In this exclusive interview artist and curator Bob Bicknell-Knight talks to writer Wade Wallerstein about the origins of isthisit? and the curatorial thoughts behind the online pavilion, Life 2.0.
Wade Wallerstein: What is isthisit? all about?
Bob Bicknell-Knight: For now isthisit? is just me and has been from the beginning. I originally started the platform to experiment with what curating is. It was a simple and easy way to learn how to organise artworks without spending any money doing so. That was my main prerogative and the aim of the online space—to learn what it means to curate. As I organised more weekly online shows it became more about the medium that the work was being exhibited in, the Internet, and how an audience interacts with art presented to them in an online space where the distraction of YouTube or Facebook is only a click away. However, even though the site has grown into what it is today; a magazine, an online residency, offline exhibitions, an online shop and monthly online shows. I’m still fundamentally interested in working out what being a curator actually means.
Wade Wallerstein: How much of the curatorial practice of isthisit? is digital only, and what is the relationship to physical exhibitions and objects?
Bob Bicknell-Knight: The gallery is fundamentally based online, but I do occasionally hold offline exhibitions—six since I started the site in May of 2016—as well as putting out two physical issues of the magazine. The third will be launched in December as part of a physical exhibition at the Take Courage Gallery in London. So far, isthisit? has held 75 online exhibitions with more than half of them being curated by myself, so the majority of content that is produced as part of the platform is online. At this point, however, I’d say a lot of my curatorial practice occurs in the physical space, with most of the digital shows being put together by guest curators. For now it’s a mixture, with all of my curatorial projects coming under the isthisit? moniker, although I’m fairly restricted in terms of physical exhibitions due to issues surrounding money and time, or a lack thereof!
'The Museum Has Abandoned Us', curated by Bob Bicknell-Knight at STATE OF THE ART BERLIN
Wade Wallerstein: What were your aims in the design/layout of Life 2.0? How did you create it? What were you trying to achieve with sequence of works as the viewer scrolls through the show, and what aesthetic purposes does your design serve?
Bob Bicknell-Knight: The exhibition is made up of various sections, split up between the blue hand from the Second Life logo, slowly being engulfed by the colour black the further the viewer journeys into the pavilion. As the viewer scrolls down the page, they encounter a steady stream of works that drags them into the depths of the exhibition. I utilised the discolouring of the hand as a metaphor for the viewer who’s hopefully visually learning, or discovering, what it means to embody an alternative identity in this online space. This colour change could also be seen as a very basic time keeper, akin to sand pouring from one end of an hourglass to another, or journeying through the levels of a video game until the player has completed the experience—in this case, that experience is the whole pavilion. For me, the sections comprise the different parts, or rooms, of the show; this is similar to in an offline gallery where each room of a building might confront a certain aspect of the overall theme. The first section begins with a painting from Emma Stern and a video by Wednesday Kim, with Stern attempting to reclaim and re-structure the idea of both the digital and stereotypical muse and Kim looking within herself to create a variety of absurdist animation as a reaction to past traumatic memories, reimagined and confronted as various figures trapped within their own minds. The simple layout allows the different pieces to breath between each stage whilst at the same time being easily linked due to the artworks overlapping and becoming hopefully a new work within their own right.
Screengrab from Life 2.0, featuring work from Max Colson, Petra Szeman, Roxman Gatt, Fengyi Zhu
Wade Wallerstein: It seems to me that lot of the works engage with an 00’s aesthetic linked to gaming and avatar creation, invoking a sense of fantasy and role play tied to a specific kind of persona development that is embodied in 3D virtual landscapes. Is this what you meant when you speak about ‘evangelists of certain digital worlds’? Linked to this, there is a sense of nostalgia to the show. The title Life 2.0 has a relationship to terms like ‘Web 2.0’, which are now popularly regarded as outmoded due to the capabilities of the web having much surpassed the qualities of the Internet that ‘Web 2.0 describes’.
Why now, at this moment in time, did you choose to explore concepts of online persona? Why have the specific aesthetics of those digital worlds persisted to the present? How do you think the different artists in the show are engaging with these ideas? Why engage with this specific aesthetic/mode of identity online rather than, say, the aesthetic/practice of popular social media platforms which can be argued also afford the ’seemingly impenetrable protection of the screen’?
Bob Bicknell-Knight: I think it is partly to do with the amount of time one puts into building their online persona. Though, the ‘evangelists’ in this sense would come under the incredibly broad and problematic term ‘gamers’, as well as a lot of the people who frequent 4chan on a daily basis. Those who believe that being allowed to say anything you want means that you can say anything you want, those whose ‘freedom of speech’ is apparently being violated if it is not socially acceptable to say certain things or act in a certain wa, or the kind of people who leave incredibly angry comments on YouTube videos talking about feminism. Essentially the word ‘evangelist’ is being used ironically in this statement, as I believe that those who want a context-less world are predominantly white men who want to be able to say and do whatever they want, which is of course unsustainable, fundamentally flawed and biased.
I think the title definitely hints at that nostalgia, especially as the film of the same title was made in 2010. A lot has happened between then and now, especially with regards to the Internet and the Web 2.0 era that we still reside in, even if we’re currently in a transitional realm. The idea of the avatar and having multiple personalities that you switch between is not a new concept, within the art world or otherwise. However, these ideas are becoming even more prominent within contemporary society, which I hint at slightly in the accompanying text for the exhibition. It feels like more and more people are saying one thing in offline space whilst having a completely different opinion online. The most obvious example of this phenomenon is Donald Trump winning the American presidential election last year. There is no real coincidence that members of 4chan managed to predict the win: they were actively fighting against the ‘social media bubble’ before it became a buzz word, pumping out fake news and learning the ways of ‘meme magic’.
We are still fetishizing the digital spaces of Second Life, over ten years after the virtual world was created; or, alternatively, building on them with more sophisticated and intricate procedurally generated worlds. It’s that idea of nostalgia again, for the gamers who inhabit the worlds and the developers who create them. Deviating from the norm in any industry is difficult, especially in the gaming industry where budgets are incredibly tight and jobs are scarce. Why make something new when the next Call of Duty will sell millions of copies?
Each of the artists in Life 2.0 are coming at this idea of the avatar or online persona through the lens of the cultural moment that we are currently witnessing. This can be in an obvious way, such as in the video work by Max Colson titled Construction Lines that considers ideas of gentrification and class, or in a slightly more humorous attitude such as in in Naomi Fitzsimmons’ film Ariane, which details her journey to discover the origins of one particular stock image model.
Of course traditional social media, for now, does afford a certain sense of escapism even it is slowly becoming harder to create social media accounts under fake names. I think people want a separate space to dole out hate, even though Trump supposedly changed everything by allowing people to out themselves as bigots on and offline. I also believe that there is a sense of the unknown when discussing ideas relating to 4chan or Second Life, especially in those social circles who haven’t even heard of 4chan.
The film Life 2.0, directed by Jason Spingarn-Koff
Wade Wallerstein: Can you speak a bit more to the relationship of the Spingarn-Koff’s documentary to the show? Obviously, this film influenced you enough to co-opt the title. What connections do you draw between specific artworks and themes explored in the film?
Bob Bicknell-Knight: I think the film acted more as a starting point to discussing the aforementioned concepts surrounding the show, and as an inspiration to me. Life 2.0, the documentary, looks into a number of ideas that are explored further in the exhibition; from new forms of labor to polyamorous relationships to the addictive nature of virtual spaces. The artists in the show explore these concepts in various ways. Tom Kobialka’s video, Pearl Diving for Wyrms, utilises footage from a Kickstarter campaign and was partly filmed and produced at a video game publishing company. The work serves to critique methods of player acquisition and game monetisation. Roxman Gatt’s works, the two Touch Paintings included in the show, are built upon the intimate relationship that the artist has with the screen. This she explores through the digital assemblages that can be found scattered throughout the pavilion. Anne de Boer and Eloïse Bonneviot’s performative artwork also featured in the exhibition: The Mycological Twist / Riverside / Rust was a week-long workshop based primarily within the video game Rust. The aim of the intervention was to survive and create a sustainable space within the hospitable wasteland of the video game’s online environment. It’s interesting to look at these works after watching the fairly dated film, seeing how much the world has changed since then, both on and offline.
Screenshot from South Park, season 19 episode 10: The Hobbit
Wade Wallerstein: How do you see persona development evolving over the next few years? What is the future of the digital self?
Bob Bicknell-Knight: Realistically, who knows? Predictions are always inevitably going to be wrong even when they’re close to being right, read anything written by Philip K Dick and you’ll see what I mean, or watch an episode of the original Star Trek. An increasingly common assumption is that we as a human race will eventually live out our lives through our digital second selves, a 2009 and probably quite irrelevant film at this point, Surrogates played on this idea, although this was less about a ‘digital’ self and more about having a second body in the physical space, a luxury available to the wealthy. Ready Player One, the 2011 science fiction novel by Ernest Cline is another dated example of what is to come, users living out their lives through gaming rigs connected to a digital world akin to Second Life dubbed The Oasis, where children go to school and you trade in real world currencies to travel across the virtual abyss. Entire industries reside within The Oasis, thriving, whilst the physical world is slowly dying from climate change and overpopulation. A heart wrenching, very true to life depiction of how your digital self is already becoming somewhat more important than your physical self was questioned in a 2013 episode of South Park called The Hobbit. Influenced by how digital images produced and shared online are becoming more relevant than our physical selves, with reference to Kim Kardashian, the girls at South Park Elementary all start attending a Photoshop class, enhancing their digital appearance which comically affects how their psychical selves are seen away from the illustrious screen. The boys, instead of showing off their physical girlfriend’s attractiveness in real life, show each other digitally altered images on their phones instead. It’s an incredibly grotesque depiction of how obsessed we as a culture have become with our perfected online self. There are already artists, like LaTurbo Avedon, who exist solely as internet avatars, usually a collective of people working under one assumed digital persona, making work with a certain autonomy in a very obtuse way. I personally tend to view the evolution of the digital self in a fairly negative light, to me the physical self is an important part of who we are as a human race, but that’s probably a longer conversation…