Online art brings more than just wasting time

In this photo, part of Camilo Jose Vergara’s online exhibition “Documenting Crossroads: The New Normal” at the National Building Museum, a man is shown wearing protective gear and controlling entry to the H. F. Dollar and Up in Queens in April. MUST CREDIT: Camilo Jose Vergara

As the pandemic grinds on, I find myself trying to be more disciplined about wasting time, especially online. I want to go there only with a purpose, not just to while away a few hours clicking idling from distraction to distraction.

Some artists, and institutions, seem to be equally purposeful, making and doing things for their online audiences with the same sense of intention and meaning. The best of them even offer a sense of what life will be like after the pandemic creates a new normal, when we all live in a hybrid world of “real life” and virtual aesthetic consumption. Here are a few things that meet this new standard.

– “Documenting Crossroads”

Camilo José Vergara has been documenting urban life including New York in photographs since he moved there in 1970. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, he began photographing its impact early on in the devastating crisis, beginning on March 8. Now, the MacArthur Fellow has built a significant and moving survey of the pandemic’s effect on some of the most vulnerable and resilient Americans. His work is on view in two online exhibitions at the National Building Museum.

As the pandemic continued, and as it ravaged more deeply into minority communities where people had little choice but to use mass transit, and continue to do jobs that exposed them to the virus, Vergara documented the gathering sense of urgency in an series called “Documenting Crossroads: The Coronavirus in Poor, Minority Communities.” That photographic project, which included work made into early April, was followed by another exhibition, “Documenting Crossroads: The New Normal,” which looked at a longer time frame, as the pandemic persisted into June.

Taken together, they show first the improvisation of new habits, the gradual acceptance of the face mask, the emergence of new, impromptu markets for necessities like PPE and hand cleanser. But the longer arc of these photographs also shows the normalization and daily acceptance of new hardships overlaid on a people who already struggle to maintain livelihoods, families and communities. Some photographs provide a “before and after” view of places in New York, others explore the spiritual and emotional side of the pandemic, including murals which document the loss of loved ones.

The online exhibition also features an essay-journal which records encounters the photographer has had or witnessed while making his images. One entry reads: “On April 27, I saw an elderly Latino man on Southern Boulevard in the Bronx struggling to breathe. He was hugging a lamppost while a woman held his arm. ‘Let’s help him, he’s dizzy. Let him sit, he can’t breathe,’ she said. People placed a plastic garbage can upside down for him to sit on, but he didn’t want to. ‘The ambulance is coming,’ someone said. Seeing me taking pictures of this situation, a young man, holding a package of rubber gloves, asked, ‘What are you going to do with the information?’ ”

Now we know what Vergara has done with the information. Another question is: What will we do with it?

– Hagia Sophia virtual reality tour

Earlier this month, at the instigation of Turkey’s autocratic President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s top administrative court ruled that the secular museum of Hagia Sophia could become, once again, a mosque. With that, Erdogan advanced the symbolic work of destroying secularism in his nation, and took from the people of Istanbul – and the larger world – one of the great symbols of that city’s erstwhile cosmopolitanism. Although the great domed structure that dominates the skyline of Istanbul had been a mosque since the Ottomans conquered the city in 1453, it had been turned into a secular museum by Kemal Ataturk in 1934. It is one of the essential highlights of any tour to Istanbul, an architectural wonder of enormous proportions. When the current building on the site opened as Christian church in 537, it enclosed the largest interior space in the world, a record it held for nearly 1000 years.

Now it will become a mosque, probably with rules to prevent the disruption of worship. Of even more concern is preservation and access to the remaining Christian frescoes. Many Turks will celebrate its return to active use as a mosque. For Turks who aren’t Muslim, and for many visitors from outside Turkey, it will have a new symbolic meaning: a sign of Turkey’s turn inward, and the success of a demagogue president who has used division and bigotry to maintain a long and increasingly destructive and corrupt grip on power. This virtual tour gives a good sense of the building’s interior. Even the scaffolding, which is intrusive, adds a useful data point, giving a powerful sense of the volume of space under Hagia Sophia’s magnificent dome.

– American Archive of Public Broadcasting

The American Archive of Public Broadcasting is in partnership with the Library of Congress and the WGBH Educational Foundation, to preserve the enormous and scattered archives of interviews, programs and performances produced by American public broadcasters over the past decades. Much of the most interesting material is available online, and it’s glorious time-sink of an online distraction.

Among its holdings are the raw footage of some of the key interviews made by Ken Burns for his landmark 1990 Civil War documentary. The value here isn’t just the greater depth and context, and the continuity of thought one gets from a straight-through presentation of the insights of different scholars, but also the emotional and psychological context. It seems to me that scholar Barbara Fields is amazingly patient but a little weary through her good-natured, nuanced and deeply informed responses to what are rather flat-footed and obtuse questions. “What is slavery? Make it real for me right now. What is slavery?,” asks the off-camera interviewer in one of two interviews made in 1987 and 1988. Fields gives as good an answer as anybody ever has. But what a question.

– Daniil Trifonov

The Russian composer Alexander Scriabin lived through some of the most riotously creative years of music history in his home country. He was a masterful pianist, deeply influenced by Chopin, but evolved an idiosyncratic style that eventually encompassed his own mix of mysticism and atonality. In his earlier years, he composed in a hyperromantic style and forms, including volatile preludes, dreamy études, ebullient mazurkas and searching sonatas.

Few pianists are better equipped to play this repertoire than Daniil Trifonov, who features Scriabin’s music as his selections for Carnegie Hall’s streaming Live with Carnegie Hall series. Trifonov knows every nuance of this kinetic and mercurial music. He performs with a face mask on, at a piano in a domestic space; the sound is remarkably good. The stream also includes a conversation between Trifonov and pianist Emanuel Ax.

– The Rijskmuseum online tour

Some museums are beginning to reopen, especially in countries that have better managed the public health crisis of covid-19. But it will be a long time – likely at long as it takes to create and disseminate a vaccine – before the world’s great museums are as crowded as they once were. There is something both eerie and delightful about the “have it to yourself” emptiness of some of the more popular online tours that have served as a substitute for actual visits during the crisis.

The Rijskmuseum in Amsterdam lets visitors move about in its most popular space, the Gallery of Honor, which includes the museum’s most visited masterpiece, Rembrandt’s “The Nightwatch.” A virtual visit is a good way to remember the good old days, when standing in front of this giant painting meant a constant shuffle and jostle of people. The online tour also includes extensive discussion of the painting’s restoration.



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