Digital Art Program Stream
Still from The Tourist, 2023. Courtesy Gary Zhezi Zhang.
AGYU’s newly launched digital art program stream supports born-digital and internet art commissions and presentations. Inspired by the breadth of artists practices within digital contexts, AGYU established this program to work with artists who create work in this sphere as well as to support those who would if given resources and technical support. This digital stream is designed to highlight the particularities of producing artwork for the internet while also connecting with local, national, and international audiences to provide access, experiences, and conversations across an expanded geography.
The first commission in the program is Gary Zhexi Zhang’s The Tourist, produced with the support of AGYU Assistant Curator, Exhibitions, Clara Halpern (more information available here). Dele Adeyemo’s From Longhouse to Highrise: The Course of Empire, produced with the support of AGYU Curator Felicia Mings, will be launched later this year (more information available here).
This program began as a series of online conversations, …this is not made of language but energy, led by Clara Halpern. For the keynote talk, writer and editor Orit Gat spoke on the history of chat and the construction of ourselves online, unpacking our relationships with our digital lives with references ranging from Nora Ephron’s 1998 romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail to contemporary artworks. Digital dimensions are interwoven with daily life, oscillating between moments of joy and humour (feeling seen in a meme sent from a friend!) to creeping anxiety (where is all my data and how is it being monetized?) Artists have been actively creating and sharing born-digital and internet art since the mid-1990s, far earlier than most institutions (or the art market) entered this realm. Although it is no longer a new phenomenon, it remains ever-changing, as new technologies emerge and our engagement with them ebbs and flows, artists and writers adopt digital platforms as new tools for making art, as channels for circulation, for conversation and critique, and for collaborating in acts of resistance and care.
Online space is not a neutral space and it is imbued with its own power dynamics, barriers, and biases. Another speaker in the series, Tabita Rezaire (artist, teacher, and doula), spoke of digital technology’s duality, its contribution to feelings of connection and disconnection, and the importance of acknowledging its roots in pre-existing structures of violence. In their conversation, Tega Brain (artist and environmental engineer), Jason Edward Lewis (digital media theorist, poet, and software designer), and Paul Soulellis (artist and educator) were critical of various platforms, highlighting existing barriers but also bringing to light new practices, methodologies, and hope. For Brain, this came in the form of considering the impacts of data; for Edwards, Indigenous Futurisms and evolving cultural practices; and for Soulellis, the potential for digital publishing to distribute care in the face of oppression. Soulellis observed that “stories are constructed and experiences shared across networks, how and why they reach us and why we’re compelled to trust them, or not, is crucial to any understanding of how publishing and community organizing is operating right now.”
Another conversation in the series, centered on tool-making and agency on the web in the midst of often monolithic actors, brought together Taeyoon Choi (artist, educator, and co-founder of School for Poetic Computation), Gary Zhexi Zhang (artist and writer), Ashley Jane Lewis (creative technologist, artist, and educator) and Kite (artist and scholar). This panel focused on artists perspectives to reframe our understandings and expectations of technologies. Oglála Lakȟóta artist Kite spoke of the ways that, in Lakota ontology, objects can be communicated “with and through.” She explained “like traditions or protocols or philosophies, the technologies themselves are tools with which we enact our ways of being and knowing in the world… Even if built with western epistemologies they don’t alter the inalienable sovereignty of Indigenous epistemologies.”
The final conversation in the series brought together artists Christina Battle and Julia Weist who discussed creating artworks that operated across several realms simultaneously in projects that had digital aspects but also involved physical sites such as gardens and city billboards. Battle and Weist’s thoughtful approaches to form and site (online and off), underscore the ways that born-digital art can have the potential to meaningfully impact our perspectives and futures. This initial series of conversations elucidated the breadth of possibilities inherent in the born-digital realm, and these first two commissioned projects have continued to expand this conversation. We’re grateful to the artists and thinkers who have shaped this new area for the gallery and look forward to continuing this digital stream through dialogues, collaborations, and supporting and sustaining new born-digital and internet-based works.
Dele Adeyemo and Gary Zhexi Zhang’s digital art commissions are generously supported by the Canada Council for the Arts through its Digital Strategy Fund.