ince museums and galleries closed last month, there’s been a rush to fill the artistic void with a deluge of online programming. And while many of the films and virtual gallery visits on websites and YouTube channels are excellent, still it never quite satisfies that thirst for the unique communion between us and an artwork.
Yet there is a way to engage one-on-one with art while our museums are closed: by exploring born-digital art. It’s already a long tradition: artists began creating on the internet almost as soon as Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web in 1989. And, as is artists’ won, much work online subverts the internet as much as celebrates it. Now, of course, it has migrated onto our smartphones and tablets as well as our desktop browsers.
There has never been a better moment to dive into this world; here are some places to begin your journey.
This is effectively the world’s museum of online art, affiliated to the New Museum in New York, one of the centers of experimental art in the US. I would start by clicking Program on the menu at the top of the homepage. From there you’ll be taken to the Exhibitions section, where you’ll find three strands of programming. First Look: New Art Online is where you can see Rhizome and the New Museum’s latest digital commissions — they recently launched a superb online exhibition with Chronus Art Center in Shanghai, called We=Link: Ten Easy Pieces, which features work by Chinese and Western artists, including the veteran Net Art collective JODI. Their work also features in Net Art Anthology, Rhizome’s curated guide to 100 key works made for the internet. The third strand is the Artbase, an archive of 2,000-plus works created using code, software, websites and browsers. Add to this Rhizome’s dynamic commissioning of texts relating to online art and you have a treasure trove; be careful, hours will disappear.
The most dynamic program of online and digital art among British institutions is, by far, that of the Serpentine Galleries. Digital works are at the heart of the Serpentine’s activities, and overseen by a dedicated team led by Ben Vickers, one of the most astute chroniclers and curators in the field. The latest commission is the app I Magma by Jenna Sutela, a visionary explorer of artificial intelligence. Sutela appears to be haunting my phone via the oracle she’s created, which sends me daily gnomic push notifications — “There was a beautiful foe”; “No one should sing”. When clicked, they send you to an app, where your phone becomes a lava lamp, with the spectral face of the oracle embedded in your surroundings, captured on your camera. She reads the shadows of the lava to conjure further enigmatic divinations. What it all means is beyond me for now, but it’s both a strangely calming and unsettling everyday ritual in my lockdown experience — the latest in an impressive sequence of commissions including works by James Bridle, Ian Cheng and Cécile B. Evans.
Most art created in the digital sphere is proudly, defiantly uncommercial, but Acute Art, based in London, produces and sells works in augmented reality. They work principally with artists outside the online art community, including Marina Abramović and Olafur Eliasson, and some of their activities are free: their latest project allows you to “acquire” an AR sculpture by the art market sensation KAWS for a limited time via an app. So through your phone camera, you can have one of his trademark cartoonish Companion figures in your own home, just like the hedge funders and other collectors (apparently including Drake — look out for a pair in his hallway on his recent Toosie Slide video) spending millions on KAWS in the auction rooms.
Sunrise/Sunset: The Whitney Museum of American Art
Amid self-isolation and lockdown, experiencing art that only happens at certain times of day can provide useful structure. In the Whitney’s Sunrise/Sunset programme, twice daily, at dawn and dusk, you can witness a piece of online art, a fleeting digital performance over the Whitney’s website. Kristin Lucas’s Speculative Habitat for Sponsored Seabirds fills your screen with an icy landscape and blocky, stylised birds: flying and grazing flamingos and a penguin, who hops from the ocean onto drift ice. This breezy scene conceals a tougher message about climate change, collapsed time and disappearing habitats. While you’re there, check out the Whitney’s Artport online commissions.
Something of an anomaly: a work intended to be a live performance which is now an online exclusive due to the closure of Tate Modern. Linyekula, a Congolese choreographer, was due to appear in The Tanks as part of the annual BMW Tate Live season in March but, of course, never had the chance to perform his work, My Body, My Archive. A musing on his personal memories amid the broader history of the DRC, taking in elegiac musical accompaniment, film and lighting installations, and theatrical and choreographic performance, it was staged for the camera with only a few hours of rehearsal. It works terrifically on film, even if I felt a longing to be in The Tanks experiencing its full, visceral impact.