiting, Helen Warburton (OCA tutor and BAFTA Exhibitions Manager) interviews Rowan Lear (artist and writer interested in art ecologies, queer and critical race theory, and former co-director of the artist-led festival, Bristol Biennial).
HW: Particularly now, as we are coming to terms with the impact of the pandemic, what do artists need to be critical of (or embrace) in terms of presenting non-digital works online?
RL: I think that every exhibition – every presentation of work, in fact, including the lecture, the publication, the statement, the ‘artist talk’ – should contain within itself, an awareness and ideally, a critique of the form that it takes.
For a ‘regular’ building-based exhibition, that might require thinking seriously about the architecture of the space, its location, prior occupants, how it can be navigated and by whom; as well as the nature of the institution that hosts the space, including its history, policies, who gets paid, where the money comes from, and what its motives are (Morgan Quaintance, 2017).
And so, in presenting work online, I think we should be asking the same questions. For example, how do different social media platforms operate, engage participants and elicit responses, and what is their business model? Who owns the webspace that your website is hosted by? Who might struggle to access your project page?
That’s before you get into the difficulty of re-imagining a non-digital work to be shown digitally! But I think it’s useful, because in all the querying of the space and time in which you want to exhibit, you are really thinking about the artwork. What is the work’s relationship to technologies of display, to global flows of power and to the noise and chatter of the world? Is it quiet or does it speak? How does it become legible to an audience or participant? Should it be read, or touched, or viewed at close quarters? What does it mean to show it here, in this place?
This isn’t just a practice of critique – it is a practice of possibility. Every platform or space will offer something new or different for your work to respond to. No exhibition space is perfect, and any way that you choose to show something, will privilege certain aspects. For example, you may be able to light a work extraordinarily well, but require a barrier which prevents people from seeing it at close quarters. You might find the perfect public space to share a site-specific artwork, but have to accept that it will probably be damaged or disintegrate before too many people view it (Bearpit Improvement Group, 2015).
HW: Can the traditional exhibition format ever translate successfully into an online one? Does it need to? I’d also be interested in your thoughts on the role of social media as an ‘exhibiting’ platform for artworks. In a way, this connects with another point, in that it is interesting, in terms of the technology we have access to, how the creation of online exhibitions is reliant on the quality of photographic and moving image documentation – to me, this highlights the central relationship photography has always had with art and artists, the market for art, and the professional practices of arts institutions. I think it is useful for us to be reminded of how this process is so important and how we might think differently about strategies for documentation and presentation.
RL: In thinking about how to present artwork online, particularly work that isn’t ‘born’ digital, I wouldn’t get too worried about trying to translate all aspects of the work into a digital format. Instead, consider what kind of interactions are possible, and which will make the strongest connection between an audience member and the ideas and concepts contained in your work.
Some of these concepts, until you focus on them, might be latent – they might not be part of your original intention or your carefully crafted statement, but nonetheless unfurl from your work. Often this happens in response to a specific exhibition format. What are the unique characteristics of the digital platform you want to appropriate – for example, how might you make use of disappearing stories or live video in Instagram? This is it/Now was an exhibition hosted entirely on Snapchat in 2015. In an interview with Dazed and Confused, one of the curators remarked: “Snapchat seemed like a great platform to explore some of the questions that interested us,” Marshall explains. “ One of the features uniting artists presented in the show is their exploration of the idea of manipulation with regards to the photographic image. Snapchat being a medium that offers a seemingly ‘immediate’ experience, we were interested to investigate this clash between seemingly manipulated content and a straight channel offering an immediacy of experience.” (Marshall, 2015 cited in Sisley, 2015)
It may appear that photography translates easily into digital territories (though I disagree, as only the visual is translated, and photographs are multi-sensorially entangled objects (Edwards, 2009)! Other artforms might feel harder to assimilate. If you make textural paintings or live and intimate performance, a digital experience can seem like vastly impoverished. Rather than dashing straight to document your artwork in ‘straight’ photographs or video, think carefully about what other forms your digital exhibition can take.
But how might a method of filming close to a painted surface awaken what Laura U Marks called ‘haptic visuality’ – a visual form that functions like the sense of touch by triggering physical memories of smell, touch, and taste? (Marks, 2000). Or what does it sound like to stroke or scrape the paint? Could you 3D scan the surface of your work?
If you make one-on-one live performances, can you create an experience for one person at a time, perhaps through video chat? How does your work look and feel differently when placed into a world absolutely packed with skype calls and zoom meetings?
If you already make video work, how can you do more than simply a vimeo or youtube upload and embed? Just as you might select a specific screen size and position or build a black box space in a gallery, can you design the webspace in which a viewer will encounter the film? If you make analogue or material film work, can it be recoded to have a similar temporal and textural effect online – for example, the disappearing video work, 3 Years and 6 Months of Digital Decay by Shinji Toya (Toya, 2019).
I often think about how well Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen works on Youtube. (Rosler, 2017) A parody of television cooking shows demonstrating the role of the perfect housewife, this deadpan artist film now operates as a dark corrective to the colourful, personality-driven youtube instructional videos that it nestles between. Hilariously, when I last watched it, it was also sandwiched between adverts for meal-planning kits and takeaway delivery apps – a serendipitous meeting of the commercial platform of youtube, the video’s content, and my own data preferences.
An updated artistic response to home kitchen videos can be found in Epic Hand Washing in the Time of Lost Narratives by xtine burrough and Sabrina Starnaman, which draws from an open source video dataset (burrough and Starnaman, 2020). As the period of lockdown showed us, there are plenty of other ways artists can adapt their existing practice and develop their interests in new and fruitful ways online. Quarantine Herbarium, a collaboration by artists William Arnold, Gem Toes-Crichton and John A. Blythe, was one of a number of projects that physically posted instructions and materials to participants (Arnold, Toes-Chrichton and Blythe, 2020). Completed cyanotypes were then returned by post and added to a growing physical and virtual collection.
For me, it is crucial to recognise that the internet, like any other space and technology in the world, is not neutral. What was once considered a ‘free’ space by early internet artists and activists, the world wide web has become majorly privatised and partitioned (Aranda, Wood, and Vodokle, 2015). Our modes and means of engaging with the online world are highly individualistic, and can work against the formation of collectives and solidarity. It’s not an ecological choice: the vast amount of energy required to host the world’s content, power devices and cool down servers means a growing internet is part of the looming climate crisis (ClimateCare, 2020). Finally, digital platforms operate on an extractive basis, so your creativity, inventiveness and imagination is precisely what they need to sustain interest, capture data and maintain market dominance (e-flux conversations, 2018). This means that whatever you put online, whether a video, a meme or a recipe, you are entangled in this process of extraction.
The role of an artist is not to avoid these dilemmas, but to jump in, identify the stakes, and offer other ways of thinking, playing and sharing online.
Rowan Lear is an artist and writer, with research interests in art ecologies, technofeminism, media archaeology, queer and critical race theory, and continental philosophy. She has served as co-director of the artist-led festival Bristol Biennial, and has worked on a number of public art and exhibition projects for organisations including Arnolfini, In Between Time, Hand in Glove and Situations. From 2017 to 2019, she co-organised a decolonial feminist study group called wrkwrkwrk, and organised Planetary Processing, an artist peer forum and workshop series at The Photographers’ Gallery. She is completing a PhD on ‘the photographing body’ at University of West London.
Helen Warburton works with images, spaces, people, objects, and histories. She is a tutor on both the Photography, and the Creative Arts programmes at OCA, and produces study visits and virtual learning events. She also works for the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) as Exhibitions Manager, producing permanent, pop-up, and touring exhibitions, both at BAFTA Piccadilly and with partner institutions across the UK and US. Within this role, she is currently supporting the publishing of a new book on the underrepresented sculptor, Mitzi Cunliffe, written by researcher, Ann Sumner in association with Manchester Metropolitan University, due for release in autumn 2020.
Fig.1. Lear, R. and Warburton, H. (2020) Working on this blog post, Helen, London / Rowan, Glasgow, 24 July 2020 [Photographic Diptych] In possession of the authors: London, Glasgow
Fig.2. Kelsall, P. (2015) Subterranean, Installation: Sat 25 July 2015, 8am onwards, [Photograph by Roser Diaz] At: https://artinbearpit.com/portfolio/polly-kelsall/ (Accessed 24/07/2020).
Fig. 3. Rosler, M. (2017) Semiotics of a Kitchen, 1975 [Youtube screenshot] At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuZympOIGC0 (Accessed 24/07/2020).
Fig. 4 Quarantine Herbarium (2020) [Instagram screenshot] At: https://www.instagram.com/quarantineherbarium/ (Accessed 24/07/2020).
Aranda, J., Wood, B.K. and Vodokle, A. (Eds.) (2015) The internet does not exist, E-flux journal. Sternberg Press, Berlin.
Bearpit Improvement Group & Hand in Glove (2015) Art in Bearpit: Polly Kelsall. At: https://artinbearpit.com/portfolio/polly-kelsall/ (Accessed 24 July 2020).
ClimateCare (2020) Infographic: The Carbon Footprint of the Internet. At: https://climatecare.org/infographic-the-carbon-footprint-of-the-internet/ (Accessed 24/07/2020).
Edwards, E. (2009) Thinking photography beyond the visual? in Photography: Theoretical Snapshots ed. by Long, J.J., Noble, Andrea, and Welch, Edward. Routledge, Oxon. 31-48.
e-flux conversations (2018) How the “Platform” Is Radically Changing Technology, the Economy, and Society. At: https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/how-the-platform-is-radically-changing-technology-the-economy-and-society/7870 (Accessed 24/07/2020).
Marks, L. U. (2000) The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Duke University Press, Durham.
Quaintance, M. (2017) The New Conservatism: Complicity and the UK Art World’s Performance of Progression. At:
https://conversations.e-flux.com/t/the-new-conservatism-complicity-and-the-uk-art-worlds-performance-of-progression/7200 (Accessed 24/07/2020).
Rosler, M. (2017) Semiotics of a Kitchen, 1975. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuZympOIGC0 (Accessed 24/07/2020).
Sisley, D. (2015) Introducing the world’s first ever Snapchat exhibition. At: https://www.dazeddigital.com/artsandculture/article/26368/1/introducing-the-world-s-first-ever-snapchat-exhibition (Accessed 24/07/2020).
Toya, S. (2019) 3 Years and 6 Months of Digital Decay. At: https://aos.arebyte.com/contents/3-years-and-6-months-of-digital-decay/ (Accessed 24/07/2020).
xtine, b. and Starnaman, S. (2020) Epic Hand Washing in the Time of Lost Narratives. [Digital Project] London: The Photographers’ Gallery. 13/05/2020 – 31/07/2020. At:
https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/epichandwashing (Accessed 24/07/2020).