The Guilty Pleasures Column

Onyeka Igwe “A So-Called Archive”

by Margaryta Golovchenko | January 15, 2020

I remembered about my intention to watch Onyeka Igwe’s video piece, “A So-Called Archive” (2020, co-commission by KW. Institute of Contemporary Art, Berlin’ Plug-In ICA, Winnipeg; and Mercer Union, Toronto), on December 30, the last day of the “online exhibitions.” A couple of weeks later, I will have similarly forgotten to take part in a Zoom artist talk after going out to the groceries and taking longer than intended, the usual disappointment of missing an event replaced by a sad shrug.

One of the most significant impacts of the pandemic has been its negative effect on my incentive, on my ability (desire?) to seek out and then digitally commit to engaging with art online. As much as I liked to be a periodic grouch about my commute time, particularly for events scheduled in the evening, there was a sense of gathering myself together, of accumulating and crystalizing a ball of energy at my core each time I made a resolute plan to go see a specific exhibition, building an entire day’s schedule around that. There was something of a ritual to it, a kind of self-sustained excitement that trailed behind me from lecture to lecture, exhibition to exhibition.

It seems like an odd problem to have, especially now that a lot of work has become more accessible through digitalization. Galleries must document their shows not only for posterity but also as a precautious measure in case if they are closed and the exhibition schedule is disrupted once more. Those artist talks, lectures, and conferences that have not yet been cancelled or rescheduled are largely being held online, making them much more affordable than hopping on an airplane for a quick trip to elsewhere just to hear someone talk about a topic you think is neat or pressing; a bonus if the recording is then posted to YouTube and made available for asynchronous viewing. Digital works like Igwe’s are being put online in a similar attempt to show the work as widely as possible, a thought that strikes me as contradictory. Aren’t digital works inherently accessible due to their medium? It is relatively easy to distribute a video and embedding it into the art gallery’s website to avoid creating the sensation that one is merely watching a “regular” video, thereby creating a separation between video-as-artwork and video-as-entertainment.

The one thing that has (for better or for worse) not been affected by the pandemic is my tendency to don my critical observation hat and scribble notes when looking at art that moves me. While watching “A So-Called Archive,” I note how Igwe rethinks the idea of haunting and explores the theme of encroachment, of the past and of empire on the present. I am taken with the juxtaposition of the cheerful female museum guide’s voice with the shots of decrepit and abandoned spaces, with the way the camera hovers over and pauses on objects like a mountain of old film reels the way one might stand next to and examine a canonical Western painting in a museum. Yet I still feel distant from the work, by virtue of not sitting in a “designated room” in an art gallery and viewing it there. My ruffled state as I watch Igwe’s piece on my laptop prevented me from feeling like I’m looking at “art” the way that I did when I watched the Bambitchell video piece “Bugs and Beasts Before the Law” at Mercer Union in the Fall of 2019. I cannot shake the feeling that I am sitting indoors, on a cold December day in my comfy “at home” clothes, watching a work that I might have otherwise experienced by standing in front of a small monitor or sitting in a darkened room with a few strangers for company. Maybe this distance is a positive, as it allows me to give Igwe’s work the same level of attention and dedication that I would a feature-length film, which is its own victory.

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For this month’s column entry, Sensorium members are invited to consider and respond to the following questions:

  • How has the pandemic changed your understanding of distance? Has it made you feel removed from the works of art that you have encountered?
  • Do you feel like you are still “seeing” art? Does it differ? What role does the idea of “incentive” play in this?
  • Has the idea of taking a break and physically going to see art (“guilty pleasure”) been replaced by a struggle to stay engaged and motivated to see art (the “guilt” of missing out)?

The response can come in any form, whether it is a written-out response, a set of emojis that capture the affects invoked by the above questions, a list or word map, or any other approach in between.

About the Guilty Pleasures Column 

Isolation and distance have been recurring themes since the start of the pandemic. Previously, moments of stillness and rest away from one’s work life were passed by engaging in activities that felt like indulgences, ways of pampering and restarting one’s senses. Oftentimes, these activities might feel like a guilty pleasure, intimate in a way that makes it embarrassing to share with someone else because of how unique it is to the self. Arguably above all else, a guilty pleasure is a way of reconnecting with the self, of becoming attuned with the internal language of thoughts and emotions or other non-verbal ways of locating oneself in the world.

Drawing on this interest in the self, the Guilty Pleasures column of Sensorium’s newsletter will be a case study exploration of how we continue to seek out art and the networks of communication that art participates in. Are digital exhibitions re-creations or adaptations? What does it mean to “appreciate” a digital exhibition and how might it compare to seeing it in person? How is our sense of self and our presence in relation to the artwork and the institution that houses it different in a digital format? How do we talk about a digital exhibition critically? Does the terminology change? These are some of the questions that this column concerns itself with asking but hesitates to answer definitively, not because there are no answers, but because it is the multiplicity of options that the column seeks to address and put forth.

Members of the Sensorium community will be invited to answer a call in each newsletter. Rather than answering a prompt or providing a formal opinion, the call will be left open-ended and centered around examining the affects invoked by each entry in the column. Reponses can take the form of emojis or soundscapes, free-verse poems or lists, whichever form feels most appropriate for expressing the feeling (or lack) of pleasure invoked by each entry in the series.

by Margaryta Golovchenko

The Guilty Pleasures series is inspired by Singaporean artist Song-Ming Ang’s similarly titled listening party where participants talk about a song they consider a guilty pleasure, before playing it for everyone. Ang’s works can be viewed here