How Can We Think of Art at a Time Like This?
“In the beginning it seemed innocent enough, a simple hope to compensate for her loss of sight.” Thus begins Lynn Hershman Leeson’s 1996 Seduction of a Cyborg, as it chronicles the journey of the protagonist, a blind woman, who agrees to a physical treatment that allows her to see images via computer-screen transmission. Presenting technology as an infectious disease, the video walks us through this surreal experience of the therapy, dragging the protagonist into a different, hyper-mediated world that ultimately affects her health after an initial period of intense pleasure: “Though her hearing was acute, she was born with eyes that lacked the ability to absorb light. The choice seemed simple. It didn’t take long and it didn’t hurt. In exchange, the rewards of recognition guided her forward, seductively linked to computer transmissions—images of simulated worlds, sounds, masked passions gave enormous pleasure,” declares a woman in voiceover. A woman touches the screen, enamored by the light it provides, and we soon realize that she has no choice but to fall into it. The narration continues: “The manipulation was thorough and unprejudiced. She witnessed the pollution of history. Her body, a battlefield of degraded privacy, loneliness, and terror, succumbed to the inevitable.” Leeson, an early pioneer of new media artworks, has long explored the moral and ethical quandaries raised in a culture obsessed with technology and artifice, as well as the tantalizing idea of creating new life forms and reproducing ourselves, touching on the utopian and dystopian scenarios inherent in both.
Seduction of a Cyborg is currently streaming as part of How Can We Think of Art at a Time Like This? and although created in the mid-90s, its poignancy has only increased. Co-curated by Barbara Pollack and Anne Verhallen as a platform for the exchange of art and ideas at a time of crisis, How Can We Think of Art at a Time Like This? is an exhibition without walls, created almost overnight to respond to museum and galleries’ closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as a platform for free expression, inviting visitors to post responses on its Comments page. Exclusively an online-curated exhibition with no end date in sight, it is one that is not, as the curatorial text states, “funded by a corporation, tear gas distributor, or pharmaceutical company.” With a new entry posted every day since March 17, Art at a Time Like This wishes to be more than a presentation of artworks opened to the public online: to actively engage with its visitors, sharing personal reflections on how the current crisis touches and impacts each of us as an interconnected art world.
Framed as a question, the title—and consequent premise of the exhibition—brings to light the need to examine the ways in which we consume art; habits, as such, made especially conspicuous at a time like this. With an abundance of online viewing rooms, and bricks-and-mortar museums and galleries turning to the digital realm, this exhibition has been created solely for the purpose of being viewed and experienced online, ushering in a digital renaissance—if one was even needed. Showcasing a variety of media—namely photography, mixed media, illustration, video work, as well as documentation of installation art—Art at a Time Like This’s unifying criteria is its inclusion of works from artists who have addressed social and political issues throughout their careers. Though the video work is the most efficient medium for online viewing—particularly because it gives access to art that is normally hard to find outside of exhibition walls—the accompanying still images paint a holistic picture of the projects. The curators aimed to address the COVID-19 pandemic as well as other crises in the world, driven by the belief that the current disruption of our behavior can facilitate long-awaited change.
I approached this show in a way akin to how I used to experience exhibitions in the flesh. I closed all other browser tabs, looked at the artworks, read about them, took notes—on paper—and then sat with my lingering thoughts, taking time to absorb. Experiencing artworks this way is very different in nature, as the energy that seems to emanate from them is inherently that of the screen. What sets this experience apart is the ability to consult the work on the go, rather than rely on memory, phone documentation, or notes jotted down quickly amidst crowds of bodies. I wondered, how am I truly thinking about art at a time like this?
Perhaps the beauty of such an experience lies in the fact that we can look at artworks at a leisurely pace; when, in our busy days, do we find the time to “think about art at a time like this?” Unbridled by crowds or opening hours the experience becomes more intimate, more jarring, less futile. Take, for example, Mary Lucier’s Leaving Earth (2020), a sample video/sound excerpt from a work in progress. This new, mixed-media installation is based on the final writing of her late husband, the painter Robert Berlind. The text, which was composed in a diaristic format during his last years, reveals his sensation of sure but gradual separation of body from earth. An excerpt played on the video reads: “Losing so much weight, […] makes me wonder at my body’s weakening attraction to the earth, as though it is choosing to leave it”—a somber yet sobering thought, especially given that the work is being made now, during a lethal pandemic, oddly in sync with the moment. The words and video work reverberated intimately in a way that I could only have experienced in isolation.
On the other end of the spectrum, Meriem Bennani’s Gradual Kingdom (2015) offers some form of absurdist comic relief. The Moroccan artist put together iPhone footage, video images of mundane scenes from Rabat—mostly of people working, cooking, chatting in very close proximity—coupled with special effects and sounds reminiscent of cartoon characters. The playfulness that the artist presents is enhanced by a soundtrack that includes a slowed-down version of Mariah Carey’s “Vision of Love” and a version of Justin Bieber’s “U Smile.” This video has served as a testing ground for a video language that the artist developed over the last five years, as she shares in her introductory text. It is the inclusion of such works that makes Art at a Time Like This particularly refreshing.
The question posed by the show followed every single new tab I opened on my browser. Why do we think about art in times of turmoil and upheaval? Is it because we hope that artists may have the answers? Or is it for the solace in the fact that we can still find pockets of joy during painful times? It is high time that we reflect on our consumption of art outside of a capitalistic framework. It is also humbling to be reminded that beauty, euphoria, and healing—in all their different manifestations—can be within reach; that our humanity and our pursuit of a better world can supersede its atrocities. The art presented in Art at a Time Like This invites us to introspect, linger on the craft, join in on a painful journey, laugh, and even be distracted for a brief moment; but it also rouses in us the desire for change, the understanding that there is still a creative spirit that flails its arms amidst turmoil, extending to us a hand in hopes that we may someday clasp at it.
artatatimelikethis.com will continue posting new artists everyday for the foreseeable future, until a need for such a platform is no longer necessary—an idea that is in and of itself difficult to envision. This curated platform offers us a slow, daily accumulation of art, building gradually to shape what in the future we may refer to as “how we thought about art at a time like that.”