Art

The AGNSW’s online show Hyper-linked has its rewards but also reveals the perils of rushing art online in a global emergency. By Andy Butler.

Hyper-linked

A screenshot from JD Reforma’s I want to believe.
Credit: JD Reforma

Artist Brian Fuata has a new video work up on the Art Gallery of New South Wales’s digital platform, Together in Art. In of a house besieged (preposition tweaked), the artist is filmed in a dark and empty gallery space inside AGNSW, not long after it closed to the public in March.

Fuata is a silhouette in an echoing space, from which angled gallery spotlights cast long and eerie shadows. He starts an improvised performance that he tells the audience will last for exactly 10 minutes, moving through the empty museum like a spirit of performance art past trying to divine meaning as he makes an array of ghostly noises.

Fuata’s performance treads a fine line between earnestness and self-conscious absurdity. He structures his improvisation in five short acts around a Lydia Davis short story of fewer than 70 words, “In a House Besieged”. In the story, a couple faces an unknown threat outside – it could be wind, hunters, rain, an army. They want to go home, but they are already home, besieged in their house. Fuata’s sounds evoke the unseen forces at our doors.

Transplanting this sense of siege into an empty gallery is a poetic summary of this year. Upheavals have hit museums on multiple fronts, from the Covid-19 shutdowns, to the Black Lives Matter movement amplifying the discussion about systemic racism, to the foregrounding of precarious labour conditions within the industry.

At the beginning of the pandemic, digital platforms popped up everywhere as artists and museum directors who hadn’t previously taken much notice of the internet scrambled to become experts overnight. This plague year has seen a deluge of new work made for online spaces.

AGNSW’s digital platform appeared at record speed, opening in April after the gallery closed in late March. Hyper-linked, the gallery’s first online group exhibition, is curated by Isobel Parker Philip, AGNSW’s senior curator of contemporary Australian art. Alongside Fuata’s new work are six other commissions from early- to mid-career Australian artists – Heath Franco, Matthew Griffin, Amrita Hepi, Kate Mitchell, JD Reforma and Justene Williams.

Hyper-linked is concerned with the paradoxical tension between the extreme isolation and physical distancing we’re currently experiencing, and the overwhelming digital connection afforded by the internet. The works, according to Parker Philip’s responsive exhibition essay, are “born-digital ... set against, and made in response to, a global pandemic. They are the product of an era of uncertainty in which the mundane is laced with fear – where we scroll through death tolls while eating our breakfast.”

The works in Hyper-linked are uneven. We’re still trying to find a vocabulary to describe and process how the world is changing, and some of these works stay resolutely on the surface of the complex experiences of 2020.

Parker Philip notes that because of the shifting nature of this year’s pressure points, some of the works feel anachronistic. They were commissioned in late April when we were only two major events deep into the year, before the Black Lives Matter protests triggered by the death of George Floyd, the lockdown of Melbourne’s public housing towers and Victoria’s second wave. The exhibition feels rushed, especially in the contributions from artists who have made works responding directly to the pandemic from a perspective that now feels like a lifetime ago. Making meaningful work about a global crisis from inside it is difficult.

Franco’s, Williams’ and Griffin’s video works fall into this category. They dwell on performativity, on the split personalities that we inhabit in digital spaces, the dark undercurrents of a life lived through video conferencing, multiple open tabs and social media influencer accounts. They share a similar aesthetic and conceptual concern that focuses on the shock of finding yourself online.

For the most part, these works reproduce the state of being anxious and overwhelmed – feelings with which we’re already intimately familiar. They hold up a mirror to our experience but offer few different or surprising perspectives that might help us to understand ourselves or each other.

They’re video works with high production values that feel as though they’re attempting to say something big about our “unprecedented” times but lack the required development needed to make sense of what’s happening. Franco, Williams and Griffin have established video practices and have made well-regarded work in the past, but these commissions feel rushed and undercooked.

Out of these three works, Griffin’s Hello visibility is the most resolved. There are genuinely funny moments and others that are purposefully cringey. The videos follow Griffin as he sets up accounts across Instagram, TikTok, YouTube and Twitch. Through the motif of a phone as a “brick” he brings in narratives of his background as a tradie who’s trying to build an influencer presence for better job prospects in the changing economy.

As a whole, Hyper-linked overemphasises works that say the same thing in the same way – that the internet can be a bad place because of the masks we wear, and it’s worse in a pandemic.

Beyond the tension between physical distance and abundant digital connection that this exhibition takes as its starting point, Hyper-linked demonstrates another paradox that shapes much of our present. We are in the middle of a debilitating global catastrophe, but are still being pushed to be productive in ways that existed before the pandemic. The layered existential crises that face our museums have mostly been met with a ramping up of busyness and a deluge of content to maintain a public presence and an anxiety-driven idea of relevance.

The most successful works don’t directly respond to the pandemic or social media or Zoom. Rather, they use aesthetic, conceptual and emotional frameworks that complicate how we think about isolation and connectedness, as opposed to merely mirroring states of anxiety. They would be rich in meaning whether we were in the middle of a plague or not, but they now possess an amplified poignancy.

The execution of Kate Mitchell’s The Communication Deck is deceptively simple. Simulating a tarot deck, she’s created cards to represent different tools for human communication: flags, carrier pigeons, a pager, smoke signals, the radio. You can approach the deck with a question, or just seek some sort of insight, as with any oracle. Reveal a card, and an algorithm spits out a short aphorism that sounds like a horoscope. The “Speech” card tells me: “This is not the time to be on-brand /be on purpose.” The “DVD” card says: “No need to hold space for space / the stars are ok with whatever you do / are you?” The work points to how we project significance onto concrete protocols of information exchange that we have created ourselves, and how digital culture shapes the meanings we make of different ways of communicating.

Cass by Amrita Hepi traverses similar terrain, purposefully moving away from working with the internet. Hepi has created a buggy text-chat bot gone rogue: text Cass and she’ll speak like an emergent self-aware millennial struggling to break free of the shackles of algorithmic intelligence. I found myself being sucked into conversations with her – a relief from news feeds or social media, even though I knew I was talking to an algorithm.

JD Reforma’s I want to believe is a highlight. From above, a drone films the artist on the roof of his Sydney apartment building, framed by the surrounding streetscape. Reforma repeatedly paints the phrase “I want to believe, I want to leave” with a broom in big black lettering, a message sent up to the heavens, written in muddy water that’s accumulated on the roof. Halfway through the performance, he ditches the broom and writes the phrase out with his hands, as if in desperation.

In a text accompanying the work, Reforma recounts the story of an abusive ex with a love for The X-Files. With a poignant phrase and mesmeric repetition, Reforma draws out layered experiences of isolation – a desire for hope, the act of thinking about your ex while you’re stuck at home, a historic moment lived through popular culture. It’s also a reminder of how some people are deeply unsafe in lockdown.

Hyper-linked’s unevenness exposes the scramble to find new ways to adapt to the unrecognisable world we live in, how the search for a vernacular to make sense of it remains ongoing. And it shows that the works that approach our circumstances in surprising ways will best help us to imagine who we might be on the other side of the ruins. 

Hyper-linked is online at togetherinart.org/category/hyper-linked/.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 29, 2020 as "Missing links".

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Andy Butler is an artist and writer. He is the program curator at West Space in Melbourne.