When the COVID-19 pandemic began to seriously affect everyday life earlier this year, museums and galleries that were forced to close responded by moving their collections online, creating viewing rooms for digital visitors. (In Hyde Park, the Museum of Science and Industry launched a website with science resources and activities for children to try at home.)
But several arts spaces have also taken up a different challenge, aiming to show work that responds to life under lockdown, in which our ordinary interactions with one another have become overwhelmingly virtual. That’s the aim of “Another Idea,” an exhibition at the University of Chicago’s Gray Center for Arts and Inquiry that’s been running since June 1.
The Gray Center doesn’t usually put together large exhibitions — it’s more of a forum for artists and academics to discuss and engage with one another’s work, with public programming like “Gray Sound,” an experimental music series started in 2019. But “Another Idea,” which closes at the end of July, was organized in response to the sudden shift that took place with the onset of the pandemic.
“It came out of some observations on our part, and some conversations with UChicago Arts, thinking about how to approach moving things online,” said Mike Schuh, assistant director of fellowships and operations at the Gray Center, who organized the exhibit with curator Zachary Cahill. “There’s a lot of artists working today and going back throughout the 20th century whose work is malleable enough that it's well-suited for a web-based exhibition.”
The short introductory paragraph to “Another Idea” notes that its artworks are “inherently ephemeral.” That may seem surprising for those who worry about the permanence of information online — but as the writer and critic Kate Wagner recently pointed out, the disappearance of old websites, especially popular ones, often leads to a significant loss of data, “as if a smallish Library of Alexandria has been burned to the ground.”
On a smaller scale, Devin T. Mays’s “Taxidermy” illustrates this point: the page for Mays on the Gray Center website currently displays eight links to expired or deleted Craigslist postings. The hint to their contents comes in the text of the now-defunct URL, which are all some variant on “chicago-used-usa-flag-free-delivery.” (By the time this has gone to press, of course, it is possible that a ninth, extant link has appeared, in which case a reader of the Herald may soon find themselves the owner of an American flag.)
As the persistence of Mays’s hyperlinks show, even something that disappears can leave a trace — that’s true for other works in “Another Idea,” too, albeit in less tangible ways. Take the two pieces by British artist Liam Gillick, which instruct the viewer to perform some task, such as: “Using a pipe and cable detector locate all the cables and metalwork hidden below the surface of a chosen wall. Loosely mark their location using a yellow pencil.”
“He doesn’t really care how much time you spend with a work in a place. He's much more interested in its lingering effects — maybe two weeks later, you stumble across something in your life. The work comes back to haunt you that way,” said Schuh. “It's really intended to to generate a residue from the experience that isn't so much about a kind of specific time-and-space engagement.”
As with Gillick’s piece, the mood of engagement is often collaborative, encouraging the visitor to the show to participate somehow in it. Zarouhie Abdalian’s work, for instance, presents a series of seven etudes, described as “prose scores for any willing performers.”
The most recent focuses on BlackRock, the international investment company that, according to its own website, manages $6.47 trillion in assets. Abdalian directs willing performers to research the company’s investments and contrast it with the social good that might be done if that money were used to hire workers at the wage of $15 an hour. “Outside the location of the BlackRock office nearest to you, make a public demonstration of your findings,” it concludes.
One of the earlier etudes, “State Portrait,” has already been performed by another artist, Dena Beard. In Beard’s video, which is posted on the Gray Center website, she produces documentation from a protest in Oakland, Cal., on June 3. At one point, Beard’s camera, tilted upwards at the tops of tall buildings, pans around an intersection as a speaker tells a crowd, “We can’t sit back and watch our babies, our men, our people’s bodies lying lifelessly in the street at the hands of the police.”
This connection to current events is on display, too, in Cauleen Smith’s “COVID Manifesto,” which consists of a series of messages written on yellow lined paper, with a new piece at the beginning of each week. Over the course of the exhibition, the texts transition from reflections on life under lockdown (“I do love seeing my students’ faces on the Zoom”) to exhortations in favor of prison abolition (“Everybody everybody out of jail NOW”).
Some of the works were originally conceived for physical shows, and reworked for an online presentation. “Food Situation for a Patriotic Banquet,” an installation by the Spanish artist Antoni Miralda, consists of a table laid out with eight trays of cooked rice, colored and arranged to resemble the flags of “power countries in the 1970s,” including Germany, China, the United States, and Switzerland. The rice gradually decomposes over the time it’s on display.
Originally proposed in 1972, the piece didn’t actually show until 2010. For “Another Idea,” Miralda will submit 61 photographs in total, uploading a new one each day that the virtual exhibition continues. Taken from a 2015 installation of the show, the images include his initial sketches of the work, a photo of a woman ironing a tablecloth at the installation space, and scientific-looking close-ups of the rice grains, fuzzy with mold.
A handful of the virtual pieces, meanwhile, were created for earlier iterations of the internet. Susan Hiller’s “Dream Screens” was first launched in 1996 — neatly laid out, it allows the viewer to click around on the screen, changing its color along some hidden gradient while a robotic-sounding voice recites a monologue about dreaming.
“I'm watching a man who has an amazing psychic power to somehow generate dreams that everyone can see. Works by several famous modernist artists turn into dream sequences in his mind,” it begins. On an accompanying page of resources, Hiller, who passed away last year, writes that the text is largely based on loose recollections of films she’s seen, each with the word “dream” in the title. The page also contains a color map, a list of hues used in the piece (“Antwerp red” to “chrysocolla,” a shade of turquoise), as well as an extensive bibliography of Hiller’s sources.
“That site provides a lot of sort of supporting information, and gives you a peek into her research. At the same time, the way in which she presents it is still relatively obfuscating,” said Schuh. “It just leaves you with questions, which is really what you want to have, and have them sort of remain with you. I kept thinking about me sitting here with this piece in my house, and someone else doing the same exact thing. And so that's both this shared thing, and sort of also all my own.”
Another Idea runs through July 31. Visit graycenter.uchicago.edu/projects/another-idea.