Cover image of the review
Angela Goh and Su Yu Hsin, Paeonia Drive, 2020, presented as a part of BLEED. Courtesy of Arts House.

Lost in the Feed/Translation
  • Audrey Schmidt

11 Jul 2020

Online we engage in what tech writer and former manager at Apple and Microsoft, Linda Stone, termed “continuous partial attention” or CPA, an adaptive behaviour characterised by continually splintering one’s awareness and focus across multiple channels of online communication. To maintain connection, we follow everything, but engage with each “event” only partially. CPA is distinguished from “multi-tasking” because it is not motivated by a conscious desire for productivity but by “a desire to be a live node on the network”—a desire for connectedness suitably captured by the phrase “fear of missing out”.

As the financial year came to a close last week, arts institutions called out for EOFY tax-deductible charitable donations. In this very crowded crowd-funded marketplace, you wouldn’t be alone in having missed these “Calls to Action”. Between bushfires, the now-not-so-novel Coronavirus and #BLM. The millions upon millions of crowdfunding dollars we “developed countries” raised in 2
020 alone seem to reflect not so much our “resilience” as our weary resolve to endlessly counterbalance the inadequacy of our government’s responses to natural disasters, systemic inequalities and all the catastrophic emergencies yet to come. Volunteer firefighters crowdfund their own equipment and supplies, and missions to FreeHer, Change the Record, Pay the Rent and Support Public Housing Residents compete for our attention in psycho-economies of empathy, fear and shame.

In addition to the countless exhibitions and events that were unable to proceed irl due to COVID-19 restrictions, others were cancelled or postponed out of a desire (or implicit order) not to compete for attention in this overcrowded attention-sphere (as though art or poetry were politics’ strongest competitor). One Zoom panel of poets and artists organised by Printed Matter entitled “Methodologies of Care” was postponed indefinitely out of consideration for the BLM protests, remarking that they “feel it is necessary to give our attention and support to the voices of this important movement against racism and social injustice”. In addition to the time we spend online, which has been an oft-explored problematic of late, the key question is arguably about how we manage our attention online. A concept that is not lost on Instagram influencer-come-activists like Patia Borja (@patiasfantasyworld) who compiled a Master List of Resources On How to Dismantle Systemic Racism that scrollers can return to after those helpful info-graphics get lost in the feed.

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Theorist Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi argues the virus is “deflating the bubble of acceleration”, slowing down bodies as we renounce action and relax the pretence of governing the world. Yet arts orgs have sped into overdrive—conceiving of and pushing out exhibitions, programs, brand new websites and festivals almost instantaneously. The Australia Centre for Contemporary Art launched ACCA Open to commission new digital works to be released in August 2020 as well as a series of “Artivities” from the Education team. #NGVEveryDay sees “daily content and inspiration” on socials, virtual exhibition tours, talks and expensive courses. Arts House (Melbourne) and Campbelltown Arts Centre (Sydney) are dropping five new art commissions every two weeks from 22 June to 30 August, and in a recent e-news we read: “From URL to IRL and back again, this is art that meets you where you already are: online, hyper-connected and virtually networked”. The text is ominously followed by the hyperlinked call-to-action: “Enter BLEED”.

Arts workers who were able to keep their jobs, or any workers afforded JobKeeper, didn’t experience a “shut down” or “slow down” so much as an acceleration in production that also served to shatter any remaining life/work boundaries as we clock on and off in our living rooms that have soaked up the energy of the office. While many artists working casually in the hospitality and retail industries may have had some time to slow down in the absence of income-generating work and increased Centrelink benefits, those memes about “so and so wrote 8 novels during X plague” and the wealth of COVID-related grant applications, seemed to encourage an acceleration rather than a deceleration in creative production. Production that often reaches our inboxes, feeds and notifications whether we feel like paying attention or not. While our bodies may remain relatively stagnant, our minds have (over)compensated for the lull in physical momentum. It’s a bit like lounging in the high-speed hover-chairs on the luxury Axiom space cruiser in Wall-E (2008)—where the speed of the chairs and connective technology create the illusion of movement as the body sits still. Atrophied human characters suspended in space-time, glued to their screens, continually consuming while they wait for the earth to heal itself from centuries of over-consumption. In fact, in March this year, Segway announced they’d be bringing the hoverchairs from Wall-E to life, so no need to wait until the 29th century to complete the picture.

Angela Goh and Su Yu Hsin, Paeonia Drive, 2020, presented as a part of BLEED. Courtesy of Arts House. (On view From August 3.)

While we sluggishly zoom around in the Axiom of our minds, with all our extensive reading lists, crowdfunding efforts, Zoom meetings and increased enthusiasm for baking sourdough, how much of our attention can really be apportioned to online exhibitions?

Australia Council conducted an audience behaviour study of those who attend arts and cultural events via organisations that range from the Sydney Opera House to the State Library of Victoria and Cairns Indigenous Art Fair. 52% of these audiences are watching arts video content and 42% confirmed watching live-streamed events, with AusCo reporting that online participation is “allowing audiences to discover new works”, as 29% reported having discovered a new artist, artwork or performance online (which is of course misleading because no statistics were gathered about how these audiences discovered new works and artists on- versus offline pre-COVID-19). The COVID-19 Audience Outlook Monitor is, as AusCo mentions, not a study of the general population, but of already engaged arts audiences. So, while the language of the study implies a sizable interest in online content, these figures actually represent a predictable and significant decline in arts and cultural engagement when viewed in the context of previously/otherwise engaged audiences.

The average time Facebook users spend watching any one video is around 10 seconds. For IGTV it’s estimated to be between 3-10 seconds. By contrast, experiments have shown that the average viewer spends approximately 28 seconds looking at a work of art, and much of that time is spent in an inner-oriented, contemplative state. According to psychologist Maryanne Garry, the constant flood of digital images may be detrimental to memory formation as narrative is crucial to remembrance and understanding: timelines, contextualisation and/or intense focus are needed for us to place an image within an overarching story and thus retain the memory of the image and its meaning.

When we are overcome with continual (and often confrontational) images and “news”, like an Orwellian perpetual war that consumes our surplus industrial production as we sit in prayer-neck posture waiting for the next crisis, our attention to art online must be even more partial. Because, as Arts House recognises, “these artworks greet you where you already are”—in an absolutely chaotic attention-sphere, already swarming with “content” and connectivity, now with a little extra existential dread and precarity in the mix.

In the absence of an opening event in a white cube filled with the hum of wine-soaked networking, galleries, artists and critics swiftly attempted to co-create and consume the art context online. Online previews before art fairs were already a site for much gallery business, which is why the dealer David Zwirner decided to develop virtual viewing rooms in 2017. Currently, the David Zwirner Gallery is hosting the second iteration of Basel Online—their seventy-third online viewing room, now expanded to include headshots, contextual photography of the artist at work in the studio, quotes and short 50-word blurbs about each of the fifteen works by represented artists and estates. While many “viewing rooms” are essentially an “image gallery” by any other name, the Frieze Viewing Room (May 8 -15) also included an augmented reality app that allowed users to view to-scale artworks on their own walls. Which might sound like some cool VR/XR technology but is essentially no different to an Instagram filter and probably would’ve been a part of their marketing strategy anyway. After VIP previewers snatched up the cream of the crop, general users were later able to search for works by price, medium, artist and gallery before actually “trying it on”. As a result of more auctions moving online, the average age of bidders dropped 10-15 percent to include cashed up Millennials and it now seems strange to think that the artworld was so late to the world of online shopping. Something about auras?

By the 3 April, Sutton Gallery introduced viewing rooms using this format. These ‘rooms’ now feature Nicholas Mangan, Peter Robinson, David Rosetzky, Anne Ferran, Gian Manik and Kate Beynon. However, now that irl art experiences are irrevocably altered, Australian galleries are competing in the global marketplace of online art content—of connectivity without sociality—and it’s even easier for those galleries with less global reach to get lost in the feed. There is still some sense of the local, as AusCo reported that one of the primary motivations for participating online was to “support an artist/organisation that you think is important”. Yet it is unusual that they should conflate artists and organisations in this segment, particularly considering that the number of Australian arts orgs to be funded by the Australia Council are steadily decreasing as grants for individuals seem to be increasing.

Gian Manik, Long Session Fucking and Getting Fucked by Myself, 2020, oil on canvas board, 56 x 71cm. Photo: Andrew Curtis. Image courtesy the artist and Sutton Gallery, Melbourne. On view now.

Assistant Director of Public Programs at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Dr. Lisa Slade, stated in an ArtsHub article that “The virus won’t kill art, but it will, and has, endangered artists”. However, as Giles Fielke makes clear in his essay for, funding cuts to arts organisations don’t endanger art or artists so much as the industrial conditions for the arts that those organisations reproduce. He writes that “what we should be demanding, especially now that everything is so uncertain, is that art reclaim space” (outside of this economy). However, this “space” is unlikely cyberspace. In the olden days, it was thought that the internet’s decentralized structure would allow for freer information sharing and discussion, which would, in turn, create participatory, self-governing citizens, but we have since learnt the internet is not actually a very effective driver of democratic progress after all. Divided attention, government censorship, surveillance and algorithmic determination actually appears to suppress it. In much the same way, it would be wrong to conflate democratisation with the artworld, which is an inherently elitist business.

At first glance, it might seem that more online offerings and the removal of the intimidation factor of walking into a gallery have made art more accessible for audiences, particularly for those with disabilities (who are now also discovering that working from home, receiving livable benefits and filling scripts over the phone was not an unreasonable ask this entire time). However, the inverse relationship—from artist/institution to audience—is still far from democratic. Artists have been able to upload and promote their work since the inception of the internet, but to reach broader audiences, they must be associated with a brand (e.g. influencer status) or institution that can verify their legitimacy (and ideally remunerate them). DeviantArt, for example, has less hosting prestige than the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, which is different again to posting on Instagram or your art-cum-therapy-journal blogspot. Different demographics and reach. And let’s not forget that #FreeTheNipple didn’t liberate Instagram from its algorithmically determined nudity censorship (on that note, will “good” art become that which does not breach any “community guidelines”?)

So, both the internet and art aren’t particularly democratic. Fine. But the main issue with the launch of online programming, aside from general disinterest and overcrowding, is that artists have also been expected to adapt their existing practices for exhibition in virtual spaces and the gap was not always bridged—appearing instead as photographic “documentation” of an unattended exhibition. They are not only lost in the feed but lost in translation. The artists best equipped for the sudden uptake of digital art, were (predictably) those already making it. For example, Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki’s 2 Lizards series, which Bennani is hosting on her own Instagram (37.4k followers) but was later uploaded onto Artforum’s Vimeo account and cross-promoted by Rhizome, is content I pay partial attention to. The two 3D animated New York-based lizards, superimposed onto live video footage, have even been dubbed “Coronavirus Art Stars” by the New York Times. Ranging from 1 minute and 26 seconds to 4 minutes 26 seconds, the series begins with conversations like “I mean to be honest, I’m kind of into this confinement thing” and get progressively more disturbed along with the world events they respond to.

If a bit naff now, I am reminded of the machinima Second Life museum in Chris Marker’s film Ouvroir the Movie (2010), inclusive of images of his own works and those he admired. Between visiting an SL version of Lenin’s tomb and staring into a pile of screens suspended in space on the lower level of the virtual museum, the main avatar traverses Escher-like loops of halls and rooms full of art-copies on coded walls. One of the opening lines, appearing as text, reads: “Building a virtual museum / Is more tricky than a real one / Marble wood and linoleum / Are lighter stuff than mind alone.” Surprise, surprise, but there is a fundamental difference between online art and putting art online. Between making work designed for the internet and using the internet to broadcast work designed for the gallery or stage. So why museums and galleries decided to commission and showcase painters for “the pandemic art” and to display them simply as documentation photography or video with a few floating quotes is a little odd (beyond the Zwirner commercial model). Is digital art still too cringe to compete with the classics? Too tricky?

As longtime supporters of born-digital practice, Rhizome of the New Museum (New York), in partnership with Chronus Art Center (Shanghai) and Art Center Nabi (Seoul), were already well equipped to respond with some net art for WeChat (and the wider web). We=Link: Ten Easy Pieces, curated by Zhang Ga, launched on March 30 after having sent out an open call in February—a whole month before COVID-19 was characterised as a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11. The title alludes to Jack Nicholson’s Five Easy Pieces (1970) where a drop-out of the upper-classes (Jack, a pianist) becomes a kind of dissociative oil-rig flaneur, unable to reconcile High Society with his chosen blue-collar existence. It is also, however, a twist on WeChat, the popular Chinese all-purpose social media platform/mass surveillance and censorship apparatus. An either incredibly nuanced or utterly confused cluster of references to class, “free choice” and democracy.

One of the 10 Easy Pieces, which were all hosted on independent websites, was a work by Tega Brain and Sam Lavigne, Get Well Soon!, which compiled over 200,000 messages of well wishes sourced from comments on the popular crowd funding site GoFundMe. As a self-described “leader in online medical fundraising”, the project was conceived of as “an archive of mutual aid in response to a ruthless for-profit health system” in the United States. What is most striking about these well wishes, alphabetically listed, is their repetitive unoriginality: “all my best”, “all the best”, “best of luck” “best wishes” and so forth. However as opposed to admonishing these donors for their potentially basic and perfunctory comments, the purpose was to highlight communal care as a revolutionary act. The piece is accompanied by a short essay from writer Johanna Hedva where she writes that “The language of revolutions is also one of platitudes … When we are desperate for change, as we are both in illness and insurrection, our language drains of complexity, becomes honed to its barest essentials. We feel we cannot waste time with adjectives or similes or hypotaxis.”

Sam Lavigne and Tega Brain, Get Well Soon!, 2020. (Online now).

If platitudes are revolutionary, then Ga’s curatorial statement fits the bill, using all the tedious axioms we’ve become accustomed to: “unprecedented historical time” “now more than ever” and so on and so forth. But we should also pay attention to which dictums become platitudinous. This latter phrase was unpacked by Morgan Parker in her prose poem of the same title in 2017, noting that it is “used by Whites to express their surprise and disapproval of social or political conditions which, to the Negro, are devastatingly usual.” She continues that the sinister subtext of the phrase is that “(1) value is time sensitive, (2) conditions of despair are temporary, and (3) anything at all can be new, belonging exclusively to “now”, and untethered to “ever” (i.e. past, future, world history).”

In her “corona-take on the corona-take,” Sally Olds identifies two streams of writing in the hospitable “cottage-industry of reflection and opinion” on COVID-19, which could just as easily be applied to contemporary art. “If Stream 1 says ‘necessary’ and ‘vital’,” she writes, “Stream 2 will counter with ‘pointless’ and ‘indulgent’.” The discourse of Stream 1, AKA “the world’s largest empathy-manufacturing plant”, is essentially the parent-stream of AusCo’s COVID-19 “Resilience Fund” streams, which command that we: Survive, Adapt, Create. Survive the economic depression, adapt your practice to the World Wide Web and create artistic responses to “this time of disruption”. Value is time sensitive, the conditions of despair/disruption are temporary (this time).

Assuming that the opposite is true, that value is not time sensitive and the conditions of despair are not temporary, perhaps we just need to take some time-out from the constant push to produce, from the perpetual war of the endless scroll, to regroup. A little breather before we “streamline” our creative “private initiatives” reduced to economics, or launch into some premature cross-medium adaptation against the clock, only to get lost in the feed. After all, destruction is constantly opening up new spaces, even if by appointment only.