Digital Curating: It Starts with a Hyperlink
Article by Mazzy-Mae Green and Hanwen Liu, originally published in Modern Matter
When a hyperlink is clicked, it triggers an on-screen redirection toward a stated Uniform Resource Locator, or URL. This action, though minuscule and often disregarded, is significant in its symbolism of virtuality, and of what virtual curating can offer us. These worlds do not exist in the present, and they are not physically reachable spaces. Instead, they can be found in a life-world that is dissimilar to our own, by switching on an electronic device, connecting to the internet, and allowing a coded set of events to take us on a journey through an art space. What shape this experience takes is predetermined by a set of programmes with mathematically-organised numbers and letters. An online exhibition, for example, could be a 3D walkthrough born in Sketchup and bound by architecturally-appropriate colours, forms and angles, or it could consist of a static gallery of Photoshop-edited images built up from minute squares. These exhibitions are different experiences of curated content, separated precisely by the constraints of and possibilities formed by these programmes. The different combinations made possible by this have not only changed aspects of how we approach exhibitions, but they have also completely changed the game, challenging the automatic need for physicality in museums. Long before the COVID-19 pandemic did we see behemoth galleries and museums display their works virtually.
In The Condition of Virtuality , Katherine Hayles equates the digital with “an experienced tennis player… [who] frequently feels proprioceptive coherence with the racquet, experiencing it as if it were an extension of her arm.” When we fully accept the place of technology as this extension of our physicality – a continuation of our hands, arms and brains – then we can not only exist alongside it, but we can also become sci-fi curators – part robot, part art history academic – using virtuality to give an edge to our monstrous and wonderful creations. Take, for example, the ongoing exhibition Echoes of Nature (until 31st December), which we created alongside six other curators, in collaboration with Central Saint Martins. Responding to the need to give the artist Vivien Rothwell (1945–2015) a place in art history, we have embedded her in a 3D-modelled world; her legacy has been extended from a store cupboard full of sketches and paintings to a widely accessible environment that is fantastical and built in her image. The beauty of this legacy is enforced and magnified by its existence in this digital world, importantly offering a dissimulation of reality. For example, light is handled delicately – it is not realistic in its movement, but intensified, and this depth of detail provides a sense of immersion.
Intensifying reality has several effects beyond the highly subjective notion of immersion. Firstly, it is a response to the disconnection between how we see reality on an individual level – how it is constructed in our mind’s image – and reality itself. By sidestepping pictorial representation and instead opting for a reflection of the imagination of reality, virtual environments can evoke and induce visceral reactions that differ to physical exhibitions by allowing the viewer the privacy to experience an artwork in the solitude of their own home (we could call this one nil to virtuality). Secondly, intensified realities require complete attention. In other words, they demand attention at a time when we are exposed to a constant flow of information via the internet. The point of this is not only to draw the viewer in and become a dominant artspace, but it is also to allow for one point of focus. We are so constantly overwhelmed by this virtual extension of our bodies, and part of that is that we are so often focusing on more than one thing at a time. We can go everywhere, and we leave traces everywhere; we can access the internet anytime, and the flow of information never ceases; we indulge in the illusion created in virtuality, and we experience afterimage even in the physical space. Intensified realities in digital worlds scarcely allow that to happen.
With its long history of evolution, the web has become a fusion of ready-made technologies. As humans, we often take this space for granted, but over the last decade this has changed dramatically, and we are becoming awake to the possibilities this realm can offer us. Flowing on the surface of information streams, we smoothly roam, unaware of topographical limitations. This accelerates our ability to receive information in both the speed at which we can ingest text, and that with which we can digest and process it. Points of reference such as browser tabs are unwittingly tailored to our experience, duplicating our consciousness. Our logic and cognitive systems therefore become distributed among these tabs – and the richness of information contained there. The scattered pieces of our mind linger over each piece of information like ghosts, processing and receiving at the same time. In this way, our understanding is shaped in a way that we have never before experienced.
There are, of course, other areas of digital to consider when thinking about an exhibition, for an exhibition is not only its outcome, but the months of research – and importantly collating and sharing of research – that lead up to it. One dominant system here is cloud storage. Internet storage is like a network of extracorporeal circulation: these clouds have developed beyond local storage and now provide the possibility of forming a community of fluid modernity – a decentralised tool with which we can communicate information. Clouds are both monuments and graves of interaction. Here, we expand our brain and upload it to virtual spaces that other parties can download and use. Through this process, each of us contributes to public consciousness, imbuing the internet with human nature. We are able to encode ourselves and others in this consciousness, as in the case of Echoes of Nature, a show both downloadable and shareable that directly inserts Rothwell into the vast and constantly morphing realm of virtual curating.
Vivien Rothwell: Echoes of Nature can be found online at www.echoesofnature.art until 31st December 2020.