This was the final speaker series for the 2020 Capture Photography Festival and I think it closed on a high note. The presenter was Cliff Lauson, Senior Curator of The Hayward Gallery in London. Although the talk was about Art in the Age of Social Distancing, Lauson stressed that the thinking behind the talk definitely predated the pandemic. The main thrust of the talk was aimed at the place of art in social media and the experience economy, the focus being on lens based images. It looks at the triangulation between lens based art, the economy and social media.
He mentioned influencer events – receptions with mood lighting where influences and Instagramers were all in the exhibition, posing for each other, a separate event from the main press view, more an event of people showing the show, but also showing themselves seeing. Many of these people come to the exhibition with the specific purpose of taking photos so they actually pack various changes of clothes in which to photograph themselves in, take one set of photos, change in the washrooms and come out and continue taking photos. Strange phenomenon! Part of that phenomenon would be places like the Museum of Ice Cream in San Francisco. Lauson describes it as the most eye-popping rooms, brightly coloured and themed, instantly Instagramable kind of rooms and experiences one could have. The purpose is to go have fun, take loads of photos and these type of venues demonstrate some kind of aspirations of having fun, because they are basically empty sets until they become populated by people. Lauson did an opinion piece about this experience economy in the Globe and Mail last year, which I wanted to read, but the newspaper requires a subscription. Some of these experience museums he mentioned are Color Factory, Eye Candy, Museum of Illusion, The Egg House, The Dream Machine to mention just a few. Something that I had never really thought about was that these places charge quite exorbitant entry fees – some up to $40 – which is far more than any art museum charges and it is this that drives this “experience economy”. The performance of the self becomes the base for this new economy, based on an aspirational lifestyle. The Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience is a hybrid between educational experience and a form of entertainment because it is an exhibition that has no art work in it, but replica of different scales, and Lauson regards it as a visual hyperbole as the installations are larger than life and contributes to the sense of visual bombardment that we have today.
Art is about how we relate to each other and if social media is a way in which we interact with each other, then art and culture is a part of that, but social media is not the defining feature of it at this point in time.
Nam June Paik was really interested in how to engage the viewer in the artwork. Other artists mentioned were Lee Friedlander and his self-portraits, also from the 1960s. Friedlander always came across as very self-conscious, self referential. His self-portraits have a realist style to them and his way of making the pictures is honest, yet awkward, not idealised and contain an element of chance. They are the opposite of selfies that one sees on Instagram, Twitter and TikTok and they invite a slowness in looking.
Stephen Shore also uses Instagram, taking photos with his phone, but then curates them for the gallery afterwards. He does maintain certain boundaries in that he won’t put up any food pictures.
Lauson mentioned a book by Jonathan Crary 24/7, published by Verso Books in 2014. The book is a backlash to the dominance of online visual culture and is basically a criticism of the lack of sleep that everyone seems to be experience when obsessed with their phones. Crary regards this as injurious to the fabric of society, comparing it to militarization tactics of sleep deprivation. He may have a valid point there.
Other points Lauson covered were the circulation of imagery – the speed and the sense of missing out and feeling the need to put something online, and this paradox of time, in theory now of having more time to fill up with all that visuality. Many galleries have now become content providers, putting exhibitions online.
Some of the artwork referenced was Lucy and Jorge Orta’s Nexus Architecture, made in 2001, but could have been specifically made to depict the idea of social distancing in this pandemic today. An-My Lê’s Night Operations body of work represents a simulacrum. It was made during the time of the Gulf War, but was actually made on a training ground in California. It shows what a conflict looks like and appeared hyperreal on TV. Cameras on the ends of smart bombs also provide a visual demonstration of what has become part of our visual language. Following on from this is drone-based policing, which we are seeing so much of on the news lately. Lauson talks of the eye being displaced – we are now being watched by robots – a culture of surveillance, the Panopticon. Surely the drone would representing the all seeing eye. I wonder what Foucault would have made of it? Candida Höfer’s work of empty theatres, temples and churches are also particularly relevant in this Covid-era as those empty public spaces relate to our empty cities. The spectacle now demonstrating an element of “nowness”.
Lauson finished off the talk by mentioning the movie Black Mirror by Charlie Brooker, which is a dystopian sci-fi about how technology, taken to its end leads to undesirable consequences. The title comes from when you turn your device off all you have is a black mirror that contains a reflection of yourself. A reversal in a way – when the device is turned off, then you have a mirror of yourself as a kind of selfie. Art is an empathetic discipline, art works ask for us to relate to them, but at the same time when they are presented through screens, they have to obey the medium. So your relationship with art has to be negotiated and defined by the specificities whatever app or software you are using. On top of that we are asked to be hyper-conscious of space, yourself, your body, your 2 metres from other bodies, but also then to be hyper-conscious of the performance of self and the illusion of space. All of which are quite difficult for art to achieve. What is also challenging for art is its capacity to disrupt as it is very hard to disrupt the medium from within the medium.
Some of the questions asked at the end:
Q: Should artists be adapting for screens?
A: That is up to each artist and the way things are transmitted, also depends on how much visibility is to be maintained.
Q: How are commercial galleries transitioning, and who is leading the way?
A: Commercial galleries obviously have the funding to get up and running virtually. There is some online engagement by museums. One can’t place a value on one or the other.
There was a tremendous amount of information to take in with this lecture and very thought provoking. Being very much an observer of the selfie-generation (I don’t have a mobile phone), many aspects of the talk were quite enlightening for me. Definitely need to read through my notes again for this and research more of the works mentioned.
Capture Photography Festival (2020) Art in the Age of Social Distancing. At: https://capturephotofest.com/events/art-in-the-age-of-social-distancing/ (Accessed 30/04/2020).
Color Factory (s.d.) At: https://www.colorfactory.co/ (Accessed 04/05/2020).
Davis, B. (2018) What Happens When an Art Critic Reviews an Instagram Trap? Turns Out, That’s a Trick Question. At: https://news.artnet.com/exhibitions/dream-machine-review-1313972 (Accessed 04/05/2020).
Museum of Ice Cream | San Francisco (s.d.) At: https://www.museumoficecream.com/san-francisco (Accessed 04/05/2020).
Museum of Illusions (s.d.) Museum of Illusions. At: https://museumofillusions.ca/exhibits/ (Accessed 04/05/2020).
Stone, C. (2018) This Egg-Themed Pop-Up Is So Crazy It Might Work. At: https://www.bonappetit.com/story/the-egg-house-pop-up (Accessed 04/05/2020).
Studio Orta (2001) Nexus Architecture x 50 Intervention. At: https://www.studio-orta.com/en/artwork/103/Nexus-Architecture-x-50-Intervention-Koeln (Accessed 04/05/2020).
The Meet Vincent van Gogh Experience – Official Trailer (2017) Directed by Van Gogh Museum. Amsterdam. At: https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=2&v=TJMCwmjQgG0&feature=emb_logo (Accessed 04/05/2020).
This Is Eye Candy.com (s.d.) At: https://www.thisiseyecandy.com/explore-eye-candy-toronto/ (Accessed 04/05/2020).