For a while there was a feeling that this was only temporary; that life would eventually go back to ‘normal’ as soon as the lockdown would be lifted. As time rolls on and governments begin to ease lockdowns, the return to ‘normality’ becomes foggier. Where does this leave the art industry? And, in particular, the organisations and individuals who work hard to aid the production of emerging contemporary art, which are often the hardest hit in these circumstances?
The art world was already in such a state of upheaval due to the immense takeover of mega art fairs, inflation and other factors such as Brexit. So, what are the major problems faced by these organisations during COVID-19, and what can we learn from them?
Of course, we have other major priorities than discovering the next big painter or famous artwork—our health and the funding of public health services must be put above everything else, always, and especially now. As artist Jesse Darling powerfully put before refusing to speak more to Screen Shot: “I’m scared and trying to stay safe, while doing what I can for others who might be in a harder situation,” an understandable reaction.
In times like these, however, perhaps it can also be useful to listen to and learn from each other. That’s why Screen Shot spoke to influential people in the art industry in order to gain a little clarity.
After these conversations, it became clear that there are two resounding issues at play: the logistics necessary for sales and the cancellation or postponement of fairs. With movement completely halted, the transportation of already-sold artworks and even the ability for galleries to reach their storage spaces became infeasible.
As an example, Nigel Dunkley, director of the Union Pacific Gallery in London explained that, before the virus hit, Union Pacific had planned a large shipment to New York which is still in limbo, while Antoine Levi, director of the Galerie Antoine Levi in Paris and Alys Williams, director of the Vitrine Gallery based in London and Basel have been facing similar issues.
For many small galleries, fairs generate their only, if not most significant, annual income, which puts those that have already made this year’s investment into stall spaces in a precarious position. There has been, however, a growing call to rethink the takeover of large fairs as they create unhealthy barriers to entry for new arrivals. As Vitrine’s gallery manager, Will Clarke mentioned: “We are optimistic that this period could allow for a ‘levelling’ of the private art sector and push back the importance of the larger fairs, allowing for smaller operations to flourish. Take, for example, Magda Sawon’s [Postmasters Gallery] boat metaphor: ‘they capsize easily, but can also recover fast’.”
One certainty we can hold onto is that digital spaces and content are flourishing. As Clarke pointed out, “even though it has been present in the last few years such as at the last Venice Biennial, the importance of digital art has been highlighted twofold.” Kevin Hunt, artist and lecturer at Manchester School of Art has compiled the Pandemic Programmme, a list of some of the most interesting, entertaining, useful, relaxing, recommended, critically engaged and particularly good online visual arts content that has been published.
Union Pacific recently opened a digital show of Giovanni Copelli’s work. Liste Art Fair in Basel is holding Zoom meetings with all of its participants to discuss the future of the fair. Digital artist Meriem Bennani created the Instagram series 2 Lizards, with references to Justin Bieber’s recent Instagram Live broadcasts, Zoom parties and Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response (ASMR) videos—a candid reflection of our new reality.
Despite these moments in digital content, it is indeed with sadness, that exhibition openings will be sidetracked and smaller satellite fairs, such as Liste, will not be able to create their yearly meeting space and platforms for young and emerging artists. “This job is made of meetings, encounters, relationships, conversations. If the human contact does not become possible anymore what is the point? If smart working is the future for us then isn’t this sad? Art is an experience to live with and not to imagine about,” says Levi.
Liste’s director, Joanna Kamm made a commendable point that should conclude this article. She explained that all we can really offer each other right now is solidarity and to direct focus and awareness towards the galleries that are taking the biggest risks in showing the work of artists whom, without them, would likely remain undiscovered, and from whom we all benefit: “It is through galleries’ commitments that we have the opportunity to see art that not only describes the present but also creates it—with new aesthetics, media and values.”
To mark the one-year anniversary sale of the Portrait of Edmond Bellamy, the first AI-generated art piece auctioned at Christie’s in New York for $432,500, I ask myself, can anyone who has some kind of algorithm know-how become the next Andy Warhol? Is art made by machines ‘good art’? Should it even be considered art at all? These questions have been asked around the art and tech circles since last October, when the blurry 19th-century-inspired portrait created entirely by an AI machine was unveiled at the iconic auction house.
What makes AI art groundbreaking is that it uses GAN (Generative Adversarial Networks). This is a machine modelled after the human brain with two approaches to thought and conception: first, it scours images and detects patterns using an algorithm. Then it generates images that align with that algorithm. In a rigid industry ruled by ‘White Cube elitism’, it’s surprising that tech mediums such as artificial intelligence, deep learning, and adversarial networks are having a moment in the art world. Although this historic auction signalled the disruption of art by the digital revolution, its controversy has not been ignored.
Some may argue that this could be the end of art as we know it, with artists worrying about machines possibly stealing their jobs and putting them out of work. Others have debated whether machine-made paintings and prints should even be considered art. Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic Jerry Saltz has said “AI artists are striving for their machines to paint like humans do or even better. But why should they?” If artists and scientists are striving to pioneer in this new form of artistry, why not explore other modes of creativity? These are both exciting and scary prospects, but the question people should be asking themselves is why is AI art created only on paintings and prints?
To some, paintings and prints can be considered as an outdated medium, and if AI’s advantage is being more cognitively advanced than humans, why not use it on a more advanced level? One that springs to mind is digital face filters (yes, digital face filters like the ones on Instagram). Hear me out—although their popularity amongst the selfie-obsessed has been pioneering what is digital beauty and disrupting societal beauty standards, they should also be recognised in an art context.
As we are always interacting with flat dimensions, seeing art through a face brings a new perspective to understanding art. Filters such as the ones made by digital artist Johanna Jaskowska, who created the famous Beauty3000, Blast, and Zoufriya, have been transforming faces into otherworldly living artworks. Using AR-made face filters as a medium for AI-generated imagery could catapult the future relationship between art and tech.
Think about it this way—the Mona Lisa is the most photographed art piece in history, yet everyone would kill to have the original sitting in their homes. Who wouldn’t want to buy a face filter if you knew you and only a slim few others would be able to experience it and show it off on your social media platforms? Plus, if AI-made blurry prints can make it into Christie’s, then why can’t face filters? The art world should see beyond the White Cube and realise that art in the digital era shouldn’t just live on canvas anymore.
Why put a wealth of knowledge on an outdated medium? AI art is presenting a new form of creative thinking that is beyond human comprehension, and it’s a disservice to put this contemporary way of thinking into old mediums. Besides, seeing AI used in creation with already overused mediums doesn’t seem that groundbreaking. For being so innovative, using old methods seems counterintuitive.
The reason why some aren’t convinced of the significance of AI art is that it looks like it was badly made, and, more importantly, that a human made it. Shouldn’t we focus on the fact that it was machine-made and conceptualised by a machine? Although seeing face filters on auction at Christie’s or seeing digital artists such as Johanna Jaskowska, Jade Roche, and Mathieu Ernst next to the Old Masters in museums may seem like a stretch for now, who knows where the future of art lies in the techy world. In the words of Andy Warhol himself, “Art is what you can get away with.” We just need to push the boundaries.