Through These Screens
Artist Discussion| October 2020
There has been a pivotal shift in the arts world. We have seen events cancelled, watched galleries close their doors, twice now, and have had exhibitions postponed. This has left us with the huge burden of uncertainty and confusion for the future delivery of art works and our careers as emerging artists. Creative expression is always evolving, the way we view and consume art is moving with the times. However, no-one could have anticipated the impact that Covid-19 has had on our society. We are rapidly experiencing artworks and practices more virtually. How can we as artists prepare for the inevitable consuming hold of the digital age?
As an emerging artist myself, I have seen an immense change in how I view and present my practice. Following the abrupt end to my MFA Degree in Fine Art and Belfast School of Art due to the pandemic, I have been left with numerous questions. Not only do I struggle to visualise the future delivery of artistic projects through these flat screens, I also question the way we use social media platforms to promote ourselves and our creative practices.
In July, I devised a discussion with three emerging and exciting artists based in Northern Ireland. Brian Kielt who specialises in painting and drawing, Dominic McKeown working in sculpture and Niamh Seana Meehan who is a multidisciplinary artist that works in performance, sound, text and sculpture.
I reached out to these three specific artists because not only am I very fond of their works – but I was also very interested in their experience of producing work during the Covid-19 pandemic. Each of us have been involved in some form of online publication, promotion and/or exhibition during these unprecedented times and the discussion surrounding our experiences interrogated the complexities of internet culture.
Have you experienced showing and/or viewing work in a virtual gallery and how did you engage with it?
Dominic: In my experience of showing my work online, there were numerous artists cramped into a virtual space for an online exhibition. For the opening, there was a Zoom call with all of the participating artists, but everyone was trying to talk all at once. It was mayhem.
Brian: My experience was a little more interactive and felt professional. The BP Portrait Award was shown virtually with the National Portrait Gallery and I found that it was easy to navigate and view the work. I exhibited at the Catalyst Member Show which was also well-curated. The gallery tried to emulate what it is like in the space - the buzzer on entry, the white brick walls. It was admirable as it must be a struggle for galleries to adapt and get the same feeling as being present in the gallery through the screen.
D: See, I work in 3D as well so online, it seems flat. For me, it felt like Google Maps, twisting and turning. I think it depends on the size of the gallery and/or virtual space.
Chloe: So, you don’t think the artists were represented fully overall?
D: Not really. It was like a spreadsheet, flipping pages. And for the opening on Zoom, no one could communicate properly. It was a strange experience, but I suppose this is the time we are living in.
Niamh: I work a lot in performance art and performative readings so, it’s hard to show work at the best of times. I did take part in a reading residency with a space based in London. We were asked to read John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and stay off social media to get fully immersed in the book. We had multiple Zoom conversations and I agree with you Dominic, everyone is trying to connect but speaking at the same time. Every one’s voice is relevant, but they struggle to get their 5 minutes.
C: Very true. And how have you experienced viewing work online?
N: I struggle with it. I’m not the best with technology so it gets frustrating. Like Dominic said, it is like Google Maps. I try to navigate around the works but then it jumps somewhere else. Personally, it doesn’t work.
D: Yeah, if someone isn’t tech-savy, the artwork or show has already lost a percentage of viewers.
C: Niamh, have you thought about performance-to-camera?
N: I mostly work live. It’s a difficult medium to work in without the pandemic. Since the lockdown, being brutally honest here – I haven’t been experimenting. I am writing more though and re-visiting old text works. Yes, we have to move with the times and we tend to make work based on what is happening in society, but I don’t want to shift my practice too much. I find it doesn’t connect with the audience the way I want it to.
B: It is a good time to take a step back and re-asses where you are.
D: Yes, and I think we have never been so connected and disconnected at the same time.
B: There should be a name for it. ‘Sep – Art’?!
C: I like it! I do understand your point Dominic as well, about connection and disconnection. I visited the Guggenheim and Van Gogh Museum online which I was so excited about. However, its format was like Google Maps and I couldn’t navigate around the work how I wanted to and I did feel a disconnect.
B: You do need the tactility while viewing work. We all work in different mediums but each needs the ability to go in and out, move around it. To have the ability to immerse yourself in a darkened room for video like your work Chloe, not just on a flat screen. And for my paintings – for example, viewing the texture. It needs to be immersive. It is what we are all craving and missing.
Do you think there are any future consequences of digitizing galleries and artworks?
C: For myself and Dominic, we were meant to have our MFA Degree Show at Ulster University and that experience was taken away due to Covid-19. Thankfully, Hugh Mulholland kindly invited the BA and MFA to exhibit at The MAC when they re-opened their doors in September. They provided great online promotion including some artist interviews. Do you think that we now need online access for people who can’t travel?
D: I think it depends on money and the gallery itself. A smaller gallery probably couldn’t afford to pay for great online coverage of exhibitions and artists. I don’t think it would be feasible for them. The bigger the gallery, the more likely it would be an option.
N: Emerging artists have finished their degrees and that time/space is already uncertain. Do they have to have a part-time job to try balance paying for their practice or to get a studio? In university, people are in a safe bubble because they are around other artists, involving themselves in conversations surrounding the art world.
Coming out of a degree now with things moving more digitally – if the work doesn’t fit into the framework of moving it online does that mean the artist will give up? For emerging artists now, it’s all just so challenging. I am worried about it all.
B: They are trying to keep their practice going with one arm behind their back.
C: Some artists do really depend on participation and experiencing a live performance. When this is no longer an option – what happens then? I know many artists who have struggled to both mentally and physically produce work over lockdown. It is hard for people to adjust to this time, this virtual world. Yes, artists can reach a larger audience online but it does not emulate the atmosphere. Just clicking left and right through works, they sometimes get lost. For example, I organised the Re-Vision Performing Arts Festival Online Open Call where we had over 80 artists promoted on our social media. After a while, it felt a little chaotic.
D: The art world shared on social media is already competitive as it is. I think again, it comes down to money. An artist with more money can promote themselves successfully and expand their reach.
B: I think there is a small positive here. More people are exposed to the arts, it is now on their radar and it may not have been before. There is a fear, however, that this is the new norm. Will people expect the online presence to keep going as well as the physical show? Will they expect Zoom calls and online workshops to go with physical – or could they be in tandem? My solo show ‘Confessional’ at Atypical Gallery in Belfast opened just a short time before we were locked down and I had to do Meet & Greet over the phone. I was also part of the Visual Artists Ireland ‘Show and Tell’ where there was 120 people involved across Ireland and UK. Artist’s practices were coming straight from the horse’s mouth. So, could they go hand in hand, online and physical?
C: People can connect with others from various places around the world which is fantastic for having conversations with other creative minds. In some instances, it could be useful for people to be able to speak to the artist about their work.
B: Like a Q+A online along with physical shows?
D: Yeah. I think because a lot of artists are still working to pay their way – it also gives them more time and allows the option of an online recording to go along with their shows. Maybe becoming like a podcast?
C: There could possibly be bigger responses to the works. There could be questions asked that maybe an artist couldn’t answer on the spot, but possibly help and encourage both artist and viewer to think about the work in a different light.
B: Yeah, I think people search for a ‘quick fix’ of what the artist is about rather than process it. People are looking for an immediate ‘jist’. We need to slow down and process people’s practices. Physical galleries never fail to do this. That is why they will always come out on top.
N: I like that idea of slowing down as the internet is so fast paced. Everything is accessible and there is an information overload. Two months into lockdown I found myself just aimlessly scrolling and starting to compare my way of working to others. I enjoy going to a gallery alone and spending time with the work and the internet can never compete with that. Online, we want everything ‘now’, a refresh, something new, something different.
So, the internet does take away from our experience viewing art work?
B: Pre-Covid, the internet and social media was used to ‘inform’. Who is showing where/when? Now, it can only detract from the viewing experience. Connectivity can work in tandem with the physical viewing and they can possibly heighten each other. For example, an online seminar may make you want to see the physical work.
D: If someone’s work is digitized – for example your work Chloe. If I was viewing your video piece on my phone it wouldn’t be the same experience as seeing it in a gallery space. If something is multi-sensory, it can’t achieve that online.
C: I’m feeling that there is a lot of negativity that comes with this topic. It is hard to think about the positives as it is worrying. We are constantly questioning when it will be the same with all of the rules, capacities and safety.
B: A lot of people don’t feel safe.
N: For many galleries now, you have to make an appointment. It feels so formal.
C: Yeah, it is a strange atmosphere. There won’t be any gallery opening nights for awhile.
N: For CCA Derry ~ Londonderry, I proposed to do a live performance for when they re-opened again. With the ever-changing rules, I had to try and change my work to fit all of the restrictions. It is hard to imagine the work then. Its hard not to be negative but for both the gallery and myself, what can be done?
C: We are expected to adapt and adjust to it. Learning to adjust is important yes, but group shows have to do this on a whole new level. Especially online, the best quality images and documentation is required and again, this means artists who are not highly experienced in tech will struggle.
D: It’s also space, in general. How do you produce work in isolation? It’s like a physical show too – you get a floor plan and imagine a work but once you enter the space it could all change.
B: Artists have lost studio spaces and are now in this strange limbo land between wanting to make work but they can’t.
How has Covid-19 had an impact on your creative practice over the past few months?
B: Before lockdown, I was working 40 hours a week and of course, my shifts were cut because of Covid-19. I began working only mornings, so this gave me the rest of the day to myself. It took some time to adjust but then I was painting 7 hours a day. I haven’t painted that much since leaving university.
D: I would have worked from home a lot anyway. I have had more time to work on things but there was a mixture of good and bad days. Creating my sculptures at home was also weather permitting as I work in the garden. If the weather was bad, I would have to figure out another way of working. There was this uncertainty and displacement even though I was at home. I kept going though – reading books, researching. However, I did miss having a studio space and having those encouraging conversations with others.
C: Yes, exchanging ideas in studio spaces and bouncing ideas off each other is something I really crave. It’s different than messaging or emails – analyzing what you’re saying and not having those ‘spit ball’ moments. I feel like that has also impacted starting points for new works.
N: My performances usually start from text and focus on written discourse. It is how I would prepare for a
performance. Through this lockdown, it felt important for me to strip everything back to a bare minimum. At the end of the day, we are all performing online and present a version of ourselves. There are so many captions and filters as we are curating our days online. How does that translate for performance art? I am actually very interested in that idea, how we represent ourselves online.
B: I suppose you are running the risk of a performance artist becoming a video artist, losing some of that performative aspect.
D: Its quite voyeuristic. Who’s actually looking?
C: Yes. I also feel there is this feeling of wanting to prove yourself. Posting an image to declare “Hey look, I did something today!”. I struggle with that sometimes, posting too much of my work online. There needs to be a limit and I have learned that the hard way.
B: Yeah, I think what you have done in the past with little teasers and trailers is good to wet the appetite, planting a seed for the audience.
N: Where do you think this idea of ‘proving yourself’ comes from? Is it self-pressure? Personally, I am questioning it. Is it to do with the artists background? I also find myself wanting to prove that I am active. I could sit at my desk for 6 hours and write one line, but “Look, I did something!”.
B: There is a fine line between making work for yourself and the viewer. For myself, I would post a small detail of a painting that I am working on. For me, it is like a visual diary, a visual record of my practice. It’s mainly for me to see my practice develop.
C: Yeah, I like that idea of it, a visual diary. But Niamh, I do think it has a lot to do with self-pressure.
B: We are not a normal business. I am self-employed but I am not a shop, it’s something more. It has taken me 6 years to realize that online is not a commodity, it is a record for me. We should not be ashamed of posting something of our practice if we get something out of it.
D: Everyone is so active online right now. There is more time to look and to share. We are posting all the time, for ourselves or for other people.
B: There is always going to be that duality to it. There is a relationship with the viewer and there is always that dialogue. But this should not negate your own personal experience to your own work.
In conclusion, we are very aware that we are in the grasp of the digital age. It is inevitable that the art we produce and/or perform is going to move with the times. Many galleries and curators have come together, both emerging and established, to provide new online opportunities for artists during these challenging times which has been fantastic to witness. It is important however, to ensure that artists and other creative minds receive their deserved representation through these online platforms.
The format of artists connecting has gone from conversations to meetings via Skype, Zoom, etc. There are issues of freedom of expression as you ‘wait your turn’ to speak within these calls. Where is the safe space within the arts community online?
The desire for connection and communication is a very strong one, now more than ever. We need to work together in our ever-changing environment to assure those who may not be fully adept in these new technologies, are not left behind. Emerging artists who already have to recently face the real world alone, have probably never felt so alone. We should provide that support and encouragement for others as well as for ourselves.
As four emerging and practicing artists working in a range of mediums, from painting to performance, it was very interesting to realize we had similar concerns and issues with the digitizing of the art world. We will continue to work together and apart, sharing our practices and processes, hoping to inspire engagement and action throughout this pandemic.
Brian Kielt is a visual artist based in Northern Ireland. A graduate of the Belfast School of Art in 2010. Brian uses drawing and painting techniques that manipulate personal and found imagery to create alternate narratives. In 2012 Kielt co-founded the LOFT collective and continues to collaborate with members on numerous projects. In 2015 Kielt took part in the Esmée Fairbairn career enhancement programme with the Golden Thread Gallery in Belfast, was awarded a grant from the Arts Council of Northern Ireland and was a finalist in the “NI Young Artist of the Year” Award. Brian’s recent exhibitions include ‘Confessional’ at University of Atypical and the 139th Royal Ulster Academy Exhibition at Ulster Museum.
Niamh Seana Meehan is an interdisciplinary artist based in Belfast, working between performance, visual art, spoken word and poetry. She has exhibited in Northern Ireland with performances at Flax Arts Studios, Re-Vision Performing Arts Festival, Platform Arts and Catalyst Arts, Belfast, K-Fest Arts Festival Kerry, Mart Gallery in Dublin and the RHA. Niamh is a member of Bbeyond Belfast. She was selected for the Sim Residency in Reykjavik, Iceland in 2019 and Estudio-Nomada Residency, Barcelona Spain in 2018. Niamh was the recipient of the Vice-Chancellor’s 2020 Scholarship and 2016 Leicester Print Workshop award. Niamh studied at De Montfort University, Leicester.
Dominic McKeown is a Belfast born artist having recently graduated from Ulster University, MFA Fine Art whilst also having completed his BA in Textile Design, Art and Fashion in 2017. Dominic has a studio space at Flax Arts where he works in a range of mediums including sculpture, installation, photography and print. Existing in a state of tension, the work derives itself from being rough, harsh and exposed. Explored within a sculptural context, the focus on actions and process become fundamental elements inside his practice. His most recent exhibition was the MFA Degree Show at The MAC which led him to be recipient of the University of Atypical Graduate Award 2020.
Chloe Austin is a visual artist originally from Cork, Ireland. She is currently situated in Belfast, UK, recently after completing her MFA in Fine Art degree at Ulster University. Chloe is a multidisciplinary artist, working with performance, video, photography and creative writing within her current creative practice. Chloe has exhibited in various venues across Ireland and UK, including GOMA Waterford, Cork Film Centre and Catalyst Arts. Her most recent exhibitions include the MFA Degree Show at The MAC and the touring exhibition ‘Not Alone’ with Golden Thread Gallery. Chloe is also Founder and Director of Re-Vision Performing Arts Festival based in Belfast.