The last art I saw in the flesh was the Titian exhibition at the National Gallery in London. It was a remarkable, treasurable experience: his group of “poesie” paintings, based on stories from Ovid, had last hung together 400 years ago. Two days later, the museum closed its doors. By then, most commercial galleries in the UK, and many public institutions, had shut. The drift to digital began soon afterwards. Visual arts organisations launched so many podcasts and IGTV broadcasts and film streams and viewing rooms and talks from the archive that it has sometimes been overwhelming.
This week, the most social, crowded, people-watching-oriented event of the global visual art calendar – Frieze art fair, in its New York iteration – is happening on devices everywhere. It has transformed itself into an online shop with art as the scrollable produce. The Asos effect is amplified by the fact that prices, for once, are displayed for all to see. A Martin Creed neon spelling out the words DON’T WORRY could be yours for $150,000 (£118,000).
The reopening of art institutions still seems a distant prospect for many parts of the world – and the idea of the hyper-crowded blockbuster show even more so. So has the moment for digital art arrived? Artists – many of them locked out of studios and with projects, residencies and exhibitions having evaporated – are improvising with the means at their disposal. At least those, of course, who aren’t sick, or caring for others, or running up face masks on their sewing machines (like Stephanie Syjuco, the California-based artist, who has been producing around 100 a week for use by frontline community workers).
Many are getting used to working in new ways, some of them digital. But this is what artists have always done. As Martin Clark, director of Camden Arts Centre in London, says: “I used to work at Tate St Ives. There it’s really noticeable that when you get to the war years, paintings became really small – because there wasn’t much canvas around. Everyone’s work changed to accommodate the material conditions. In a way, what’s happening now is no different.” (For his own institution, accommodating the conditions has meant launching an online version of a now delayed exhibition, The Botanical Mind – a site rich with texts, recordings and images, plus a new digital work by Adam Chodzko.)
Some forms of digital experimentation are survival strategies. East Sussex-based painter Matthew Burrows began #artistsupportpledge on Instagram to help artists financially, given that many fragile livelihoods have been destroyed by loss of projects, residencies and second jobs. Artists post work to sell for no more than £200. Whenever they make £1,000, they pledge to spend £200 on another artist’s work – and so on. It has raised an estimated £20m for artists and makers worldwide.
Supporting artists financially was also part of the idea behind Transmissions, organised by artists Tai Shani, Anne Duffau and Hana Noorali, under the auspices of Somerset House in London. Every Thursday evening at 9pm until the end of May, artists invited by the trio are putting on a kind of TV show. (Episodes are not archived – be there on Twitch or catch the Friday morning repeat.) Episode one, put together by Shani, Duffau and Noorali, started with a magical journey through the cosmos to meet a beneficent goddess; episode two, by Sophie Jung, had anarchic echoes of old-fashioned Saturday-night light entertainment, Basil Brush and all. Putting art out online in this way, says Shani, is using the internet “more as a carrier or vessel for work than a conceptual point”.
Like many artists, Dubai-based Lawrence Abu Hamdan (along with Shani, one of the artists who won the 2019 Turner prize) posted most of his film-based works to YouTube during lockdown, though there are significant losses when works made for a gallery sit on the flat, unforgiving rectangle of a digital screen – not least that the viewer may be tempted to switch to Netflix at any second. “The first few minutes of Once Removed are deliberately almost boring,” he says, referring to a recent work about a young Druze man who understands himself to be the reincarnation of a relative who died in the Lebanese civil war. “That doesn’t work so well online.” (It is very much worth sticking with.)
Goshka Macuga – whose intellectually dense work is usually based on lengthy periods of intense research – began a lockdown Instagram account, @Grekaandfriends, in which an animated version of her dog offers satirical thoughts on life, the pandemic and everything. “I went into it with the aim of entertaining people, sharing, doing something that existed outside the art market,” she says. “I think of it in the tradition of the political cartoon.” She records the sound in her loo, which has the best acoustic for the purpose, and has used a simple animation app. “It was easy, and has given me a way of having an instant voice. We don’t know what the art world will be like in the future. An economic crisis on a large scale will, of course, impact it. We may have to change the way we work. It has been a good exercise in making something that literally takes no money to produce.”
Another project born from confinement is a short film by Madalina Zaharia, which will be part of Viral Portraits, an online exhibition, from 15 May, at Moderna Galerija, in Ljubljana (which has just reopened after the easing of Slovenia’s lockdown). After she was grounded in London with her partner, fellow artist Ross Taylor, the couple decided the time had come – at last – to clean their small basement flat. But, she decided, not before “documenting the mess”. Fortunately, she was in temporary possession of a film camera that could not be returned to its owner owing to lockdown, and so she got to work. The Mess Can’t Clean the Hand is a creepy, noirish little film that seems to encapsulate the domestic anxiety around clutter and mess. The hand itself is an agent of chaos – perhaps even contagion – rather than Marie Kondo-like order. (The flat remains untidied at the time of writing.)
Ben Vickers, the chief technology officer at London’s Serpentine Gallery, is soon, along with colleagues, to publish a report completed before the pandemic, titled Future Art Ecosystems. One of the open – and unanswered – questions posed by the document is: “What would a major public art institution look like without physical exhibition or performance spaces?” That seems a particularly resonant line of inquiry right now. But it’s also clear that digital art has a long and complex history. What used to be called “net art” can trace its roots back to an era before the web – to the 1960s mail art movement, for example, when artists sent work by post. Organisations including New York-based Rhizome have been supporting and preserving art made to be seen online for years. Some organisations better known for their physical exhibitions, such as Dia Art Foundation, have long been working with digital art, and now may be the time to discover some of these older web-based commissions, which date to 1995. (Dia director Jessica Morgan reports an uptick of interest in these, as her audience’s attention diverts to Dia’s website.)
It’s too early to tell what impact the pandemic may have, says Vickers. One thing, though, that he’s spotted on a personal level, is the appeal of virtual reality at a time when much of his life, professional and social, has been conducted through the aching flatness of Zoom. He has been “meeting” with the artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen – who last year made an augmented-reality tour of Kensington Gardens called The Deep Listener for the Serpentine – in a VR environment. “I’d given up on VR a year or so ago, but the greater sense of presence you get is a relief now there’s only the flat screen. Curators are starting to think about how you could host a public event with VR, how you could really deploy it well.”
Meanwhile, Glasgow International – the biennial festival that should have taken place in late April, but has now been delayed until 2021 – launched a small, well-judged digital programme that will stay online through May. It combines old, new and swiftly reworked art by some of those commissioned to show in the physical lineup. It begins with a simple audio work, Yesterday, by Georgina Starr, a recording of her whistling the Beatles song, that she made in the empty corridors of the Slade School of Art when she was a student in 1991. Heard now, the solitary voice echoing from a deserted space seems appropriately melancholic.
Alberta Whittle, meanwhile, quickly reworked the film she had been making – about the Forth and Clyde canal as a metaphor for the migration of people over waterways. Now it speaks directly to the moment, drawing together the threads of the Home Office’s “hostile environment”, the Windrush scandal, and the role of immigrants as frontline NHS workers. According to Richard Parry, the festival director, some aficionados of this well-loved festival gathered together on Zoom for an unofficial opening party, with drinks and group viewing of the online works: a sense of community despite the odds.