Artists and Workers Isolate and Unite!

Mike Watson sets out a path for an artist’s response to the pandemic and how it might provide unexpected energy for the political Left.

Anyone working in the creative fields will currently be at some stage along an arc that passes from fear and panic at the coronavirus and its isolating effects, through elation at the sense of collective solidarity being shown online, onto a realistic assessment of the benefits and pitfalls of remote working. For creative workers on the left it may feel that an opportunity has arisen to correct the right wing meme and adage ‘The Left Can’t Meme’, which became a popular taunt during the 2016 US Presidential campaign. Above all it is tempting to see the potential for increased online creativity as providing the online left with a platform from which to argue the case for a socialist world, post lockdown. Factors relating both to the format of the online space and the impossibility of congregating elsewhere practically call for such action out of necessity. The smartest approach may be to leverage his moment to build solidarity online, ready for a post lockdown world.

On March 24th sixteen, writers, artists and academics gathered on artist and memester Joshua Citarella’s twitch channel for a streamed roundtable talk entitled Coronacene: What Happens Next? In the opening address to a panel that included among others Benjamin Bratton, artist Aria Dean, and art critic Laurie Rojas, Citarella stated: “The outbreak of Covid 19 is transforming society. What happens next? Is this the end of globalisation, or is it just a new chapter? Plunging markets and snap policy changes will have lasting effects for years to come.  … Do These imminent changes open up new possibilities for a global cooperation or do they intensify existing fractures?” Landing any defining statement would have been difficult so early into a rapidly developing crisis, though there seemed consensus from the assembled international participants that the novel coronavirus has created a new awareness of global and localised interdependence. As Aria Dean stated: “I think that part of the crisis on a personal and societal level is really realising the permeability of yourself as an individual subject but also that biologically, microbiologically we’re connected… as cities and regions we are so, so dependent on the movement and wellbeing of one another.”

Aside from statements such as these, tentative predictions included artist Daniel Keller’s forecast of an exodus from densely populated cities due to fears of contagion. Meanwhile writer and educator Nora Kahn asserted that we will see an increased focus on identity types relating to how individuals present themselves on social media and conferencing platforms. This will take place as real life interaction becomes less commonplace and online personas become paramount in conveying who we are and how we relate to the world.

 While these takes appear well reasoned, it felt as if the talk’s format itself constituted the most visionary element of the event. Live streaming platforms such as twitch allow for a high level of user interaction that runs contrary to the top down model of academic discourse. This brought a level of horizontality to  Coronacene: What Happens Next? rarely seen in the context of an academic seminar. For example, Twitch’s chat feature enabled an audience numbering over 1000 in total to comment in real time through text and emoticons. This gave the expert panel the feel of a popular video gaming stream, as comical and irreverent comments scrolled through the chat box, alongside theoretical observations.  Watching the stream live, it felt as if we were in the early days of the global internet once again, with exaggerated claims for the potential of online community building appearing reminiscent of the heyday of theoretical blogging. The difference is that today we have no choice but to gather online, making the dichotomy between online and street level leftist actions temporarily redundant.

This is of course not to say that the coronavirus lockdown might deliver the revolutionary moment that the socialist left yearns after and which remains today as elusive as ever. Ownership of the means of production requires worker organisation and a physical presence at sites of industry and enterprise sufficient to make claims to the collective worker ownership of wealth creating tools and machines.  This leaves us asking the question over whether the current groundswell in collective sentiment among existing online and artistic communities can be transferred to the streets and piazzas post lockdown. For now the possibility of this happening depends on the extent to which the conditions of isolation, which leave us feeling a sense of togetherness in our loneliness, can be seized upon by the left to create a lasting sense of solidarity. Post lockdown, such a sentiment needs to rapidly translate into a mass protest movement that can exploit the concessions that right wing and centrist left governments have made to socialism in the form of government handouts, nationalisation and debt relief over the last few weeks. This, along with grievances at the slowness of government responses to the virus in the US and UK, can be leveraged to gain consensus for healthcare for all in the US and protection of the NHS and its founding principles in the UK.

The argument that such a movement can be birthed online is largely a pragmatic one. We would appear to have little choice given the impediments placed on movement and mass gatherings for the time being. However, there are  deeper reasons why the surge of online creativity might arguably redress the alienating effects of the industrial and digital economies and their tendency to strip the worker of individual creative input. As Marx explains in the Communist Manifesto, the worker, “becomes an appendage of the machine, and it is only the most simple, most monotonous, and most easily acquired knack, that is required of him.” For Marx this tendency correlated with the diminution of the importance of craft skills and the guilds that supported largely bourgeois craftsmen. So the onset of capitalist production brought about a uniformity in working processes at the expense of creative production, which became the preserve of the hobbyists and financially independent artists ringfenced from financial precarity of working outside through familial inheritance or trust funds. The art world has since long sought to at least appear to correct this situation, from avant garde appeals to ‘an art for all’ to governmental arts policies which emphasise inclusivity and outreach to marginalised groups. For this reason the lockdown might be seen as something of an opportunity for museums, galleries and artists seeking to reach a wider audience as the accessibility of the internet lends the medium by nature to a sense of being inherently democratic.

Initiatives to get people creating abound and include the Getty Museum in Los Angeles’ #GettyMuseumChallenge, inviting people to post photos of themselves emulating famous paintings on social media while in quarantine. In Italy a similar initiative called SoCoD-19 (Source Code Disease 2019) asks people to take a selfie from the project webpage and to write an accompanying short text describing your emotional state at the moment. The resulting selfie and text are then subjected to a process of databending, glitching the photo and inserting the text within the source code used to achieve this effect. The result is a display of lives upended, infected by a viral code, and accompanied by texts that range from hopeful to frank, to despairing. One message simply reads, ‘I’m home and the next week I’ll be homeless,’ while another says ‘I miss touching people with my eyes’. Initiatives such as these two make good use of art’s capacity to reach out and to engage people in playful and perhaps irrational activities that counter the tendency to establish a sense of safety via nationalist sentiment and scapegoating. These tendencies have already seen the governments of the US and China playing a dangerous blame game, as well as widespread racism toward Asian communities in the west.

As Paris based artist Bobby Dowler, who has been asked by his Madrid based Galeria Alegria to curate an online show of painting on its instagram pages, said to me in facebook chat:

“In times of a plague-like epidemic, responses get very divisive in an attempt to assert a new order. The counter irrational response is to attempt art – like the dadaists did during World War One.”

Of course, the notion of the online space being both open to all and a place for a decentering of narratives is nothing new, though today there is a newfound urgency. Since at least 2016, when fringe right wing extremists and bored teens combined to produce poor taste memes that many believe helped get Trump elected, a question has resounded over whether the online left can amass the support needed to put a genuine left of centre candidate in the White House. 

As hundreds of thousands of itinerant online workers, gig workers and artists unite with bored office workers and teachers forced to stay at home we may be about to see a risposte to the famous right wing meme ‘The Left Can’t Meme’. And while one wonders what meme trends and online art shows will do for the prospects of the left, the economic uncertainty wrought by the coronavirus makes success as vital as ever. With Corbyn defeated in last year’s UK general election and Sanders having stepped down from the democratic nomination the left will need to play the long game. Though the extent to which it can successfully assert its demands for greater wealth and healthcare provision will depend on the movement the creative left can amass online in the weeks and months ahead. One day this will be over and any movement formed now can be taken onto the streets. Workers and artists of the world unite, in isolation!


Mike Watson (PhD from Goldsmiths College) is a theorist, critic and curator who is principally focused on the relation between culture, new media and politics. He has written for Art Review Artforum, Frieze, Hyperallergic and Radical Philosophy and has curated events at the 55th and 56th Venice Biennale, and Manifesta 12. In 2019 he published Can the Left Learn to Meme?: Adorno, Video Gaming and Stranger Things with ZerO Books.

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