Jpeg fatigue and the art world online

More than a year after the first Covid lockdowns were announced, galleries and institutions are trying to maintain digital buoyancy. Is it working? Sophie McKinnon looks at our evolving relationship with digital necessity.


Countryside, The Future at the Guggenheim

While some may have hoped for an inclusive digital renaissance over the past 12 months, many of us felt the drag of jpeg fatigue. New Zealand is back to in-person viewing, but everyone else remains largely online in a competitive struggle to advocate for artists and continue to put work in front of people. Viewing rooms have proliferated, art fairs are reduced to websites, artists have found solace on social media, and at least one friend texted to tell me they had purchased an AI-generated canvas for $80.


The Guggenheim launched an event on 15 January, 2021, the closing date of the (actual, in person) exhibition Countryside, The Future, as a way to seamlessly continue the conversation around imagined utopias. An “intentional digital space”, heavy-handedly named H.O.R.I.Z.O.N. (Habitat One: Regenerative Interactive Zone of Nurture) created by artist collective Institute of Queer Ecology would host visitors in their online commune. It is a synthetic universe, much like a gaming system, where users can ‘enter’, engage with and even contribute content. “Is this it?” you find yourself asking, as you wait for your connection to allow the rest of the pastel fantasy vista to load, and the ambient queer soundtrack of the future washes through the speakers. It works hard to offer the softness and tenderness of something made thoughtfully, despite obvious virtual limitations. During its launch festival, artists live-streamed lectures and other collaborators staged performances in the environment. Like many such systems, though, it is onerous users – apart from requiring a baseline of tech savvy, the software is very large (2 GB) and must be downloaded first onto a personal device. And although it caps out at 100 users, I have always been the sole ‘inhabitant’ at time of use.


One of the things that H.O.R.I.Z.O.N. attempts to create digitally, even if it doesn’t quite get there, is a safe social space that offers new possibilities for community. Asserting that “queerness” has always been a strategy for those needing to think about identity, survival, reinvention, and resistance, H.O.R.I.Z.O.N. considers “alternative worlds of mutual support and care”. As a simulation it is fine, but when digital becomes a surrogate for the real thing – or our only recourse – it loses all efficacy. As critic Martin Herbert put it, digital media has its merits, but also tends to “normalize inferior experiences”.


Many of the more successful online gateways deal with this issue incidentally. They build narrative by blending audio and visual, populating viewing rooms with less rather than more, and recreating as close to “real” sensory experiences as possible. Artland, a company whose client numbers rocketed in 2020, offers near-complete 3D interactions with exhibitions. Users enter gallery spaces by clicking a link, and an architectural model floating in a void appears. Visitors can navigate through the space virtually as they would physically, using arrow keys to get closer to a work, play video pieces, look around or behind them, and even move through to different areas. The experience is possible via a device that performs a nearly 360-degree scan of the exhibition space, and in effect converts it into something like a panoramic image. The paintings are still shapes on a screen, but they are more painting than thumbnail. The closeness to ‘reality’, however, means that minor glitches feel like massive obstacles, and often overlooked qualities like scale, texture, and any number of other tactile details are non-existent. If H.O.R.I.Z.O.N. is intentional but disconnected from reality, the Artland tours are real without intention: show up, click through, exit. No community, just content.


H.O.R.I.Z.O.N. (screen shot), The Guggenheim

Coincidentally, the art world online has evolved a new and unlikely facet – digital intimacy, or the persistence of human ‘realness’ in spite of the virtual spaces we find ourselves in. Events which previously had to limit visitors, maintain separation between host and audience, and defend decorum are stripped down to their essential function. Artist talks aren’t crowded rooms with people jostling at the back to hear, they are Zoom squares, where guests speak from their living rooms into other living rooms, or kitchens, or wardrobes. Cats and dogs are invited. Somebody sneezes and suddenly their square is broadcasting. Everyone is happy to be there, to continue meeting and exchanging, and the pretence of status in the physical world seems temporarily forgotten.


New York artist Courtney Puckett used her online viewing room to feature a conversation between herself and another artist, recorded at distance in a beautifully analogue moment, while walking in the woods, an iphone strapped with duct tape to her chest. Celebrated poet Audre Lorde was inducted into the famed American Poets Corner at the Cathedral of St John the Divine in New York via a 300-person global Zoom event, the chat function roaring while participants chimed in continuously and “A Litany for Survival” was read by multiple speakers.


It could be that the longer we spend in time of physical separation, the more we come to rely on virtual platforms and their possibilities. We may need to be wary of saturation, an ‘event horizon’ of sorts, whereby it becomes harder to feel and be affected. Berlin-based writer Jeffrey Grunthaner has curated a “durational” sound installation online titled Variations on the Fear of Disappearing – you can tune in and have poetry read to you at any time – which seems to address this potential fracturing. Surely the experience and our openness to it will change when these platforms carry solutions and forms of interaction that enhance what is possible, rather than throwing the inevitability of limitation into relief. And hopefully there will always be room for the living room. And the cat.


First published ArtZone #86