The NYU Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) Art Gallery, the University’s academic gallery, has opened its first-ever virtual exhibition, titled not in, of, along, or relating to a line. Co-curated by Chief Curator at NYU Abu Dhabi and Executive Director of The NYUAD Art Gallery Maya Allison, and NYUAD faculty member and artist Heather Dewey-Hagborg, the exhibition unveiled four new commissions, alongside 14 existing artworks, that, together, invite a new perspective on virtual and screen-based contemporary art, of particular relevance during COVID-19.
In this exhibition of “born digital” work, artists address both the restrictions and the freedoms that a digital landscape offers. Four newly commissioned works also respond to 2020’s role in our technological lives. In her new commission, Cao Fei uses augmented reality to create an imaginary friend, a doppelganger of her son, who interacts with her real-life son. Lee Blalock continues her Ev3ryd4y Cyb0rg series, bringing her human-machine hybrid character into the COVID-19 lockdown present. Addie Wagenknecht takes on the YouTube makeup tutorial, using it to teach cybersecurity in an accessible and humorous way, with particular attention to recent events in the US. These commissions, together with works by Sophia Al-Maria, Zach Blas, Eva and Franco Mattes, micha cárdenas, and the collective of Ramin Haerizadeh, Rokni Haerizadeh, and Hesam Rahmanian, explore how identities, histories, and futures are created, transformed, or invented.
In the web platform specifically developed for this exhibition, for ease of viewing on a mobile device, visitors use their touchscreen to move from artwork to artwork, along a series of forking paths. Dewey-Hagborg explains: “Instead of a list of links, or a sequence of screens, or a 3D render of a gallery, this exhibition is structured as a series of forking paths through born-digital artworks, a decentralized network diagram, the traversal of which is serendipitous. No two visitors will have the same experience. Its structure is inspired by early internet history and its anticipatory cultural predecessors: Borges’ Garden of Forking Paths, and Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of the rhizome. These ideas speak to visions of an earlier time, when the internet was fresh and new and seemed, to some, so full of potential.”
Commenting on the virtual format, Allison said: “We began our curatorial process with a question: what might a virtual exhibition be? In the pre-pandemic norm of exhibitions, you and your body physically enter the exhibition hall, to be surrounded by, immersed in, art. However, most digitally born art doesn’t enter that physical exhibition hall so easily. As a non-object, it lives always behind a computer screen, between what we might call the ‘object-ness’ of the monitor, and the ‘virtual-ness’ of the digital artwork’s original form. Today, we often hold that screen, that world, in the palm of our hands. The smartphone was already an extension of our bodies before the pandemic—in a way, we have all already embarked on a journey of self-modification through technology. Through these works, each artist here takes as their subject this matter of agency, self-determination, and technology’s promise of liberation or threat of suffocation.”