How COVID-19 is accelerating innovation in art

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Artist Adia Wahid looks at how COVID-19 is making the art world reach for technology.

The digital age has often been criticised of ruining our relationship with art. Galleries overrun with people holding up smartphones, desperately trying to get the perfect shot, have fast become the symbol of technology’s negative impact on the art world.

Yet as the COVID-19 pandemic escalates, the rhetoric around technology and art has taken a marked change. Suddenly, a spotlight is being shone on the opportunities and solutions technology can offer the art industry.

There is no denying there is something special about seeing art in person. Yet at the time of writing, we are two weeks into the UK’s full lockdown, and we are unable to leave our homes other than for necessary shopping trips and a daily form of exercise. For what may be the first time in my life, I am unable to go to a gallery and experience art.

This is of course for many people, the norm, as not everyone is fortunate enough to be able to access art. What I am now discovering, is that technology is a powerful democratiser. Aside from creating my own art, I, like everyone else, can continue to exercise my passion by viewing and learning about the art of others from around the world, all of which is accessible from the click of a button.

It’s been fascinating to watch how artists, galleries, art fairs and auction houses all over the world are adapting so they can continue to function and survive the pandemic. Art Basel’s Hong Kong fair has gone online by launching Online Viewing Rooms, enabling the public to view 2,100 works of art valued at a total of $270m. Degree shows for students at Royal College of Art in London will now go digital and galleries across the globe are offering digital, curator-led tours of exhibitions such as The Hayward Gallery’s ‘Among the Trees’ and the Tate’s Andy Warhol and Aubrey Beardsley exhibitions. Hyperallergic Magazine even publishes a daily report on the impact of COVID-19 on the art world, covering topics from VR museum exhibitions to staff layoffs and budget cuts at museums. 

There is no denying the art industry will be deeply affected by Coronavirus. Pre COVID-19 the art world operated mostly on personal relationships and conversations between artists, curators, galleries and collectors. Technology and social media platforms were incorporated into artists’ networking machinery, but now the scales have been turned. Quarantine teaching, learning and viewing are solely dependent on technology.

Throughout history, artists have always recorded times of plagues and human suffering in their works.  The Bubonic plague in Europe and The Renaissance went hand in hand – Titian’s Pieta (1575) and Munch’s Self Portrait with the Spanish Flu (1919) are examples of the works which recorded their time in history. Our time of pestilence will be recorded by the digital trail of viral WhatsApp texts, humorous Facebook posts, memes and online exhibitions. Whether it will all be ephemeral and only screen worthy – only time will tell. 

The future may seem uncertain, but in times like this it’s important to look at the positives and the moves the art world is making to adapt, to allow people to continue to work and exercise their passions and hobbies certainly make for positive news. Coronavirus may be wreaking havoc on the world, but it is providing the long-needed impetus for the art industry to fully embrace the online realm.

Arts Council England has announced a £160 million emergency relief package for artists and arts organisations affected by the situation. Although this is an incredible pledge which will help many to survive the financial implications of the pandemic, it will not be enough to support the tens of thousands of people employed in the industry. The artists themselves will be worst affected, so moving forward, it is essential grants, funding schemes and art foundations continue to offer support to artists.  

I am fortunate enough to be supported by Stellar International Art Foundation and last month exhibited my work at the Foundation’s annual event for International Women’s Day. I can speak from experience that having the backing of a foundation which also offered me a platform to exhibit my work was a huge benefit and I hope other artists will be able to access such support networks throughout and beyond the pandemic.   

However, creatives will continue to create irrespective of their scarce resources. The materials and the artworks will change, hopefully for the better and the real. One can take great comfort from one of the most powerful works made under conditions of repression, hunger and scarcity – the works of the Brazilian artist Anna Maria Maiolino, shown recently at White Chapel Gallery, London.

Whilst there will always be some who long for the art world which existed prior to the digital age, it will be difficult for anyone to deny the opportunities that technology will offer us during this time. One thing’s for sure – when we emerge from this pandemic, the art industry will be different. It will be leaner, bolder and more internationalised and democratised than ever before. 

About Adia Wahid: 

Adia Wahid is represented by Stellar International Art Foundation. She graduated from the London School of Economics and Political Science with an Economics Degree before pursuing a career as an artist. Having completed her BA at the Chelsea College of Art and Design, Adia went on to train at the Royal College of Art where she received her MA. Her training in both economics and arts has inspired her to create a collection in which the two coexist. Born in Pakistan, Adia has also lived in the USA, Singapore and South Korea. Today she lives and works in London. Wahid has exhibited extensively across London including at The Royal College of Art and The Palace of Westminster, a solo exhibition at the Alice Black Art Gallery, and wider UK, France and Switzerland. Her work is held in private collections and in a public collection at The New York Presbyterian Hospital