Art’s natures always emerge in response to contemporary modes of existence, adaption, difference, and meaning-making. Rather than a relation to nature as something ‘out there’, and different from representations of natural environments available for reification, possession, or places of relief, we currently see artists returning to nature as an ontological status of artwork contingent with the world in which it exists.
The digital troping of art is turning with the rapid changes the pandemic has brought to our conditions of existence. In current climates of uncertainty, lockdown, assembly bans, and physical distancing, we witness how art responds to recently changing modes of human existence with social distancing and shifting realities of common places and public culture. Less tied to the “object” (no matter its material or event-like composition) and more to its experience, art emerges through hybrid spheres of shared concern and resistance. Art evolves on the conditions of physical distance. Especially through digital expressions, we see how art explores new modes of proximity through storytelling and takes advantage of the connective capacities of global and digital infrastructures for affecting and upholding human inter-relationships and social imaginaries. It reworks experiences of nearness and distance, what it means to be closely connected or far apart. But how do these changing natures in art invoke spheres of shared concern and resistance? How might they contribute to recasting art’s role in rebuilding our cultural commons, shared imaginaries, and realities of public culture?
With a point of departure in the book Digital Dynamics in Nordic Contemporary Art (Intellect, 2019) that examines how the digital realm and contemporary art co-evolve, this conversation addresses the topic of art’s new natures in light of the global pandemic, by asking: How are art’s natures changing in response to global lockdowns and conditions of distance? How does art developed for and evolving with this situation respond to changing conditions of public culture, human inter-relationships, and social imaginaries? What might be the long-term effects of these natures in art (e.g. hybrid modes of existing and reaching an audience, digitally distributable materiality, online formats of presentation, etc.) on art’s meaning to us and its role in society and public culture?
Participants of this conversation include (in order of responses) Björn Norberg, Nina Colosi, Æsa Björk, Stahl Stenslie and Olli Tapio Leino. The text is initiated and introduced by Tanya Ravn Ag and edited by Vanina Saracino.
Björn Norberg is an independent curator and writer, founder and artistic director of Ulhälls Hällar Art Park, as well as president of Filmform. Nina Colosi is the founder and creative director of Streaming Museum, and co-curator of “Art’s New Natures: Digital Dynamics in Contemporary Nordic Art” (with Tanya Ravn Ag). Æsa Björk is a visual artist, as well as the founder and artistic advisor for S12 Studio and Gallery in Bergen, Norway. Stahl Stenslie is an artist and the head of R&D at Kulturtanken – Art for Young Audiences Norway. Olli Tapio Leino is a scholar of philosophy of computer games and playable art, and associate professor at School of Creative Media at the City University of Hong Kong.
The conversation has taken place between August 8 and September 18, 2020.
Tanya Ravn Ag: How are art’s natures changing in response to global lockdowns and conditions of distance?
Björn Norberg: At the moment, it seems like all activities are slowing down. Artists and curators still find themselves in between states of shock and excuse. Exhibitions scale down in effort and size, and they take place outdoors. Interestingly, I have seen at least two larger projects where all the artworks, even flat and two-dimensional paintings, have been installed on the floor. Are the artists searching for the ground, the basis of everything? Borders are closing, and with them globality is also shifting. We may have the technology to keep in contact but we are longing for real meetings in real rooms. Everything is becoming virtual, and I guess art will go in the opposite direction. It is still too early to know.
Nina Colosi: I agree with Björn about the current longing for physical interaction; exhibitions in public spaces may get a boost of interest during this time, since they are considered safer places to physically congregate than indoor art centers. However, museums and galleries should finally get serious about curating artworks from their collections and exhibitions as an ongoing program for public spaces to enrich neighborhoods and cities of all sizes.
With the closure of exhibition spaces, some artists are thinking about how to channel the concepts of their work into digital formats and are reflecting on the digital opportunities for reaching larger audiences. The artists talked about this in the video interviews in “Art’s New Natures,” our online exhibition at StreamingMuseum.org. In the program, Æsa Björk explained that she is working on a digital form of the glass and sound sculpture Shield, created with musician Tinna Thorsteinsdóttir. It’s a beautiful work that touches on the feelings of loneliness and isolation – those that have always existed but have been made more tangible during the pandemic. Lundahl & Seitl’s work AmissingRoom was also featured in the program. The duo affirms that, in thinking about wide reaching digital formats, artists should also consider how to make the message of the art “democratic” so it can be understood by people across cultures. And there are some great examples of storytelling in “Art’s New Natures,” which is an ideal format for the digital realm – the hard hitting social, political, and environmental critiques in Anne Senstad’s Utopie/Utopia monologue performance with film and TV actor Bill Sage; Anders Eiebakke’s The Park; Jana Winderen’s sound art and stories tells about her field trips around the world exploring nature and human impact on environments – her sound artworks Surge and Out of Range were also part of the exhibition.
Æsa Björk: Are activities slowing down or speeding up? One of the things I have noticed is that the way I experience time has been different, being impossibly slow and fast at the same time, or just constantly changing. Of course, this has something to do with the constant flux of the projects I have been working on. This constant change has been exhausting, but as an organizer and artist who has been working in a landscape of financial insecurity for most of my career, I feel better equipped than others to navigate these uncertain conditions, and I think I’m not the only one. Flexibility and being able to respond quickly without panicking, as well as to actually use this opportunity to delve deeper, are important skills.
There have been a lot of panic-driven pushes towards the digital format, which have come at the cost of quality, requiring more time and effort for the artists less experienced or equipped to react quickly. While it may seem that exhibitions are scaling down, I am also excited about the possibility of the opposite happening in the background; while large commercially-based institutions that are all about numbers and sales are certainly hurting at the moment, I hope that more value will be given to the resilience of smaller non-commercial spaces, and that art projects will be given more time to develop and mature, whatever platform they will belong to in the end.
Stahl Stenslie: On the one hand, the COVID-19 situation is a perfect time to complete a digital transition; the lockdowns call for an increased use of digital media, telepresent solutions, mixed media and reality experiences. On the other hand, the arts communities in Norway – where I am currently living – are mainly concerned with analogue presentations and re-presentations. Works of art conceived and presented digitally are more the exception than the norm. With the COVID-19 situation, many independent artists have embraced digital recording and distribution of their analog works (concerts, dance, painting, etc.). Given the current lack of digital competencies, these productions mostly result in flat videos distributed via online platforms such as YouTube or Facebook. This is not “virtual” art, these are video-based representations. Yet what we see is a simultaneous jump in better quality video-based solutions for telepresence. Teleconferencing is getting more advanced, connecting many more people in different locations into functional real-time communication spaces. Our adaption to this situation will most surely influence our future habits of travel, lessening the need for long distance transport, and opening up for new artistic ways to connect and socialize.
Björn Norberg: It seems like crises always hit the poor and weak harder than the wealthy. The big institutions based on visitor numbers can easily demonstrate how the pandemic is hurting them economically and will therefore receive support more easily. On the other hand, independent artists, curators and small galleries will have harder times. I agree with Stahl – the low quality of the digital content spread by institutions has surprised me too. It is really a bad substitute.
On the other hand, Nina mentions Lundahl & Seitl, who in fact are among the very few artists that have actually used technology and VR in a way that augments reality. In this aspect, they are very special, and I have worked with them several times. I think one of their tricks is to rely very little on visual storytelling. Instead of presenting visual sensations, their strongest works take a visual form in your mind by suggesting actions through sound and touch. Their most achieved works include several hosts that guide the audience through their experience, standing very close in the most pre-COVID-19 way.
I apologize for being a bit dark here, but the only thing I am learning from these times is how hard it is to create greater cultural experiences remotely. Visual art is probably more about walking, standing, sitting, eating, drinking, touching and smelling, than about seeing.
Olli Tapio Leino: After attending an all-night rave at an online “isolation club” in April 2020 and bumping into old Internet friends from 20 years ago, I thought that the global lockdown had prompted an “exodus to synthetic worlds,” to borrow the words of Edward Castronova, a virtual world researcher (Castronova 2007). I thought that the explanation is simple: if offline get-togethers and physical interaction are not available, then even those who are most reluctant to the Internet will go online to get their fix of whatever forms of social life and entertainment they prefer. The need for interaction that Björn and Nina refer to is just so strong. I initially thought that the global lockdown would render the Internet a viable substitute for ordinary encounters. However, it dawned on me that the change is possibly of greater significance. Compared to thirteen years ago when Castronova was describing people going to Second Life and World of Warcraft, the so-called synthetic worlds have become an inextricable part of the contemporary lifeworld. Society as a whole has opened up to the idea that the Internet is not just transparently mediating human-to-human communication, but is rather like a “place,” and more than that: both a mode and a setting for encounters and practices, a context for contemporary existence. I believe that the acceptance of this enables the “digital transition” that Stahl is referring to.
“…the only thing I am learning from these times is how hard it is to create greater cultural experiences remotely. Visual art is probably more about walking, standing, sitting, eating, drinking, touching and smelling, than about seeing.”
Tanya Ravn Ag: How does art developed for and evolving with this situation respond to changing conditions of public culture, human inter-relationships, and social imaginaries?
Björn Norberg: As I stated above, I think we need a longer lockdown to see the real effects. However, one clear example is offered by the two art institutes in Stockholm. One has just cancelled all events, while the other has moved the graduate show to a virtual space. Which one was the better decision?
Stahl Stenslie: I agree with Björn that we need a longer lockdown time period to see the real, lasting effects. Even if social distancing has sharply increased the use of social media during the pandemic, it remains to be seen if and how the isolating effects of physical distancing also affects our psyche into a withdrawal from social media. Perhaps having more time and opportunities for introspection and self-reflection is a good thing. Most likely, an unprecedented number of books will be written because of the current lockdown.
Æsa Björk: If we don’t see it, does it exist? Responding to an increasingly digital reality, which has a tendency to reflect our own interests and values, I wonder how art is going to fit in. On one hand, I think many people are getting fatigued – screen fatigue, social media fatigue, zoom fatigue – they long for an escape – escape to nature, but perhaps also an escape to art? On the other hand, how do artists connect to an audience that has been digitally manipulated through commercially driven AI? Should we accept the notion of mainly reaching an audience that already speaks our language and doesn’t challenge our views?
Nina Colosi: Artists speak about their creative process as a response to what they experience in the world around them, which they have absorbed into their subconscious. From this point, their art flows naturally. The extraordinary artists featured in “Arts New Natures” have been keyed into social issues throughout their practices, and their work is relevant and important, no matter what the mode of circulation. As Marshall McLuhan said, “I think of art, at its most significant, as a DEW line, a Distant Early Warning system that can always be relied on to tell the old culture what is beginning to happen to it” (McLuhan 1964).
Björn Norberg: Lev Manovich wrote this post on his Facebook page today: “After I watch Ars Electronica streams, I go to Netflix or switch on the TV, and it feels like fresh air. I see very well-made films and TV series. Perfectly lighted, color graded, art directed. I see real people, not “ideas” and meaningless sounds of yet another “electronic music” performance, or yet another meaningless output of a neural network invented by brilliant scientists and badly misused by “artists.” New media art never deals with human life, and this is why it does not enter museums. It’s our fault. Don’t blame curators or the “art world.” Digital art is “anti-human art,” and this is why it does not stay in history.”
Even though he may come across as a troll, this reflection is spot on. So far, I have only seen substitutes in the online art initiatives. A Netflix film can be more touching than an online show that sometimes can taste like a coffee substitute from the Second World War. Art will remain important, but it has to be made for humans. I hope this will not be forgotten if culture activities need to move to digital media.
Nina Colosi: I agree with Lev that more artful, imaginative storytelling is needed to touch human emotions and connect people to new meaningful or pleasurable perspectives. Whether it’s Netflix, digital art, or any art medium, there’s a high level and a low level. Considering the state of the world, I think it’s pretty urgent that artists play an important role in presenting reality and also motivating and imagining the future alternatives – positive and negative.
Olli Tapio Leino: Everyone who took their social life, work and other duties online during the lockdown, either willingly or unwillingly, had to come to terms with the fact that the Internet is co-constituting our existence. Coping with the non-transparency of technological mediation has lost its generational specificity: old and young alike deal with the reality of the Internet in the form of grotesquely distorted freeze-frame faces in an online meeting, with short attention span and constant multitasking across multiple divides, such as domestic/public, work/leisure, friends/strangers.
In addition to virtual exhibition openings and get-togethers like the Ars Electronica gardens, humans in lockdown have witnessed performances in virtual spaces and activist interventions in computer games. To make sense of activities and encounters like this, it seems productive to think of the Internet not as a substitute for reality, but rather as an extension of it, with its own benchmarks for existence and materiality. The contemporary human condition that art has to resonate with is an inherently technological condition: modular, networked, transformable. How do we perceive and experience it as technologically enhanced humans? Are there new senses and sensibilities that art should take into account?
Likewise, the materiality that many forms of art depend on for their manifestations should be reconsidered: what is online is not less real, or less material. What does the distinction between form and matter, or cause and effect mean in the context of objects that do not have existence outside the Internet? Since these are no longer questions concerning a select few only, we may see a certain demystification and democratisation of “post-internet art,” for better or worse. Since more people now have a first-person experience of mundane existence on the Internet, what was once a (millennial) curiosity will speak to a much broader demographic.
“Art will remain important, but it has to be made for humans.”
Tanya Ravn Ag: What might be the long-term effects of these natures in art (hybrid modes of existing and reaching an audience, digitally distributable materiality, online formats of presentation, etc.) on art’s meaning to us and its role in society and public culture?
Björn Norberg: Again, I must stress the fact that we need a far longer lockdown to see the long-term effects. When the pandemic is over there will be a wave of fantastic energy. An interesting question is what would happen to art and culture if the lockdown would be permanent? Would then art totally merge with storytelling?
Stahl Stenslie: If the lockdown lasts for more than a couple of years, we will see substantial changes in art’s power structures. Galleries and museums will go bankrupt, paving the way for alternative actors, ways of production, and distribution in the field. The art world will adapt to digital formats and necessities, shredding much of the old in the process, and so will art education. Such a long timeframe would generate much better opportunities for digital dissemination and artistic experience, for artists and audiences alike.
If we understand art as a sociopolitical phenomenon, then our understanding of an artwork will be greatly affected during this transition into the virtual and digital domain. The economic value and demand for digital, multi-layered, mixed-reality works of art might even get to the level of analog ones.
Nina Colosi: Regarding long-term effects, artists will certainly continue to work with the new creative tech innovations as they are developed. Currently in development in robotics labs around the world is the infusion of humanist emotional traits and troves of information for the creation of humanoid robots that could be considered interactive sculptural artworks themselves. Perhaps they will be tasked with teaching humans how to be humanists, if they forget it along the way. Currently, visual artist Claire Jervert is having drawing sessions with Sophia, the most well-known robot in the world, and robot Bina48 is being mentored by New York poet Sasha Stiles to learn about and create poetry.
Olli Tapio Leino: In their recent book Virtual Existentialism Stefano Gualeni and Daniel Vella note that our experiences of virtual worlds are in constant dialogue with our real-world experiences (Gualeni and Vella 2020). Daft Punk sang: “We are human, after all. Much in common, after all.” We are grounded in the earth, and that is where the baseline for our experience is. Like Nina notes, artists present reality and their work mirrors their experiences. Undoubtedly, in response to the lockdown we will see things that are “about” the internet in one way or another. We will also see works which talk to the online/offline dual reality, address the dynamics of living simultaneously on both sides of the organic/digital divide, works for which the Internet or “the digital” (whatever it means) is not a theme or a medium, but rather a growing substrate. I would think of this as a crisis that accelerates.
This would mean, I believe, to “deal with human life” in 2020, to refer to Björn’s quote from Lev Manovich. We will see not just new kinds of art, but also new formats for activities, practices, and habits around art, that are in line with the technological condition. The conventional contemporary forms of online events, like multi-user video calls, avatars and virtual rooms, attempt to use the internet as a medium only. These will be augmented with something that provides a less ephemeral experience and connects with one’s broader scheme of life and existence. Something we can’t easily slip out of, something that recognizes and acknowledges the participants’ commitment: not just online mediation of human presence, but human presence online. This would seem like a natural response to what some have perceived as the “emptiness” or lack of weight in all things “virtual.”
Æsa Björk: I like the idea of being able to stand in my studio with a VR set and mix plaster/silica surrounded by (virtual?) students in some distant University… At least until the Internet connection starts failing or you don’t sense the atmosphere in the room, and then you’re left with that incredibly empty feeling of having communicated without communication. But still, I wouldn’t mind trying it in the future, if or when we get there. One thing I have been thinking about in the context of communication is the distinction between a project that is made specifically for a digital platform, be it screen-based or immersive, and the documentation made by others of artworks and artists.
I think a very positive aspect of this period can be the increased availability of documentation, be it historical through research into archival material or direct through interviews and documentation of artistic practices, where the often-invisible process and background of an artwork or artist becomes available. Personally, I have found myself increasingly drawn to these stories of alternative approaches and ways of living. I hope the long-term effect will be that we question more and spend more time considering the real value and priorities governing our actions.
MCLUHAN, Marshall, Understanding Media: the Extension of Man, McGraw-Hill, New York, 1964.
Olli Tapio Leino
CASTRONOVA, Edward, Exodus To The Virtual World: How Online Fun Is Changing Reality, St. Martin’s Griffin, New York, 2007.
GUALENI, Stefano and VELLA, Daniel, Virtual Existentialism: Meaning and Subjectivity in Virtual Worlds, Palgrave Pivot, Switzerland, 2020.