Since March 2020, when COVID-19 gripped the nation in full effect, the everyday life of many Australians has been characterised by a curious mash of anxiety and boredom. Without a doubt, those who’ve been stood down from their jobs have suffered a heavy dose of the former. For those working from home, boredom has become its own kind of hell. I say this from the position of someone whose feet are planted, however unsteadily, in both the tertiary education system (specifically the arts and humanities), and Sydney’s arts culture—two fields where a sizeable segment of professional staff are, at the time of writing this article, currently working from home.
In actuality, #stayathome has been a mantra not well-received by many Australians, including by those who fully understand the good sense in it. I was already working from home prior to quarantine and accustomed to long periods of relative isolation, but what I began to experience was the crisis of other people’s boredom. One of my neighbours embarked on a series of noisy DIY home improvements that resonated throughout the entire apartment block and drove everyone mad. The whole neighbourhood began clearing out years of crap from their homes, causing the streets to pile up with broken furniture and other junk. Queues formed outside Bunnings; no one could stay home unless they could improve it first. No one could be idle. Even if they weren’t ‘working’, no one could not be productive.
This last point was especially evident in the emails arriving in full force, not just from my university, but from the various art galleries and institutions I was subscribed to—usually to the effect of: ‘During these unprecedented times, we regret to inform our patrons that our gallery will remain closed until further notice’. In mid-March 2020, once the Prime Minister announced a national plan to deal with COVID-19, art galleries and institutions were quick to devise their own professional ‘solution’ to quarantine, which included the use of interactive online exhibition platforms, artist talks via Zoom, and utilising social media sites such as Instagram and TikTok as both an exhibition platform and an art-making medium. Institutions were rife with ‘free online events’, and many continue to follow this exhibition model as a failproof method for dealing with the possibility of spikes in locally-transmitted COVID-19 cases (and the subsequent implementation of state-regulated social distancing measures).
While there have been many conversations, certainly among my own network, regarding the appeal of ‘free online events’, as it turns out, not a single person I know has actually attended one—or at least attended one with any sense of genuine enthusiasm. My intention here is not to disparage the administrative work gone into preparing these alternative exhibition formats under highly stressful circumstances, nor to undermine the talent of artists producing art for online platforms—this is not a question of ‘good’ versus ‘bad’ art. But I do question why the online version of anything pales in comparison to ‘real life’ interaction—and this is a point that can be applied to a variety of cultural sectors, including education.
Anyone working from home will likely be familiar with the term ‘Zoom fatigue’. I’ve experienced it, my colleagues have experienced it, memes have circulated which take the piss out of Zoom as a professional communication tool. The jig is up—everyone hates Zoom; we use it because we must. So, when art galleries and institutions shift their program to an online platform (whether they’re using Zoom or not), they’re actually contending with a demographic of workers who are hankering to logout from those online platforms that have kept them hostage all day, to get off their computers and go do something that’s actually nice or at least immediately rewarding (such as procuring toilet paper during that early stage of quarantine when it was in ludicrously short supply). Sure, Zoom provides the obvious function of social interaction and engagement, but for anyone who’s experienced eight hours of Zoom meetings back-to-back with scarcely a break to speak of, the ‘Zoom experience’ quickly becomes one where the professional realm utilises the instantaneity of online technologies to hijack the social realm—rather like a workplace manager who rocks up to a social event that they were invited to for the sake of politeness more than anything else. This is but one obvious reason why no one I know is particularly attracted to online events. Online environment = professional environment = boring.
I recall an incident relayed to me by a friend within my own network, undertaking their PhD at a well-known university in Sydney. As part of their research, they had originally proposed a practice-led project involving a series of sound performances with real-time sound artists and a real-time audience. For obvious reasons, COVID-19 interrupted these plans, and the nature of their research meant they were unable to simply ‘shift’ their project, in its entirety, online. In the end—and more significantly, at the recommendation of their department—they produced both a video and an audio recording as a demonstration of their research progress for assessment purposes. The video and audio recordings only garnered two views each, suggesting that less than half the assessment panel (of five) reviewed the recordings that were uploaded via the university’s official online channels. While my friend and I might speculate on the nefarious reasons why the panel neglected to review these recordings, it’s not really about that; most academic staff are having a shit time right now in the face of nationwide ‘austerity’ measures being imposed by university upper management. Really, it’s about how my friend’s creative practice was forcibly reduced to a mere product for assessment, with the primary purpose of fulfilling institutional outcomes, as opposed to realising an experiential creative project.
And what does any of this have to do with art? Here’s the thing—art, in any of its iterations, is not just a material good that can be substituted for an online version in the same way that a vinyl record is substituted for online music streaming. Art is part of an actual culture, and to borrow from French sociologist Emile Durkheim, there are social facts associated with this culture. By this, I mean there are socio-historical collectivities organised around the creation of art, its viewing, and its interpretation—not to mention the social (and political!) collectivities organised around the art gallery as a concept in and of itself. Independently run art spaces (a fading culture in Sydney, as a consequence of exorbitant rent prices and the ‘professionalisation’ of arts culture) is testimony to this social fact; those who run independent spaces often do so precisely because of the political autonomy these spaces afford. This preference for autonomy (by some, but certainly not all) is suggestive of those avant-garde movements that thrived during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—from the Impressionists’ kickback against the cultural and aesthetic conservatism of the French Salon, to the Dadaists’ assault upon the conventional sensibilities of the bourgeoisie via performative absurdism and dysfunctionality (to name but two examples). But even if we look further past the avant-garde, the art museum’s inception in the eighteenth century was a purposefully social one (albeit an ultimately bourgeois project aimed at ‘civilising’ the popular class), and even in today’s digital age, this social purpose hasn’t been abandoned, even if its management and political agenda reflect a different set of values. So why downplay the need for a social dimension? Why downplay the need for actual humans in an actual space containing actual artistic concepts?
There is something else at work here. From an economic-rationalist perspective, the reality of quarantine—that is, the physical absence of an audience—poses a problem for art spaces. This is especially true of institutional spaces kept afloat by private financiers expecting a return on their investment. After all, business is business, and unlike toilet paper, not everyone needs art, nor is affected if an institution folds (as in the case of Carriageworks, which underwent voluntary administration in May 2020, and which was subsequently bailed out in June of the same year). This is where many cultural sectors, including education, overlap; when the public is absent and unable to substantiate any given institution’s ‘commitment’ to the public good (let alone generate revenue by way of ticket sales, coffee shops, merchandise—and in the case of education, course fees and enrolment numbers), what remains are skilled employees ripe for the sacking. After all, business is business, regardless of whether that business is based on traditionally non-profit endeavours aimed at humanity’s betterment. Thus, the show must go on, even if the audience is imaginary—or worse, just managers—and even if the real show is the performance of productivity.
There is a dystopic implication in the current shift towards online platforms—a kind of standardised production that constitutes the backbone of today’s institutionally-endorsed ‘culture’. Here, in this professionalised realm, art assumes a function… but functionality isn’t exactly the secret ingredient for cultivating a thriving arts culture (in fact, I’d argue that political and economic discord are far more effective in this regard—but that’s a whole other story). It’s not all bad news though; after all, the failure of online platforms as a worthy substitute for a meaningful social life is a success for culture itself.
Image: Samantha Gades