Peeking Beyond the Screen

Weronika Wysocka, ‘where all problems end’, 2019, video still, courtesy of the artist

We perceive the pandemic as a temporary suspension of our interactions, a short-term interruption rather than a real threat. Looking at the numbers of infection cases we cannot see the disease they represent – it is our full-screen backdrop which seems to be more tangible.

At the beginning of the pandemic crisis many people have addressed the question concerning the circumstances of this isolation they experienced. We nevertheless must yet consider what consequences the confinement may actually bring and, in so doing, make sure that we do not ignore the ones who have been secluded already before the lockdown. The crisis that results from the pandemic is only one of many in recent years. And therefore, instead of discussing how SARS-CoV-2 has affected some of the cultural institutions, I would rather focus on gestures and artistic statements that address the problem of exclusion and draw our attention to aberrations of reality, which were likely to have been overlooked previously, such as gradual and crippling emotional and economic exploitation.

Due to self-isolation caused by the imposed preventive measures against the spread of the new virus, social media gets to be considered the public space more than ever before. Each content shared online triggers reactions and emotions which have been capitalized by social media. The cropped picture of reality, filtered by algorithms, displayed on the screens of our devices in isolation, on the surface, seems to unite users but, in fact, it paralyzes them collectively. The stream of news aired on our timelines selected by algorithms, also including hoax, makes up a picture filled with silence and passive violence towards the neglected and marginalized bodies and barely heard voices. Movement restrictions in public spaces alongside the rule of 2-meter social distance and the obligation to cover mouth and nose may potentially lead to excessive control and abuse. We could observe an example of such abuse when the authorities tried to fine the artists who protested against ignoring the threats related to holding the presidential election during the pandemic. Needless to say, the election was eventually postponed1.

Ending the lockdown

Several weeks of closed museums and postponed exhibition openings in art galleries led us to follow their activities online. Most institutions used their moment of  hiatus to organize their archives and make them available via their online channels. However, the actual impact of SARS-CoV-2 to culture must include the artists’ position in the first place. Not only has the The pandemic has the power of a profound change, not only in terms of social interactions. As a result, it can lead to risk of losing a source of income to a big number of people without permanent employment, including the artists, who are facing a completely new reality due to the rescheduled exhibitions or residencies. Previous months provoked numerous debates on the economic situation of commissioned employees of the cultural sector, who perform their work based on civil law contracts, thus without social security. Many of those from the cultural industry have reported the problem of shortage of work, yet, it is hardly an unprecedented matter. Even before the pandemic the exclusions were severe.

The rule of social distancing has made remote work, performed outside of the public sphere, the new reality for many people. Isolating as it may feel, most likely it is just a temporary solution. Capital generation forms that significantly contribute to the functioning of the media reality remain out of sight. The problem of invisible exploitation goes unnoticed by most of us. Agnieszka Kurant, who works with the “invisible capital”, points out to a significant role of so-called ghost workers. In one of her projects entitled Assembly Line (2018), she created sculptures out of data processed on the basis of several hundreds of photographs of the employees of AMT (Amazon Mechanical Turk), who had sold her their image rights. The artist declared that she would share the profit on sales with them and thus the “invisible” work of temporary commissioned workers would be additionally paid. I acknowledge this gesture as an attempt to reverse the mechanism of exploitation, which underlies the business activity of AMT – the platform users receive usually the lowest wages for the accomplished assignments. This is how Kurant redistributes the income generated in the art world.

Weronika Wysocka, ‘where all problems end’, 2019, video still, courtesy of the artist

Today, the forecast of social crisis intertwines with other possible consequences of the pandemic. Network society, established over a decade ago, is facing new control measures, which is reflected in increasingly defensive urban spaces. During the first phase of the pandemic, Seoul installed industrial cameras with facial recognition system. Chances are that a similar solution will be implemented in many European cities. The emergence of social media was believed to open a liberal platform for free exchange of ideas and interactions. And partially it has been achieved. Keith N. Hampton, an experienced media researcher, engaged in the research on the role of the pervasive technology in shaping public spaces, states that the level of personal interactions has not decreased over the past decades. On the contrary, Hampton points out that smartphone users notice each other and communicate with others more often than before. New online platforms contributed also to the development of new participatory projects and temporary art interventions and installations in public space with institutional support. Such gestures of activism may be perceived as a response to the privatization of space observed in many cities and as an attempt to recognize the economic and social issues in a broader context. Among numerous examples of art interventions created in the spirit of urban space reclaiming, I would like to mention Nieużytki sztuki [Art wasteland] (2014) by Elżbieta Jabłońska, created in cooperation with different public institutions in nine Polish cities. This participatory turn is reflected also in numerous publications. Those include: “Partycypacja. Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej” [Participation: A Guide to Political Critique] (2012) and a book by Claire Bishop “Artificial Hells: Participatory Art and the Politics of Spectatorship” (2012, Polish edition: 2015), which expands on the author’s paper of 2004 “Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics”.

Back to normal

In recent weeks lockdown restrictions have been eased: first the parks opened, then the  mandatory use of a mask or face covering in public was waived, and finally we have been allowed to visit exhibitions again. Nevertheless, digital environment is a new daily reality and the result of gradual switch to remote lifestyle. This trend dates back to the emergence of online platforms that depend on user’s content, such as Facebook. It is also the time when many publications and art events deal with “reclaiming” public spaces, urban policies and grassroots movements. This new activity (being voluntary) also gives a chance to see the nature in new light: artists’ works involve environmental issues or cooperation in developing public parks. Among numerous examples of such initiatives, there are art installations that remain in permanent museum “collections”, such as the unobtrusive art intervention by Agnieszka Brzeżańska (untitled, 2014), who used wooden poles and cotton strings to set up a support for an ageing apple tree in front of the Museum of Sculpture at the Królikarnia Palace, Warsaw. By presenting this simple solution, well-known for the gardeners, the artist tries to fix human errors, at least in a symbolic way. Such creations proposed by artists, reclaiming green areas and drawing attention to environmental matters, may as well be perceived in the context of social gestures.

Media tools empower those who speak up for themselves and for others, so that collective voices get more resonant when it comes from different directions. Therefore, we should appreciate the emancipatory power of technology, but perhaps we have overlooked other fundamental aspects of our daily routines in the pandemic reality. Social media are driven by algorithms, so they suggest images and interactions based on the history of our search engines. Thus, what we read and watch online is the content posted by other users, expressing their private opinions and very often containing unconfirmed or even fake information, such as typical for digital environment bias, comments created in haste, or even dangerous declarations2. Social media serve numerous functions, so our activity may be used to commercialize our desires, fears and emotions without our knowledge. They play an important role in daily life, but they deprive us of our privacy. They let us speak up for ourselves, at the same time exposing our weaknesses.

Screens connect us during conference calls, but at the same time they separate us from a direct view of the pandemic’s consequences. Alexandra Pirici, an artist who explores invisible structures of power, underlines that the new virus has not evoked new phenomena as such, but it has exposed or even deepened certain mechanisms that had been already occurring before: the world was heading to isolation anyway, take safe, gated residential communities as an example. Pirici mentions a certain kind of disembodiment that we experience looking only at a part of framed reality created through instant communicators and delivery services: “There is still a world out there, tragedies some of us only read about. […] That some of us now have even less access to it, that we “see” it even less, is a tragedy, not something to be normalized, though we became experts at normalizing tragedy.”

Weronika Wysocka, ‘where all problems end’, 2019, video still, courtesy of the artist

The issue of visibility appears also in another context exposed by the pandemic. Paul B. Preciado enumerates the consequences of “patriarchal and colonial” capitalism that revealed its true nature during the Covid-19. The writer and philosopher states that: “Coronavirus’ global spread and its increasing impact on the world economy have made us “see” the correlation between deforestation and viral infection, between food and pharmaceutical industries, between exploitation and expropriation of poor workers in the Global South and racial exploitation in the North, between transport policies and oil-based economy, between remote work and digital pornography” [translated from Polish; original quote in French].  It is women who suffer the consequences of the crisis the most. This is reflected in a surge of domestic violence triggered by the isolation. It is women who ensure to restock the insufficient numbers of masks and protective clothing in the shortest time possible. It is said that the pandemic and climate crisis will change our behavior in terms of, for example, reduced production in textile industry, which is a system of great inequality. The desire for possession can be satisfied only by enormous labor input and starvation wages of female workers, often deprived of any social security benefits. A series of video and photographic work by Weronika Wysocka (where all problems end, from 2018 onward) presents a plant of a sorting facility for second hand clothing. Low-quality goods are in no time considered used up and disposed of to be recycled – abandoned and fragmented. This is where any traces of previous users are removed and the matter gains new meaning, once again the items are disembodied and ready to be distributed in the countries of the Global South. Closed cycle of natural resources exploitation and redistribution of second hand goods outside of Western world mirrors also the exploitation of a vast part of modern society.

Shutting down the browsers

Social isolation that we have experienced, is changing our behavior and the way we perceive the world around us. In order to stay away from the virus, we are ready to sacrifice direct social interactions and switch to remote lifestyle, but digital displays are not to blame for the crisis. Disembodied in isolation caused by the pandemic, divided by screens, we may look at the same reality, but we understand it in a different way. What we see on the screens is just a part of reality. Inclusivity and equality of social media is just an illusion, as they do not present the full picture of the problems. Once we overcome the algorithm that keeps us in our secure places, where we discuss the fear of infection, then we may be able to realize that somewhere out there some important decisions are being made, such as abandoning art due to a person’s economic inefficiency3.

The pandemic locked us down (particularly at the beginning) in our private spaces and encouraged some to spend their time in a completely different way, for example, catching up or getting back to books that may help us understand the isolation. I read “The Loneliness of the Project” by Boris Groys, who describes the voluntary alienation of those who work in culture. His words, as interpreted from today’s perspective, make the reader think about bodies who had already been out of sight a long time ago. It is not easy to capture the full picture through the lens of social distance and algorithms. Subsequent images scrolled in mobile applications obviously depict just an excerpt. We may not forget about those who, because of the isolation, have become more invisible than ever before. Those who have feared what the future holds, now are allowed to be terrified.

[From the author:] The text is a reaction to the first weeks of closure associated with the pandemic. It was written in June, a moment that did not yet herald a growing wave of violence against non-heteronormative people, as a result of the hate policy of authoritarian Law and Justice (PiS) governments, and as part of the long-standing agreement to victimize and disempower the LGBT+ community in Poland. The acute indifference to use euphemism, resulting in the arrest of, among others, Margot from the Stop Bzdurom Collective, coincides with the mass public protest against the fraudulent presidential elections in the streets of Belarus, against which many people are subjected to violence from the authorities.

Romuald Demidenko – curator, art historian, founder and member of editorial team at Guest Rooms ( Curator (alongside Aurelia Nowak and Tomek Pawłowski) of the exhibition-symposium Open Triennale, 8th Young Triennale at the Centre of Polish Sculpture, Orońsko. He currently works at the Xawery Dunikowski Sculpture Museum, Division of the National Museum in Warsaw.

1 The demonstration made reference to the “Letter” [“List”] by Tadeusz Kantor, a happening of 1967: in the new version the participants, with the observance of social distancing, brought a banner in the shape of an enlarged envelope with the inscription “It’s to die for” [ Żyć nie, umierać]. Before long, the event was interrupted near the Parliament building and a couple of days later two artists received orders to pay administrative fines issued by Sanitary and Epidemiological Station for the amount of 10,000 Polish zlotys each. Thanks to online crowdfunding they managed to collect 100,000 Polish zlotys. Initially, the money was intended for the fines imposed on the participants of the demonstration, but eventually it was spent on scholarships for artists in need. More details: „Żyć nie, umierać”. Artystyczny protest przeszedł ulicami Warszawy, Magazyn SZUM, 6.05.2020 [date of access: 12.06.2020].

2 Here I make a reference to so-called Karta Rodziny [Family Charter] signed by Andrzej Duda in June 2020, which is a political declaration of PiS [Polish ruling party]. The Charter includes, among others, chapters on “marriage protection” and “protection of children from LGBT ideology”. See WB, Duda podpisał “Kartę Rodziny”. Co zawiera dokument? zapisy o “ochronie przed ideologią LGBT,, 10.06.2020 [date of access: 12.06.2020].

3 “The year I stopped making art” was published in Polish during the pandemic by MSN Home Office. The author, artist Paul Maheke, addresses the people who had been experiencing exclusion long before the pandemic, and who gave up on their involvement in culture for many different reasons beyond their control.


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