The Wattis Institute’s New Digital Library is an Antidote to Online Exhibitions

The Wattis Institute for Contemporary Arts. (Nicholas Lea Bruno)

Two weeks into the Bay Area’s shelter-in-place ordinance, I alternated between the web page hosting Hauser & Wirth’s first-ever online exhibition and Chanel’s online store. The similarities between the two are remarkable.

Each leads with a short video, in which a woman’s voice muses about childhood and essential creativity while intercut footage traces a hand painting abstract lines. After a few minutes the videos, one an advertisement, the other a short documentary (I guess), both cut to title slides. Hauser & Wirth is selling never-before-seen drawings by the French artist Louise Bourgeois. Chanel is selling gold rings. The equivalence in their digital presentation is jarring.

As art galleries—wealthy multi-location institutions like Hauser & Wirth or Gagosian, local commercial venues like Fraenkel Gallery or Ratio 3, and more community-focused spaces like Et al. or Swim Gallery—struggle to respond to the necessary shuttering of their physical spaces, they’ve rushed to create both “digital viewing rooms” and “online exhibitions.”

A screen shot of Mattea Perrotta's show 'New Drawings,' an exhibition organized by Et al. in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. (Courtesy Et al.)

For the most part, this means uploading high-resolution photos of works to gallery websites that often, unfortunately, resemble online stores. There are some exceptions. Et al. installed a show of Mattea Perrotta’s drawings and rugs in the video game Animal Crossing: New Horizons and Kadist is currently hosting an excellent online video exhibition curated by SFMOMA’s Rudolf Frieling.

Refreshingly different from all of the above is the Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art’s Library. This free digital platform, launched in March, provides access to artist lectures, videos, essays and more. Rather than mount an online version of a show, the Wattis seems focused on using their web presence as a site of encounter, where the guiding question is: What can we learn from artists?

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The first thing to know about the digital library is that it was not created in response to the current global health pandemic. Director and Chief Curator Anthony Huberman emphasizes that the motivation to extend access to the Wattis’ programming has been a concern for years. “The fact that it lined up with what’s going on right now allows it to play this other role,” he says. “All of a sudden the scale has dramatically expanded, even if you live a block away you suddenly don’t have access.”

The Wattis Library is also different because it isn’t about making something brand new. Many of the included materials already existed online. They could be found by poking through YouTube, searching Soundcloud, scrolling back through the Wattis’ Instagram page, or rifling around old event announcements. Rather than rush to produce digital work, the library makes already-existing resources easier for the public to access. The work of creating the library is archival work. It resists the internet’s constant demand for new content and, instead, offers history.

The Wattis Institute's recently unveiled digital library.

And it’s a growing archive. Once the library was set up, Huberman began to receive notes from artists who had been part of past programs offering to contribute documentation of their own materials to the Wattis Library.

While there is something utopic about a digital resource that makes public parts of an institutional archive, and even has the potential to be created in collaboration with a large network of geographically disparate artists, the Wattis team is very clear that the library is not a replacement for their actual exhibition space.

Certain art experiences just can’t be translated to the internet’s immaterial space. For example, Laetitia Sonami’s recent sound performance, which was programmed in response to the artist Lydia Ourahmane’s exhibition, was a slow and atmospheric sonic notion, meant to activate the room in which it took place. The digital recording of the event included in the library is a footnote, at best, to the actual event.

Jeanne Gerrity, the Wattis’ deputy director and head of publications, understands this very well, stressing, “A really important part of our public programs is fostering a sense of community. The room where we hold our events is intentionally designed to look and feel like a bar, an intimate space where friends can share a drink and conversation.”

Art is about encounter. A digital platform that insists on that, even during this time of extreme physical isolation, is the most hopeful thing for the art world that I can think of.

The Wattis bar, designed by Oscar Tuazon. (Johnna Arnold)

Wattis Library Highlights

Jack Halberstam’s lecture on nothing
Halberstam’s lecture on “nothing” feels right at home in our experience of the coronavirus. This is one of Gerrity’s favorites. The anarchist manifesto of nothing Halberstam lays out is not hopeful, but it does feel like an antidote as Halberstam advocates “unbuilding and unmaking this shit world” and, Gerritty adds, “makes it clear that the possibility of a utopian moment is far behind us.”

Cinthia Marcelle on her exhibit A morta
Marcelle’s 11-minute overview of her Wattis solo show A morta, which involved installing a 24-hour radio station that could be programmed by gallery visitors—or by anyone, anywhere, online—considers the digital as both a place of collaboration and a site of intense individualism. Marcelle’s exploration of what collectivity might look like in such a context feels especially relevant now, as people turn to the internet as a potential site of community like never before.

Lydia Ourahmane’s reading list
Research-driven artist Lydia Ourahmane selected a reading list to accompany her atmospheric and guttural 2020 exhibition صرخة شمسية Solar Cry. Many of the texts, such as Anne Carson’s The Gender of Sound or Wu Tsang & Fred Moten’s Who Touched Me, relate to sound and presence, reminding one that reading online does not have to be a primarily visual activity. Her list is full of imagined noise and oral traditions.

Sun Ha-Hong’s lecture “Data, or, Bodies into Facts”
Sun Ha-Hong argues that the promise of data is the promise to turn bodies into facts: Emotions, behavior, and every messy human thought can become numerical information. This promise, it seems, hinges on the reducibility of a person to their most basic identities, and eschews the role community, and social context, play in activating personality.

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Joan Jonas’ lecture about poetry and politics
Joan Jonas’ steady and roving voice insists on poetic coherence as she moves quickly through hundreds of lecture slides. Buoyantly, with assurance, she speaks about video art and animation, femininity, the power of outsiders, movements, and televised politics. Every few beats she gestures to the video clips and images behind her, and sites their sources, carefully archiving the images in a verbal context. This effect feels doubled in the Wattis recording, as her lecture is now carefully housed in the organization’s digital library.