The migration into virtuality: Reflections on digital transformations

Ahmed Isam Aldin

In the last couple of months, humanity has witnessed the most incredible migration wave, possibly since the industrial revolution. I am referring to a migration prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic, not the one into Europe and the USA’s southern borders, but the migration wave from reality to virtuality. When the pandemic hit, millions of people took refuge behind their screens to keep their positions in the social and material fabrics. Major industrial actors have moved into private spaces where their screens are the only way to communicate with the outside.
Like all other disciplines and industries, the art world and its actors had to find their place within the new networks. Nevertheless, art has always looked at technology with a critical gaze, appearing in various genres like sci-fi and other dystopian and utopian imaginations – when the machines take over. Nevertheless, at the moment the pandemic unfolded, the technological alternatives became difficult to ignore.

First, I want to discuss the situation of art spaces and certain issues that arose before the pandemic. Museums had partially turned into battlefields between contemporary curators and the archival nature of art museums. Art critic Boris Groys commented on the role of traditional museums, saying that “the main occupation of art was to resist the flow of time. Public art museums and big private art collections were created to select certain objects—the artworks—take them out of private and public use, and therefore immunize them against the destructive force of time” (1). These objects have gained universal status representing expressions of human history, created by the dominant linear narrative of art history. The art acquisition of museums is supposed to be inclusive. However, it often represents itself in the form of a nation-state antique shop designed with a Eurocentric gaze. Contemporary curators introduced new approaches and objectives. They initiated the exchange of objects with temporary experiences, as Groys said, aiming to “resynchronize the fate of the human body with the mode of its historical representation—to embrace the precariousness, instability, and finiteness of our material existence.” (2) This can be accomplished by exposing the art project to the destructive forces of time, the way they affect the human body. The movement of contemporary art invaded traditional museum spaces during short periods of time in the form of curatorial projects that challenged the historical selection of the artifacts. The success of curatorial projects did not annihilate the museums. Dialectically, they altered each other’s nature through compromises and negations. The established artifacts of the museums underwent recontextualization by the curators, a process that ultimately reshaped the museums.

Furthermore, in the past decade, the transformation of the nature of artworks along with the shift in public interaction and the reshaping of the museums as well as other exhibition spaces rendered some of the most remarkable examples of the fusion of art and technology possible – digital as well as kinetic art, works that explore the internet and online existences. The technology in various sci-fi movies that was mind-blowing just a few decades ago today shapes the face of our reality. In this stage of the innovative technology-based era, traditional paintings and sculptures cannot capture reality to their fullest, and that is why data, pixels, and mathematical formulas are the tools of contemporary creatives. Thus, information-based technology has added more possibilities to the realization of artistic projects and has improved its documentation and distribution. The novel technology-based art has not negated the role of other genres but added to the cultural matrix, the same way photography followed painting in the portrayal of reality, lifting the burden of obvious representation. Virtual reality and Augmented reality technologies have given installation art new possibilities for expression. However, information-based technology brought a new productive question: is technology a tool for digital representation or an artistic medium in itself? Often the artist is positioned as a content provider and the technologist as a technician. However, when the two positions fuse, they open the medium to unlimited exploration.

Mediums such as virtual reality and augmented reality open up new modes of presentation for interactive installations. Rather than replicating reality within the medium, curators could add game design to their epistemological scale.

Taking an example from the past, we look at painting and photography. As Deleuze said, “such activities compete with each other, and one art would never be content to assume a role abandoned by another. It is hard to imagine an activity that would take over a function relinquished by a superior art.” (3) They affect the nature of one another and take each other’s burden of traditional uses. This particular case presents itself in the work of the British artist Francis Bacon in the 1980s (4) as well as the experimental photo-etching of Sudanese artist Mohamed Omer Khalil. (5)

Returning to the meeting point of curatorial-contemporary projects and information-technology art, we need to distinguish between a digital representation and computer-based art similar to how photography was utilized in the documentation of painting while also being an artistic practice in itself. In the case of new technologies, VR represents an artistic medium and simultaneously a space of digital representation for existing artworks. Curatorial-contemporary projects are still struggling to realize that replicating reality within these mediums neglects opportunities that the medium provides. In short, if we try to allow unspecified discovery to appear unbound from our previous knowledge and ideology, we are probably going to extract more joy from it. How can we let the stream of time move within these new mediums?

Considering the new development of information-based technologies and the emergence of new vocabularies such as an online museum, virtual gallery, or live stream performance, one may ask if experiencing the artwork in these novel spaces apprehends the physicality of it. Most probably, it does not, but neither did the artwork in the gallery pre-Covid-19. In his essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction1934” Walter Benjamin said: “Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art lacks in one element: its presence in time and space [das Hier und Jetzt], its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence [einmaligen Dasein] of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership.” (6) Thus, we could consider the artwork in the era of digital reproduction as another replica. Copy from the actual artwork lacks its presence in time and space and takes a different form than the conventional mechanical reproduction of the work. It has another shape of Aura (6).
The other part is questioning the internet’s infrastructure as space where we present these replicas. Is it a private or public space? Is it global and diverse, as claimed? For sure, the internet is a private space like all other spaces before, museums as nation-owned spaces and private galleries, biennales sponsored by arms industries or festivals financed by large concerns. The internet represents an outer space, not only by providing a platform for both private and nation-owned spaces but also by capitalizing on personal actions and interactions within its architecture. Thus, the room created on the internet will always generate profit (7), and the users are forced to sacrifice their privacy to experience art. Additionally, users are distracted by personalized, targeted advertisements, not under the curator’s control. However, this private space also allowed different consciousnesses to exist parallel, sharing the same experience although they are in different geographical parameters.
Conclusively, the technology always brings new solutions, but it serves the existing power relations and ideologies. The ongoing pandemic enabled us to conduct a consequential experiment that shows us some of the post-post-Modern worlds we are going to inhabit. What some of these days we call alternatives are probably going to be permanent. Therefore, we need some critical reflection on the tools we consider for the time alternatives and investigate these power relations in their weakest moments, the time of transformation.

End Notes:
(1)” Entering the Flow: Museum between Archive and Gesamtkunstwerk” essay by Boris Groys 2013
(2)” Entering the Flow: Museum between Archive and Gesamtkunstwerk” essay by Boris Groys 2013
(3) “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Walter Benjamin essay 1934
(4)” Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation” Book by Gilles Deleuze 1981, 8
(5) Francis Bacon, Photographer / Painter, 1980.
(6) Mohamed Omer Khalil – Echos2 1982
(7) “The Age of Surveillance Capitalism” Book by Shoshana Zuboff 2019, 120