‘Passing-Time’ is an artist-led video channel, aspiring to represent a dynamic, growing archive of artistic practices and preoccupations during the COVID-19 pandemic, creating a collective ‘meta-artwork’ and ‘composite portrait’ to reflect on this period. The project was initiated on 20 March 2020 by Alex Perweiler, Cecilia Bengolea and Neville Wakefield, on the occasion of the first ‘shelter-in-place’ in California, the earliest of the fraught, fluctuating lockdowns in the United States. Artists, writers and curators are invited to submit video works of less than one minute, which are played continuously in an ‘algorithmically randomised’ and anonymised stream across the entire browser-window with no credits, links or information whatsoever. There is only a short statement of intent and an alphabetically ordered index of contributor names presented on separate pages.
The montage of videos offers an eclectic range of performance, cinematography, narrative and animation. A beach with lapping waves is projected onto a screen in the forecourt of an abandoned shopping mall; a woman dances naked on a clifftop, silhouetted against a pink-tinted skyline; fire officers attending a shop engulfed in smoke are captured from an apartment window high above; dashcam footage shows a vehicle driving through a blizzard on a desolate, horizonless road. The most obvious formal quality is the transition to new videos in no discernible pattern. One’s experience of this is subjective, but for me the salient feeling is uncertainty: “I think I missed something; can I pause and go back? I’ve seen this one before – is there a pattern I’m missing?”
It isn’t easy to parse by design; however, look closely and some recognisable names draw one’s attention. These include Ryan Gander, whose characteristic work (should you see it) features an animatronic mouse philosophising on death through a ragged hole in a gallery wall. Curator Hans Ulrich Obrist reproduces something his Instagram followers might have already seen, a vlog asking animals to describe their unrealised projects. Thomas Hirschhorn sits in a studio holding a painted Muhammad Ali quote: “Don’t count the days. Make the days count.” Amidst a broad span of practices are three standout conceptual strands. There are what one might call the more ‘traditional’ artworks, the characteristic products of artists normally shown in museums, such as a video rapidly cycling through Jake and Dinos Chapman’s series of vandalised Victorian portraits, One Day You Will No Longer Be Loved (2008-ongoing). Other contributions are more intentionally frivolous or light-hearted, including a harmonica performance and vlog-style diary pieces, while others more candidly address the traumatic event unfolding around us with gestures of empathy and solidarity.
Chit-Chat by Hadi Fallahpisheh and Benjamin Lallier is, for me, one of the most successful pieces with regards to the conceptual framing of the project. A slideshow of annotated emails between the artists rapidly changes on the affecting klaxon of a high-pitched, synthetic downward spiral. We scan – panicked – to pick out words and phrases and commit them to memory, without being sure we’ve read or understood correctly, if at all. ‘Passing-Time’ explicitly sets out not to allow viewers to pause or rewind on demand, and while this is not without its issues, Fallahpisheh and Lallier’s disorienting gesture of digital acceleration is augmented by this format.
We are challenged to accept uncertainty, which is fitting, because there’s a good chance you won’t see Chat-Chat at all, and you’ll just have to take my word for it. The format thus leads me to consider my own agency – if you’ll permit it – as a commissioned writer, privileged by a press-pack of sorts, supplied by VAN’s editor. ‘Passing-Time’ describes itself as having “no commercial or institutional affiliation”, leading us to infer an egalitarian or grassroots quality. Anonymously curating high-profile artists, whose work carries significant commercial value, into a roster of lesser-known artists certainly undercuts one of the pillars of value in the art market. However, we should be clear on what this means: a non-hierarchal framing of artworks, with an unusually hierarchal framing of viewership. ‘Passing-Time’ meets its conceptual aims by restricting the viewer’s agency – this is a legitimate choice, of course, but it is important to be aware of its consequences. In the wider field of ‘post-internet’ art, we should be cognisant of the prevailing nature of internet-native art, such as memes, as a medium that thrives on interactivity, reproduction and a tenuous notion of ownership. The framework of ‘Passing-Time’ is an outlier here, still retaining the vestigial formal, hierarchal qualities of the art world that came before history stopped.
‘Passing-Time’ aspires to be an archival project, but it has no available metadata to locate artworks within the timespan of the pandemic; the artworks are instead collapsed into a timeless lacuna, parenthesised by an overwhelming event. This obliteration of time may be the speculated ‘meta-artwork’. It is true that we are in an interregnum when the economy-centric framing of time is less relevant, and the shuttering of fragile industries consigns working identities to history, but we still measure our experience nonetheless: daily death-tolls, two-metres distance, 14-days quarantine, and more recently, vaccination figures. In its framing of content and viewership, ‘Passing-Time’ symbolically obviates notions of identity and time, but it caricatures rather than reflects the lived experience of the COVID-19 event.
Kevin Burns is an artist and writer based in Derry.