Well Now WTF? – Online Exhibition
By Kim Neudorf
Co-curated by Faith Holland, Lorna Mills, and Wade Wallerstein, the 80+ artists featured in the online exhibition Well Now WTF? use the instantly accessible mediums of the GIF and short video to respond – directly or indirectly – to the current reality of COVID-19. As Wallerstein’s accompanying essay explains, “we offer what we can and what we feel is of great value during this time: a place to gather, investigate, critique, create and, honestly, have fun.” My review, not unlike the works exhibited, will be associative and gut-level, informed heavily by what Seth Barry Watter’s essay eventually describes as that which “quakes and shivers into fragments of fragments.”
The artworks are grouped into categories or “rooms” with fun names like BED OF NAILS, PANTS OPTIONAL, or the more COVID-19-specific WASH YOUR FUCKING HANDS. In the first category, CLEAN ROOM, the jerky cuts of a mutant cousin to the early internet’s dancing baby (Wednesday Kim), a CCTV camera zapping clone-like passersby into skeletal currency (Bob Bicknell-Knight), and Ryan Kuo’s hovering first-person hallway set the tone of what’s to come. Kuo’s creepy, looping corridor, emphasizing the haptic suspense of first-person video games, may resonate with those playing the at-home waiting game (and, in some cases, those with less endurable and equally long-term confinements).
Some GIFs are truly banal, using simply the perceptual, optic novelty of things that glow, pulse, flash, and vibrate with liquid logic and glitchy noise. Others mix and mash familiar internet icons into multiple tab-cascading layers of dancing babies, fluorescent viral microbes, aliens, obsolete computer hardware, frozen and looping video game sequences, bad special effects, aimless VR spaces of floating detritus, and various late-night TV commercial cheese. In contrast, Claudia Bitran creates a GIF from painted cells and manages to stand apart from the digital homogeneity of the dominant aesthetic. So too with Molly Soda’s print-like house and garden, “gone to seed” behind a filter of vibrant green.
Amidst this allover space of oblique references, SHAWNÉ MICHAELAIN HOLLOWAY’s slowly hovering rose surrounded by an explosion of petals looks simultaneously like the pre-obliteration scene in Terminator 2 as well as any romantic hit music video from the eighties, complete with its lyrical platitude of love long-distance perpetually hanging before catastrophe. Lilly Handley’s hover-view of a forest floor disturbed by invisible forces resembles the hidden invaders of recent cinematic creatures only detectable without the sense of sight.
GIFs that seem to address COVID-19 more directly often do so with familiar messages like cancelled events, online classes, messages of “stay home,” images of hand-washing, self-help tonics and home workouts, or the shorthand of sci-fi outbreak filmic codes, like the Hazmat/medical uniform and toxic-green or danger-red filters alongside shaky-cam. Others are simpler and unexpectedly more visceral, such as Peter Burr’s colourful low-tech figures tumbling off a steep incline to their deaths, Lorna Mills’ apple carved into a face that becomes a cavernous ant-eaten skull, or Alex McLeod’s fleshy-pink half-lid orb gently stroked by a stacked noodle, which suggests new forms of physical contact accessible only in the virtual realm. Rare are GIFs that hit home outside of the abstract or lightness of pop-culture reference, and speak to the privileged space of art and its still existing power structures, such as Pastiche Lumumba’s reference to segregated water fountains, wherein Duchamp’s fountain fades in and out below the signage for “white.”
The last category of WTF links to a YouTube playlist of short videos, equally loose in theme. Amidst some wryly addressed infomercials for “post-apocalyptic sustainable luxury” (Alice Bucknell), selfie-to-oasis tech via depth-analysis-cam (Jeremy Bailey), and ASMR neurolink-chip-install role-playing (Erin Gee), standouts are those that delve deeper into the disturbing and unknown affects of new tech, or pare things down to something much more tangible and poetic. Tiare Ribeaux explores the disturbing “content-aware” flesh-morphs and partially materialized blobs of 3D-scanning and form-anticipatory software that fails in spectacular ways, such as a topographical camera’s transformation of a face into skin stretched flat. Maya Ben David’s cosplay inspired by The Brave Little Toaster takes place in a refreshing space of tape and cardboard in The Air Conditioner Monologues. Or there’s also Olivia Ross’s fourteen-second watery layer of mutant flowers moving like fish to a tinny recording of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights.
My concluding thoughts loop back to Sally McKay’s essay on the GIF and affect from 2009, which, coincidentally, includes analysis of work by WTF’s Lorna Mills. The essay considers the affective qualities of GIFs, such as the idea that while affect’s pre-cognitive state or “temporal sink” exists before validation by language, affect still “infolds” context, which contrasts with the oft-implied universal accessibility of the GIF. In that same logic, McKay suggests that while the “in your face”-ness of private viewing short-circuits institutional framing, the GIF “floods” the senses – we zone out. Perhaps, as McKay suggests, the solution is further creation through regeneration and remixing. WTF’s upcoming programming of talks, tours, workshops, and invitations to collaborate and find community might be able to “break the spell” of the GIF and instigate spaces where viewer affect shifts into action.
Kim Neudorf is an artist and writer based in London (ON). Their writing and paintings have appeared most recently at McIntosh Gallery, London (ON); DNA Gallery, London (ON); Paul Petro, Toronto; Franz Kaka, Toronto; Forest City Gallery, London (ON); Modern Fuel Artist-Run Centre, Kingston; Evans Contemporary Gallery, Peterborough; and Susan Hobbs Gallery, Toronto. Instagram: @kimneudorf