We’re just, im-ma-ma-material!

Even if one might just speculate about which ceremonies are about to begin, one can easily indulge in a discussion about ceremonies that are about to end. When Lucy Lippard talked about the dematerialization of the art object due to the advancement of conceptualism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, she might not have had in mind the pending dematerialization of the viewer brought upon us by digital technologies. The social distancing following the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020 and 2021 has created a perhaps not desired but actually useful context for the development of this new viewer confined in the comfortable enclosures of a global Panopticon.

The two exhibitions curated by me in 2014 and 2015 were perhaps ceremonial events that wanted to celebrate the almost ritualistic presence of the viewer in the exhibition space. They were the bait to lure Athenians out of the comfort zone of visiting downtown exhibition spaces and galleries and bring them out to the woods of Ymittos. Curiosity and perhaps the novelty of the curatorial project, but also the popularity of the curator’s and artists’ personae (all present on opening night), were the instigators. This kind of ritual is, however, a way to assert an imaginary sense of community. It is about the all- present small talk over the buffet, the causal greetings, the choreographed movements away from one interlocutor and towards another and all the various masquerades inside the exhibition space that define the manners and foibles of the art world, greatly discussed in Pablo Helguera’s amusing and quick-witted “Manual of Contemporary Art Style”. As insiders we love to hate these micro-rituals, but we are always ready to defend their  importance when talking to outsiders. It is the viewing process that secures the surplus value of collectible items. Equally, it is the exhibition of oneself among gallery goers that informs one of the greatest rituals of late modernity, coined by Tony Bennett as the exhibitionary complex. It is this specific set of behavioral and moral standards imposed upon individuals while navigating the exhibition space that creates the illusion of participating in a democratic society.

But what are the rituals that define the online viewers of immaterial works of art in the advancement of a fully digitalised life? I need a proper avatar to make myself visible in a digitised environment, and for that I might ask my eight-year- old nephew, who daily engages in online multiplayer games, for assistance. I am too old to be a gamer, but am I also to old to be an exhibition viewer? And what about the artworks of the near future? Artworks in the form of digital files have already acquired the status of collectible authenticity in the form of NFTs, that is, “one-of-a-kind” assets that can be bought and sold in the digital world without having any tangible form of their own. Value in the form of immateriality is celebrated in the direct fusion between aesthetics and monetary policies. So, is everybody in? 

I am not technophobic. However, how do we define these novel, self-organised ensembles of social life within the world of art when the body of the viewer is missing? How do we defend our individuality within the homogenised culture of digitalised thumb-up likes? Curators have shown resilient ways to engage with art during the era of the annulment of the physical body. They have granted a wider and, in some cases, an even more critical access to art production through online offerings. These projects constitute perhaps an actual paradigm shift, in which alternative cultural ecosystems emerge. However, the urge to move towards digital content and formats demands more creative thinking that entails not only developing new practices of remediation for works of art, but also new rituals of coming together. We are all in search of answers! Perhaps we are all about to receive Morpheus’s pill from “The Matrix”. Or perhaps we are all ready to celebrate the definite loss of the artwork’s Benjaminian aura in search of new tools that may instigate our brave new immaterial conviviality.

Sotirios Bahtsetzis