FAFSWAG vogue ball, Auckland Art Gallery 2018.

The future of art is not on a screen, it’s with people

What makes Zoom so exhausting? And where to for art? For Auckland artist Cushla Donaldson it’s about work that embraces the social and physical in new ways.

Increasingly in Zoom meetings, rather than staring stoically at me from the other side of the screen, my opposite zoomer is asking if it’s OK if they do just audio or make it an old-school phone call.

In one recent Zoom, Campbell Jones, associate professor of sociology at Auckland University, mentioned research suggesting that Zoom fatigue could be caused by the lack of body language and other non-verbal communication. The unconscious communication that goes on between humans is absent. On a phone call, the mind relaxes, following a known pattern of taking turns to speak. It’s like the difference between radio and TV; in the absence of the visual, the mind can imagine, fantasise even, the missing information.

After lockdown was announced, it seemed that many art galleries rushed into the digital world, as if in a panic to keep up production and visibility. Yet the quality has been mixed. Really, how interested is the art audience in looking at work made for the physical world as flat images, or the cinematic opulence of film on an iPhone? These are representations of the artworks, symbols of productivity. They yearn for relevance at a time when the dice are in the air and we have no idea what they will reveal when they land.

It seems many of us have decided we are all now trapped in the “internet of things” long term. But where to from there? How interesting is this wholesale digital world when what we all own as humans – the bodily and the social – is denied? Art on Instagram, Facebook and online galleries flattens out the work; the act of looking becomes hard work rather than pleasure. 

Lockdown is a term associated with incarceration. The punishment is not only where they are kept, but the separation of their bodies from physical society, and where they can’t be. What we can take from lockdown is the experience of absence, which is exactly what we are missing when we try to simulate the experience of the artwork separated from its power sources.

Cushla Donaldson, “501s”, displayed message from detainee, Melbourne Art Fair 2018

I have been working on an art project for the last two years that uses the internet to have messages “hacked” into the gallery space from detention centres in Australia where people are in indefinite lockdown, sectioned under ‘501’ (the work ‘501s’ has been shown at Melbourne Art Fair, Gus Fisher Gallery Auckland and the Physics Room Christchurch). This messaging was one of the only ways their direct testimony could enter public life. This work has made me think a lot about how to celebrate and find ways to enter public life. There is tragedy in the 501s’ communication method, where the only representation of the human can be digital.  

Cemeti – Institute for Art and Society work, part of Most Things Happen When I Am Asleep, Artspace Aotearoa 2018

An exhibition featuring a less stark example of this was held two years ago at Artspace Aotearoa. Most Things Happen When I’m Asleep brought to Auckland work from artist-run spaces in Colombia, Puerto Rico, Trinidad and Tobago, Costa Rica, and Indonesia. Given the inability of most of the spaces to be represented by their communities (reasons included the impact of  travel restrictions imposed at the time by the Trump administration), Instagram was used to provide a window into the daily activities of these communities, appearing in New Zealand in the morning due to time differences. This was a successful, wistful way of highlighting distance and absence, encouraging the viewer to contemplate comparative economic and political constraints. A thoughtful example of the digital as a tool in highlighting our relationship to the physical.

A friend once described the feeling of living with her family as being as if they were all one body. I thought at the time that being present with good art might be similar. The intermingling of self with work in space can set alight neural pathways that we’re not consciously aware of. This is a timeless use of aesthetics, just as a religious painting or precious object you travel to may become imbued with ceremonial wisdom. 

Then there’s the smell. One thing I have noticed now the streets are busier in level three is that I smell people. I have never consciously noticed this before.

I miss my friends’ bodies; their deodorants, perfumes, body odours, and hair products mixed with beer. A friend’s nervous way of standing. Or the way a colleague has made a special effort with their outfit.

As Tanu Gogo of South Auckland artist collective FAFSWAG recently noted, shifting an entire community-based practice online is not an easy task. And it is projects like FAFSWAG’s that have in recent years been showing us that the future of art is in the social, in community gathering in space.

Raul Walch work for ‘Die Balknoe’ Berlin, 2020.

‘Die Balkone’ (The Balconies) is a project running in Berlin during lockdown organised by curators Övül Ö. Durmusoglu and Joanna Warsza. Durmusoglu was recently here for a residency based in Ōtautahi, hosted jointly by The Physics Room and the Arts Centre. She and Warsza have a “working class partnership” Durmusoglu tells me, representative of the two biggest working class minorities in Germany, Polish and Turkish. 

As part of the project, local artists have been displaying work on balconies for people to spot on their “state sanctioned” lockdown walks. The project quickly gained a large following along with coverage in the arts media. The desire for this kind of reclamation is clear and there is a new currency in the windows and in-between spaces available now that galleries are closed.  

“We are at the beginning of a new cycle that we cannot yet situate ourselves in,” Durmusoglu and Warsza wrote in their accompanying statement. “Its first palpable experiences are shifts in the relationship between inside and outside; in the distance between one day and another; between what is private, public, and political. At the same time, care protection and vulnerability are growing new meanings. 

“We are asked to commit to the digital space without critically estimating the effects of for-profit information technologies,” they continue. This is an excellent point that has had too little discussion in Aotearoa, particularly considering the actions of Facebook and Twitter following the Christchurch massacre last year. How are we to make the digital future safe and “our home”?

Tosh Mosta, creating with things around her in lockdown. Courtesy of the artist.

Using the small socialities and physicalities available to us is in ways like ‘Die Balkone’ feels politically important right now. That’s why, of all the content that has come out of lockdown in New Zealand, I think the best has been teddy bears in windows. 

Even before Covid-19, austerity and limited resources made the art world in Aotearoa often feel stilted and stale, but the work made by artist collectives tended to be brave and aspirational, despite receiving little initial institutional or financial support. Two of the most impressive of these collectives are South Auckland’s FAFSWAG, who have broken through once rigid art world barriers, and Mata Aho, who have just been nominated for the Walters Prize. 

An Auckland protest in support of the Ihumātao protectors. Documentation by Raymond Sagapolutele.

Others include Rebecca Hobbs and her work with S.O.U.L to protect Ihumātao; Tosh Monsta who works with youth, underrepresented communities and people who have experienced homelessness; Bronwyn Holloway-Smith whose investigative practice links histories with contemporary conditions; and Owen Connors who connects his queer community through involvement in the making process.

All are beautiful examples of the thoughtful response required to stem the descent into the purely digital. During lockdown they have been pushing collective work and participation with those often outside the art bubble. Post-Covid, there will be a thirst for this kind of physical, political and cross-disciplinary work. 

Yet as these artists and their collective practices are increasingly incorporated into the art world, the art markets, fairs, funding bodies and larger institutions need to start a conversation with these practitioners about what is actually required to support their work. 

The commissioning of this kind of new work should become a key focus for institutions. Traditional shows of public collections will make financial sense, but it’s vital that there’s also room for new work in new forms in a world where new models are being sought. 

I’m looking forward to the first exhibition after lockdown; the excitement of art, bodies and all that accompanying non-verbal communication in a visceral mix. When thinking about art in the post-Covid environment we should dream, imagine and aim high – looking up to see we what’s on each other’s “balconies”. To quote the Black Orchid collective, “Let’s take care of each other, so we can be dangerous together.”



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