2020 may well be remembered by the majority as the year hijacked by COVID-19. What mustn’t slip into oblivion, however, are a series of year-defining social movements, global-scale protests, and international dialogues that have propelled collective reevaluations of the progress of our systems and policies. This year has seen an emergence of different voices in the arts sector, responding to recent circumstances and the associated challenges. Notably, it has observed more reflective conversations that pertain to the world’s socio-political and technological developments.
Peer to Peer: UK/HK Online Festival is one of these new voices. Directed by independent curator Ying Kwok, Peer to Peer envisions an extensive intercultural exchange between UK- and Hong Kong-based art practitioners and organisations. It has an ambitious programme and a large number of partners across both England and Hong Kong, with University of Salford Art Collection, Open Eye Gallery and Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) leading as the festival coordinators. The festival will feature four days of digital panel events and social media residencies, as well as an online exhibition of new commissions and existing works from artists based in the UK and Hong Kong. The five commissioned artists are Antonio Roberts, Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley and Hetain Patel from the UK, and Lee Kai Chung and Sharon Lee Cheuk Wun from Hong Kong.
Peer to Peer is timely and responsive in its approach to programming. It shows determination to take on a discursive role in topical issues in society, such as climate change and the role of art as an agent for social betterment. Such determination is also reflected in the works of Peer to Peer’s participating artists. ‘I can’t think of a time I didn’t need you’ (2020), an interactive digital story by Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley, uses animation, sound, performance and video games to unfold the experiences of Black trans people. Coinciding with the Black Lives Movement which has gained momentum this year, the work confronts viewers with their own experiences and privileges, while critically reviewing the racist and transphobic ‘pandemics’ from which so many people have suffered.
A major emphasis of Peer to Peer is interculturalism. The festival brings into the limelight two culturally distinctive locations that have sustained partnerships through institutions, communities and diaspora. It is exciting to see these collaborations continue as part of the art world’s pursuit of cultural awareness and creativity. The benefits of intercultural exchange to the arts are recognised by Nick McDowell, Director of International at Arts Council England, who expressed hope that Peer to Peer might be ‘a model for future international networking and partnership-building’. He commented: ‘Once artists and curators are given the opportunity to connect across borders, they bring creativity and innovation to the exchange of ideas’, further citing artists and other creative practitioners for whom international collaboration has been ‘the experience which transformed or advanced their creative practice’.
But what form does an international collaboration of artists and curators take? In a world still facing the threat of Covid-19 and mobility challenges posed by the pandemic, options for face-to-face interaction are limited even on a local level, let alone across different countries. For artists who thrive upon human interaction, the struggle is real. As a relatively low-carbon response to lockdown, many creatives have instinctively sought virtual opportunities to continue their practices instead. In the current circumstances, Peer to Peer acts as a much-needed provider of these opportunities. And as someone with an interest in the creation of virtual exhibitions, I am particularly looking forward to the digital experience the festival has to offer.
With an online exhibition being one of its key elements, Peer to Peer seems to challenge conventional exhibition cultures and structures. Over the last eight months the lockdown has triggered an outpouring of digital content within the arts in the UK. In all these adaptive endeavours, what I find intriguing is the ambiguity of the term ‘online exhibition’ and the discrepancies in the public’s expectations of it. While obviously an online exhibition uses the internet as a medium, what else can be said to define online shows and art? Are online exhibitions a fleeting substitute to cope with the current lack of ‘white cubes’? Or is there anything digital exhibitions can do that their physical counterparts can’t?
Sharon Lee’s commissioned work ‘Same River Twice’ (2020) gives insight into the last question through the demonstration of virtual site specificity. Transcending the boundaries of concrete walls and physical landscapes, her photographic work invites the audience to revisit fragmented memories reconstructed vicariously through the experiences of others. Her work allows viewers to experience public locations in Hong Kong which bear significance to the city’s social movements. These can be explored between two different internet realms – Google Maps and the exhibition website. According to Lee, she hopes to ‘create an active “seeing” and “unseeing” process for the audience’, which might be interpreted as an experience that goes beyond a passive reception of online images.
Looking at ‘Same River Twice’, I began to wonder about the internet’s potential as an irreplaceable site of art display – an active choice rather than an alternative. As in Heraclitus’ famous adage ‘No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man’ (alluding to the uniqueness of every human experience and encounter with their ever-changing surroundings), a similar thinking can be applied to our viewing of virtual exhibitions and festivals. Even if they are an attempt to mirror or compensate for their physical loss, perhaps they are all rivers of a sort, to be explored and experienced anew.
During lockdown, we have seen online exhibitions appearing in a variety of shapes and forms: some translate into VR and 360° photography with the accompaniment of interactive multimedia interpretation, while others are live-stream guided tours or walk-around videos on websites. These exhibitions demonstrate varying levels of accessibility and commitment to public engagement. In a time when the narrative of equality and diversity are being reassessed and rewritten, a discussion of the curatorial priorities of virtual exhibition makers is clearly worthy of its own chapter.
At the time of writing, Peer to Peer is on a countdown to launching their festival programme and exhibition. The festival’s curatorial team is clearly aware of how curating an online exhibition or festival is very different to curating real-life ones. When speaking about the biggest challenge of making Peer to Peer happen, Kwok analogises the process to ‘crossing a river through feeling the stones’. She admits that the curatorial team has been learning as they go as none of its core members are digital natives. Nevertheless, the team is hopeful about bringing together artists and art professionals for meaningful, in-depth exchanges. Lindsay Taylor from University of Salford Art Collection has great faith in their Technical Director, Jacob Bolton, who worked with each of the artists to ensure their ideas could be technically presented on Peer to Peer’s website. Speaking about the things she would like viewers and artists to take away from the upcoming online experience, Taylor hopes that ‘further collaborations and meaningful, long-term partnerships are born’.
While it is too early to gauge the success of Peer to Peer, it is my hope that the rise of online art exhibitions and festivals will facilitate dialogues on how virtual platforms might add value to existing exhibition cultures, how that can inform the development of more inclusive programmes and what should be done for this to be achieved.
The Peer to Peer: UK/HK Online Festival will take place entirely online between 11-14 November 2020 on peertopeerexchange.org. The festival is free and open to all. Panel events will be hosted on Zoom for anyone who signs up, but also live streamed to YouTube where people can catch up and rewatch afterwards.