In February 2021, during the third COVID-19 lockdown in the state of Victoria, Australia, artist Shaun Wilson used the teleconferencing platforms Teams and Skype to create a slow cinema feature length artwork titled Fading Light to demonstrate how innovative creative practice can overcome barriers of distance experienced by creative practitioners from the limitations sustained during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While these production techniques offer free access to develop new methodologies through practice, the wider scope of pandemic lockdowns mediated artists with teleconferencing as a tool to interrogate the nature of life during our various global lockdowns. It thus afforded a pioneering ability for artists to manufacture artwork about lockdowns whilst in lockdown, made from the tools commonly used for virtual communication. The significance of such opportunities, as this article will argue, demonstrates a novel approach to making artwork about COVID-19 in ways that were limited prior to the start of 2020 in terms of commonality, that now are “turning us all into broadcasters, streamers and filmmakers” (Sullivan). However, as we are only just becoming familiar with the cultural innovation pioneered from the limitations brought about by the pandemic, new aesthetics are emerging that challenge normative traditions of manufacturing and thinking about creative artefacts.
Teleconferencing platforms were used differently prior to 2020 when compared to the current pandemic era. Throughout the 2000s and 2010s, there were no global gigascale movement restrictions or medical dangers to warrant a global shutdown that would ultimately determine how a person interacts with public places. In a pre-pandemic context, the daily use of teleconferencing was a luxury. Its subsequent use in the COVID-19 era became a necessity in many parts of day-to-day life. As artists have historically been able to comment through their work on global health crises, how has contemporary art responded since 2020 in using teleconferencing within critical studio practice?
To explore such an idea, this article will probe examples of practice from artists making artworks with teleconferencing about pandemics during the COVID-19 pandemic. Discussion will purposely not consider a wider historical scope of teleconferencing in art and scholarship as the context in this article explicitly addresses art made in and commenting on the COVID-19 pandemic using the tools of lockdown readily available through teleconferencing platforms. It will instead concentrate on three artists addressing the pandemic during 2020 and 2021. The first example will be There Is No Such Thing as Internet from Polish artists Maria Magdalena Kozlowska and Maria Tobola, “performers who identify as one artist, Maria Małpecki” (“Pogo”). The second example is New York artist Michael Mandiberg’s Uncle Bob 85th Birthday via Zoom 3:00-4:00PM, August 16, 2020 (#24), from the series Zoom Paintings. The third example is Australian artist Shaun Wilson’s Fading Light. These works will be discussed as a means of considering teleconferencing as a contemporary art medium used in response to COVID-19 and art made as pandemic commentary through the technology that has defined its global social integration.
Figure 1: Maria Małpecki, There Is No Such Thing as Internet, used with permission.
There Is No Such Thing as Internet was presented as a live stream on 7 May 2020 and as an online video between 7-31 May 2020 in the “Online Cocktail Party with Maria Małpecki” at Pogo Bar, KW Institute for Contemporary Art, Berlin by Maria Małpecki and curator Tomek Pawlowski Jarmolajew (“Pogo”). The work represents a twenty-minute livestream essay created in part by a teleconferencing video call performance and appropriated video streams. This includes video chat examples from Chomsky and Žižek, compiled together through intertextual video collages which The Calvert Journal described as a work “that explore[s] identity and different modes of communication in times of isolation” (De La Torre).
One of the key strengths of this work in terms of teleconferencing is how it embraces the medium as an integral part of the performative methodology. To such an extent, one might argue that if it was removed and replaced by traditional video camera shots, which do feature in the video but are not the main aesthetic driver, the Metamodernist troupe of Małpecki’s videos would not perform the same critique of the pandemic. So, for Małpecki to comment on isolation through the Internet requires video calls to be central in the artwork in order for it to hold the cultural value it embeds through the subject.
The conceptual framework relies on short segments to create episodic moments reliant on philosophical laments relating to each part of the work. For example, the first act unfolds with a montage of short video clip collages reminiscent of the quick-clip YouTube browsing habit culture from the pandemic to expedite an argument that indeed, there really is no singular internet. Rather, from this, what we are experiencing is arguably something else entirely. From here we move to the second act titled “We wake up in a different room every morning. We wander in a labyrinth where most doors are already open” (Małpecki); but as Małpecki comments, “sometimes our job is to shut them”. The sequence evolves into a disorientating dual screen sequence of the artists panicking to what they are viewing on screen. What this is exactly remains unclear. It may be us as the audience or something else as Malpecki holds their webcam devices upside down to provide an unnerving menage amidst the screams and exacerbations that invites spatial disorientation as a point of engagement for the viewer.
As we recognise that video call protocols during the pandemic are visually static and that normative ‘rules’ of video calls require stabilised video and clean sound, Małpecki subverts these protocols to that of an uncomfortable, anarchic performance. It's at odds with the gentility of video call aesthetics which, in the case of this artwork, is more like watching a continuous point of view shot from a participant on a roller coaster or an extreme fairground ride. As the audience moves through each of the eclectic acts, this randomness laments a continuity that, sometimes satirical and at other times sublime, infuses the silliness and obliqueness of habitual lockdown video viewing. Even the most mundane of videos we watch to pass the time have become anthems of the COVID-19 era as a mixture of boredom, stupidity, and collective grief.
Małpecki’s work in this regard becomes a complex observation for a society in crisis. It eloquently uses video calls as a way to comment on what this article argues to be an important cultural artefact in contemporary art’s response to COVID-19. Just as Goya subverted the Venetian pandemic in the grim Plague Hospital, Małpecki reflects our era in the same disruptive way by using frailty as a mirror to reveal an uneasy reflection masked in satirical obscurity, layered with fragments of the Internet and its subjective “other”.
Figure 2: Michael Mandiberg, Uncle Bob 85th Birthday via Zoom 3:00-4:00PM, August 16, 2020 (#24), used with permission.
Conversely, the work of New York artist Michael Mandiberg uses teleconferencing in a different way by painting the background of video calls onto stretched canvases mostly over the duration of the actual call time. Yet in doing so, the removal of people from inside the frame highlights aspects of isolation and absence in lockdown. At the Denny Dinin Gallery exhibition in New York, The Zoom Paintings “presented in the digital sphere where they were born” (Defoe). Zoom provided both the frame and the exhibition space for these works, with “one painting … on view each day [on Zoom], for a total of ten paintings” (“Zoom”). Describing the works, Mandiberg states that they are “about the interchangeability of people and places. It’s not memorializing a particular event; it’s memorializing how unmemorable it is” (Mandiberg; Defoe). This defines an innovative approach to teleconferencing that engages with place in times when the same kinds of absence experienced in the images of peopleless Zoom video calls mirror the external absence of people in public places during lockdown.
Uncle Bob 85th Birthday via Zoom 3:00-4:00PM, August 16, 2020 (#24) is time stamped with the diaristic nature of the Zoom Paintings series. These works are not just a set of painting subjects interlinked through a common theme of paintings ‘about Zoom backgrounds’. They, rather, operate as a complex depiction of absence located in the pandemic, evidently capturing a powerful social commentary about what the artist experienced during these times. In doing so, it immediately prompts the viewer into tensions that conceptually frame COVID-19, whether that be the isolation of waiting out the pandemic in lockdown, the removal of characters through illness from the virus, or even a sudden death from the virus itself.
The camera’s point of view illustrates an empty space where we know something is missing. At the very least the artist suggests that someone nearby once inhabited these empty spaces but they are, at present, removed from the scene or have vanished altogether. On 16 August 2020, the day that the painting was made, the New York Times estimated that 514 people in the United States died from COVID-19 (“Coronavirus”). When measured against a further death rate peaking at 5,463 people in the United States who died on 11 February 2021, the catastrophic mortality data in the United States alone statistically supports Mandiberg’s lament as to the severity of the pandemic, which serves as the context of his work. Based on this data alone, the absence in Mandiberg’s paintings intensifies a sense of isolation and loss insofar as the subjectivity embedded within the video call frame speaks to a powerful way that contemporary art is providing commentary during the pandemic (“Coronavirus”). Art in this context becomes a silent observer using teleconferencing to address both what is taken away from us and what visually remains behind.
This article acknowledges the absence in Mandiberg’s paintings as a timely reminder of the socio-devastation experienced in the pandemic’s wake. Therein lies a three-folded image within an image within an image, not unlike what we see in Blade Runner when Deckard’s Esper Machine investigates the reflection in a mirror of someone else, and no more vivid than in Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait. From a structural point of view, we witness Mandiberg’s images during its exhibition on Zoom in much the same conceptual way. In this case though, it is a mirrored online image of an image painted from a video call interpreted online from a recorded image transmitted online through teleconferencing.
Through similar transactions, Shaun Wilson’s utilisation of video calls is represented in Fading Light as a way to comment on COVID-19 through the lens of Teams and Skype. The similarities of Fading Light to There Is No Such Thing as Internet stem obviously from the study of figuration used as the driver of the works but at the same time, it also draws comparison with Mandiberg’s stillness as represented in the frozen poses of each figure. At a more complex level, there is, though, a polar opposite in the mechanics that, for Mandiberg, uses video to translate into painted subjects. Fading Light does the opposite, with paintings recontextualised into video subjects. Such an analysis of both works brings about a sense of trepidation. For Mandiberg, it is the unsettling stillness through absence. In Fading Light it is the oppressive state of the motionlessness in frame that offers the same sense of awkwardness found in Mandiberg’s distorted painted laptop angles, and that makes the same kind of uncomfortableness bearable. It is only as much as an audience affords the time to allow before the loneliness of the subject renders the Zoom paintings a memorial to what is lost.
Of note in Fading Light are the characteristically uncomfortable traits of what we detect should be in the frame of the subject but isn’t, which lends a tension to the viewer who has involuntarily been deprived of what is to be expected. For a modern Internet audience, a video without movement invites a combination of tension, boredom, and annoyance, drawing parallels to Hitchcock’s premise that something has just happened but we’re not entirely sure exactly what it was or is. Likewise, Małpecki’s same juxtaposition of tension with glimpses of Chomsky and Žižek videos talking over each other is joined by the artists’ breaking the fourth wall of cinema theory. Observing the artists lose concentration while watching the other videos in the video call scenario enact the mundane activities we encounter in the same kinds of situations of watching someone else on Zoom. However, in this context, we are watching them watching someone else whom we are also watching, while watching ourselves at the same time.
Figure 3: Shaun Wilson, Fading Light, used with permission.
The poses in Fading Light are reconfigured from characters in German medieval paintings and low relief religious iconography created during the Black Death era. Such works hang in the Gothic St. Michael’s Church in Schwäbisch Hall in Germany originally used by Martin Luther as his Southern Germany outpost during the Reformation. Wilson documented these paintings in October 2006, which then became the ongoing source images used in the 51 Paintings Suite films. The church itself has a strong connection to pandemics where a large glass floor plate behind the altar reveals an open ossuary of people who died of plague during the Black Death. This association brings an empirical linkage to the agency in Fading Light that mediates the second handed nature of the image, initially painted during a medieval pandemic, and now juxtaposed into the video frame captured in a current pandemic.
From a conceptual standpoint, the critical analysis reflected in such a framework allows the artwork to reveal itself at a multi-level perspective, operating within a Metamodernist methodology. Two separate elements oscillate in tandem with one another, yet completely independent, or in this case, impervious to each other’s affect. Fading Light’s key affordance from this oscillation consolidate Wilson’s methodology in the artwork in as much detail as what Małpecki and Mandiberg construct in their respective works, yet obviously for very different motivations. If the basis of making video art in the pandemic using teleconferencing changes the way we might think about using these platforms, which otherwise may not have previously been taken serious by the academy as a valid medium in art, then the quiet meaningfulness throughout the film transcends a structured method to ascertain a pictorial presence of the image in its facsimile state. This pays respect to the source images but also embraces and overlays the narrative of the current pandemic intertwined within the subject.
Given that Fading Light allows a ubiquitous dialogue to grow from the framed image, a subjective commonality in these mentioned works provide insight into how artists have engaged innovation strategies with teleconferencing to develop artwork made and commenting about the current pandemic. Whether it be Małpecki’s subversive pandemic variety show, the loneliness of Mandiberg’s Zoom call paintings or Wilson’s refilming of Black Death era paintings, all three artists use video call platforms as a contemporary art medium capable of social commentary during histo-trauma.
These works also raise the possibility of interdisciplinary Metamodernist approaches to consider the implications of non-traditional mediums in offering socio-commentary during profoundly impactful times. It remains to be seen if contemporary video call platforms will become a frequented tool in contemporary art long after the COVID-19 pandemic is over. However, by these works and indeed, from the others to follow and not yet revealed, the current ossuary provides an opportunity for artists to respond to their own immediate surroundings to redefine existing boundaries in art and look to innovation in the methods they use.
We are in a new era of art making, only now beginning to reveal itself. It may take years or even decades to better understand the magnitude of the significance that artists have contributed towards their own practices since the beginnings of the pandemic. This time of profound change only strengthens the need for contemporary art to preserve and enlighten humanity through the journey from crisis to hope.
Blade Runner. Dir. by Ridley Scott, Warner Brothers, 1982.
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