On April 2 2016, the internet connection in Solitude’s project space Römerstraße 2A transferred a huge amount of data received from all over the world. The Artist Is Online was an evening-long show presenting artists, their digital works, and social spaces to examine the possibilities, boundaries, and characteristics of virtual presence in different ways as well as the influence of digitization on performance art. The experimental evening oscillated between physical absence and digital presence; interactive installations and moving projections; performance and sculpture; digital immateriality and the materiality of its medium. In this article, the Solitude art coordinators and curators of the show Judith Engel, Julia Eckert, and Paula Kohlmann give some insight into the show’s multi-layered concept and projects.
Imagine a human hand holding a flat, rectangular object that fits perfectly into the palm. Everyone knows this image. It is well-established in our canonical perception of the everyday medial image flood. And simultaneously imitated daily through a physical gesture by most of us. The object is a smart phone; the hand is part of a body.
»The skin is our last barrier, and the device comes closer,« writes the Leipzig-based visual artist Marie-Eve Levasseur about her work i’ve got you under my skin (or the anthropotechnoromantic infiltration) that mirrors the fusion of the human body and technical devices. It shows the image with the aforementioned hand, but the decisive difference is the human skin surface of the smart phone. In hindsight, Levasseur’s work symbolically marked the condition from which the underlying questions the exhibition deals with were developed.
Our existence is not an exclusively physical existence anymore; we also inhabit a digital space. The human skin smart phone may arouse a feeling of disgust in some of us, but it is actually a rather cautious metaphor of how we have turned into physical-digital beings through the intense, constant use of our digital devices. Where and how are we present?
Leigha Dennis, an architectural designer, researcher, and educator based in Brooklyn, describes this emulsifying overlapping or emulsion of presences from an architectural perspective in her project Live Room, a four-hour long imitation of YouTube genres via FaceTime:
»As fixations shift to screens and mobile devices, architecture’s hold on its user’s attention is absorbed by the production and consumption of online content. Platforms like YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat have cultivated a digital mass culture that is increasingly self-referential, generating social media that is quite literally foregrounded against architectural backdrops. By adapting the conventions of YouTube video genres that inadvertently expose private interiors to the public sphere, we can reveal the competitive nature between physical and virtual, permanent and impermanent environments.«
If we consider ourselves part of »the competitive nature between physical and virtual, permanent and impermanent environments,« the idea of presence also changes and is no longer linked to the physical appearance of a person. Apps like Skype or Instagram bear a performative potential by establishing the impression of presence and authenticity, but at the same time they dispose of the manipulative tools to stage daily occurrences, to transform experiences into catchy images, to hide and frame parts of our surrounding during a Skype talk, or to pretend to be present in a chat whilst actually busy with something else.
We took this state of online-offline confusion, which affects daily life as well as artistic practices, as a given condition. What happens when virtual encounters replace physical ones? What consequences are there for privacy and intimacy if human interaction only happens through the channels of the World Wide Web? What new performative fields emerge?
Marina Abramović, the icon of performative self-staging, transformed the simplest form of interpersonal contact into an event at MoMA: The Artist is Present. With the concept of The Artist Is Online we wanted to stretch, explore, and extend the meaning of the term performance and include the digital space as a stage. The show became a hybrid between exhibition and public experiment, also driven by the curiosity of what impact online performances have on the audience, how they enter the piece, become engaged – how they are present themselves.
»There is a specific type of curiosity in dialogues that can’t be satisfied through a written monologue.«Dina Karadžić
The most surprising thing about the one-to-one Skype performances – which could be considered as being closest to the staging of Abramović’s The Artist Is Present – was the disclosure of our naivety. With the Skype acts Romance Booth by performer Dragana Bulut, Live Room by designer and architect Leigha Dennis, and A Conversation, 14th February 2014, at a Café, Place de la République, Paris, France by artist Arthur Gillet, we expected hesitant visitors and somehow mechanical, de-bodied interactions between them and the performers on the screen. But it was the total opposite: The format seemed to diminish any fears of contact and raised the question for us whether people are nowadays more used to and more comfortable with an online conversation than with the face-to-face experience. The online interactions appeared even more intimate.
Many of the presented works addressed the visual or aural channels of the audience in a direct and immediate – i.e. live – way. One striking experience happened just before the opening of the show during a chat conversation with artist Néstor García Diaz, who presented The peristaltic airwaves redux, an experimental live sound broadcasting from Belgium. He asked us via Facebook chat about the sound quality and at the moment we sent the message »great,« we heard the ringing sound of our message in the live broadcast. A banal proof of a real time connection between us, which strengthened the attention for everything perceivable. The sensuality paradoxically grew from the perceptible presence of the physically absent, not only bodies but also the artists.
»Although the installation was performed in public, a private zone was carved out from the social space of the gallery through the use of noise isolating headphones and a tablet screen. The intimacy of the domestic scene and the, dare I say, intimacy of the YouTube genres was made accessible and familiar by the intimacy created with these mobile technologies and the one-on-one connection they enabled. From my perspective on the other side of the screen, I could see audience members relaxing, taking off their jackets, leaning back and enjoying themselves.«Leigha Dennis
Although performance is defined as an immediate and ephemeral art practice often involving the body, it would be an insufficient discussion of the term »digital performance« if it only focused on the body. Another equally important artistic position was the approach of not only using the digital space as a channel to connect bodies via virtual encounters, but also of using it as a studio and stage for performances to also investigate the notion of audience.
»Can bots be considered an audience? Can they be enlisted as artists, performers, or participants in a work? As a kind of virtual update to Andy Warhol’s Factory, does this distribution of labor differ from the common practice of an established artist running a large studio?«The Institute for New Feeling
Can bots be considered an audience? This is one of the topics, the artist collective Institute for New Feeling deals with in their work and talk about here. Their video This Is Presence almost magically brought the different artistic perspectives of the exhibition together, by evoking the observer’s initial feeling of watching someone else’s browsing screened live. But then the video transforms and the spectator becomes trapped between highly tempting, aesthetical advertisements. You could not take your eyes off the work. At the same time, the audience realizes that they are not watching a human clicking through websites. Instead, algorithms define the path. This experience is the point where crucial fix points of performance art, such as liveness, immediacy, and the relation between the audience and the performer – or rather the existence of a performer – are questioned and redefined by the mechanisms of the digital space.
Institute for New Feeling were one of the three selected artists for Solitude’s first web residencies curated by NETRO on the topic »Decentralization of Internet Art.« All three were part of the show The Artist Is Online. These web residencies pursue the idea of supporting artists who work in and with digital space. Why not boil down the idea of inhabiting the web as a space and open a web gallery or more precisely, in the words of the Zagreb-based artists Dina Karadžić and Vedran Gligo, »a decentralized, uncensored, user-curated web gallery operating system and gallery management software running on nodes hosted by the general public and distributed through clearnet and Tor«?
»The communication itself was happening on more levels – the public P2P/RL one, the public darknet (& clearnet) one, and some private levels with the colleagues we were working with.«Dina Karadžić and Vedran Gligo
The aim of the gallery-host project, named Pivilion, is to create a free nomadic virtual environment that connects art-oriented users (both creators and consumers) by offering a participatory model of interaction. The gallery runs on Raspberry Pi hardware and is built on Raspbian GNU/Linux. For The Artist Is Online, Dina Karadžić and Vedran Gligo did a test run of Pivilion. They were connected via Skype to the exhibition space while working with other artists in the digital environment on Glitch art. Pink or green cursors sped over the screen. It was hard to follow the bulk of interactions happening simultaneously in the Pivilion corner of the web.
The web artist Travis Hallenbeck presented his project A Disillusioned Netizen Sets Out on a Walk Across Internet, for which he blocked the eight websites he has been visiting almost exclusively for the the last years, for example Google, Facebook, and Tumblr. In the project, he examines the rough nature of the digital wilderness, reporting on his experiences on a diary-like website. Along with Indian artist Adityan Melekalam, he anatomized the question as to the nature of this web space in the graphic based work Fallouts below the fold.
»Wish we could have been there. Or I guess we were there… ; ) .«Institute For New Feeling
The artists are offline now.
Looking at the different projects again, it became clear that despite their very different approaches, there is one thing that unites them: The (interactive) experiences were surprisingly sensual, natural, and even intimate as opposed to the stereotypes of coldness and artificiality we have of the digital world.
The Artist Is Online
April 2nd, 2016 / 7pm – 11 pm / Römerstr. 2A, Stuttgart
With: Dragana Bulut, Cássio Diniz Santiago, Leigha Dennis, Néstor García Díaz, Arthur Gillet, Vedran Gligo/ Dina Karadžić, Travis Hallenbeck, Institute for New Feeling (Scott Andrew/ Agnes Bolt/ Nina Sarnelle), Marie-Eve Levasseur, Adityan Melekalam
Curated by Julia Eckert, Judith Engel, Paula Kohlmann