Contemporary art tends to function according to a two-factor authentication (2FA) process. When any array of objects or actions can be deemed art, and when any political concern or cultural aesthetic is admitted into artistic discourse, it is inevitable that a kind of security system would arise to protect the so-called sanctity of art.
In its original usage, 2FA is a validation method in which a computer user is granted access to a website or application only after successfully presenting two or more pieces of evidence. These factors can take the form of knowledge (something only the user knows), possession (something only the user has), or inherence (something only the user is). In the field of art, the simplest form of this authentication occurs in the artwork’s triangulation between artist and curator. That is, in order for a work to be consumed as art, it must present evidence of its having been produced as art, and secondly having circulated as art. An artist makes the art and the curator or institutional actor circulates it, increasing its provenance and value and thereby begetting a verifiable artwork. Although there are many means by which one can partially circumvent this process—posting on social media, organizing DIY exhibitions, etc.—an artwork simply cannot be counted as art unless both actors have suitably engaged the work. Artists, through inherence; curators, through possession; and finally an audience, through knowledge of the first two factors. What else is to distinguish art from non-art if not institutional validation?
The relationship between factors is quite complex, comprising a variety of negotiations, speculative labour, and compromises. Given the surplus of art school grads and art-objects, and given the scarcity of institutional opportunities, the 2FA process tends to operate predominantly for the benefit of art institutions, both academic and commercial. I have written on these multifaceted dynamics elsewhere, throughout this publication QOQQOON. Ultimately, the end result is access to art. And what I wish to focus on here is the question of access.
For many years prior to the coronavirus pandemic—but especially now—art circulates most broadly online. Unrestricted by spatio-temporal specificity, digital documentation of art has become the de facto art experience. The art world is of course hesitant to acknowledge this: the historical legacy of Conceptual Art and the prevalence of concept over object has faded into an object-dominant art market supported by a broad spectrum of art handling, conservation, studio rental, publishing, and commercial infrastructures. (At the same time, dematerialization has been fully realized in other cultural industries: music and film are streamed through subscription-based accounts; access is afforded on the basis of rent rather than ownership.) Accordingly, viewing a digital image file is deemed incommensurate with a physical, in-person, art encounter. And it’s true that one experience does not replace the other, but it must not be forgotten that physically viewing artwork comes with its own barriers and restrictions—whether literally in the form of stanchions or ‘do not touch’ signage, or economically in the form of admission fees and limited day-time hours, to say nothing of the spatio-temporal specificity of art shows. In the era of social distancing, these barriers to access are even more apparent. But why do they persist when technological means tend towards free circulation and open access?
Browsing the websites of local and international galleries reveals an overall de-emphasis on online archives. Records are generally kept of what artist showed at what time, facilitated by what curator, but less common is a full suite of documentation complete with the illustrated works’ titles, materials, and dimensions. It is interesting to note that private commercial galleries tend to have more robust documentation available online, whereas so-called public galleries often present only a minimum of information about the exhibition’s contents. This is of course due to the differences in the ways these institutions monetize art, but the general sense of what art is accessible online tends to skew toward commercial contexts. Artists’ websites fare better, offering not only a range of documentation but also occasionally artist statements or discursive framing for the work in question. But, somewhat surprisingly, there are many artist portfolios that do not offer any context or language at all. Likewise, art blogs and instagram accounts tend to prioritize the circulatory signs of the hashtag above the content of the image. Many posts are made that solely attribute the artist’s name and venue; the specifics of the work’s material are confined to its physical exhibition. Some of the largest art blogs only circulate the images of their advertisers, further entrenching the primacy of elite-dependent institutions. Video works suffer most obviously—they are uploaded in fragments, hidden behind password protections, totally at odds with the deluge of full-length video circulating with ease on YouTube and pirate streaming sites. The overall impression is that physical presentation is still supreme, that the compromises made in reducing an artwork to an image file are irredeemable while the compromises made in situating art in short-term exhibitions are precisely the factors that lend the work its authenticity. Despite artists making use of the internet and digital means of circulation for many decades now, it is still somewhat unthinkable that art documentation can become its own form of installation—just as the location, lighting, and site-responsiveness of a work in a gallery is ripe for conceptual speculation, so too can the proximity and framing of the camera be a way of making meaning in the image when accompanied by adequate contextualizing information.
Whatever political ideals circulate within the field of art, the question of access has always presented a bit of a conundrum. How can these objects, often sold for many thousands of dollars, be deemed accessible in any sense of the word? They are produced by well-educated art school graduates and collected by wealthy elites. Ultimately the question of art and access reveals two separate tensions. On one hand, there is art’s economic inaccessibility, and on the other its discursive inaccessibility. In Gramscian terms, the hegemony of contemporary art reveals two senses of ‘elite interests’—in superstructural content and in base form. The two are often conflated but are not necessarily the same. Economic access proceeds along the lines of money (to buy art, to visit institutions, to travel for international exhibitions) and time, whereas discursive access entails a certain kind of education, or assumed contextual knowledge. If I may extend the computer metaphor that began this text, we can speculate that each artwork functions like a blockchain hash—a completely unique codex of value, verified by its production and circulation through a larger network, ensuring that each individual artwork can hold the value invested into it by whichever collector or institution. Indeed, this is the paradigm favoured by emerging platforms that sell digital art as non-fungible tokens. Form and content are thus unified in favour of the wealthy; being able to copy or freely circulate a work—hallmarks of any digital entity—would upset this value. Therefore, with respect to existing institutions, certain precautions must be taken to ensure that the documentation of work remains secondary to its physical exhibition.
So, while an online art experience circumvents the question of money to some degree, the hegemony of physicality (commodifiability) remains. This is the notion that, when viewing art online, something is missing. The lack is often attributed to the ability to freely (if minding the stanchions) view the work in its entirety within sanctified conditions, as opposed to the confined gaze of the camera documentation. Some institutions underscore that it is better not to see the work at all than to see it incompletely.
Online, the lack of a central physical artwork means that the art experience consists of distinct but overlapping frameworks: the visual documentation, the image caption, and discursive context in the form of reviews, interviews, or essayistic argumentation. In this sense, the primacy of physicality does not seem quite so important: how often does one get to hear an artist speak in an institutional gallery? Can one read contextualizing essays without purchasing a limited-edition catalogue? This discursive framing is an intrinsic element of making art accessible—without it, a public is left to ‘get it’ or get out.
Because of public health limitations—and (notably) not because of the decades-prior availability of digital platforms—online art exhibitions are becoming more and prominent. Some attempt to replicate the physical experience through virtual reality interfaces, video game-like walkthroughs, or real estate-inspired 360º tours. Others maintain something of the limits that characterize institutional exhibitions with reduced viewing hours or limited screening times.
But there have been encouraging responses, too. There is an emerging format of online art exhibitions that do not compensate for the lack of physical freedom to wander a gallery by relying on novel tech gimmickry, but rather offer a plethora of discursive materials to accompany the works’ visual documentation. I am thinking of BIOMASS, organized by Liljana Mead Martin, which features in-depth dialogues that contextualize each artists’ contribution to the exhibition; Shimmering Horizons curated by Laurie White, that includes video interviews and zine-work; or Nicolas Sassoon and Rick Silva’s Cores, formatted more as an illustrated essay with artwork interspersed throughout a commissioned text. These websites have more in common with catalogues than with exhibitions, perhaps, but it feels like a natural way to experience visual art online. Natural, because it relies on the ancient trope of text/image more than the haptics of video game navigation. Perhaps it is best understood as a question of resources: just as physical galleries decide where to invest resources in terms of commissioning, shipping, and installing art; so too must online art exhibitions decide to pour resources into digitally reproducing physical art in virtual spaces, or to provide discursive frameworks which can empower the viewer to contemplate the art in question. In my view, these frameworks go some way in opening access to the work in question without 1) requiring certain prior art education or 2) requiring the artwork itself to relinquish its complexity.
These text-heavy websites—some produced by institutions, some by the artists themselves—may not bypass the question of 2FA in contemporary art, but they do reorient the question of authenticity in the online realm, pointing to the robust material and discursive elements of art/work to validate their contribution to the overarching conversation. All access is conditional, whether limited by time, money, or education, and these kinds of emerging viewing conventions take steps to address all three while acknowledging the limits of their capacity to display. If artistic discourse wishes to escape the apolitics of commerce and wealth, then it is only by elaborating rhetoric into arguments that it will attain its transformative power.
–Steven Cottingham, March 2021