The Lighthouse Drinking the Fuel / On the Rocks
The lighthouse is a metaphor. It’s a sign, a signal—but for what? The shore is here. You’re almost home. But also, watch those rocks.
When the artworld came unmoored in March, taking strange new shapes online and outdoors, many panic-stripped their projects to their profiteering hulls. This was happening already. Hauser & Wirth began to develop its proprietary ArtLab exhibition software, HWVR, in 2019. The first order of business was to digitize their newest gallery, the retrofitted outbuildings of an 18th-century naval hospital on Isla del Rey, a speck of land in an inlet of the small Spanish island of Menorca. Clicking between 360-degree renderings of white walls, “visitors” might glimpse the lens flare from a skylight; or, visible through the glass of an exit door, the stones of a Roman foundation sprayed with wildflowers. Their latest VR scheme is far bleaker: for Frieze London, H&W’s presentation was titled A New Reality, where, and I quote, “visitors can journey into the iconic Frieze tents in Regent’s Park to explore exact replicas of last year’s booths that now exist in a virtual world.”¹ It’s not the internet that alienates us—it’s the market.
The brick-and-mortar gallery has always channeled the undertow of capital. In non-pandemic times, traipsing art’s archipelago of redoubts, resorts, and utopias, we’re buoyed along by friends, drinks, and discourse. Without those things, the art world can be a desert. Some have gone mad with disease, others with loneliness, lust, and sun. We see patterns where there are none, while messages bob in their bottles.
Sometimes, though, a message reaches you on a tiny glass screen. A couple months ago, I attended a press preview for a new installation by Samara Golden while sitting on a bench in a rose-scented park in Thousand Oaks. Golden is known for intricate dioramas that, like exploded dollhouses of the mind, obey dreamlike gravity and reflect ad infinitum by way of huge mirrors on the floors and walls. This particular exhibit, Upstairs at Steve’s (2020), installed at The Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia, opens wedge-like toward the viewer as if emitted by one of the building’s extant windows. Mirrors on all sides spread the scene as far as the eye can see, turning the gallery’s stained glass into a faceted, floating beacon. It looks, improbably, like a lighthouse. The sunlit center is ringed by wrecked bedding, furniture, strings of lights, and wooden decking that move rhythmically across what are in fact the joists and sprinklers on the ceiling—in this context, the fixtures resemble the berms and wire of some traumatized beachhead.
I saw the piece remotely, which is largely how Golden saw it, too. Most of the assembly took place as museum staff and the artist swapped pictures and made adjustments via email. This much is the new normal, or whatever, but in the case of Steve’s, I could sense, in the catastrophic illusion of the work piped into the crunched insufficiency of my iPhone, the tang of collective madness. It was reassuring. If the subjects of virtual walkthroughs in early pandemic days tended to be hastily repackaged versions of art from more superficially “okay” times, here, in September 2020, was a work born in isolation and illness while the summer’s uprisings roiled outside.
It’s already a cliché to point out that the pandemic has, like a rising tide, mostly served to widen the cracks of already shaky social institutions: from healthcare, housing, and electoral politics to universities, museums, and the legacy of liberal humanism itself. It seems trite to spotlight the art world in this mess. But here we are. Among a rough typology of digital patches to this crisis: walkthroughs, lectures, screenings, even fundraising galas held on Zoom; online exhibitions consisting of pictures or videos embedded on a webpage; festivals of drive-through and drive-by art, and an uptick in 24/7 storefront shows. Some of the better attempts have moved into the cracks, so to speak. An oddly affective intervention by American Artist has been replacing all the pictures on the Whitney Museum’s website with stock images of plywood for several minutes each day, as if boarding up the windows against a riot or a storm. A new-ish space in L.A.’s Fashion District called Canary utilizes two webcams (installed pre-Covid) that live-stream the gallery’s narrow rooms, whether an exhibition is installed or not. In both cases, a combination of hungry institutions and fed-up artists has illuminated a gap where some of the possibilities of early net art are suddenly available and viable venues.
The projects that work best in this digital interregnum do so because they meet us where we are, physically, financially, and mentally: at home, on the rocks, out to sea. (And what a waste it would be to expend ourselves only to paddle back to the old, settler-colonial terra firma.) Net art, so-called, isn’t a panacea—no more than the first round of cyber-utopias—yet web-based galleries are again among the art world’s few experiments. New Art City, for instance, a sort of bespoke Second Life for multimedia, recently hosted a series of videos, lectures, and DJ sets that were pinned to panels within a foggy 3-D swamp.² Another outré project, the Plicnik Space Initiative, takes the form of digital objects linked into a web-based “spaceship” that visitors hyperlink through, module by module. EPOCH is an artist-run virtual space of the point-and-click kind favored by the blue chips. But instead of last year’s art fair, it imagines a post-white cube world. The first show, End Demo (2020), took place on an outcropping surrounded by the sea, ringed by a Brooklyn-esque skyline, where a few improbable white walls jutted out from piles of bleached rubble. The fourth, Labyrinth (2020), occupies a curving maze, purpose-built pixel by pixel in a sundown glade surrounded by rustling copper trees. EPOCH is something different, then, but also something old: it is redolent of Myst, a classic PC game from 1993, where you click your way around a CGI island, still by still, unlocking secrets as the CD-ROM whirs. EPOCH—like Golden’s Upstairs at Steve’s, like Plicnik and Canary, and the first wave of Covidcontemporary projects—counts both loneliness and interface among its materials.
This new blush of net art is nothing new, but its ethos of survival and access is encouraging. After these months without white cubes, as we stagger again into the long, cold light, what is it we really miss? Where are we headed? Does the strobe on the distant shore say we are saved or damned?
These are the doldrums. We make connections where we can. Exiled, whether like Napoleons or lepers, we turn to our libraries. Atomized, we remap the region; we explore in spasms; we make brittle appointments and put on handmade gear. Confined to our motile isles, we get back to basics: to self-care, to activism, to community. Art has delaminated from reality. It comes in intoxicated bouts of visions. As it should. Utopia isn’t a place you can colonize or build on—it’s a landless island, a way of life. The lighthouse is a metaphor. I’m ready to drink the fuel.
Travis Diehl has lived in Los Angeles since 2009. He is a recipient of the Creative Capital / Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant (2013) and the Rabkin Prize in Visual Art Journalism (2018).