Nicky Ni, Chicago | May, 11 2020
I never expected the first DSPTCH to be so difficult to write.
I was going to provide a recap on some of the art-world highlights in relation to “Transition,” the theme of this issue. I was going to share my excitement of having participated in the live performance by the legendary Detroit-based DJ and producer Carl Craig and his long-time collaborator, German rercord producer and musician Moritz von Oswald, at Dia: Beacon, New York. The museum opened Carl Craig’s inaugural museum retrospective, Party/After-Party, which takes form in a sound installation that takes up the entire basement of what was previously the Nabisco packaging factory. Detroit techno which in spirit melts the human and the machine, inherits industrial sound that belongs to the water lines of Motown factories. Craig’s convoluting soundscape imbued with the haunting neon-green light radiated from Dan Flavin’s monumental fluorescent light installation, Untitled (to you, Heiner, with admiration and affection), rejuvenates the architectural history of the space. And the live performance itself, though highly anticipated by many technoheads in the audience ready to dance, only offered echoes that reminisce on the the golden days of underground warehouse raves: as an early evening party with a controlled entrance at a high-brow postmodernist museum, with technically nothing allowed on the dance floor (drinks, drugs, cigarettes, you name it), everything seemed too…“perfect.” Nevertheless, retrospectively speaking, the decision of having an opening party-performance was clairvoyant—the event was time-marked for Saturday, March 7th, the last time that I can recall being in a crowd, rubbing shoulders in a group packed like a can of sardines.
Soon after COVID-19 hit, the entire globe was on pause. After weeks of confusion, Starbucks removed the chairs in their stores; luxury brands boarded up their storefronts; some bars and restaurants closed permanently, while other night clubs pleaded to save the scene. Then came the unemployment, perhaps more pervasive than the disease that had caused it. As I write this, Gov. Pritzker of Illinois announced a five-phase plan for reopening, largely uncertain about when bars or clubs will be able open again to the public, let alone museums and galleries which have the tendency to bookend crises such as a pandemic—always the first to close and the last to reopen. At a time of enormous economic difficulty, Art has once again successfully proved how useless it is.
It happened to be at this time that we went from LITHIUM, a 1500 sq ft art space in Pilsen, Chicago, dedicated to exhibiting time-based art, to TNL, an experimental online editorial and curatorial platform in hopes of supporting emerging new media artists. How novel it is, the idea of moving everything online. An idea so novel that every art institution across the world has been “copying” our idea in the last few months.
Guggenheim Museum released more ebooks at no cost to its readers. JSTOR made most of its databases free to the public and expanded the amount of available ebooks for certain academic institutions—excluding secondary schools, however. International Short Film Festival Oberhausen is working towards proceeding with the festival virtually, whereas Glasgow International has postponed its entire program to 2021 while offering a handful of new commissions on its digital platform. Multi-media artist Kate Lain collaborated with her fellow artists and compiled a monumental list of free video art—many are through artists’ submissions. The Serpentine Galleries stream live content 24/7 on Twitch. Their most recent digital commission, Catharsis, by Danish new media artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen, takes you on a meditative tour through a simulated ancient forest. Music festivals have also moved online, casting a voyeuristic eye into homes of celebrities—some of which we seldom get to see. Meanwhile, Boiler Room continues to stream live sets, except this time directly from the artists’ homes. Take a look at Ciel’s set from the Boiler Room’s series, ‘Streaming from Isolation,” if you want to dance by yourself or with your Zoom friends. Within days of the lockdown, the Internet has become saturated with information to share and things to do. However, as days go by, satisfaction diminishes and the void inside us continues to grow.
Because there’s only so much you can do through a bright screen. This time of #wfh is where people aim to utilize the full potential of the Internet for all sorts of interconnectivities, but at the same time, it also highlights the inadequacies of going “digital only.” Virtual openings may flourish, but you simply can’t engage with a painting or a sculpture on Zoom the same way as you would in a gallery. In the age of digital reproduction, our irl existence that continuously senses the menace from its digital counterpart can now proudly affirm that the physical presence is indeed irreplaceable. We can move much of our work and activities online, but we can’t necessarily retain the authenticity of an in-person experience. As it appears to be a mutual agreement among most educational institutions that providing more online access to free information would be beneficial to all, a new question arises: if many institutions and festivals were able to pivot so quickly and move their programs online, or temporarily open up their archives and databases to the public—all in the name of accessibility and social responsibility—why hadn’t they done it long before the pandemic?
A Slate article used notable examples to talk about the ways in which the coronavirus revealed some of the rules that have been so deeply embedded in our daily life to be completely arbitrary and punitive: TSA liquid limit, water and electricity deliverance, broadband data caps for cell phones and wi-fi, to name a few. These standards are not bound to any limitation on physical capacity but are artificial setups for easier regulation or greater capitalization. Under these unprecedented circumstances, art institutions—in addition to furloughing or laying off a good portion of employees they deem expendable—are all of a sudden content with offering knowledge for free.
There already exists enough coverage that casts doubt on the true nature of “nonprofit” institutions which claim their ethos to be rooted in community and caring for each other while doing the exact opposite. On a more constructive note, perhaps COVID-19 is providing us a period of time for deep reflection, on survival, on ethics, and on multiple aspects of life that we had taken for granted before or were programmed to accept. I’m sure that the next time we meet in person, the time spent will be precious. Or even better, we will be able to clink our glasses again and dance together. On a greater scale, let’s hope that art museums, film and music festivals, having had all the necessary online platforms already set up, can keep up their currently free programming and continue to take full advantage of the Internet that connects the audiences from all over the world.
We are all in transition right now.