People were social distancing from art long before the pandemic started. At a museum, it’s customary to stand a respectful sixish feet away from any piece, a space maintained by security sensors or fear of the wrath of mistrustful guards. Now, with Covid-19 necessitating even more restrictions on indoor spaces, art lovers often find themselves observing from an even greater distance: via screen.
It’s not just art viewing; art selling has gone digital too: Last year, Sotheby’s built an online forum where collectors can place their bid and check out the competition in a virtual saleroom. They also introduced a “buy now” feature that accommodates purchases made outside their otherwise rigid auction calendar. The e-commerce update has proven to be a financial boon: In 2020, Sotheby’s recorded more than $1.5 billion in private sales, an all-time record for any auction house.
But for artists, the transition to web has been a bit more bumpy. Displaying frame-ready paintings or photographs translates OK to the internet, but not everyone uses those mediums. Brooklyn-based artist Anicka Yi, for example, creates work using live matter like algae and bacteria (her 2017 show Life Is Cheap included custom scents composed of chemical compounds derived from carpenter ants and sweat samples from Asian American women). “My studio is situated in the sensorium, that doesn't translate as well through the screen," Yi explains. "As much as I want to smell that JPEG, we don't have that technology yet."
So, she adapts. Yi curated much of her upcoming commission at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London remotely while collaborating online with a team of at least 30 people scattered around the world. The artist claims it’s her most ambitious installation yet. Turbine Hall is currently closed, but when the exhibition opens—it’s slated for October—visitors will see AI-powered machines populating a cavernous space filled with “historical scentscapes” meant to evoke Pre-Cambrian, Jurassic, and Industrial periods. Installing an intellectually and technically complex work remotely is not how Yi would normally do things, but she’s found there are environmental and financial benefits to not traveling with a full team to London—something she believes will stick around long after the lockdowns are lifted.
Simon Denny is also reexamining curation, particularly as it pertains to audience experience. Denny’s recent exhibition Mine, a game-like exploration of data mining and mineral resource extraction, appeared in a physical space in Dusseldorf in 2020. There’s also an online version that lives in Minecraft. Because the project exists in two mediums, Mine has reached a much larger audience, as gamers, who might not otherwise seek art-viewing experiences, flocked to the server. Still, Denny says, engaging with art IRL is the premium modus. “I think those in-person experiences will actually be more and more of value,” Denny predicts, envisioning a world post-pandemic. “It'll be about creating the conditions for experiencing those things in contrast to perhaps what I first thought [would be] an explosion of digital options.”
While some artists are burning out on screens, others have found there are some advantages unique to digital, socially-distant projects. For one, the internet is far more accessible than a SoHo gallery; for another, it’s a live canvas. “The idea that artworks are completed once and for all is no longer tenable,” says conceptual artist Agnieszka Kurant. “They should evolve like living organisms and physically react to changes happening in society and in the world.”
Kurant demonstrates this concept in Conversions (2019-2021), a series of ever-morphing “paintings” that uses data from social media feeds belonging to members of different protest movements, including Black Lives Matter, Women's Strike in Poland, and Extinction Rebellion. Each piece relies on AI to analyze the sentimental tone expressed across thousands of posts. That information is then fed via computer simulation to a custom circuit board that heats layers of liquid crystals on top of a copper plate, their colorful patterns constantly evolving with the tones of voices expressed on the internet.
With the internet powering much artwork today, and with so few places open for people to see those works, why even bother making a physical piece? For Denny, it’s an antidote to the relentless screen time initiated by the pandemic. “At first I was like, ‘OK great, digital.’ I'm an artist who's interested in technology,” Denny recalls. “And then, after one month, [I thought] ‘I never want to look at another website ever again.’ I was more obsessed with tactility and space and materiality and objects than ever.” For Kurant, tangible work is not about taking up gallery real estate, it’s about redistribution of capital. With Conversions, each time a crystal “painting” sells, a portion of the profits is redistributed back to the social movements that inspired the original posts. “I want to divert the flow of surplus capital from the art market,” Kurant says.
The pandemic has posed even greater hurdles for musicians, who, unlike visual artists, require an audience of sweating bodies filling crowded concert halls. Singers like Phoebe Bridgers and Lianne La Havas have transitioned to streaming performances straight from their bedroom or even from the bathtub in an attempt to reproduce intimacy with fans. While parts of the internet love this content, it’s undeniably no replacement for live shows. And the musician suffers too, now juggling the impossible expectation to be a social media influencer in addition to creator.
Experimental composer Holly Herndon explores the demands that online culture makes of artists on her new podcast Interdependence, co-hosted with her partner, Mat Dryhurst. “We're trying to move away from this idea of the indie artist,” Herndon says. “I think what could be a future of the creative industry is rather than independent actors vying against each other, a kind of interdependent network of actors who could be mutually beneficial to one another.” Similar to Kurant, Herndon identifies a system of mutual aid as being critical to helping performers survive in a precarious economy. Herndon explains these new networks would encourage creative collaboration, increase visibility of new talent, and empower artists to request fair compensation. All this, however, is contingent upon the pandemic ending and liberating musicians from their housebound live streams, which Herndon says can be “so cringe.”
Just because artists are finding new ways to display their work doesn't mean street art is a relic of the past. As cities recalibrate to their new realities, the restructuring of public spaces has provided more opportunities for some artists to show their work. New York City-based Chashama encourages property owners to allow artists to use vacant space until it’s leased. It’s a win-win: Artists get the resources they need and neighborhoods experience an increase in foot traffic (aka business).
Chashama’s model also creates a community, something the non-profit Problem Library is trying to replicate in San Francisco. Recently, artist Vanha Lam, known for her work using folded paper and canvas, pitched Problem Library her idea to install a large-scale indoor zen rock garden that she would tend to daily. The organization’s director Blake Conway found her space on the ground floor of the new condo complex Mira, near the Embarcadero. Such large-scale projects, Conway says, “stretch the thinking of what’s possible in these spaces.” Possible now—and possible in the future.