Degree Show On Mars: LJMU Fine Art Degree Show, degreeshowonmars.com
If you’re forced to make a degree show in lockdown, why not do your damndest to make it “out of this world”?! I admire that ambition of Degree Show On Mars, to make an Event out of an extreme circumstance. Despite this, it raises questions. There are those who argue that the degree shows this year shouldn’t be going ahead, and the overall experience of this makes me more convinced than ever that they have a point.
The entrance to the show is fun, at least. With a landing on Mars taken straight out of a game intro you’re sat in a crater of icons, each one chosen by a different graduating artist to represent their work. Clicking on any one will teleport you to the artist’s work.
Or more correctly, to near their work. I have an issue with what happens next, which is that you’re transported back to an exhibition they held in March in the Capital building on Old Hall Street. It could be nice, but it isn’t. You can’t have a proper look at the exhibits because the program doesn’t allow you to zoom in. Whilst Mars is easily navigable, this exhibition isn’t – the unpredictable size of leaps forward and failed attempts to scrutinise work are frustrating.
And then to see the work the artist has actually made for the show you have to click another button to go their own site. Now I’m not an expert, but I have been doing more and more work in digital and online recently. My partner is a software developer. Between us we agree that one of the absolutely key things you want in online experiences is, as far as possible, simplicity. This format is the opposite of that. If you could see the exhibition that’d be one thing, entirely Mars-based links directly to the artists work would be another, and either would be valid. This is a vague halfway house which leaves you, as a user, unsure of what the ‘right’ experience is. It places an unnecessary extra layer between audience and artist: what’s even the point of going to Mars when you can navigate the exhibition from the exhibition map without the back-and-forth?
I’m annoyed that I’ve had to this long talking about this, but I feel like it’s symptomatic of a wider issue of the online art experience which is more widespread than just this exhibition, and which really needs addressing for the future. As I discussed in my online tours post, we’re still in a place of neither institutions nor audiences being really sure what an online exhibition experience should be. Should it recreate the typical gallery visit, or do something entirely new? This particular interface is trying to be both, but failing to be successful at either.
And as an exhibition visitor it significantly distracted me from what the real point of Degree Show On Mars should be – the artists. This should be the time when graduates celebrate their work and audiences taste the possible talents of the future. Though in some ways these issues are reflected in what the artists have produced. The challenges of online presentation were obviously thrust upon these artists at a really late stage in their degrees, and there’s a range of responses. Some have gone with the straightforward ‘make art, photograph it’. Getting lots of photos in helps with storytelling – Phoebe O’Connor’s painted kitchen benefits from the storytelling sequence. Instagram is also particularly well utilised in Cheryl Blackburn’s “Greyform Gallery”, with its un/real exhibition curation and jargon. Other artists, though, clearly have practices which are more naturally rooted in the digital sphere; film-makers, game-like designs and similar.
Usually these would all sit side-by-side to be judged on their individual merits regardless of format. But online it doesn’t feel like a level playing field. And it’s surely not a coincidence that my favourite artists are the ones who’s work is best suited to this digital viewing experience. If you followed this blog for any time at all you’ll know I’m always a sucker for a good painting. But the painters – or rather the artists who have chosen to photograph their physical works – don’t really cut through here. I can’t tell the textures, or see works grouped together as they may have envisaged. I want them to push further, but is that fair? Is that what they started out being asked to do? This has also clearly had an impact on who’s won the prizes: not to say the artists who have been awarded these are undeserving – I really enjoy how Ashleigh Sands & Ella Crabtree’s text-game approach and Emma Dolan’s narrated video/audio streams express the ideas of the eveyyday – but that they’re skewed in favour of the most impressive digital experiences.
I think it’s not a bad thing in the long run for all artists, institutions and art schools to be thinking harder about what their digital existence looks like. I also enjoy experiencing these videos and digital artworks outside of the gallery, with the screen of my laptop feeling like a perfectly fitting space for them to occupy outside of the institutional formality. But I also wonder, will the emphasis on and praise being focused on the digital arts have long-term implications for what art looks like going forward?
I’m not just talking about now, I’m talking about if the digitally-based behaviours we’ve learned in these few months stick around and online becomes the primary point of outside contact to an even greater extent than it already was. What kind of art is going to get out there? We’ve never really had to confront this question about the role of the physical object before because even if you’re looking at a picture in a book or reading about it in a magazine, it’s been with the assumption that somewhere out there the chance to experience it physically does exist. Here we are though, going through a time when that isn’t the case, and suddenly the physical object seems less effective. Maybe the object-digital divide widens, resisting their current categorisation as roughly the same kind of “visual art”. Maybe, depending on how social distancing works out, the chance to see artworks ‘in the flesh’ goes behind even more walls than already exist, a more exclusive experience. I’m not saying there’s any kind of existential panic to be had, but it’ll be interesting to see if and how it plays out.
For now though, I feel like the challenge set down by Degree Show On Mars is the wrong one. As an audience we end up judging the experience of the art as much as the artwork itself, which doesn’t feel fair. Through no fault of their own, what these graduates want to say has become eclipsed by the format in which they have to say it. The virtual show just can’t provide an equal platform to every medium. Degree Show On Mars has ambitions to show something new, but as with many early attempts at innovation the most powerful lessons are in what still needs to be improved. And doing justice to all the artists has to be at the centre of whatever happens next.