by Nicky Ni

Chicago | March 14, 2021

After a year of mostly virtual art activities, now is a good time to examine some of the existing formats and strategies of presenting and curating experimental time-based art on the Internet. Just to be on the same page–I’m not talking about bigger subscription models such as Netflix and Criterion Channel, or user-based online video-sharing platforms such as YouTube and Vimeo–I’m focusing on more niche examples that provide free access to videos and digital arts under the fine art category. Through these examples, maybe we can get a better understanding about whether the pandemic has helped us rethink what the Internet could bring to art and its audience.

When it comes to free access vs. institutionalization of art, it is always worth highlighting the different levels of control over the dissipation of digital images. As Erika Balsom poignantly summerizes in her book After Uniqueness: A History of Film and Video in Circulation (2017), “images have never been as free and as controlled as they are today” (pg 220). It resembles a cat-mouse game: the more open and ubiquitous the Internet gets, the tighter control the copyright owners hold over their images. These different strategies by different organizations towards online screening throughout the lockdown, from generously offering free resources to stringently imposing a paywall, creates a volatile environment for the audience that hoped to see a more democratic Internet shaped by lockdowns and working-from-home.

Nevertheless, different organizations have different missions: some were web-based from the get-go while others temporarily shifted their programming online due to COVID-19. So let’s walk through some of them. Vdrome might be one of precursors dedicated to showing moving images on a website. Founded in 2013, they provide free access to one work per artist, together with a text preface for a short period of time. In her book, Erika Balsom puts Vdrome on the lineage of video art programs that used to be broadcasted over television (pg 219). Although both share a limited window of availability, Vdrome is watch-on-demand (like Netflix) whereas a TV program is linear broadcasting that streams according to a schedule.

But watch-on-demand can still fall under either the category of database or distribution. A database is a repertoire of resources that one can access at liberty, and a distribution entity screens works within a limited period of time. Most of the organizations that provide an online viewing platform follow Vdrome’s model, which is distribution, although they can keep a database or work towards actively building one. For example, Chicago-based Video Data Bank highlights one work or one series from its collection bimonthly on VBD TV, and this program has been going on for a few years now (note that the rest of the collection is only available upon request on site, not freely online). E-flux has a long running Video & Film channel that has been growing its online archive over the years, while keeping only a selection of past programs fully online and free.

Among art museums that have made their way to virtual programming during the pandemic, the New Museum in New York—very democratically—has an online depository for its “Screening Series Online” and recorded talks, which actually began before the pandemic. Walker Art Center has Virtual Cinema that continued their film and video programming during the pandemic, and its online screenings are timed and usually available for a couple of weeks. Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art, on the other hand, has only had a handful of online screening events this year, many of which are ticketed and not available after the streaming concludes. Even art institutions that own a large quantity of time-based work, MoMA for instance, were not in any hurry to screen any of them online for a stay-at-home audience. Having cancelled all year of in-person film programming in 2020, MoMA started a virtual cinema streaming earlier this year, but just for its members.

But none of the above fascinates me as much as yet another way to approach online programming, and that is--the Internet TV. It imitates a linear TV channel and “broadcasts” 24 hours a day. Apart from Wrong TV, organized by The Wrong biennial, and Souvenirs from Earth, an international cable station that also streams art videos online in real time--both of which are still ongoing and free--this format of TV for the Internet also prompts new curatorial possibilities. Coinciding their annual benefit, the Renaissance Society programmed a 24-hour “low-fi aesthetic” TV channel that ran from December 4 - 5, 2020, putting together a more viewer-friendly playlist that danced with the rhythm of the day. There were slow and dull videos that you could leave running in the background; there were also videos more suitable for the evening, with a little bit of music and beats. The program was designed to not be watched fully; it was meant to exist and welcome anyone interested to tune in and tune out. Less pressure, more leisure. And maybe that is the advantage of such a format, which puts digital videos back to where they are made (the computer with materials from the Internet) and truly weaves them together with our life occupied by Internet browsing.

Nevertheless, online programming is still ephemeral and creates a mirage of “free content” that collapses on the reality where links and access can simply expire on an idiosyncratic date, which is hard for an average viewer to keep track of. Additionally—but understandably, artists and galleries also show reluctance in participating in such democratic viewing experience, some cited lack of remuneration, others dread of piracy.

There is perhaps no great solution to this until video art gets to be so omnipresent that online streaming only constitutes one of the many ways of distribution. The silver-lining is the emergence of certain web-based video databases and streaming platforms since the 2010s that were conceived with the nature of digitality in mind. Rather than migrating conventional methods of viewing to the virtual space, commercial sites for digital art such as Daata and Niio are reaffirming a moving-image viewing experience particular to the Internet. Relying more on collaborations with living artists whose works are in constant shapeshifting—from gallery installations, film-festival screenings, to different scenarios of virtual environment, these sites have started to allow low-res previews (with or without a watermark), as inferior copies, to be watched in full on their websites. This is only the beginning, let’s hope that one day, when regulations around showing and collecting time-based art shall become more sophisticated, artists and collectors will no longer be so afraid of digital reproducibility, and we will get to see a freer Internet, accessible to all.

@2023 TNL (aka. The Neu Lithium) all rights reserved.
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