HOST: a virtual contemporary art project, online

By Maeve Hanna

It has been 464 days since the nationwide lockdown was first enforced, and I have yet to visit a gallery and enjoy art in the way it was once possible, but a new online exhibition offers a convenient version of such an experience. Curated by New Brunswick-based curator, artist, and writer Amy Ash, HOST is a borderless alternative to visiting a traditional art gallery. It was created with the intention of offering a site for receiving and learning about care and reciprocity. Built by artist KC Wilcox, it is the cumulation of reciprocal collaborations, with its design and interactive elements drawn from early video games (such as walking simulators). Existing solely in the digital sphere, HOST speaks to the rapid evolution the arts have undertaken in order to adapt to the changing face of the artworld in the midst of a pandemic. It offers a new interpretation of what kind of experience viewers can have in seeing artworks outside of the institution.

The exhibition includes works by rudi aker, Anna Binta Diallo, Séamus Gallagher, Emily Kennedy, Caroline Monnet, respectfulchild, Lou SheppardRachel M Thornton, Winnie Truong, Maggie Higgins, and Wilcox, all of whom Ash has brought together under the auspicious aim of “exploring the power of hospitality and xenophilia to subvert the rise of far right politics and subsequent hostility, divisiveness and destruction.” With HOST, the curator was looking to carve out a space for enacting care while simultaneously examining how care, reciprocity, and kinship can in fact generate resistance against xenophobia, tightening borders, and the escalating climate crisis.

Séamus Gallagher, Feel the Heat with Somebody

Gallagher’s Feel the Heat with Somebody is an artwork encompassed in an experience. The piece features a video as well as a simulated club (also built by Wilcox). In order to view the work, we are prompted to open a door on the other side of which lies a dance floor. A post-apocalyptic scene in a foreboding palette of dark greys and black moves across the walls. A female figure sways provocatively into view. The avatar prompts us to “hop on the dance floor,” almost like a queer battle cry ringing out from cyberspace. Upon clicking the prompt, Gallagher’s video work Feel the Heat with Somebody begins. Whitney Houston’s I Wanna Dance with Somebody plays against a similar post-apocalyptic backdrop. The female figure, Gallagher’s drag persona Sara Tonin, is seen from the dance floor. As she sways and cat walks back and forth to the music, it’s all but impossible not to feel some level of joy and pleasure looking at and indeed interacting with this work.

HOST opened during Pride month and June 28th marked the 52nd anniversary of the Stonewall uprisings. For the occasion ARTFORUM shared a text from their archives titled Confessions on the Dance Floor: Reveries from the Gay Bar that struck a chord in thinking through this artwork. Being Queer and unable to congregate with other LGBTQ2S+ folx is a particular form of loneliness and alienation. “They seemed to be spaces of freedom and excitement, islands in an otherwise unfriendly world,” Judith Butler wrote in their section of the text. Nightlife and queer bars are the seed of queer liberation and pleasure. I found this in the pairing of Gallagher’s piece and Wilcox’s rendering of the purple dance floor. There I found a level of sensitivity, honesty, and care. The piece not only offers insight into the ethics of care, but more so the ethics of care and reciprocity in regards to queer love and safety.

Caroline Monnet, IKWÉ

In her deeply moving film IKWÉ, Anishinaabe/French artist Monnet posits a potential feminist future grounded in Indigenous sovereignty. Narrated in Cree by Ikwé’s grandmother, the moon, the film speaks to the history of Indigenous people and the systemic racism and genocide in Canadian society while also offering a glimpse at Indigenous knowledge and the power drawn from ancestors, the natural world, and stories. The intimate thoughts of Ikwé intermingle with the teaching of grandmother moon offering an understanding of the vastness of the universe and what we can learn from it. When Ikwé tells of feeling a new life force fill her like air, so too does the viewer feel this filling up. Listening to grandmother moon speaking in Cree illustrates an instant of deep truth: an ancestry of place, of the land here in Canada. Monnet’s film is not only a breath of fresh air filling the viewer with renewed hope, but also a deep reckoning.

Rachel M Thornton, uranography (i – vi)

Sackville, NB emerging artist Thornton’s work uranography (i – vi) uses collage and augmented reality video activation (or AR) to create a living vision of the universe. Hands hold stars being born and dying, feminine figures modelled after classical Greek sculptures cradle celestial bodies, while other hands are bathed in the shimmers of the night sky. Through this repeated iconography the artist invites the audience to hold the universe in the palms of their own hands. A free printable zine that accompanies the project also offers an intimate interaction with the concept of the universe. When the images in the zine are activated with an app, aspects in each come to life using AR video elements. uranography (i – vi) takes what is ultimately immeasurable and incomprehensible in size and distance, and places it in our hands through technology. This piece is a tender example of a way to find genuine integrity within digital technology and the web in spite of the ugliness they both possess.

HOST is innovative in that it is driven by an approach to understanding place in the world through reciprocity and care. With this project Ash has carved out a safe space within the internet at large and outside of the institution. This is not a feat to be taken lightly and is truly a difficult undertaking. The amount of care and labour that went into this project is clear: from the collaboration between Ash and Wilcox to build the website to the safe space created within the darkness and alienation of the web. This is translated in many instances within the project, in particular Ash’s highlighting of the urgency to support artists as well as those invested in the arts. Her diligence and nurturing of HOST is what drew me to it. I returned and remained because of this resonant sense distilled throughout the project. This is the work needed in a post-pandemic world: work that is appreciated. It is refreshing to be invited to visit such a place and I’m grateful for it.

HOST continues until September 17.

Maeve Hanna is a writer living and working in Nova Scotia.