Captured image from the virtual exhibition “HOPE” (2017) curated and produced by New Scenario, showing “Mutated Clock First Sibling by Gasoline Keyboard” (2016) by Connor Crawford on the wall inside the lift. Courtesy of the artist and New Scenario. Photo by Stefan Schrader.
The unexpected pandemic, quickly spreading around the globe in the first half of 2020, has revealed once again that we have less control of our external conditions and environment—or certainly less than we could predict. The SARS-CoV-2 characterized by rapid human-to-human transmission has forced international governments to impose restrictions on the freedom of movement. This is also true in Germany, where I currently live. Borders are closed, planes are grounded, movement is restricted within cities, people are forced to stay at home, 9-5 working rhythm is suspended, and physical distancing is required in both public and private spaces. At the same time, however, body-less digital communication proliferates. Despite its grotesque manner, we cannot help checking the statistics of infected and deceased people worldwide, or dare to block the flow of tragic information related to the virus. Our feelings are unsettled or shaken by the peculiar invisible virus. It feels as if we were suspended in the air, with our feet never reaching the ground.
While the crisis has exposed the vulnerable parts of modern societies that differ politically and socially (i.e., in healthcare systems, segregated city structure, poverty, class, race, and gender issues, mental wellbeing, etc.), it has also revealed the basic historical assumption that the visual arts established - the need for constituent physical spaces and attendance of our bodies. This premise may be taken for granted by those who come to see artworks in an exhibition venues. Even Internet art that exists conceptually online is displayed in site as a physical object. The seemingly global distribution of packaged products for organizers consists of art exhibitions and events that involve inviting artists, guests, and journalists to the exhibition space. It extends further through opening parties and related exclusive programs, that promote the exhibitions through influential art journals and social media. Visitors network and socialize—and all of these activities depend on the physical spaces and corporeal attendance of those involved. Surely, these physical meetings used to create a festive and uplifting atmosphere, which helped the art industry grow and its ecosystem to develop into what knew before the pandemic. However, after the coronavirus crisis, inviting people can be perceived as violent, to some extent. It could mean that organizers are asking visitors to take the risks of being infected and to infect others, and, on extreme cases, to die.
For sure, one of the most common ways of emancipating the art world from the physical restrictions is digitalization. Since there are no viable alternative, this process will surely accelerate in the art world. After the crisis began for good, traditional art institutions that had enough resources—human, financial, and those related to collections—began to quickly populate the media with online programmes, including exhibitions. Day after day, a flood of digital programmes is being offered for limited duration by renowned art institutions around the world.1 Digital exhibitions and online curation can be roughly categorized into five combined approaches: the simplest shows still installation views, including exhibition documentation (New Museum); video materials introducing the exhibition, with music and interviews including curator and expert insights (Tate Modern, Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art); thumbnail images displaying exhibited works and their expandable content links (Castello di Rivoli); catalogues or similar online resources, sometimes with videos inserted (Guggenheim); and interactive VR tours (Mori Art Museum).2 As the Network of European Museum Organizations proposed that budgets and strategies for digitalization should be invested into digital offerings, services, and infrastructures in future, digital content including virtual exhibitions will become more prevalent and will open doors to those who previously could not access exhibitions.3
Despite these omnipresence of proactive programs, digitalization itself is not the almighty savior. I find myself strangely detached while watching museum videos through my laptop with noise cancelling earphones. Sitting and having lunch at my work desk, I simultaneously oscillate between the artwork and email updates about COVID-19. I don’t dress up or put on makeup for the opening, nor do I get to be seen by anybody at all. This distracting and relaxing “at home” attitude towards art exhibitions reveals how exhibition spaces are designed for viewing artworks with less interference, which reflects the power of physical places and spaces. When it comes to visual art exhibitions, we use our bodily peception more than we think. The space is clean and with no external noises. Therefore, even though the virtual room holds exhibition pieces, I feel no sense of presence and the room seems rather empty. For sure, digitalization is not always a perfect fit for all media and modes of representation. When it comes to classic forms such as paintings, the images transmitted through screens become homogeneous, muted, and flat. The three dimensional texture is reduced to a 2D plane made of 0 and 1 digits, and the color reflection through light is reduced into RGB combinations—depending on the setting and the resolution of the screen. When it comes to digital archives, all the parerga are usually excluded. Most of the institutions don’t show the frames or the walls on which the works are exposed. The connection between the artworks is difficult to imagine if we cannot see the whole space. With some triggers, whether it is lighting or objects being physically present, our intuition senses the power of representation, and the authorization of artworks inside the space. But digital experiences lack somatic reception to temperature, smell, humidity, weather, noises, light reflection, and unexpected meetings with these elements.
Thanks to the high-resolution videos and screens and their specifications, we can evoke feelings that stimulate physical reactions. However, digitalization often cutsout the lower half of our body. Even if we attend live online meeting, we see only the top half of the bodies, as if we were ghosts (a legless body is usually the symbol of ghosts in Japan). From my experience as a production coordinator working for artists around the world, I personally believe activities of the flaneur in different cultural spheres are the inspirational, informative sources for artistic production that cannot be gathered from reading books or blogs. Cultural exchange lead to creative achievements, garner stronger and wider imagination of others, which lasts for a long time beyond those borders. Freedom of movement is certainly one of the most basic human rights that we achieved, taking into consideration the reasons for the fall of the Berlin wall, the segregation of the apartheid, and the imprisonment as form of modern punishment (although this anthropocentric idea sacrifices the freedom of movement of other living organisms and ignores the ecological point of view, I will skip this argument here). Unexpected meetings with locals and stray cats at the corner of the street, the delicious smells in the shopping arcade under twilight amidst a mild spring breeze on the cheek — these unexpected events experienced by the flaneur are something we cannot program and control.
Such unpredictable and uncontrollable reception can be internalized. As Proust eloquently implied, our bodies remember involuntarily, and our memories extend far into oblivion. They can be suddenly evoked with a tiny physical trigger. These body memories resonate in time. As Jörg Heiser pointed out, “what stays in people’s minds after a traumatic experience is the seemingly irrelevant or absurd detail”.4 Such details and chance meetings stay with us far longer than we intend, certainly more than what might have been planned. The speed of forgetting things is subject to change. Sometimes we push our memories abruptly into oblivion because we want to forget. But some remain—absurdly as if by chance—even in the age of the viral YouTube videos and Instagram, which seduces us to consume images in an infinite-scroll of cyberspace. Even if the hardware is switched off and the images vanish, the afterimages remain in our mind. Such strong memories are sometimes supported by the power of narratives (imagine, the Proust effect is also described as a novel). Since visual arts are abstract, disruptive, and open to interpretation (although the work of art historically allows limited interpretation), a narrative can pin down a specific context to resist forgetting.
Words trigger memories. In this regard, verbal communication and art criticism should play a stronger role in the digital age to evoke memories and experiences. Since the 1980s the value of artworks is strongly connected to their financial exchange value in the market, but it’s time to give more space for valuing art with words, long-term consideration, and imagination. Art exhibitions generally consist of artworks that can be exchanged in the market, however, the exhibition itself is rarely sold. Online exhibitions that are intended to exist only in cyberspace blur the definition of artwork and the roles of artists and curators. An online exhibition, “HOPE” (2017) curated and created by the artistic collective New Scenario in cooperation with Technical University Dresden in Germany, is a 360 degree panorama VR tour of a university paired with zombie apocalypse scenes, in which artworks by 14 artists are digitally displayed.5 Zombies roam through 17 rooms of the campus. Some creatures gaze directly at the viewer. Since this is a completely interactive online exhibition, reminiscent of the video game Resident Evil (known in Japan as Biohazard) players can detect and click the circular icons to choose which door to open, whether to take a lift, which floor to exit, and which works to watch. However, this is not a game but an exhibition. The goal is not to attack zombies and survive, as our existence in the virtual tour is completely transparent, like ghost without legs. As we walk around the university building swarming with zombies, we accidentally come across unexpected characters, images, and situations. Although our body isn’t in cyberspace, we can feel the sense of free movement, the sense of actively being there, and the sense of participation. Of course all these options are programmed and designed, so true freedom of movement is restricted, but this virtual exhibition strives to combine physical and virtual elements seamlessly in a large-scale project realized through creative, interdisciplinary work and close collaboration between the university and scientists. Such in-depth physical experiences are hardly found in the digital exhibitions of big art institutions that treat online exhibitions as replicas of physical exhibitions, not taking into consideration the fact that images function differently in the digital age. Ironically, contrary to museums that have been enriching their digital content, these young artists have taken down their website due to the coronavirus crisis. Although the crisis significantly increases the use of the Internet, there is a dark side of the situation: computers might become zombies— they can be hacked or infected by viruses or trojans that will perform malicious activities without the knowledge of owners.6 Moreover, any online content depends on the IT infrastructure each user can afford, but we must not forget about the fact that Internet platforms are owned and designed by huge American and Chinese IT corporations. Another fact proving that Internet is far from an utopian solution, is that cyberspace can also be a space for surveillance that could be used by governments. The algorithms are always there to follow us.
Crisis generally causes instability, and instability creates spaces for a change. We, the living, the survivors of the corona pandemic, must accept that we cannot dream of an immediate overturn of the fundamental frameworks modern societies have built and that lives currently rely on —namely, national governance, constitutional states, global capitalism, surveillance of society, science and technology-oriented nations, etc. However, we know that their meanings and values do change. Now, we more than ever live in world parallel to cyberspace. Technology continues to develop and AI will certainly change our lives even further, by researching and analyzing the past, while predicting parts of our future. Art can do what AI cannot. Art does not find the correct answer a set of data. Instead, it questions the being of oneself and the value beyond definitions of good or bad, 0 or 1, of what is ethical or immoral. It questions things in between these values, even if they are contradictory or illogical. Art emancipates us from being zombified: art shows us that we don’t need to segregate, discriminate, and stigmatize as viruses do to the infected. Through art, we are able to perceive things all-at-once. It is contemporary art that can question assumptions and restrictive frameworks of society and the broader social world. In this sense, art should not be governed. We should be able to freely choose which way to go, and think critically about the meaning of things we’re facing. It should not be simply a matter of dichotomous questions: bodily perceptions in physical spaces or virtual experiences in cyberspace, whether to change or stay the same, to forget and push all things into oblivion, or conversely, to assimilate and memorize. Meaning and values suspend and change through time, and we are at a point now when we can use our imagination to resurrect ourselves from an attitude of the living dead—to reactivate our reception, that has been the vessel through we generate our ways of seeing.
- Lucy Lovell and Time Out editors, Check out these virtual tours of museums around the world, Time Out, April 6, 2020 https://www.timeout.com/travel/virtual-museum-tours; Laura Feinstein, Beginning of a new era: how culture went virtual in the face of crisis, The Guardian, April 8, 2020
https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2020/apr/08/art-virtual-reality-coronavirus-vr; Stuart Braun, Six museums to explore virtually during lockdown, DW, April 13, 2020,
International contemporary art institutions responding to the corona crisis are also introduced country by country at e-flux.com. https://www.e-flux.com (all accessed on April 30, 2020). [↩]
- This categorization is tentatively formed and all museums mentioned here are randomly selected amongst globally influential contemporary art museums, regardless of organisational categories, by the author on May 1, 2020. [↩]
- NEMO, Survey on the impact of the COVID-19 situation on museums in Europe, April 6, 2020 https://www.ne-mo.org/fileadmin/Dateien/public/NEMO_documents/NEMO_Corona_Survey_Results_6_4_20.pdf (accessed on April 30, 2020) [↩]
- Jörg Heiser, In Times of Crisis, Is Art a Salve or a Distraction?, Frieze, September 23, 2019. https://frieze.com/article/times-crisis-art-salve-or-distraction (accessed on April 30, 2020) [↩]
- New Scenario is an artist collective established by Paul Barsch and Tilman Hornig in 2015. They have focused on images of the digital age and curated exhibitions in cyberspaces. Their website is currently closed “due to the current Corona crisis this website is closed until further notice. http://newscenario.net/?fbclid=IwAR2Kw-3tGEuwEQqGZRCU4n4zXxP35eJdUc4w9GWzvAhUv39YJVsMsWzhVVA (accessed on April 30, 2020) [↩]
- Exonemo, an internet based Japanese artist collective founded in 1996 compares the Internet as Yami in Japanese that has two meaning: dark (闇) and sick (病) and co-organizes an offline flea market event titled the Internet Yami-ichi (literally, the internet black market), reminiscent of the nerdiness of Internet lovers expressed with self-abusing irony. Lucas G. Pinheiro, Ablack market for people “consumed by the internet”, RHIZOME, September 2, 2015, https://rhizome.org/editorial/2015/sep/2/internet-yami-ichi/ (accessed on April 30, 2020) [↩]