Pau Waelder


Interview: digital art after COVID-19

I have been interviewed by curator and writer Maria Chiara Wang for the online magazine EXIBART. In this article (originally published in Italian) I share my thoughts about the current landscape of new media art in the contemporary art world after the COVID-19 pandemic has created a “new normal” in which social distancing is the norm.

What challenges (and what opportunities) does the crisis represent for practitioners and curators of media art?

In my view, the crisis that is unfolding after the successive lockdowns around the world is twofold: economic and social. On the economic side, there will be a foreseeable shortage of funds to produce exhibitions. This, paired with the fact that most venues will delay their exhibition programs to compensate for the lockdowns, means that it will be harder or take longer to curate an exhibition that is not already scheduled for 2020. It may take until late 2021 or mid-2022 for some venues. Major art events such as the Venice Biennale have already been moved to 2022, and there could be further delays if there is a second wave of infections in Autumn. For artists, it may also be harder to get funding or grants to produce their work, and much of the opportunities provided by artist in residency programs may be lost. On the social side, health security measures may negatively affect exhibitions that seek the participation of visitors or their interaction with the artworks. There will be more queues, and in some shows it may be necessary to only allow guided tours or visits by appointment in order to avoid crowds. These new conditions may pose considerable challenges for all kinds of contemporary art exhibitions.

Curators and practitioners of media art may, however, take advantage of the possibilities offered by digital technologies in the conception, production, and dissemination of artworks and exhibitions. For several decades now, artists have created web-based art, virtual and augmented reality art, installations that react to the presence of the viewer, geolocated sound pieces and virtual sculptures, and so forth. Curators have conceived exhibitions that take place online, in virtual reality, or in the connected devices of visitors attending an exhibition. There are a myriad ways in which the creation and presentation of connected, interactive, and virtual art have been explored. Unfortunately, they have been largely ignored in the mainstream contemporary art world, which is now scrambling to adapt to an unprecedented situation that forces everyone to think beyond the physical space of the gallery and the conception of the artworks as objects. Hopefully, the work of artists and curators of media art will receive more attention, while also inspiring solutions to the challenges now faced by every cultural venue.

Among the different institutions and events adapting to an online-only world, I’m particularly interested in those that focus exclusively on digital media, such as the Ars Electronica Center in Linz or the VRHAM! Festival in Hamburg. The Ars Electronica Center is the headquarters of one of the most veteran media art festivals in the world, a “museum of the future” and a space for research and innovation. It has recently launched a home delivery” program which includes live concerts, workshops, talks, and guided tours, as a way to connect with their audience remotely. Most of these activities had been previously restricted to the museum visitors, but are now widely available. Similarly, the VRHAM! Festival, which specializes in art and virtual reality, is adapting its third edition to allow experiencing VR artworks through a smartphone app and an online platform for VR content. The main challenge they are facing is technical, since the smartphone app is only available in Germany and few people outside the community of artists and game developers have high-end virtual reality headsets.

What new forms of digitally-bound performance art, interactive art, generative art, and participative art are developing in a moment at which computers seem to have become the only means of connecting with others?

As I previously mentioned, artists working with digital technologies have explored remote interactions for decades. Take, for instance, the work of Paul Sermon, who has been developing telepresent environments since the early 1990s, prefiguring our present reality, in which social distancing mandates that most of our interactions with others are carried out through videoconference. There are many others who have developed innovative forms of performance art (Sonia Cillari), interactive art (Christa Sommerer and Laurent Mignonneau), generative art (Casey Reas), and participative art (Rafael Lozano-Hemmer), to name a few, and continue to do so today. During the lockdowns, new projects have been launched, such as Antoine Schmitt’s, a website that allows people to create and participate in virtual demonstrations, or The Smallest Of Worlds – A Social Landscape Of Collected Privacy by Joan Soler-Adillon, Uwe Brunner, and Bettina Katja Lange, a virtual reality space in which visitors can navigate through 3D-rendered fragments of the artists’ daily lives during lockdown.

I would also add curatorial projects such as the exhibition Selphish. L’exposition de soi, that I have co-curated with Thierry Fournier for Mécènes du Sud in Montpellier. The participating artists, Lauren McCarthy, Alix Desaubliaux, and Martin John Callanan, have produced artworks that use the Instagram posts of a series of volunteers. The artworks are transformed by the content that these persons publish online, and furthermore the three artworks show the content from the same person, during one week. The exhibition therefore revolves around something that takes place elsewhere, in the private lives of the participants, made public through social media. I do not consider that the process itself is new, but by using digital technologies it allows for a different relationship between the visitors and the artworks, as well as between the context of the exhibition and our daily, connected life. It was quite interesting to see the first participant rediscover her own Instagram posts and selfies through the artworks.

In conclusion, I would say that for the media art community not so much has changed, since the pandemic has not brought to light new subjects, but rather accentuated the relevance of those they were already exploring.

Joan Soler-Adillon, Uwe Brunner, and Bettina Katja Lange, The Smallest Of Worlds – A Social Landscape Of Collected Privacy (2020). Virtual reality environment.

How does the rich history of web-based artistic practice connects and relates to the current situation?

In 1994, two seminal web-based artworks, Antoni Muntadas’ The File Room and Douglas Davis’ The World’s First Collaborative Sentence, introduced the possibility of accessing and interacting with an artwork from anywhere in the world, using one’s own computer and a web browser. This was 26 years ago, which means centuries in internet time. Over the last decades, we have accepted the fact that large companies have taken over and shaped the way in which we interact with each other and contribute content online. Most people think that the only way to participate is through social media, messaging and content platforms such as YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, Whatsapp, or TikTok. Web-based art reminds us that there are many other ways of interacting with others online, not just to provide data to “Siren Servers” (as Jaron Lanier calls them) or to compete for likes.

In times of social distancing, we can learn from all the creativity and hope that was poured into the web as an open, free, informal space where things could happen spontaneously. Much of what is being tested now in terms of exhibiting art and connecting with audiences online has been explored by artists and curators before. For those who are not familiar with web-based art, I recommend browsing Rhizome’s Net Art Anthology, or the Whitney Museum’s Artport. There is, of course, a lot that can be done today (much more than thirty years ago), so if we look back at the history of net art and how it has been exhibited, we can take what has worked and move forward, instead of re-inventing the wheel by trying out the same formats that were already tested in the 1990s: for instance, pretending that a website with some photos is an “online viewing room” or a “virtual gallery”.

What new models of remuneration and reward could account fairly for the myriad ways in which digital art helps us bridge the painful social distances created by the pandemic?

Artists working with digital technologies, particularly those who create web-based art, have long sought for remuneration models that could make their practice sustainable. In this sense, I’d highlight the work of Carlo Zanni, who has frequently addressed the economy of the art world in his artistic practice and has collected his reflections about it in his book Art in the age of the cloud (Diorama Editions, 2017). He has created a generative poem that can be accessed online on a pay-per-view model (a subscription allowed the visitor to access all of the instances of the poem) and also developed his own cryptocurrency, the artwork being the currency itself. These experimental forms of integrating a remuneration into the concept of the work show how challenging it can be to create art that is distributed online but not necessarily free.

We are used to considering that everything we access online must be free, because several large corporations offer us free services in exchange for our data. But this model is not sustainable for most companies, not even national newspapers. When a content is particularly desirable, it is understood that it must be paid, and so we subscribe to music and entertainment platforms or pay for magazines and books in a digital format. However, this model cannot be easily applied to the art world, because there is obviously less people willing to pay a subscription to view works of art than those who will pay to watch movies.

Currently, there is a growing number of online platforms testing the subscription model, such as Sedition, Daata Editions, or Niio. Each has its own target audience and price plans, and all of them aim at securing a customer base, while depending on the commercialization of more sophisticated and affordable connected screens. Additionally, artists continue to use crowdfunding and micropayment platforms to obtain some form of revenue. For instance, the artist Serafín Álvarez has developed a version of his installation Umbral (2018) as a standalone interactive environment that can be downloaded from a videogame distribution platform by making a donation via PayPal. Also, there are curatorial projects such as the popular online exhibition Well Now WTF?, curated by Faith Holland, Lorna Mills, and Wade Wallerstein that brings together GIF and video works by around 80 artists, and asks visitors to pay a small fee in order to view the show.

Micropayments and subscriptions are a way of obtaining remuneration, but they require some infrastructure and a lot of clients, so they can hardly be considered sustainable at this point.

What role shall digital art play in the ‘new normal’ that we are heading towards?

The “new normal” seems to lead us still further into experiencing art on digital formats, mainly on websites but also through apps that deliver content on dedicated screens, as well as virtual and augmented reality environments. Over the last months, the contemporary art world, from museums to commercial galleries, art fairs, and independent curators, has rushed to produce online and “virtual” exhibitions, which are mainly documentation (photos, videos, and text) of the exhibitions that had been set up in a real (brick and mortar) exhibition space. The positive aspect of this accelerated adoption of digital formats is that it is easier than ever to view exhibitions anywhere in the world. The negative side, in my view, is that in most cases the online documentation does not provide an engaging experience of the shows, and their quick proliferation can lead to a certain fatigue. Ultimately, this fatigue can cause that museums and galleries quickly dismiss online content as soon as the conditions to visit their exhibitions are back in place.

I consider that there is a real opportunity to conceive exhibitions as cultural events to be experienced both online and offline, where the online content is not mere documentation but part of the curatorial project itself. At the same time, if we are increasingly accessing art on our web browsers, smartphones, tablets, and VR goggles, it makes sense to pay attention to digital artworks, which are created for these environments, instead of just photos of paintings and videos of sculptures and installations. From now on, there will probably be an increase in virtual exhibitions, art fairs, biennials and other events that take advantage of the current stage of 3D scanning, 3D modeling, VR and AR technologies. It is important that these are not just attempts to replicate the usual white cube formats with flat images on walls, but that innovative ways of experiencing art and conceiving exhibitions are developed.