Artists Reimagine How Covid-19 Will Shape the Art World

People were social distancing from art long before the pandemic started. At a museum, it’s customary to stand a respectful sixish feet away from any piece, a space maintained by security sensors or fear of the wrath of mistrustful guards. Now, with Covid-19 necessitating even more restrictions on indoor spaces, art lovers often find themselves observing from an even greater distance: via screen.

It’s not just art viewing; art selling has gone digital too: Last year, Sotheby’s built an online forum where collectors can place their bid and check out the competition in a virtual saleroom. They also introduced a “buy now” feature that accommodates purchases made outside their otherwise rigid auction calendar. The e-commerce update has proven to be a financial boon: In 2020, Sotheby’s recorded more than $1.5 billion in private sales, an all-time record for any auction house.
But for artists, the transition to web has been a bit more bumpy. Displaying frame-ready paintings or photographs translates OK to the internet, but not everyone uses those mediums. Brooklyn-based artist Anicka Yi, for example, creates work using live matter like algae and bacteria (her 2017 show Life Is Cheap included custom scents composed of chemical compounds derived from carpenter ants and sweat samples from Asian American women). “My studio is situated in the sensorium, that doesn't translate as well through the screen," Yi explains. "As much as I want to smell that JPEG, we don't have that technology yet."
So, she adapts. Yi curated much of her upcoming commission at Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in London remotely while collaborating online with a team of at least 30 people scattered around the world. The artist claims it’s her most ambitious installation yet. Turbine Hall is currently closed, but when the exhibition opens—it’s slated for October—visitors will see AI-powered machines populating a cavernous space filled with “historical scentscapes” meant to evoke Pre-Cambrian, Jurassic, and Industrial periods. Installing an intellectually and technically complex work remotely is not how Yi would normally do things, but she’s found there are environmental and financial benefits to not traveling with a full team to London—something she believes will stick around long after the lockdowns are lifted.
Simon Denny is also reexamining curation, particularly as it pertains to audience experience. Denny’s recent exhibition Mine, a game-like exploration of data mining and mineral resource extraction, appeared in a physical space in Dusseldorf in 2020. There’s also an online version that lives in Minecraft. Because the project exists in two mediums, Mine has reached a much larger audience, as gamers, who might not otherwise seek art-viewing experiences, flocked to the server. Still, Denny says, engaging with art IRL is the premium modus. “I think those in-person experiences will actually be more and more of value,” Denny predicts, envisioning a world post-pandemic. “It'll be about creating the conditions for experiencing those things in contrast to perhaps what I first thought [would be] an explosion of digital options.”

By having a version that lived in Minecraft Simon Denny’s Mine reached a lot more people than it would have if it just existed in a gallery space. Photograph: Achim Kukulies