2020 has forced the art industry to embrace an unprecedented digital transformation. While we have yet to see particularly ground breaking technology emerge, viewing art online has undoubtedly become the new norm. CoBo Social Managing Editor Denise Tsui attended the recent Peer to Peer: UK/HK, which served as an interesting experiment for thinking about what it means to present art online, the potential and limits of the Internet and what ‘digital native’ really mean in execution.
TEXT: Denise Tsui
IMAGES: Courtesy of Peer to Peer: UK/HK unless otherwise stated
“What we don’t want to do is treat the Internet like a bus replacement service for a gallery,” says Jacob Bolton, Technical Director, Peer to Peer: UK/HK, during the panel talk “Making (it) work online” on 14 November. It was the last panel session of online festival Peer to Peer: UK/HK—curated by Ying Kwok and supported by Arts Council England—and it was, for me, the panel that left the deepest impression. “What [the Internet] has to be is a considered space that doesn’t just try to translate the dynamics of the offline space and kind of force them online but it has to really engage with the particular physics of online spaces.”
Like that light-bulb moment in cartoons that goes ‘ding’ in your head, Bolton’s analysis of the Internet being a ‘container’—an older perception where terms such as ‘cyberspace’ and ‘surfing the web’ are used—and a ‘surface’—the newer perception, where terms such as ‘on Instagram’ and ‘on Facebook’ are the norm—provided a moment of enlightenment to my ongoing existential struggle with social media and the online realm.
Admittedly, I haven’t been one who has embraced the onslaught of online viewing rooms, virtual exhibitions, digital-everything-content and whatnot. I’m old school like that; preferring a real book than a Kindle, where three social media platforms is already two too many. Lately, I’ve even found myself often reminiscing the days before this era of information technology, a time when the world ran slower and life wasn’t a race and a game of social media metrics. So it was with some fatigue and scepticism that I explored Peer to Peer: UK/HK’s online exhibition. And while it wasn’t all to my liking, there was certainly more than a handful of artworks that demonstrated the organisers’ and artists’ thoughtfulness to the experience of online consumption—that engaged, as Bolton says, with the physics of the online space.
Of the new commissioned works, Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley’s interactive game I can’t remember a time I didn’t need you (2020) was a highlight. It had an air of Black Mirror’s Bandersnatch to it with multiple prompts and interfaces that changed based on your selected answer. It was both satisfying in its ability to engage one’s attention, while also serving as a genuinely confronting and bold statement on matters of LGBTQ+ and racial discrimination—in particular, conveying the experiences of being a Black Trans person.
Among the other commissioned works, Sharon Lee Cheuk Wun’s Same River Twice (2020) stood out for its resourceful use of Google Maps Street View imagery, GPS coordinates, and techniques of analogue photography. Utilising video sharing platform YouTube, the work was inventive in its use of available technologies and digital tools and demonstrated a refreshing definition of what it means to make digitally native art.
The exhibition of 15 existing works showed a lot of conceptual promise, with a strong curation of artists, but somehow some of the lustre and experience was lost viewed on a desktop, a point, which only reaffirms the need for treating the Internet as its own medium, rather than simply a surface for uploading. Aside from Shezad Dawood’s gripping 17-minute video Leviathan Cycle, Episode 3: Arturo (2017), Megan Broadmeadow’s Above the Firmament (2016–19) stood out as an engaging work even when adapted to desktop viewing. Moving the mouse cursor or keyboard arrows, one could still explore Broadmeadow’s whimsical realm of figures masked and not masked, floating crystals, rocks and other formations. Having previously worked with VR art, I have a particularly appreciation for this interface, and could only hope I will one day have the chance to experience Broadmeadow’s in full gear. At one point, viewers stood among a sky of clouds, with no ground to stand on—viewing it on the desktop alone made my heart skip a beat.
Between the online exhibition, panel talks and use of social media to host artist residencies, Peer to Peer: UK/HK served as an experiment and a catalyst for thinking about what it means to present art online, what are the parameters of the Internet as a container and what does the term ‘digital native’ really mean in execution. To hear artist Wu Jiaru—born of the social media era—claim the Internet was her imaginary best friend during that same panel talk was just, well, mind-blowing and left me with much to think about.
Speaking over email to Nick McDowell, Director, International and London, Arts Council England, it seems he shares a similar sentiment. “It challenged my ways of thinking about a shared space: what it means to be ‘in residence,’ through Videotage’s virtual recreation of the Cattle Depot site in Minecraft; how we make the arts themselves a shared space for hope and solidarity as well as despair, in the words of Yang Yeung at 1983; how we navigate this online world. Wu Jiaru talked about the Internet as her imaginary best friend,” wrote McDowell. “What does that space mean to those, like Jiaru, born as digital natives and those of us old enough to remember life before online?”
“It’s also been a test bed for developing new ways of leading a project and mixing up various elements—seminars, online exhibitions and commissions, social media residencies—which could be influential in future,” explained McDowell when asked about the intentions of Arts Council England as the principal supporter of the project. “What we wanted was a way to kickstart really meaningful relationships and conversations which would be sustainable in the longer-term. One of the most successful aspects is this model of distributed leadership—people from a range of different types of organisations and practice across the UK and Hong Kong, coming together to make things happen: contributing ideas, energy and experience to co-curating something new.”
“It’s an incredibly important time to be building those relationships so that we have hope for the future. At a time when so many plans were thwarted and the cultural sector, like countless others, faces these barriers to continuing to practice, everything we can do to keep the conversation moving forward is vital,” said McDowell. “The dialogues that have happened through the festival this week will form the foundations for new innovations, new ideas and works so that something positive can come from a time of great difficulty.”
While Peer to Peer: UK/HK isn’t the answer to all our digital art world problems, it opened up arguments for the need to rethink how the online space should be optimised for online art viewing experiences and how cross-regional art world leadership in collaboration may look like post-pandemic.
Online exhibition of Peer to Peer: UK/HK is live now for viewing through 13 December 2020