The COVID-19 pandemic has cleared the cultural calendar for the foreseeable future and Glasgow International, Scotland’s largest festival of contemporary art, has been postponed until 2021. Indeed, the cancellation of a festival which was planned to span 60 exhibitions and 120 artists will be a disappointment to artists and the public alike. The digital programme is the unintended consequence of this unforeseen event. While a compensatory gesture by festival organisers, the digital format is less than ideal, taking place on the landing page of the festival website amid an interface that does not quite suit the focused attention needed for these works. Even for digital, time-based media, an encounter with art in the physical space and time of an exhibition venue differs markedly from a viewing experience at home on a laptop screen. Along with recordings of a lecture by T.J Clark and a conversation between writers Brian Dillon and Orit Gat, the curator Stefanie Hessler and Gi Director Richard Parry, the programme offers a selection of audio-visual works, some reworked or produced especially for the digital iteration of the festival.
Highlights of the programme include Liv Fontaine’s sound piece ‘Some People Say’ (2020) - a screeching meditation on visibility, care and the metamorphosis of the hysterical feminine body narrated by Viv: the artist’s highly endearing alter-ego, best described as the bastard progeny of ‘Nighty Night’’s Jill Tyrell and Lydia Lunch. Splicing together scenes from Yasujirō Ozu’s film ‘Tokyo Story’ (1953), Yuko Mohri offers a hauntological duet titled ‘Everything Flows – interval’ (2018) and ‘Everything Flows – distance’ (2020), in which the imaginative possibilities of loneliness and the fragile contingency of time, relationships and physical states are foregrounded.
Alberta Whittle presents the poignant ‘business as usual : hostile environment’ (2020): a film originally commissioned by Glasgow Sculpture Studios with the support of EventScotland in celebration of the Year of Coasts and Waters 2020. Through this film, Whittle planned to explore the waterways of Glasgow and Clyde Canals as poetic and literal passages of mobility, exile and slavery. Reworked in light of the unfolding pandemic, Whittle utilises archive footage to narrate the lives of the Windrush generation recruited as NHS workers in the post-war period and contemporary BME workers in the UK. The film compels recognition of the disproportionate burden of the pandemic on ethnic minority workers, who risk their lives as frontline staff by exposing themselves to the virus – among the most alarming and shameful consequences of a public health emergency realised within a healthcare system entrenched with racial and economic inequalities. Whittle demands that we recognise these workers as citizens deserving of care, justified by their humanity rather than their economic function.
This suite of works, which also includes pieces by Georgina Starr, Jenkin van Zyl and Sarah Forrest, is thematically preoccupied with feelings of loss, inaction and the experiences of bodies at odds with their environments. In the absence of site, material or participation – the enduring importance and potential of voice, image and archive as medium is emphatic.
The festival theme this year was ‘Attention’, through which we were due to consider what we do with our focus in a world so abundant with demands for attention. This was a curiously prophetic theme given that the technologies and advanced modes of communication, which have in recent years become the scapegoat for diluting our engagement with people and ideas, are now the vital vessels sustaining the life of artists and cultural institutions. The global art world has been forced to rethink the structures, technologies and practices which enable the delivery of exhibitions. Indeed, one might view the current crisis as an opportunity to take a moment’s pause and contemplate the future of biennale culture in terms of relevance, sustainability and ethics. With social distancing and restricted travel likely to characterise our lives for the foreseeable future, rethinking the racial, gendered and class dimensions of the art world’s reliance on unpaid labour and its increasingly tense and problematic relationship to the urban host and its local population is now mandatory. For better or for worse, the art world and its audience before COVID no longer exists. Whether the planned festival is replicated in its entirety next year or not will tell us how much festival organisers have been paying attention.