Nicole Wermers Oeffnungszeiten April Der Sichtbare Horizont

What kind of visibility?

by Ellen Wagner

What should we do while public life has come to a halt in the course of the coronavirus crisis? The desire to share artistic content at least digitally in order to maintain some level of cultural life and for cultural institutions to retain some presence and visibility is becoming ever more urgent. But are such hopes genuinely being fulfilled online? At the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the art historian Ellen Wagner examined the flood of digital work on offer in the blog for the exhibition project Making Crises Visible, where she puts her finger on some key points in the discussion that we are currently having amongst ourselves in the Urbane Künste Ruhr team. We are busy preparing the first Wandersalon on Air and other ideas... to be continued!

Two weeks after events started to be cancelled I have now finished reviewing the last exhibitions I was still able to attend in the analogue space. It feels like they’ve been “reviewed away”, all their remaining potential for artistic criticism has been used up, the final unicorns have been slain, and I don’t know quite where I’m going with this metaphor but it feels suitably dramatic. The extinction of species has spread to the production of art texts. Even though, on closer inspection, there is no danger of the themes running out.

The strange thing is: it’s all too much for me nevertheless. All the exhibitions have closed but new installation views are turning up on my timeline every second. Things that I would have been able to see if I had been in place X with artist Y at private view Z two weeks ago, five months ago or even last year. I’m a little afraid that after withstanding the coronavirus crisis I will have seen so much art online I will feel some urgent need to retrain – to look after animals, maybe, or become a landscape gardener. Dentists, too, are always in demand and if they fill in gaps with something artificial, it’s something solid, not nervous clicks.

The art world is busy posting away like mad now (now!) to generate some virtual visibility for people, things (sometimes art) and institutions. Initially this sounds like a good idea – and it is: numerous streamed presentations of theatre productions, festival talks, guided tours through major exhibition spaces or tiny backyard galleries make it possible for events that have been prepared over a long time with a great deal of effort to receive the due respect of an audience that all the participants and not least the artistic outcome itself deserve. While their doors remain closed, browser windows are open.

The problem with this is: for all the positive affirmation of culture provided by such free access, it does very little to help all of us turn our work into income in the long term. If no one has to pay, then more and more often nobody will get paid. At least not if this model is extended over the many weeks and months that lie ahead of us – without any openings, without any new grant-funded productions, without fairs, without agreements, without commissions. It is essential that we do not forget that we art and culture professionals do not work solely in order to present each other with platforms of visibility and discursive relevance. In the mass of available visibilities it would probably also be naive to believe that this alone is what matters.

We should learn from the mistakes of the newspaper industry, which was far too late to realise it needed to mark its newly digitised content as a quality product through various paywall models that quite literally enable it to be paid for. If “the business” “works” in a way that is voluntary and cheap, i.e. it remains operational despite invisible but very real and often precarious stresses, it presents itself as being more self-sufficient than it actually is and ultimately risks the basis of its own existence. Many online music services have already absorbed this and put it into practice – the art world finds it harder to obtain and distribute revenues to individual participants. Perhaps because the relevant structures are already underdeveloped inasmuch as they exist at all.

Two years ago, queueing for coffee at a workshop. I say: “I do art criticism.” The person opposite me says: “Oh, so you’ve got a blog?” And that’s exactly where the problems begin.

Sometimes culture must also be allowed to take the lead, it must intervene where political decisions or disasters threaten its freedom, its ability to be seen and the basis of its existence without immediately straining to see who is paying for this engagement. But when working for poor or no pay is already the norm, this threatens to encourage individualistic competition for slots and features more than people’s finances or nerves can stand. Guaranteeing one’s ability to produce and ensuring this remains visible and consumable becomes the priority, irrespective of the fact of whether this is actually affects the infrastructure of the matter as a whole. And infrastructure is not the same as a network, in which certain routes and connections are always going to be closer than others, will presumably reach their target faster and thus also create something apart from themselves.

In the age of digital home working it is important to be prepared – for a time to come, whether it is in three weeks or three months, when events “in real life” will be possible once again. Who wants to be standing there then, unable to get cracking without stumbling as if they’d been bedridden for ages? Who is prepared to risk that culture’s legs will collapse under it in a few months because it didn’t dare keep moving or only started too late?

Of course it’s still important to extend and improve means of virtualising culture and its institutions. But what is crucial is how such things are done. How can we make the activities visible not just of the “major” institutions that have the social media reach to match, but also of smaller initiatives and individuals? How can we make it easier to discover new artists in the digital sphere overcoming our own algorithmically confirmed filter bubble?

Images, texts, videos and audio tracks can all be digitised. Whether the same goes for “culture” is open to doubt. Of course, obviously – there is a culture in the digital world. Indeed there are many, highly varied and specific cultures. But this digital culture cannot be aligned with an unformatted analogue world in which we people meet, overcome obstacles (even in art spaces), literally put up walls in order to fix forms to them that are defined not by filename extensions but by weights and volumes that can be measured physically. And at the moment we are missing this analogue culture, at least some of its elements, and it hurts, I’m sorry to say.

Assuming that culture is in itself plural, there will always be blind spots that will be evident as such and not anything else either only in analogue or only in digital form – or when both spheres interact without replacing each other. “Anything else” does not necessarily mean worse – but it’s not the same, either. Culture is influenced not least by the movable but nevertheless existing boundaries of the world in which people live, of the range, the respective mobility of audiences – which can be restrictive and yet can also make things possible. And these are each pitched and defined differently in the analogue and digital spheres.

From all this it emerges that there is really no case for blocking all attempts to present art online. Rather, there is an argument for greater experimentation. Exhibitions in virtual spaces whose specific dimensions are known, in online game environments or embedded in digital 360° photographs, as websites, that aren’t simply screened on 60 inch LCDs without losing what makes them special – all these are possibilities that can be made sharper and taken further. Because technology is simply too good to be used as a frame for cutting out rectangular sections of images instead of a field for experimentation. (Which doesn’t mean it’s not also important in the former function in certain cases.) Perhaps also we don’t always need to put things on show, but rather to pause briefly in order – and this is something that can also be done wonderfully in digital form – to exchange views on questions about the relationship between the urge to be present and withdrawal, the visual and the invisible in the fields of art and culture.

Of course it is right to make artistic productions accessible virtually that are already in the space, present yet unseen. But besides these, what else is worthy of (re-)production? Where does solidary intention stop and the pure provision of content begin?

What’s important is not filling a gap but experiencing it as such and what it means to grasp it as an open space for new formats – other than Instagram stories and posting threads – as well as a hole that we will need to thrash our way out of together for the future. If more people would use digital tools to do what those tools are specifically able to do, it would be possible to release some potential that has previously been undervalued. However, in parallel to this experiment – which is currently being tried not exactly under laboratory conditions, which should be an incentive – there should also be more scope to think about the gap that has arisen due to the loss of culture that cannot be digitised, to grieve a little in hopeful anticipation of what is to come and at least not to fill it up immediately as if what mattered was to quickly hoard three crates of streamed online artworks for our personal stash of artistic consumption.

After three weeks, who is still going to want to eat pasta five times a day? Who, seriously, is going to use 112 tampons per month? And who is supposed to digest all this content that has been arriving for days in triple or quadruple quantities delivered by social media and ringing the bell insistently? Perhaps it will help simply not to open it and instead to hope that someone rings the doorbell as a prank, for a delivery that was never ordered but nevertheless simply arrives, unpacks itself and then encourages us to share and, above all, to think.

Photo: almost prophetic: the digital opening hours for April 2020 in the diary of the artist Nicole Wermers that was created in 2019 for the Ruhr Ding: Territorien.

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