As part of an exchange collaboration with Art & Market, a media platform focused on art practice and business in Southeast Asia, we present the first of three articles that dig into common interests between our editorial lines in the frame of our 19th issue, Planetary Solidarity, a South-South dialogue between the Americas and Southeast Asia. In Creative Media in a Pandemic, sculptor Si Xuan reflects on how art engagement adjusts to the digital realm in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How has the experience of art changed in the climate of COVID-19? Hyperdiegesis, a term coined by Matt Hill, senior lecturer in the Cardiff School of Journalism, described as a “vast and detailed narrative space, where only a fraction of which is directly seen or encountered” comes to mind. In referencing world-building in games and movies, hyperdiegesis is effectively demonstrated when a narrative, which explores a small percentage of the world, opens up new imagined extensions of that space. The audience then co-opts the world by creating new narratives through text, image, and various other forms extending the world beyond its primary narrative. While audiences extend real-life into popular fantasy narratives such as Lord of the Rings and Blade Runner, the same can also be said for the reverse, extending fictitious narratives and worlds into the present day, especially with the COVID-19 pandemic. The digital realm is usually a source of information, for education, news, connection, and even art. However, in the time of COVID-19, it becomes not only a channel for information, but a way to survive the rapidly changing times, and a way for artists to continue practicing.
Digitizing art has its positive effects: because most people go online, we have more platforms in common and navigate these digital places in search of solace, entertainment or to connect with peers. The term hyperdiegesis is focused on its medium as a vessel that contains the works. The materials an artist uses do not only signify the artists’ ability to inject new works and messages but also how they shape their artworks for such platforms. Social media and other technological bodies have the power to affect the way meaning is produced, in addition to the overarching context of the pandemic. Bodies of works now have widespread accessibility as they possess a common medium with the various news, memes, and other information disseminated.
In having a larger digital space that everyone shares, new initiatives for art, and the community are formed with places such as waresnotwarehouses using their platform to set up initiatives such as Mutual Aid and Community Solidarity. It connects people in need of resources with people who can extend resources. There are also websites like the A-list, a platform by the National Arts Council, dedicated to continuing the enjoyment of arts and culture from the comfort of homes. Substituting gallery visits for 360-degree gallery tours, physical libraries going online, activities for children, these communities have used their digital presence for good, enrichment, and much more.
One such art initiative is the Wu Wei Performance Series. Taking their series to Youtube, the project is inspired by Laozi’s teaching of non-action. Presented in 2-3 minutes videos and recorded on the performer’s phones, the video replaces a live space, with recognizable common areas such as toilets, bedrooms, and corridors. The artists explore themes of materiality, particularly our relationship to common domestic materials such as Yen Phang’s Condition Precedent and Aneesha Shetty’s Third Sculpted Skin. Jillian Wong’s who am I serving? and Eat by Veronyka Lau directly transforms the domestic space into a performative one, simultaneously confronting the confines of a remote performance piece. All these contribute to the narratives for its audience: from a three-dimensional space with other audiences to one that exists on a screen without other people. The utilization of commonly found objects as material becomes oddly intimate. At the same time, the distant connection it evokes is exacerbated.
Is the digital realm enough to replace the experience of physical spaces, and should it? With COVID-19 drastically changing the way we live for the foreseeable future, physical experiences become a rarity, and even with the occasional time I have stepped out the doors for essential items, a hyperawareness for the need to remain hygienic is at the front of my mind, and I don’t begin to think about the ability to enjoy the surroundings. For artists whose works require audiences or a physical presence, spatial engagement becomes unattainable and the experience is distant, potentially less comprehensible, and less impactful.
Would it be the artists’ responsibility to adapt to the rapid changes? Digitization effectively benefits those who can afford up-to-date gadgets and software, and those who already have a grasp on how to utilize these devices. While the efforts to sustain the local art circuit are present with grants and open calls, not everyone can adapt as quickly to digitization, and not everyone can afford to do so. Now that anyone can launch new businesses or open calls, hoaxes are prevalent and users are also more privy to viruses with the influx of downloading content. Lastly, with everyone convening on the popular few platforms, over-saturation of information is inevitable. How then does one work stand out from the next?
While we can fall back on technological devices to disseminate information during the COVID-19 pandemic, it simultaneously accelerates our attention on screens, reminding us of our present physical stagnation, leaving a feeling of increasing disjointedness. Therefore, in the spirit of hyperdiegesis, we could rethink the way the art circuit adapts to the current situation. Instead of replicating the way we interact with art physically, which seems to create a comparison to the original experiences in galleries or physical spaces, perhaps in embracing digital platform’s accessibility and outreach, physical spaces are less likely to achieve can allow for ways to rethink artists’ accessibility and skills to these large changes. Making use of digital communities can allow for more inclusive digital spaces, in addition to innovating other modes of capturing artworks, could empower artists to convey the current zeitgeist. Hopefully, it will be a matter of when, and not if, we get through the virus. The works created could offer a look into these strange days, and a strategy for coping in turbulent times.
This text was originally published at Art & Market on July 24, 2020. The text was a winning entry from the inaugural Art & Market ‘Fresh Take’ writing contest.