COVID-19 Is Changing How Artists Think of Art

Paola Torres Núñez del Prado has spent most of her life away from Peru. She went to college in New York and created her career in Stockholm. Her work showed up first on the pages of Swedish news sites and galleries. 

Núñez del Prado’s work is made out of tensions. Her website says that she intertwines pre-Columbian cultures and technology, the haptic and the sonic, virtual and physical codes. In one series, she embroiders a traditional Andean tapestry onto a vast white piece of fabric. The edges of the textile explode into a series of pixelated, twisted together lines, like an error carried through an entire fabric. The subject matter of her works has led people to call her a diasporic artist, a label she refutes. 

Now she sits in a house in Lima in front of one of her tapestries. This could be the longest period of her adult life that she has spent in Peru. “I’m stuck in Lima because I came here for a [Google] grant,” she says. 

Late at night in Estonia, Budhaditya Chattopadhyay calls in from a vacant room at his indefinitely-extended residency. “I was supposed to go back to India on the 16th, but the flight had been canceled because India closed its border. So I cannot return.” Days before Europe shut down its borders in March, Chattopadhyay flew into India to visit his mother. “I came back on the sixth of March, I did the concert on the seventh and then, in that week, between the seventh and 15th, everything changed drastically.” 

Chattopadhyay is no stranger to nomadism. His works offer titles like “Audible Absence” and “Doors of Nothingness.” On his website, many of his works, like his new book “The Nomadic Listener,” try to recreate the sonic texture of cities — Copenhagen, Berlin, Delhi, Hong Kong, and New York — crowded places. Like Paola Torres Núñez del Prado, he has received a Google Arts and Culture Grant to continue these explorations. But in Estonia and in his performances, Chattopadhyay is alone. 

Often, when you are in an auditorium or in a concert hall, you’re responding to the audience directly,” Chattopadhyay says of his recent performances held over video chat. “[Steaming performances is like] listening to your own performance, performing solo in a concert hall without any physical presence.” 

The COVID-19 pandemic has left artists unsettled and senseless. Their responses have taken as many directions as they have. 

Some have found each other disparately. Mike Bodge and Brian Moore began working on Do Not Touch Your Face, a website that uses the machine learning algorithm tensorflow.js to detect and alarm a user who touches their face, two days before Isaac Blankensmith tweeted about a similar project. “We were like, ‘Oh, crap, we need to get him on board too.’ Isaac was already running with it before we’d ever talked with him,” says Brian Moore. “This idea…feels like it came from all of us at the same time.”

The website features bright yellow smiley faces and a pseudo-fish eye display revealing a video of the user. In the corner of the user’s view, a smiley face stick figure waves his arm around in jolty animation. When the user touches their face, Isaac Blakensmith’s voice yells, “No!” in the same tone as someone confronting a misbehaving dog. The screen becomes stop-light red and the smiley faces revert to frowns. “We wanted to make it kind of delightful,” Mike Bodge says. “Machine learning can be really scary if shown in a scary way. Part of the aesthetic was getting across that it’s a silly toy that can also be a useful tool.”

Do Not Touch Your Face landing page (Source: donottouchyourface.com).

“I don’t know if we would have even designed it [now]. We would be too afraid to even put it out in the world because it could be offensive. Will this be downplaying the immense pain [of COVID-19]?” Brian Moore adds.  

Brian Moore isn’t the only person to wonder how their initial reactions to the pandemic would have changed now. Alex Calderwood, a recent master’s graduate and affiliate of The Brown Institute (a joint collaboration between Columbia and Stanford Universities), reused code from a project he had been working on to create a Twitter bot. “The Coronavirus bot was a joke. I woke up one morning and I had read that the genome was sequenced. And I thought that was really cool…[I realized] it would take very little time to feed in that sequence and tweet it out at once,” he says from his New York apartment. 

Calderwood says that only part of it was a joke. He had been inspired by the work of Alberto Cairo, a journalism professor at the University of Miami, on data literacy, particularly the idea that the act of data collection could be a mindfulness exercise. Calderwood begins to worry.

“We can look at the information that supplies this virus. Is there a fear there? How can 40,000 bits be responsible for so much death and so much economic collateral? Are these bits the things that are doing that?” he says.

Do Not Touch Your Face and Calderwood’s Twitter bot get at the same thing; when viruses are strings of adenines and disease prevention is a matter of keeping your hands in the right place, the information seems…more digestible. Both Calderwood and Moore, Blakensmith, and Bodge say that their projects try to diminish the modern fear of the technology that led to their creation. But they also confront information overload. 

“I was doing a lot of doom surfing, which is just letting the firehose of Twitter wash over you. That’s actually good to do for a while because then I’m almost immune to it,” says Brian Moore. “I need a new version [of the website] that’s Do Not Touch Your Phone or Do Not Touch Your Computer just because I spend so much time just checking the news.” 

In the age of Coronavirus, information can be both toxic and salving. “That’s how people find the site. Because they’re in the firehose,” Moore adds. 

Beyond unprecedented reductions in sales and exhibitions, artists and technologists are in the business of communicating information. To do it, they manipulate the senses. But the pandemic has left some senseless. 

The experience of Paola Torres Núñez del Prado’s textiles revolves around touch. Her exhibitions closed, she has resorted to live streamed performances of her touching her fabric. “If I [keep] resorting to doing live performances online, where I’m the only one touching the textiles, it loses the point altogether,” she says. 

In visual exhibitions, the sense of scale, texture, layout, and noises around works is nearly impossible to create through a computer monitor. In musical performances, live streaming drastically alters the perceived interactions between the artist and the audience.

“Sound is a private affair. We engage with sounds in a kind of inner audition. Every single audition is very subjective,” Budhaditya Chattopadhyay says. “[Now,] there is a sense of remoteness.” 

The collaboration encouraged by open workspaces can be replicated, though imperfectly, as technologists move worlds away from each other. Some, like Andrew Calderwood, spend large amounts of time in online coworking circles. Others, like Sarah Newman, have used vague lists of household objects to bring students together for creative workshops. Zoom equips us for working together, but falters in letting us share sensory experiences. Social distancing creates sensory deprivation.

For that, some propose other solutions. Manaswi Mishra and Alexandra Rieger both work at the MIT Media Lab’s Opera of the Future group. Mishra, a musician, experiments with the limits of sound. Rieger, a trained neuroscientist, designs assistive technologies and medical devices for syndromes ranging from strokes to Alzheimer’s in collaboration with the MIT Aging Brain Initiative. Both Mishra and Rieger are stuck, either in Texas or an anonymous patch of countryside.

Alexandra Rieger, a neuroscientist at MIT Media Lab's Opera of the Future group, creates assistive devices from an impromptu home studio.

They’ve used distance to guide their projects. From a remote studio without the conveniences of a wood or machine shop, Rieger created a multipurpose space in her studio. “I’m designing a multisensory rehabilitation tool; something that may support recovery within the aftermath of COVID-19,” she says in an email.

“I’ve started thinking more about community and connectedness, and even the role of music in our lives…a lot of people listen to music in their daily commute or in the gym when they’re working out. And now that everybody’s inside, most of the time their listening habits are changing. The way they engage with music is changing,” Mishra says. “There’s already a tradition of musicians that perform music at a distance.” 

Performing remotely, Mishra wants to reinvent how we listen to music online. But a number of latencies can make the listener experience cumbersome. “You can reduce latency in some ways with technology, but distance and light speeds create a latency that is always there, and other things like compression of the audio and different audio setups, or their rooms and how reverberant the rooms are, and all of these things are these tiny glitches and qualities that are there. I really like that.” His ideas originate from jam sessions that he has held online with his friends, where people can appear and disappear spontaneously. 

Unable to time events together, musicians can use extremely repetitive structures or low tempo or untimed music, like drown music or atmospheric music, to make it easier to collaborate. Alternatively, artists can add individual latencies to their music so that everyone can be on the same bar at the same time. “When you have multiple performers you don’t end up playing the same kind of music that you would if you were all in the same room, but you play a different kind of music and are still able to stay connected,” he says.

Mishra imagines manipulating the grid formats of videoconferencing software to visually express sound, changing the shapes of chat boxes based on the emotions conveyed by a musician or their sizes by the volume of the instrument. He hopes to introduce distance and scale into online performances, rather than directly recreating an offline experience.

“The senses are so connected to our cognitive health and different biological states in the brain,” says Rieger. Characteristic of Alzheimer’s, for example, are many different perceptual changes. Patients see colors differently, and have difficulty perceiving smells, among others. 

Regardless of their reactions to the pandemic, artists have been thinking about what’s missing — community, paid exhibitions, the ability for their audiences to fully interact with their pieces. Although most have created some continuation of their works online, COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way that people make and experience art.

Sitting in Lima, Paola Torres Núñez del Prado asks for answers. “How can I discuss the subject that I’ve been discussing all throughout these years? Now, the question is, how can I work with the touch, the universal human experience, now that touching another is the hardest thing that you can do?” she says. 

Although her initial plans for the Google Arts and Culture grant — studying tapestry and pre-Columbian collections at Peru’s museums — have been put on hold, she believes in the continuation of civilization. As COVID-19 changes how we think about touch in communication, Paola Torres Núñez del Prado has become fascinated by Incan knot languages. The textiles exhibit complex grammatical systems, yet they are, for now, untranslatable beyond basic numbers. Like the physical language of a long-fallen Incan civilization, human-to-human touch has become nearly extinct, at least temporarily. “This idealistic view of humanity has been ruptured. Physical unity is the worst that we can think of right now,” she says. Yet, in looking to Incan knot languages, Paola Torres Núñez del Prado looks into the little-understood pasts of both human empires and how we took touch for granted prior to the pandemic.

Still, she is hopeful.

“Can this conflict lead me to something new?” Paola Torres Núñez del Prado asks. “What is the real tool that can give us shared human experience?”

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