Are you old enough to remember days when email addresses were either cutesy, antagonistic or pure cryptic? You could have been firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. Do you remember hanging out at the mall only to go home to hang out some more with the exact same group of people on mIRC (Internet Relay Chat) or I Seek You (ICQ)? Do you remember Ask Jeeves, Alta Vista, MetaCrawler and HotBot? No, these are not Tinder type apps, rather, they were the Googles of the World Wide Web from a not too distant past. If you do indeed remember, it means that you were alive and rocking on board an adopted digital bandwagon roundabout mid-1990s.
For the artist, this newfound connectivity was heaven-sent. Finally, they could get to know and communicate with peers across continents, seek opportunities beyond their own shores, and most importantly, utilise the interweb as an alternative artmaking tool. With the exception of ticketed events such as art fairs, biennales and festivals, for years, presenters of art projects have pushed their online presence more than ever, primarily to reach out to new audiences and establish their brands above their physical locales.
As if they were not already doing it, COVID-19 ignited calls for artists and arts professionals to go digital. Scuppered by the pandemic, planes stopped flying, artsy jackets and dresses remain hung in closets, champagnes stopped popping, no more loving la bise. Biennales, festivals, exhibitions in galleries and museums have been postponed and cancelled. Art fairs, even for the likes of giants such as Art Basel have been rescheduled, at times twice over. Talks, workshops, virtual exhibitions and peer-to-peer sharing, the digital realm was recently flooded with a frenzy of free-to-access visual art programmes for the public and arts professionals.
Like it or not, everyone everywhere has been strongly encouraged to embrace the digital. Digital is ‘here to stay’ they said; digitalisation will center the ‘new normal’. Art lovers, yearning their muse, have valiantly taken up the call in order to soothe their pains. Seeing, feeling, listening to and experiencing art again, even if only in the light of their LED-backlit display MacBooks to access a virtual world.
The digital reincarnate. A magic potion peddled to and by artists, arts professionals and audiences today not as an alternative, but a future.
Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, 3D printing, projection mapping, digital photography, digitally produced film and music, these all must already sound familiar to us. They, for quite some time now, have been the digital tools of artists. The digital is essentially technology, and technological implements are, to put it rudimentarily, tools. As a technology, the Video Home System (VHS) recorder, player and tapes were at one point considered cutting-edge technology. They were useful and entertaining gadgets and were as common as computers are in our dwellings today.
So, what is this digitalisation that everyone has been fussing about?
Transferring recordings or images of physical artworks onto platforms such as websites, blogs, Facebook and Instagram pages is digitalisation. Of course, such actions are not new. In fact, post-2000, the sharing of art online has been the norm for most artists, galleries and publications. Heck! These days, many of us live half our lives online and upload everything including confessions, a relentless number of selfies, images of food before consumption, gym workouts, places visited, weddings, divorces, deaths, the list goes on. The digital is an unrelenting outlet we have voluntarily plugged in to. Yes, voluntarily. Not too long ago, it was not uncommon to hear someone tell me, “If it was not on Facebook, it did not happen.”
Asking artists to ‘go digital’ today is like asking them to put on an Emperor’s fake clothes. A redundant exercise. In response to COVID-19, art grants encouraging digitalisation have also surfaced. These grants intend to spur the generation of content and provide virtual public access to physical artworks whose viewing are now constrained by social distancing protocols. While doing so could grant simulated access to many, looking at a Van Gogh painting online for example, in whatever creative permutations, can never replace the breathtaking, personal experience of viewing the original, even if behind a pane of protective museum glass.
The specificity of grants for projects on digital platforms is like offering funding exclusively for oil painting, or watercolours, or sculpting in marble. The issue here is not on the specificity of the grant scheme itself, but the fact that it corners artists, regardless of practice, to switch lanes and get on a fast track to the supposed ‘digitised future’. If an artist happens to be an exceptional master in charcoal drawing… yeah, go figure…
Shall we drop the ‘digitalisation’ pretense already and call it ‘internet-isation’? The internet-isation of art demands the activation of a specialised set of skills. Skills in web design, programming, graphic design, animating, video editing, e-commerce set-up; should an artist be able to undertake all of these tasks in D-I-Y, perhaps, a career reconsideration is in order. Otherwise, artists would have to call upon necessary professionals to deliver their digitised vision to the world.
Winning such specific grants effectively turns the artist into a conduit to help reinvigorate a lagging economy. The grant quantum flows through and not to the artist. As a strategy, the internet-isation of art is a misguided policy. It does not seem to allude to the propagation of artworks that are digital in nature or lend to long-term sustainability in the production, recognition and significant place of art and artists in society moving forward. Granted, all grants are strategically designed to maneuver their recipients to foster a premeditated structure or form as preferred by the fund giver. And artists make grant applications with eyes wide open and are never coerced into doing so. In general, grant monies are not unusually redistributed in an order similar to that described above. However, when grants designed for the mass adoption of a regimental blueprint is pitched as financial assistance for artists cornered in a trying economic climate like today, the words ambush and conditioning somehow come to mind.
Looking cursorily online, we could find grants that appear more appreciative and sincere in assisting artists overcome these difficult times. There is the Artist Relief Project by Artly World, The Artists’ Fellowship by The Artists’ Fellowship Inc, The Photographer Fund by Format magazine, The Adolph & Esther Gottlieb Emergency Grant by Adolph & Esther Gottlieb Foundation, Rauschenberg Emergency Grants Program by New York Foundation for the Arts, Fulcrum Fund by 516 ARTS, and the one that takes the cake for me, a whopping US$1.7 billion pledged in ‘social bonds’ for non-profits worldwide spearheaded by The Ford Foundation.
When an artist drafts a budget for an arts grant application, the norm is to peg about 10% to 15% of the total expected expenditure to artist fees. Often, more is spent on service providers and equipment necessary to achieve adequate success for each project. Art grants are not charity payouts for artists. Diligent artists would never rely on grants as a sustainable income source or worse, a convenient source of petty cash to fund art from. Art grants function to contribute a conscientious support to the intellectual and cultural cognisance of society.
Today, as most of the world continue to work from the sanctity of their homes while reflecting upon societal value structures, astute artists everywhere must be taking time out to reflect on their practice. We all know that it is artists who are consistent to their vision, fully committed to deepening their artistic journeys, and unmoved by popular recourse or Pavlovian antics that emerge stronger and humanly connected. As well as technology, the digital is a skin, an interface, a language that requires mastery in order to effectively translate artistic visions.