People playing with silver, pillow-shaped balloons filled with helium, The Velvet Underground’s I'm Waiting for My Man blasting through speakers and walls lined with Pop Art incarnations of #60s and #70s style Instagram-pinups (here’s looking at you, Debbie Harry). These are just a few scenes taken from Andy Warhol’s eagerly anticipated Tate Modern exhibition last month. Little did anyone know, five days after opening, it would have to close its doors indefinitely.
Coronavirus has forced art galleries to shut up shop. So, how are institutions adapting to this new world order? What about those on the other side of the coin: The Creators (many artists and visionaries are freelancers and currently facing crippling uncertainty)? How are they shifting their creative focus in studio-less, cash-strapped and confined times?
The most obvious change? Virtual viewing rooms. Now, it would be odd if a gallery wasn’t showcasing their exhibitions via an online tour. You can explore the Andy Warhol exhibit room-by-room, via a seven-minute video tour led by two Tate curators. Google’s Arts & Culture platform gives users insider access to some of the world’s leading art institutions, from the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. And a newly released one-hour YouTube documentary invites you to explore one of Dior’s most famous exhibitions ‘Christian Dior: Designer of Dreams' (held in Paris' Musée des Arts Décoratifs in 2017). These URL experiences democratise art; it enables those who would not have had public access to have an up-close(r) experience; to participate in the cultural conversation. And yet, the joys of viewing art are hard - if not impossible - to replicate on-screen.
“We don’t want to just recreate things that were destined as physical experiences and put them online,” says Kati Price, Head of Digital Media and Publishing at the V&A. “What we want to do is use digital for what digital does best and create more interactive moments.” Like their ultra-playful ‘Design A Wig’ - where you can create your own hair sculptures online. (Try it - it’s surprisingly soothing). The project actually launched in 2016, but it has resurfaced on the social media circuit more recently.
Kati Price, Head of Digital Media and Publishing at the V&A.
For many young and emerging artists, this time is being used to think outside of the box, in their own box. The Sarabande Foundation - a non-profit founded by Lee Alexander McQueen in the mid-noughties, with the aim to support and nurture the next wave of visionary artists and designers (providing scholarships, studio space, mentorship, workshops, alongside access to exclusive discussions, with leading figures from Tim Walker to Grayson Perry); stresses that unfettered creativity is not cancelled. It’s just taken a different shape.
“The artists we’re dealing with are very much at the beginning of their career. They’re not set in their ways,” says Trino Verkade, Sarabande consultant and long-time McQueen collaborator. “It’s going to be tough for everybody, especially financially, but creatively that’s where people excel the most - in times of adversity.”
“They’re going to rise to the challenge, because they are wired to look at things differently. The emails I’m getting daily from the artists (currently in isolation, without access to their studio and many of their day-to-day tools) saying they’re excited about what they are going to do next. No-one is emailing me with doom and gloom. I think some of them have taken this as a thinking time - which I think is really important. To take this as a real break in your mind to do something that you wouldn’t normally do.”
Alex McNamee - a Canadian-British sculptor and director of south London art collective Muddy Yard - says her creativity has come out in “very DIY projects,” such as making shoe racks, flower boxes, and planters for vegetables. “I have got way more functional in my making.” Adjusting to a new routine, and not putting pressure on herself to mirror her creative output pre-Corona has also been a reassuring realisation. “The first week was a real shock. Before this I had my week laid out: I went to work at a gallery during the week, would often go to private views in the evening, and spend the weekends making art. That routine changed overnight.” Also, no two creative processes look exactly the same. “Some people are inspired by solitude,” McNamee adds. “But there’s lots of artists who are completely the opposite to that.”
The film industry, too, are having to flex their innovative muscles. While productions grind to a halt, and blockbusters are postponed in the UK and US - this period of isolation is breeding a new kind of storytelling format. Independent film producer, Peregrine Kitchener-Fellowes, recently co-founded The Cineframe Project, which launched with a series challenging filmmaker to create a short film - shot on their phone - informed entirely by their own experience in isolation. “My philosophy is that artists are at their most creative when they have something they are pushing up against,” Peregrine says. “So the idea behind starting The Cineframe Project was basically to put restrictions on filmmakers, while also giving them creative control.”
Technology means everyone can make movies now - albeit it, much more lo-fi. “We are always seeking for perfection, but sometimes film can suffer from sharp edges. Some of the greatest films, for example: Star Wars, The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, When Harry Met Sally, they were all shot on film [and] they all have shots that are out of focus; sound that is not synced properly. Not on purpose – it’s just that sometimes that's the best take. Part of that is that filmmaking, at its core, basic level - and this applies to painting and sculpture - is hand-made. It is made by imperfect human beings.”
Of course, there’s something unparalleled about the social experience of culture. Of watching a film in the cinema, catching up on *insert show everyone’s talking about on Netflix* with a friend or even sharing a moment with a stranger next to you at a gallery, peering at the same image. We still crave to connect with other people. If not more so now.
“At the moment I'm working on a collaborative performance involving 40 people around the world,” says post-internet artist Ed Fornieles. “I’m interested in online role-play; I have been sending couples to Mars in a hypothetical future, 2083. It’s not too far, so it’s still connected to our present in some way. The whole project is sort of leaching off sci-fi narratives, like Solaris.” Participants then create a character, where they can explore a potentially “very intimate relationship” in an augmented reality. “Which we perhaps know from our day to day lives. I think it can facilitate a lot that you get from your normal interactions, as well as allow you to explore other aspects of yourself.”
Will the art-scape look differently as a result of this period in isolation? I wonder. “I think people will be experiencing art and design in much more diverse times than we previously have done,” says Kati Price. “For lots of people, attending exhibitions and galleries are social experiences. I think we need to increasingly think about ways to help forge those connections and encourage people to participate in something that is bigger than their own interaction with art. And culture is an essential way to forge those connections.”