On the eve of the opening of ISEA2020 in Montreal, Makery spoke to Erandy Vergara, Programming Director and Artistic Co-Chair of this year’s edition. ISEA2020 will be online from October 13-18, 2020.
When Erandy Vergara, from Mexico City, is not directing an ISEA, she curates, investigates, reads and writes about contemporary and media art with a particular interest in recent remix cultures, the strengths and downfalls of science and technology, decolonial uses of media, critical histories of virtual reality, and the aesthetics and ethics of participation. She was, among other things, the artistic director of the 12th edition of The HTMlles Festival: Terms of Privacy in 2016 and co-artistic director of Transitio-mx 06, the media art Festival held in Mexico City in 2015. Her recent exhibitions have included Franco Mattes, ‘What Has Been Seen’ at PHI Foundation for Contemporary Art, Montreal, Nov. 2019 – March 2020. and ‘Speculative Cultures: A Virtual Reality Art Exhibition’, curated with Tina Sauerländer at Anna-Maria and Stephen Kellen Gallery, Parsons School of Design, New York in 2019.
How has ISEA2020 had to adapt to the new lockdown situation in Quebec?
We had to reinvent the whole thing. We knew participants and the ISEA international community highly values the getting together, the feedback that follows the presentations, the connections and collaborations that can grow from the symposium. We had to adapt, in March, because we knew a second wave of Covid-19 would happen, and that would have been the end of it all. So we decided to be reactive, and our ‘bet’ was to go 100% online. Then we devoted days and months to find the best platform that could create a sense of ‘eventfulness’ and that would allow different forms of communication and networking. All systems have limits, we thought a series of zoom events would feel ‘fractured’ scattered, and so with the platform we are using – Swapcard – you don’t need to go anywhere, everything happens at the same time, and you can easily connect with anyone. At least in theory. Let’s see how people respond.
The art programme has just been announced. How do you make these more experiential than the usual online format?
The art programme is a different story. The works we had selected were highly sensorial and as was said in the curatorial text on the site, we knew nothing would replace the experience of those works with our bodies… so we decided instead to ask all artists representing installations to help us prepare a series of mini-documentaries, so they had the chance to talk to present their works to ISEA delegates at a discursive level, as we lost the experience of the work without an inability to walk freely into a gallery.
A taste of the online program:
The ‘real-life’ exhibitions would have resembled a spaceship landing, with the viewers gathering to view from above. This includes work by Adriana Knouf, who sent her hormones to the ISS and actively engaging with the ISEA2020 theme ‘Why Sentience?’.
With different scales – the planetary (Afroditi Psarra and Audrey Briot’s work), aboriginal (Suzanne Kite), the bacterial and dust and particles of matter (Klaus Speiss, Alice Jarry, Guillaume Cousin), the human scale/body (Hugo Solis), that would only confirm that humans are not the center of the universe, nor the only important creature on Earth, as the coronavirus has already reminded us. There is a full programme of online performances and some artists adapted their works online (for example Larbtisisters, Teresa Conors, Elizabeth Demaray, Aaron Odenburg), so we co-produced video documentaries with the artists but there are some online-specific works.
Allison Moore, ‘WUNDERKAMMER (scene 12 – Skeletal infants fighting on a coral rock)’:
There will also be, in real life, a convoy of trucks crossing Montreal with video projections, but the organisers are not allowed to publicise where they will be because of the risk of people gathering.
So how will ISEA2020 deal with the issue of ‘embodiment’ that is such an issue in virtual and ‘blended’ events such as the recent Ars Electronica?
We will not deal with embodiment per se, participants are embodied, we all are. If already there was research about cramped, overweight, sore bodies of the networked era, I think now our bodies are being present to ourselves because of the discomfort we experience, the mental and physical fatigue of hours and hours in front of computers without leaving our homes and without just chit-chatting with people. I think we can all romanticise, but the reality that we (universities, elementary schools, all sorts of business that have moved online) as organisers of an international symposium have to face is that this new form of embodiment is now the “interface” of the symposium. We cannot expect participants to stay loyal and attend all the events we have prepared. We, can, I hope, find things that they feel intrigued by and can follow a few threads and exchange with other participants.
ISEA2020 online (teaser):
The original ISEA2020 was going to be the first ‘Indigenous ISEA’ in Winnipeg, but the organisers there found they could not continue, so you and Printemps Numerique took up the challenge. How is this original intention reflected in the current programme?
What we have is an ISEA from Montréal/Tiohtià:ke, an ISEA put together and led by many immigrants or/and racialized men and women. We are aware of the diversity of our city, and not only because we have to include these issues to apply for grant applications, but because this is what/who we are. I cannot speak on behalf of everyone, but I can tell you that my background as Mexican matters a big deal in how I see indigenous communities in Canada. And I think the only sign that things are shifting is when we will indeed have an ‘Indigenous ISEA’ and this is not it, because this will happen when the decision-making process and the people organising the whole thing are indigenous and are a majority. In this ISEA2020 we invited Kim Tallbear and Dylan Robinson, two indigenous scholars as keynote speakers because of their particular focus on issues related to the theme ‘Why Sentience?’ (listening and sound work, indigenous and settler affect in the case of Robinson; and the environment an Indigenous analytical approach to understanding the concept of the ‘anthropocene’ in the case of Tallbear), but also because we are in Canada (whatever that means) and indigenous people are a crucial part of the past, present and future of this territory; as recent protests in Montreal show.
Issues that are very current right now, such as AI and automation – did the indigenous artists respond to this?
‘Sentient Difference’ insists on the vital importance of viewing sentience through an intersectional lens. The works featured in the programme are studies on the diversity of human, machine and ecological experiences approached through decolonization, environmentalism, and human biology. Sentient Difference considers navigations of the social, natural and material worlds beyond or against the constraints of normativity — in terms of race, gender, and (dis)ability — in order to embrace the beauty of the manifold entanglements of our existence.
How did you think ISEA2020 will contribute to the global history of media art?
It will make history just because we had to do it in the middle of the pandemic and re-invent, more than once, how to present an academic symposium and art programme with such uncertain conditions. But also because we valued, at the core, the theme and believe today is more than necessary to rethink or displace anthropocentric perspectives and that we reconsider how we live together in this planet, among humans and in relation to other species and the planet Earth itself.
Connectivity is an important part, as you mentioned. How will ISEA2020 enhance this?
Informal coffee breaks where you can easily talk to people in groups (tiny videos); group discussions (textual chats) and by the platform itself, that allows people to easily provide their availability to chat to people one-to one without any further introduction.
Brit Bunkley (NZ), ‘Geolith’:
Did you think ISEA2020 will redefine the notion of sentience?
I think, that now the question has shifted from why sentence, to how sentience? So in a way I think we might start to see in other directions but not simply because ISEA2020 happens in the midst of a global pandemic.
In late August 2019, when the ISEA 2020 academic committee began discussing the theme of ‘Why Sentience?’ little did we know how prescient the topic would become. With the initial themes tossed around – ‘animality,’ ‘the politics of sentience,’ ‘sentient difference’ and ‘matter’s mattering’ – we were trying to capture the significance of a broader symbiotic turn taking place in the technoscientific arts, humanities and social sciences – the term that the late biologist Lynn Margulis used to describe “the living together in physical contact of the etymology of the Latin word sentientem signifies being ‘capable of feeling,’ not only for ourselves but also for others.
This was in August 2019. One year later, we are living through a triple catastrophe: the novel coronavirus, the resulting economic collapse and the worldwide unrest brought upon by the exposure and explosion of systematic racism, as well as gender-based violence. These crises have resulted in a major transformation of human and nonhuman life, bringing the theme of ISEA2020 into a new perspective. It is not that the virus – an invisible entity that some 25% of US citizens (as well as others) think has been invented and planned by a worldwide conspiracy but that has visibly wreaked havoc across the world – is unprecedented. From the Black Death that eliminated at least 60% of Europe’s population between 1346-1353 and the 40-100 million lost during the Spanish Flu, to 2003’s SARS epidemic, we as humans have long had to live with the otherness of the bacterial and the viral. Like most cultural events in 2020, ISEA2020 is thus both a response to crisis and an experience with a not yet realised imaginary. Experience here is used in the French sense of the word: as both an experiment, an attempt and an experience. Through these contributions from scholars and creators from across the world, it is our hope that the question of why sentience – of not only sensing the world but also acting with it – can be a response to our more than uncertain future.
The interviewer, Rob La Frenais is a member of the board of ISEA International, who among other things, selects the cities that compete to host the ISEA conference and exhibition. The next ISEA will be in 2022 in Barcelona, with a break because of the implications of the virus, so hopefully this will be the first physical manifestation of a post-crisis ISEA. The host selected for 2023 is Paris, and 2024 is currently being competed for by Shenzen, China, Brisbane, Australia, and Taipei, Taiwan.
More on ISEA2020.