How to Stay Connected During a Pandemic: A Review of “We=Link: Ten Easy Pieces”

We=Link: Ten Easy Pieces. Image courtesy of Chronus Art Center.
Slime Engine, Headlines, 2020. Image courtesy of Chronus Art Center.
Helmut Smits, Screen Time, 2019. Image courtesy of Chronus Art Center.
Tega Brain & Sam Lavigne, Get Well Soon!, 2020. Image courtesy of Chronus Art Center.
Li Weiyi, The Ongoing Moment, 2020. Image courtesy of Chronus Art Center.
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Shanghai’s Chronus Art Center partners with Rhizome and the New Museum, to create a digital exhibition that affirms interactivity and solidarity.

TEXT: Banyi Huang
IMAGES: Courtesy of Chronus Art Center

We=Link: Ten Easy Pieces. Image courtesy of Chronus Art Center.

 

Initiated as an open call initiative to the global media art community, “We=Link: Ten Easy Pieces” is Chronus Art Center’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and widespread lock-down. As galleries and cultural institutions across the world increasingly turn to the virtual, it is fascinating to examine the strategies they employ to engage with audiences during a time of unparalleled uncertainty and dwindling attention span. While some have moved artworks and events online without altering the structure as conceived when physical interaction was the norm, “We=Link” prioritizes interface design and interactivity. Most important of all, as an online project, it is able to host and connect a multitude of artist-led platforms, which in turn are able to curate artworks and media-driven experiences. The product is a sprawling network that greatly emphasizes connectivity.

As its name suggests, “We=Link” is a play on WeChat, the all-in-one Chinese messaging app and social media platform. The landing page features an image of highly polished, pale pink chain-links, indirectly commenting on the Internet’s twofold ability to connect and shackle. Interactive dots spread across the page house individual artworks, with a preview image popping up when the user’s mouse hovers over one. The isolated points could almost be a stand-in for scattered human beings residing in their separate, confined spaces.

Headlines (2020), the contribution from art collective Slime Engine, is a compilation of doctored newspaper content, ranging from political headlines and op-ed accounts, to lifestyle articles and advertisements. Playfully renaming coronavirus as “hookvirus,” tongue-in-cheek statements, such as “the epidemic could cause more stimulus impacts on the global economy than the US-China trade war,” turn the circulation of fake news on its head by pushing political conspiracies to the extreme. Replete with ludicrous imagery that explores our collective repulsion for the alien and the infectious, the site establishes a bizarre aesthetic that collapses the boundary between the fantastic and the real. The most striking of these is a 3D-rendered food show depicting a crowd of zombies waiting in line for savoury Chinese crepes.

 

Slime Engine, Headlines, 2020. Image courtesy of Chronus Art Center.

 

In lieu of parody, Helmut Smits’s Screen Time (2019) takes a sincere approach to the exhibition concept of linkages, and aims to connect strangers through their mobile phone screens. It asks participants to take a screenshot of their lock screens, and submit it to available minute slots within a given hour. The images are then displayed in a grid, so that the frozen clock display on each screenshot forms a continuous stream of time. Whether a blurry close-up of a favourite pet; kids baring gleaming braces during a carefree vacation; or a text message stripped of context, these snapshots function as portals into strangers’ private lives. At a time of extreme isolation, the work provides a comforting sense of camaraderie.

 

Helmut Smits, Screen Time, 2019. Image courtesy of Chronus Art Center.

 

COVID-19 has readily exposed severe structural and infrastructural limitations that existed before things started falling apart. What better example than the United States’ health system, which places profit and bipartisan dispute above the wellbeing of individuals? In that light, Get Well Soon! (2020) by Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne is a visually overwhelming display of solidarity. The artists created a programme that combed through GoFundMe.com, a popular website for medical fundraising, and compiled a massive list of get-well messages from comments left on the site. An accompanying text by writer Johanna Hedva highlights the parallels between sickness and revolution, as both get-well messages and protest slogans strip language down to its fundamentals. Scrolling through the archive of 200,000 comments—repeated variations of “Best of luck!” and heart emojis—one is struck not so much by indignation towards a failing system, but by an ethics of mutual care. It is the horizontal distribution of resources that can carry us through difficult times.

 

Tega Brain & Sam Lavigne, Get Well Soon!, 2020. Image courtesy of Chronus Art Center.

 

On a lighter note, Ye Funa’s Dr.Corona Online (2020) and Li Weiyi’s The Ongoing Moment (2020) provide brief sources of entertainment. Turning the fear-inducing form of the coronavirus into an inane, decorative motif, the former poses as an artificial intelligence with which you can consult regarding the epidemic. The latter generates a social media face filter based on data collected from a whimsical questionnaire. There seems to be little that we can do but put our trust in Dr.Corona, the loquacious chatbot, and spend some time indulging in unproductive, silly things online.

 

Li Weiyi, The Ongoing Moment, 2020. Image courtesy of Chronus Art Center.

 

If most of the works focus on external stimuli such as the media landscape and online activities, Raphaël Bastide’s evasive.tech (2020) turns inwards and asks, how can we creatively survive the quarantine? In it, the artist challenged himself to create one artwork a day through coding and writing, assembling a graphic journal of gradual descent into poetic insanity. In a truly process-oriented fashion, each entry pairs illusive, first-person narration with animated illustrations. Simple and crude, the imagery and programming constitute preliminary sketches more than anything else, while some of the self-indulgent verses could well be the musings of an angst-ridden teenager. However, Bastide demonstrates that creative output could be regimented as well as introspective. As an endurance exercise, or a performative routine, the work underscores the act of grounding oneself, rather than the end product.

In all, “We=Link: Ten Easy Pieces” is an assemblage of efforts to come together through virtual means, even if the result is somewhat fragmented, quickly-pulled-together, and inconsistent. The title “Ten Easy Pieces” borrows from the 1970 film “Five Easy Pieces,” an in-depth character study of a young oil rigger’s journey to overcome social alienation, class conflict, and familial strife. Even more so than this oil rigger, we are living through unprecedented social transformation. Perhaps more significantly, just as in the film easy pieces refers to a set of piano exercises, the exhibition is an experimental exercise in dealing with virtual exhibiting and a radically reconfigured contemporary art landscape. What happens when open-call formats are no longer a choice but a necessity, when the showcase of solidarity and rapport becomes the basis of net art forms? A test run it may be, “We=Link: Ten Easy Pieces” succeeds at initiating a conversation around the way we think about community and connectivity.

 

 

We=Link: Ten Easy Pieces
Chronus Art Center Special Online Exhibition
On view from 30 March, 2020

 

 

 
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