What happens after the contactless art world?

What happens
after the contactless
art world?

April, 2020

nikita yingqian cai

When Covid-19 crosses physical borders with exponential scale and speed, its secondary catastrophes also provoke doomsday imagination from every sector of society. One ironic image about the art world circulating on social media is a meme of two screen shots from Titanic, in which the sinking boat symbolizes “The world in 2020”, while the quartet playing on the deck stands for the “Art institutions and galleries generating online content”. The metaphor is blunt and alarming:our security net and social identification won’t stand alone in the bleak economic prospect of the sinking world, so are we producing content just for the sense of belonging? Will we end up being the only audience of this content? 

Titanic meme

After Art Basel launched the online viewing room on March 20 as compensation for its cancelling of the fair in Hong Kong, commercial galleries fell over one another to explore the contactless art market as a therapy for the pandemic shock. It will probably take another crisis for economists to analyze data, compare behavioral patterns, and make predictions of the online sales profitability, but institutions that are less profit-oriented are by no means immune to the competition of attention that has been created by global social distancing. Alongside the outburst of open resource archives and publications, online screenings and showrooms, podcasts, live streaming and Zoom conferences quickly take over as platforms for art events. M Woods, a private art museum in Beijing, set up a virtual gallery inside the Nintendo game Animal Crossing to add value to its image as internet influencer. The game allows people to pay mortgages, build homes with furniture and objects, and socialize with animal neighbors according to their own image and imagination, but all the resources for this dreamlike island have to be extracted from somewhere offshore. The image of a cute little girl meditating on a bench surrounded by the wallpaper of Andy Warhol’s Cow (1966) is a perfect metaphor for escapism. Such 4.0 version of Cao Fei’s RMB City (2007-2011) is nonetheless novel but its simulation of the neo-liberal lifestyle is hard to ignore. Since the outbreak in Wuhan in January, new forms of social networks and collaborations have emerged and concrete solidarity is being formed across different social sectors in China, yet our contemporary art world is busy promoting the commodified experience of art.

M Woods Instagram

Two days ago, I stumbled upon an online vernissage on e-flux, presented by the Swedish Centre for Architecture and Design and titled Weird Sensation Feels Good. An Exhibition About ASMR (“Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response”). According to the statement, “ASMR injects the Internet with softness, kindness and empathy. As a form of digital intimacy, it offers comfort on demand, standing against the feeling of isolation that constant connectivity can deceptively breed. Anecdotally, ASMR is being used as a form of self-medication against the effects of loneliness, insomnia, stress, and anxiety. This is a cue to its success, and to its transcendental appeal”.1ArkDes presents a virtual vernissage, WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD | An exhibition about ASMR, April 7, 2020, https://www.e-flux.com/video/325072/arkdes-nbsp-presents-a-virtual-vernissage-weird-sensation-feels-good/ (accessed on April 11, 2020) Conversely, the offline world is injected with hardness and struggles, self-medication is not going to protect people from getting sick or losing jobs. Less than a month after the containment policy went into effect in New York, the Museum of Modern Art terminated contracts with all its freelance educators in early April. MoMA represents one example of the museum industry among many other service industries that have sacked its part-time staff or furloughed its full-time employees quickly after the pandemic hit hard. Compared with small businesses such as restaurants, most museums’ operational budgets had been approved in 2019, and big institutions like MoMA would have planned out its fiscal structure, including the percentage of public funding, private patronage and ticket revenue for at least three years into the future. Before the closing of borders and museums, blockbuster exhibitions sat at the core of the art world’s show business, balancing the interests of trustees and the scale of production and demand. MoMA is one of the wealthiest museums in the world, so how come a cultural entity that embraces speculative narratives and future imaginations gives up so quickly in response to temporary uncertainties? Are we losing faith in reclaiming our audience after the pandemic?

Manuel Borja-Villel, director of the Museo Reina Sofía, Madrid, stated in an open letter that some of their staff have been sick but all of them will be able to keep their jobs “thanks in part to Spain’s governmental assistance program”. He also addressed the necessity of a paradigm shift, “Eventually, museums will reopen, but will people be afraid of being close to one another? Will we be able to continue developing large exhibitions that are anti-ecological? Maybe blockbuster exhibitions are over. Maybe we should think more about process and research.”2Manuel Borja-Villel, Letter From Madrid: The Director of the Reina Sofia on What It Will Take for Museums to Rise Again—and What They Can Do in the Meantime, April 6, 2020, https://news.artnet.com/opinion/madrid-reina-sofia-director-1824210 Recalling a postwar Marshall plan or a re-emphasis on process and research is certainly not a paradigm shift. We have to go deeper to ask: What kind of paradigm are we talking about? Has the pandemic revealed the problematics of the diffusionist museum model driven by Euro-American centralism and modernism?

The Museum of Modern Art as a canon of large-scale institution was born in the U.S. context and charged with historical contingency. When Alfred Barr organized Cubism and Abstract Art at 11 West 53rd Street in New York, he had no idea that the diagram he presented and the symbolic construct of abstract art would lay ground for a global chronology of modernism which shaped artists’ learning experiences and their occupational aspirations, historical arguments and museology outside of the Western centers in the postwar years. The evolutionary periodization and the colonial terms of “Near-Eastern Art” and “Negro Sculpture” have been challenged and eventually abandoned, but the network of the main characters remains (artists, art historians, curators, museum directors and trustees etc.) and it maps out a division of labor, identity and resource which still functions in our contemporary art world. What is invisible in Barr’s modern art supply chain is the end of demand, which we call “audience” nowadays. The American economy had not recovered from the Great Depression when Barr’s exhibition opened in 1936, and it took a sharp downturn in mid-1937 which lasted for another 18 months. It is hard to imagine Cubism and Abstract Art was orchestrated for ordinary Americans who were still suffering from unemployment at that time, and yet the exhibition gained substantial support from MoMA’s trustees to secure the artworks through U.S. Customs and from other private foundations. Barr’s essay in the catalog highlighted the “impulse of abstraction” and its dialectic; “it is based upon the assumption that a work of art, a painting for example, is worth looking at primarily because it presents a composition or organization of color, line, light and shape.”3Cubism and Abstract Art, p. 13, April 1936, The Museum of Modern Art New York Such zeitgeist needs to be accommodated in the idealized, climate-controlled white cube, which becomes the most important paradigmatic residual of MoMA. Even in a time of crisis, museums can still shut the discorded tones of the economical-disadvantaged and messiness of reality outside, and provide sanctuary for autonomous art objects and meditation.

Museum of American Art in Berlin, installation shots at Times Museum in the collection display of Moderna Galerija, Ljubljana

There has been a lot of comparison between the stock market crashes in February and March this year and the Wall Street collapse in 1929 that triggered the decade-long Great Depression. But the postwar trauma has given European countries more reasons to activate their social democratic policies,such as the German federal government’s sweeping aid package of €50 billion for the country’s creative and cultural sectors. The Chinese media and artist community voluntarily picked up the positive messages rather than the depressing ones in such a difficult time. Artist friends who live in Germany posted messages on wechat about their application for the subsidies, and some of them had already received the money. I’m genuinely happy that art sector and artist’s social values can be recognized and sustained in the European context, but a conversation between myself and Qiao, our curatorial assistant,unpacked my doubts. Qiao shares an apartment with a couple of friends who are educated young professionals. They have been intrigued by Qiao’s enthusiasm and have visited some of Times Museum’s exhibitions. Qiao said that her friends couldn’t understand why the arts need to be subsidized, and why a government like Germany is giving artists money. I tried to structure my thoughts and present my arguments around the emergence of the bourgeoisie museum after the French Revolution, Tony Bennett’s “exhibitionary complex” informed by Foucault, the modernist ideology of “art for art’s sake” and the more recent socioeconomic concept of “precariat” proposed by Guy Standing… I soon realized that none of Qiao’s roommates would be satisfied with my explanation. Artists are precariats because “they live with the expectation and desire to move around, without an impulse for long-term, full-time employment in a single enterprise.”4Guy Standing, Defining the Precariat, A Class in the Making. April 19. 2013, https://www.eurozine.com/defining-the-precariat/ They are cultural migrant workers competing in the global market, but the globalization that used to support their production has been put on hold. European countries with colonial history have been exporting their culture and artists for centuries and they know this business better than anyone else.

Xiang Biao, a social anthropologist who has won awards for his survey on cross-bordered labor migration from Northeast China, argued for a different interpretation of “precariat”, “one very important background note about the precariat in the West is that they are the product of a large-scale reduction of the welfare state, as well as excessive marketization and liberalization. The loss of workers’ benefits has left these people feeling like they are in a precarious spot. So the Western precariat has developed movements such as Occupy Wall Street, and they have become an active political force. For China’s society people, their material life is better than before, and many are quite grateful to their country. From this point of view, they’re not like the precariat. That’s why when you talk to them about movements like Occupy, they don’t understand where all this anger is coming from.” Xiang emphasized the role of intermediaries which create demand and control the flow of migration, and went even further to claim that these laborers’ “contributions to China will increasingly be reflected in their role as consumers. In the future, the way in which they relate to society will not be mainly as laborers, but as consumers.”5Cai Yiwen, Q&A with Anthropologist Xiang Biao on Northeast China’s Overseas Migrants, March 19. 2020 http://www.sixthtone.com/news/1005348/q%26a-with-anthropologist-xiang-biao-on-northeast-chinas-overseas-migrants

After the Beijing Olympic Game in 2008, galleries, museums and art media in China have all contributed to creating a demand for contemporary art narrowly defined by market value. The inauguration of the West Bund Art & Design Fair in 2014 and the neo-liberal developmental policies of the Shanghai government also paved the way for unprecedented growth of blockbuster exhibitions which feature artists as celebrity producers of commodified visual experiences. The paradigm of MoMA and the ideology of modernism were stripped of their historical context and repackaged as a glossy new dream of immersive consumption. Museums, biennials and art fairs witnessed queues of young audiences even though the price of one entrance ticket has soared up to 150-250RMB. There is also a popular myth among potential museum founders that franchising museums and reproducing blockbusters are going to bring in substantial revenues. We are creating the bubble of contemporary art like Luckin Coffee selling its speculative financial statements to investors. China’s economic miracle in the past four decades has relied on demographic dividends boosted by the increasing share of the working-age population and more women entering the labor force. One does not need statistics to confirm such insight because museum audiences in China are mostly young and mostly girls.

During the period of containment, people got used to contactless everything. Contactless payment has prevailed over cash for some time, contactless delivery prevents people from rushing to supermarkets and hoarding, contactless education keeps kids and parents occupied at home… It is not Confucianism or totalitarianism that have stopped Chinese people from going around, it is our easy adaption to contactless socializing. The modernist impulse of abstraction demonstrated by Alfred Barr in Cubism and Abstract Art has been transformed into a powerful, digitized abstraction of capitalism and consumerism. The question is whether the digital intermediary will lead our audience back to the museum after we all recover from the pandemic, or it will completely replace the temporal-spatial intimacy of relating to an artwork in a museum?

One thing we have learnt from the ongoing crisis is the vulnerability of our existing structure of globalization. Individual stories, precarious voices and empirical knowledge can be filtered by ideological constructs and power relations. We are all in this and there is no exclusive position we can take as cultural makers. Identifying ourselves as precariats might smash the forming hierarchy of different social groups, and we have to recognize that labor division between artists (art professionals) and other professions, producers and consumers does not hold a historical legitimacy outside of the Euro-American context. The paradigm of museums and exhibition-making might not be able to accommodate the diverse experiences and document the socioeconomic transformations in the post-corona world. Replicating the model of the modern art museum, reproducing large exhibitions that are anti-ecological, or homogenizing user-consumer experiences of art will not introduce any shift. We have to walk on the ground, resist our impulse of abstraction, indigenize the process of art making and become our own intermediaries to configurate new contacts between people.

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马德里索菲娅王后国家艺术中心博物馆的馆长曼纽尔· 博尔雅-比列尔(Manuel Borja-Villel)在一封公开信中称,尽管有员工患病,但他们的工作职位不会消失,“这部分得益于西班牙政府的支援项目”,他也提出了范式转向的必要性,“最终,博物馆会重新开放,但是人们会害怕互相接近吗?我们还能继续做违背生态理念的大型展览吗?也许票房展已经不合时宜。又也许,我们应该更多地思考过程与研究。”身处2020年的世界,重启马歇尔计划或者强调过程和研究,都算不上真正意义上的范式转向,我们必须更深入地质询这种范式的普遍性。博物馆和美术馆作为表征现代性的核心文化基建,全球大流行是否揭露了其欧美中心范式的深层问题?我们还在坚持一种扩散主义的观点吗?

纽约现代艺术博物馆作为大型艺术机构典范的诞生,不乏历史偶然。当阿尔弗雷德·巴尔在与特朗普大厦一个街区之隔的纽约11西53号街组织“立体派与抽象艺术”展览的时候,他可能不会想到自己为展览制作的图谱,会为现代艺术的全球年代学打下基础,他也无法预料自己对抽象艺术的系统建构,会影响到那些不生活在西方中心的艺术家们的学习经历和职业期望,并塑造这些地区战后形成的艺术史和博物馆学。巴尔的文章重申了现代艺术从现实主义到抽象主义的进化论,他图谱中使用的“近东艺术”和“黑人雕塑(Negro Sculpture)”等带有殖民主义色彩的概念已经被逐渐摒弃,但MoMA展览定义的行业主角和网络被承袭了下来,其中包括艺术家、艺术史家、策展人、馆长和理事会成员等等,这些角色在劳动、身份和资源上的分工仍主宰着当今艺术界的运行。这个网络上看不到现代艺术的需求端,也就是我们今天所称的“观众”。“立体派与抽象艺术”开幕于1936年,美国还没有完全从大萧条中恢复过来,1937年年中之后,经济又继续下行了18个月。在如此不利的经济环境之下,展览当然不是为深受失业之苦的普通美国民众开办的,但MoMA的理事会仍然支持了巴尔,并为作品的筹措和通关提供了实质性的帮助。巴尔在展览画册中强调了抽象主义的辩证逻辑:“(这种逻辑)假定一件作品(比如说一幅画),仅仅因为它的构图和色彩、线条、光线、形状的组织就值得被观看。”3 这种抽象的时代精神只能被安置在理想的、恒温恒湿的白立方里——这也是MoMA留下来的,对全球美术馆影响最持久的范式之一。即使在危机时刻,美术馆仍然可以将经济边缘群体的非和谐之音和乱糟糟的现实世界阻挡于门外,为自洽的艺术品和冥想者提供避难所。

媒体已经对导致大萧条的1929年华尔街股灾,和今年3月美股的熔断及其后引发经济衰退的可能进行了大量比较,在此不一一赘述。与美国相比,遭受过二战创伤并有着社会民主传统的欧洲国家,似乎更珍惜自己在文化领域的传统优势。德国联邦政府针对创意和文化事业推出的500亿资助计划尤为引人瞩目,这一消息很快在中国媒体和艺术圈中传开,部分居住在德国的中国艺术家已经在朋友圈上晒出了自己的成功申领。艺术的社会角色和价值在新冠危机中仍备受认可是一件鼓舞人心的事,但美术馆的助理策展人俏俏提出的一个问题,却打消了我的短暂乐观。俏俏和几位年轻人共同租住一套三居室,她带着室友们参观过两三次美术馆举办的展览,疫情爆发之后,大家就为什么德国要资助艺术和艺术家提出了疑问。俏俏将这个问题转达给我,我一开始试图围绕法国大革命后产生的资产阶级美术馆、托尼·贝纳特提出的“展示的复合体”、现代主义“为艺术而艺术”的意识形态,以及盖伊·斯坦丁的“流众”等几个概念来回答,却觉察到这样的解释可能无法令俏俏的朋友们感到满意。艺术家作为潜在的“流众”并需要获得资助,并不是由他们的社会地位和职业身份决定的,他们和其他从事自由职业的年轻人一样主动选择了非稳定的零工经济,“为移动的期待和欲望而生,缺乏在一个企业里从事长期稳定工作的冲动。”4 这里描述的其实是斯坦丁从介于“精英”和“流众”之间的“受薪者”(salariat)中细分出来的另一个群体,即“职业自雇者”(proficians)。艺术家正是在全球艺术市场的旋转门中出入的跨国劳工,全球化的停摆对他们的生计造成了直接打击,那些有着殖民历史并深刻理解其竞争规律的欧洲国家,只是比我们更懂这门生意而已。





该文为由比利安娜·思瑞克编辑的As you go journal撰写,并被转载于4月17日的e-flux conversation;特别鸣谢SLEEPCENTER的真诚反馈

Nikita Yingqian Cai lives and works in Guangzhou, where she is currently Associate Director and Chief Curator at Guangdong Times Museum.

[1] ArkDes presents a virtual vernissage, WEIRD SENSATION FEELS GOOD | An exhibition about ASMR, April 7, 2020, https://www.e-flux.com/video/325072/arkdes-nbsp-presents-a-virtual-vernissage-weird-sensation-feels-good/ (accessed on April 11, 2020)[1] Manuel Borja-Villel

[2] Letter From Madrid: The Director of the Reina Sofia on What It Will Take for Museums to Rise Again—and What They Can Do in the Meantime, April 6, 2020, https://news.artnet.com/opinion/madrid-reina-sofia-director-1824210

[3] Cubism and Abstract Art, p. 13, April 1936, The Museum of Modern Art New York

[4] Guy Standing, Defining the Precariat, A Class in the Making. April 19. 2013, https://www.eurozine.com/defining-the-precariat/

[5] Cai Yiwen, Q&A with Anthropologist Xiang Biao on Northeast China’s Overseas Migrants, March 19. 2020 http://www.sixthtone.com/news/1005348/q%26a-with-anthropologist-xiang-biao-on-northeast-chinas-overseas-migrants

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