August 2021, New South Wales

You wake up, roll over and pick up your phone. Pour your brain into it, face your notifications and breathe in the web. Self-soothe. Click the ‘Promotions’ tab in your email. Add to cart, remove from cart. Scroll, scroll, slide, tap, swipe into a virtual gallery ‘experience’ that showcases ‘an incredible range of contemporary artworks from across the country,’ the Telstra National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Art Awards exhibition.

Enter. Tab left but somehow shuttle forward instead. Rotate the cursor and smack your digital head against a grey gallery wall, gazing upwards. The user interface has less sophistication than early 90s Mario Kart. Land in front of a totemic ironwood sculpture by Patrick Freddy Puruntatameri that might be numinous if viewed physically. Not this year. You’re a bot, you’re a ghost. Slide on by. Mary Dhapalany’s pandanus sculpture floats impossibly in mid air, unencumbered by the laws of physics and devoid of texture. Hurtle right to watch a video work, superimposed onto an image of a TV monitor, via a giant play button. Shunned. Click on the ‘view on 3D’ button. Shunned again. Thirty seconds later, the video starts to play, kind of, in splutters. Notice a strange, incidentally interesting feature whereby the virtual gallery roof is absent, revealing a cerulean sky in tune with the weather that day. Imagine the landscape, where life is still happening, beyond the virtual gallery. Feel automated. Feel interactive? Search for an escape route.

Reboot. In your 84th tab, enter the grandest space in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Grand Hall, assisted by spherical 360° technology. Feel it is somehow worse than Telstra NATSIAA. Pivot up, down, left and right, lurch into the cloisters. You have never sought to pivot through a gallery before. Pretend you’re on a segway. Detect a vague corporate energy, amplified by the anonymous tinkly lifestyle music in the browser. Love the browser. Occupy an area that no human never could with their body – a floating pocket just outside the Grand Hall’s mezzanine, metres above the ground. Hear no echoes underfoot. Accept the gamification of gallery-going.

Alt tab. Descend into the Art Gallery of NSW’s online video of Hilma af Klint’s ten largest paintings, shot and edited in the style of a listing. Try to approach it as a fun dissociative experiment. Gloss over the pasty, pixelated simulations. See a room, but don’t wind your way through its rhythm. Wonder why the curators didn’t commission some digitally native art for this portal instead. Can’t sense Hilma’s empyrean glow, scale, gradations of colour under changing light, awe magic wonder. Don’t sniff for paint smells, don’t look for obnoxious ‘do not touch’ signs, remember sneakily peering a little too closely at an errant fingerprint or messy signature or voluminous stroke on a painting when the gallery attendant isn’t looking. Think of what it means to stage a show of imported white Euro-spirituality under an Indigenous sky. Miss pausing, thinking, leaning closer, examining a mark, sitting a while, wandering, wandering. Miss being a person in space and seeing other peoples’ reactions to art. Yearn to be a stranger in a crowd, a community, an anonymous public area.

Lament the loss of art that is the sum of an aggregate: collective in the making, in that the artist’s name is just the top-line of an invisible community of labourers (curators, collaborators, informal co-conspirators, friends, publicists, registrars, conservators, interns, gallery attendants); and collective in the viewing, even if you never speak with or make eye contact with your fellow silent attendees.

Stop by Brasil’s Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, which, in a dark partnership with Google, has exposed its inner sanctum to the same cursed logic as Street View. Sidle up to a crucified Jesus as if attempting a reverse park without mirrors. How alienating, how jarring, to be made aware that you’re one step away from a cascading world of ones and zeros instead of live, decaying art objects. Get free of queues and tickets and blood-sugar crashes, but can’t shake the feeling that a high-quality colour book reproduction would offer a superior form of viewing. Wonder if Walter Benjamin could have dreamed of such a flaccid form of artistic replication as a virtual gallery tour.

Thwarted at Barcelona’s Picasso Museum, which promises an innovative, interactive experience of discovery in the twentieth-century technology of Adobe Flash. Refresh. Refresh. Click into Korea’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, whose virtual gallery tour turns out to be a YouTube playlist. The museum’s curator leads a now-archived guided ‘tour’. Perversely remind yourself of the absence of human bodies around you, and the fact that the shuttered museum must truly be empty of warmth, bacteria, viruses and life. Imagine what they thought, those 57,737 souls who live-streamed the tour last month. Consider switching over to Netflix. Look down at your hand – ageing, freckled, sculptural. The real thing.

Understand that the internet is a place, but this isn’t it. You’re a webcam on wheels. You’re an apparition, a user, a Bezos. The artworks are shadows, replacements, Aldi Oreos. Think of the digital experiences that prompt their own special dopamine surges. Internet shopping, for instance, is uniquely fun. The first dopamine high hits at the checkout, the second, when the post arrives. Inside the virtual gallery, though, all lifeforce drops away. Knowledge jars, neurochemicals dwindle. You don’t think.

Fast fashion advertisements, pale pink influencer tiles, half-finished grant applications, movie streaming platforms playing ‘lol rich people’ shows and aspirational cooking videos merge in the blur of the many-tabbed browser, along with a dozen frictionless, miserable virtual gallery tours now lost to memory.

January 2022, New South Wales

Vaccines have now brought the first phase of the pandemic to an end. The restless communal slumber of the 2020-21 lockdowns has passed, but Omicron is surging and the next phase of normalised pandemic life isn’t yet clear, nor is the cultural impact of the coronavirus. The era of the virtual gallery tour – the Australian art sector’s go-to Covid-19 adaptation method, and a solo pursuit that converts audience members into users – is over for now, and the long-term reality of living in a culture with a rapidly mutating virus is sinking in. Exhibitions are open but empty. Press releases continue, opening and closing dates come and go, with engagement by the public ebbing low and cultural events. Opening nights and public programs are cancelled.

A longer history of digital estrangement backdates the present

Consider the 1990s, a time in which internet art leaked into galleries worldwide and yet never quite hit Australian art institutions, despite the surge in optimism and innovation in art fusing technology and media. A brief oasis in the digital art desert arrives at the MCA: riding the wave of pre-Y2K multimedia, Burning the Interface <International Artists’ CD-ROM> (1996), the first survey anywhere of digital works of art on CD-ROM. The show, which coincided with the launch of the now defunct New Media Arts Board in the Australia Council for the Arts, attracts 600 visitors a day, and 2400 daily visits to its online iteration. Reviews focus overwhelmingly on the medium rather than the nature and quality of the art.

Overseas, an institutional netscape emerges, coinciding with the dot com bubble. Walker Art Center’s online space Gallery 9 operates from 1997-2003. The Guggenheim begins commissioning digital art in the early 2000s. In 2003, the New Museum in New York City opens for exhibiting similar modes of art. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art energises its E-Space as ‘as a forum for exploring and retooling notions of space, narrative and the networked environment,’ with streams for experiments by both artists and curators.

Australian independent artists preempt it all in 1991 with the VNS Matrix Cyberfeminist Manifesto, which declares that ‘the clitoris is a direct line…to the matrix’. Operating out of the Australian Network for Art and Technology in Adelaide and linked to a longer lineage of independent women video artists, the four artists behind the Cyberfeminist Manifesto subvert Y2K aesthetics by melding them with the ideas of Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto. Their digital-art energies are never fully institutionalised. Another milestone arrives in 1997. Slovenian artist Vuk Ćosić piratically copies the entire web presence of documenta X, the major exhibition held every five years in Kassel, Germany. Ćosić blames it on an Eastern European hacker, and posts the whole catalogue – browser-based art works and online forums included – to his server, to rescue a public resource from institutional control. In this decade, the internet hasn’t yet been commercialised as a series of social media empires. Television, news and film remain the dominant forms of mass media. Net art – travelling so readily – emerges as a cohesive avant-garde, evoking the ghosts, pranks and ready-mades of Dada and Duchamp.

Consider this type of art that is made on and for the internet. Art, not content, presented in exhibitions encountered by audiences online. A highly diverse field of practice: gifs, webpages, downloadable poetry programs, email-based art spaces of HTML newsletters (like Screen_). None of these approaches render the resulting work inhuman. Time spent on the web is generally time lost to memory, minutes and hours scrolling through content; digital art is sensed and remembered.

Pandemic year 1: 2020

Click onto Dan Bell’s “Dead Mall” series (2014-present). Broadcast to 600,000 subscribers on YouTube and narrated robotically, Bell’s slow-zooming shots of abandoned twentieth-century shopping centres serve as eerie video portraits of American decline and economic depression. Slide across to Meriem Benani and Orian Barki’s 2 Lizards (2020), a slyly funny, animated video art series exhibited independently on Instagram, in which two endearing lizards contend with the shock of quarantine and alienation in locked-down Manhattan. Its achievement is to crystallise a world of vibrating, iso-anxiety.

In Sydney, the Museum of Contemporary Art decommissions its app. The Art Gallery of New South Wales opens a platform, ‘Together in Art’, which functions more as a staff blog (a small exhibition of new eco-art by moving image artists, called ‘Medium Earth’, marks a thoughtful exception). In Melbourne, the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art launches ACCA OPEN, a significant investment in six new works of variable quality native to the internet. Archived, its future seems unclear. Little internet awareness seems to exist across other institutions. There’s an awful lot of digital arts programming about – Zoom talks every day – but very little digital art, let alone intelligible strategies to support the artform.

Consider that, in March 2020, as Before Time slipped into After Time, few major Australian galleries and museums had digital platform for commissioning or exhibiting online-born art. Instead, a parade of talks and panels flickered forth on streaming platforms, while curators assembled newsletters recommending existing internet pages. The virtual gallery tour was the standard strategy of most international galleries, but abroad, more precedents for digital investment existed. No major Australian gallery has an institutional presence equivalent to, say, the Whitney Museum’s Artport, which commissions net art and new media art and has done since 2001, including an ongoing series of works that relay the sun’s rise and fall in New York City. One benefit of such a long-standing project is the way it documents cultural trends in the development of digital art: the pop-up landing pages popular in the early 2000s; networked art branching out onto mobile devices; the retro aesthetics of post-internet art. In Artport’s archives, you see how the cultural vernacular changes over the years. (In this country, Real Time arts magazine, from the 1990s to its 2017 closure, did some of the crucial work of documenting and responding to works engaged with digital technologies.) But still, major Australian galleries employ few digital curators whose job is to specialise in digital art; digital specialists remain largely confined to the areas of marketing, communications and the more mysterious realm of ‘innovation’. Australian art schools do not offer digital curation as an arena of postgraduate study. The neglect of digital arts practice continues.

Consider that the pandemic didn’t lead to the virality of the art world here (NFTs did that).

Consider what curators do: they make exhibitions. What is an exhibition, and where can one occur? If curators make exhibitions, can’t exhibitions occur across formats, beyond gallery walls? If curators generally work within physical spaces, creating rhythms through which an audience encounters art works in relation to their body, how might gallery contexts be created through online portals? The net is truly a different medium; digital curators need to work hard to create a sense of place online to contextualise the works they commission and present. If we have accepted public art in the form of LGA-sponsored murals, how might that same approach manifest digitally?

Consider what a rich culture of digital art could look like if perceived as a form of public art, supported by major galleries and museums.

Consider the independent part of the arts sector – ruthlessly underpaid and overworked – which has managed some energetic incursions into our little devices, such as ‘Horizon of Possibility’, curated by James Gatt, an enigmatic missive of visual art delivered by daily SMS blast in November 2021. The new, biennial Heathcote Digital Art Prize’s shortlist points to some of the finest recent works by independent artists making work for virtual presentation. The hybrid poetry-video work of Dan Hogan finds an energetic presence on art writing site Running Dog as part of its micro-residency program. And Liminal magazine crosses the road from publishing to an expanded realm of digital art commissioning with its ‘Glitch‘ series (2020). Further back, the work of Brian Fuata, most often framed as performance but animated in the virtual space, and unfolding over chain emails, is supported intermittently by institutions such as ACCA in the Framed Movements show in 2014, and Performa15 in New York City in 2015. [Blink at a pop-up window: Prototype, a moving image gallery initiated by the writer of this text, intrudes. It was established in 2019 in response to the dearth of digital commissioning platforms in Australia, and elicits new works from those working to incorporate aspects of cinema into video art.] All these projects feel like they stretch out on the internet as lived-in resources. Across these exhibitions, art doesn’t become spam; it marks itself out as special and unique virtual experiences, amid a sludge of aggregated, algorithmically delivered content.

Consider some outlying oases of institutions supporting digital art practice since 2020. Brisbane’s Institute of Modern Art’s ‘Making Art Work’ platform imaginatively conceptualised its curators as the directors of governmental public stimulus programs, drawing on the rich history of the US Federal Art Project in the Depression era. Perhaps most fully realised is this project’s construction of an online place that each audience member enters privately, with a sense of the here and now. (The IMA has a longer history in this space, for instance, its National Digital Art Prize in the 1990s, a signal of that era’s shortened, post-Creative Nation, virtual energy burst. This was a time when new media art presented in traditional contexts – think installations incorporating screens, audio and technology – had a considerable impact on galleries and museums here.) The Sydney Opera House has a year-round digital program, and ACMI has similarly dedicated resources to a new online portal, as expected with its declared mandate to specialise in moving image works and screen culture. Its digital collaboration with artist-curator Hans Ulrich Obrst and its retrospective exhibition of canonical video artist Ross Gibson represents a kind of substantial, if late, engagement with the idea of an ongoing digital platform. FirstDraft gallery has not created a distinct gallery presence, but presents some works that feel truly online-native within a standard web page format, namely Talia Smith’s digital collage ‘There is no ocean sound when I hold this to my ear’ (2021) and Rachel O’Reilly’s ‘Drawing Rights’ (2018). Kaldor Public Art Projects gives over its Instagram grid to a local iteration of Hans Ulrich Obrist’s ‘Do it’ exhibition format, which asks artists to give audiences instructions to make art at home. Artspace also rethinks the Instagram feed, with a project in which artists presenting small, creative digital works. UTP presents new video art by Western Sydney artists over 10 months, with results that sometimes felt better suited to conventional gallery contexts. All good and commendable. But overall, institutional incursions into the digital commissioning space since the pandemic feel overwhelmingly temporary, like waiting rooms for the ‘real’ programming to continue again.

Consider the bureaucratic comforts of arts funding agencies in prioritising digital marketing and online business models, rather than exploring the web medium as a means of artistic expression. Australia Council’s new plan is long overdue and rendered urgent by the pandemic. Rather than digital art and practice – say, training the next generation of digital curators – its intentions are in reaching audiences, developing the digital strategies of arts organisations, building the digital capacity of existing institutions and helping artists digitise their practice with online stores. The plan unfolds in the expected policyspeak, but can’t undo the prevailing managerial mindset that has beset cultural policy in this country. Digital comms, content and media strategy are important, but can they reverse the disastrous historical void left by the abolition of the New Media Arts Board in 2005? To what extent will Australia Council’s new resources flow to creative practice, to catalyse support for the artforms and artists? Few institutions and agencies can honestly claim that they are not just grappling with, but encouraging, the development of the digital art space.

Further back: a lack of continuity in previous institutional attempts at internet awareness. The National Gallery of Australia’s noughties platform for electronic art, Spatial, was discontinued; any publicly available archive has vaporised. Some digitally presented video works from the Australian Experimental Art Foundation’s archive retain their trace on Trove. The now-defunct dLux Arts and Biennial of Electronic Arts Perth mainly translated digital works to gallery environments. In 2005, critic Melinda Rackham pointed out a few more instances that were never developed into more continuous efforts: ‘Perspecta 99 at AGNSW had an online component, Experimenta has previously commissioned net art and…the networked section of 2004: Australian Culture Now at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image.’ While performance and conceptual art have been embraced by the large organisations, the same can’t be said for digital art practice, whose inclusion remains piecemeal. When we think of cultural infrastructure, can we also think of other ways of doing art, whatever and wherever it wants to be? Boot poetry.exe.

Consider that art has never really lived in the gallery or the museum as its default site. Think of the cave, the rock, the cliff. The palace, the church, the temple with its untouchable objects. The wall in the mall, the traffic island housing council-sponsored public sculpture. Recall the movements of land art, of Allan Kaprow’s happenings – instances of art expanding beyond static objects, towards open systems and living contexts, merging art spaces with mundane public ones. Similarly, digital art is very often public, albeit immaterial, art.

Consider how digital practitioner Mike Leggett contests the idea that the traditional white cube space is more real than the cyber exhibition space:

Some call this space virtual, yet it is no more virtual than a gallery space populated by untouchable objects removed from their processes of making.

Consider Benjamin again, whose theory famously dictates that a copy of an artwork destroys the aura of its original. Theorist Boris Groys argues that the net, in fact, rebirths the aura through the creation of multiple, legitimate originals. ‘Here the aura of originality is not lost, but instead substituted by a different aura,’ he writes. ‘On the internet, the circulation of digital data produces not copies, but new originals.’

Consider the missed opportunity of primarily adopting a form of digital engagement – the virtual gallery – that only serves to remind us that we’re not in a gallery or a public space, and that is about as far from the bristling arena of digital art, and its dynamic ways of staging exhibitions, as possible. Consider what it meant for internet ‘users’, confined under government orders, to experience art as a digital substitute, as a result of this negligence of digital art practice and online cultural infrastructure.

Digital art will become traditional, at some point. As we enter our third pandemic year of medium-to-long term disruptions in public life, what exactly is the Australian art sector’s plan to commission and present work online? Are we committed to exploring the spaces and intricacies related to this digital life? Are we going to keep staging empty exhibitions in institutional spaces – empty real estate, just holding air? Or is digital art really immaterial? If it is, the web will remain a large and lonely place.

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