MATT PACKER CONSIDERS TIME, SOLITUDE AND THE IMPLICATIONS OF VIRTUAL EXHIBITIONS DURING COVID-19.
I’m starting to write this text by imagining it published in the May/June issue of VAN, somewhere in the front pages, surrounded by the usual content of news, promoted opportunities and artistic commentary. My guess is that by the time this issue is published, much of its contents (this text included) will already be out-of-step with the world that it was intended for. Out-of-step because the news traffic of the COVID-19 pandemic runs faster than editorial timelines. Out-of-step because so much of what is typically proposed by art and its discourses relies upon a version of public life that has been temporarily and indefinitely put on hold. Out-of-step because the mood of readership at a time like this has never been more fragile.
As the global pandemic confines us to our homes, laptops and smartphones, some of what has characterised the past few weeks of lockdown has been the elastic approximation of its immediate and future consequences. Minute-by-minute news updates from around the world refer to forecasts in terms of weeks, months and years ahead, while through the same screen portal, I try to make plans with artists. Most have been lucky enough to avoid the virus so far, though are currently unable to access their studios, unable to source materials or to work on any site-specific or physically-collaborative project, unable to travel, unable to focus on their work due to childcare and other (typically invisible) labours of care, and – in some cases – unable to think without motivational paralysis or concerns of livelihood.
In the past few weeks, as the days get lived out repeatedly within the same walls during the lockdown, time and space have become slippery and disjunctive. I’m reminded of J.G. Ballard’s short story, The Enormous Space, written in 1989, that tells the story of a middle aged banking executive who decides to shut himself inside his suburban home; the banal familiarity of his domestic space gradually becoming an entropic expanse as he embarks on a lonely and revolutionary psychic journey over a period of weeks.
In a very different text, written to support a project by Sam Lavigne and Tega Brain that charts expressions of well wishes and sympathy to those in ill-health, Johanna Hedva has described how “time slows down so extremely as to become still and unbearably heavy. For the sick, or someone caring for the sick, time freezes, hardening around the body, locking everything into this new centre of gravity. All that can be done is wait.” (getwellsoon.labr.io) It is worth considering that what many of us might be feeling in our disjunctive solitude and precarity is a taste of the conditions that many other people have been negotiating their entire lives.
While these two examples point to the uniquely interior and inactive conditions that many are experiencing as a result of COVID-19, it has been paralleled by an intensity of activity by arts organisations seeking to deliver cultural content while their doors remain shut. Invariably, this has meant online content; at worst, a thinning out of organisations’ websites and the declarative reissuing of archived podcasts and installation images of recent exhibitions; at best, there have been attempts at provoking the kinds of encounters that only the internet makes possible, such as the virtual gallery programme, ‘Art Is Still Here: A Hypothetical Show for a Closed Museum’, at M Woods Museum in Beijing.
Another well-intentioned example is the Biennale of Sydney’s recently announced partnership with Google to provide image mapping of the biennale’s artistic presentations after it was forced to close its physical doors to the walk-in public only two weeks into its run. The accompanying press release describes “a virtual Biennale [that] will bring the exhibition and programs to life through live content, virtual walkthroughs, podcasts, interactive Q&As, curated tours and artist takeovers”. It goes on to suggest this offering within a community framework of care, describing that “it is more important than ever that we find ways to connect, to help each other, listen, collaborate and heal.” (biennaleofsydney.art)
As sincere as many of these online programmes may be, my suspicion is that they are more gestural than they are effective; more concerned with the communication of institutional and curatorial integrities than with the artistic encounter itself. Orit Gat, writing in Art Agenda about the online responses to COVID-19 by many arts organisations internationally, was also quick to point out that the internet is a place of deep injustice and political implication, not only in terms of who (and who doesn’t) have access to it, calling on us to “remember that the internet is a system for surveillance, an ecological resource drain, a material concern even if it does keep us entertained and in touch.” (art-agenda.com)
Whether or not we’re currently engaging in the opportunities of a virtual walkthrough of an exhibition in Sydney or Beijing, the traffic of images of exhibitions, physically remote and free of people, is hardly a new frontier. It’s long since been a characteristic of art’s international and contemporaneous fantasy to offer itself as something that is photographically unfettered, ahistorical and socially withheld; its revolutionary energy all potently still ahead of us. Now, in full theoretical reversal, those same images might as well serve as reminders of the exhibition as a site of social contagion and public ill-health; a space of standstill and hazard for the most vulnerable.
As Johanna Hedva has stated: “Now might be a good time to rethink what a revolution can look like… Perhaps it looks something more like the world standing still, because all the bodies in it are exhausted – because care has to be prioritized before it’s too late.” In the current crisis, while we look to reset our hopes for art and its proposal for social change, perhaps it’s worth looking inwardly as much as outwardly; towards withdrawal as much as to positive action; towards a less synchronised and able-bodied version of what it means to be contemporary.
Matt Packer is the Director of EVA International.