Katie Micak has a multifaceted arts career with a focus on emerging digital art practices. She is a co-founder of Vector Festival and of Toronto Kids Digital Festival and is currently the Exhibitions Curator and Residency Coordinator at the Living Arts Centre as part of the City of Mississauga. Micak designed exhibitions and presentations at The Phillips Collection (Washington), assisted at Art in General and the Moving Images Festival (New York), and Directed Spark Contemporary (Syracuse) and Propeller Gallery (Toronto). She holds an MFA from Syracuse University in Transmedia, and an MA from OCADU’s Digital Futures program. katiemicak.com
Martin Zeilinger is based in Dundee, Scotland, where he works as Senior Lecturer in Computational Arts & Technology at Abertay University. He has been co-curator of Vector Festival since 2014, has joined the curatorial collective for Dundee-based NEoN Festival in 2019, and is a frequent collaborator of Furtherfield (London) and the Institute for Network Cultures (Amsterdam). Martin’s work focuses on critical intersections between contemporary art and emerging technologies such as AI and the blockchain. He is currently completing a monograph on artificial intelligence, posthumanist creative agency, and digital art. marjz.net / @mrtnzlngr
Back to the Drawing Board
When it started to become clear, some time in March, that no IRL Vector Festival was likely going to be possible this year, my co-curator Katie Micak and I had already finished compiling a shortlist of artists to include in our exhibitions, performances, screenings, public art interventions, and workshops for this summer. Around 350 submissions from all over the world had reached us in response to our initial open call, and we were keen to bring as many works as possible to the vibrant community that Vector Festival has come to be known for. But the lockdown measures that were being imposed – slowly at first, then more and more rapidly – changed everything: no gatherings of any kind would be allowed at physical venues, and in any case, travel (both local and international), the shipping of artworks, or hosting artists would be next to impossible at least in the short term.
Everywhere, festivals, exhibitions, screenings, and other cultural events were being cancelled in response. Whoever could, tried to postpone their events or scrambled to move their projects online, but this can be exceedingly difficult for smaller, independent organisations that rely on project-specific arts funding or the support of local sponsors. Last-minute changes to the modalities of how art is exhibited may also require compromises unlikely to convey the rich, embodied experience that is possible only when you can directly interact with artworks, speak with artists, or mingle with other visitors. Many different approaches began to flood our inboxes and social media feeds – video walk-throughs of exhibitions mounted in empty galleries and museums; pay-walled real-time screenings on glitchy platforms that couldn’t cope with large audiences; videos of performances taped in empty auditoriums… To be sure, there were some gems and highlights, yet in hindsight, one also has to wonder about the extent to which these compromises also contributed to the screen-fatigue with which we are all dealing with now.
As the health crisis began to deepen into a broad-scale social, economic, and cultural crisis, for all of us involved in planning and running Vector Festival it was clear that we did not want to cancel: artists needed the support that our community and funding could offer them, now more than ever. And in turn, in the coming months of social isolation, of the increasing lack of personal interaction, and of overexposure to the tedium of digital work, we would also need the support of artists, now more than ever. But we did not want simply to move everything online, to pretend that a simple website was just as suitable to exhibit already-chosen artworks as any other brick-and-mortar venue might have been. So, the best (but certainly also the most stressful) option seemed to be to go back to the drawing board: to redevelop Vector Festival 2020 from scratch, with a focus, if possible, on artworks that might resonate more directly with the difficulties that were unfolding around us, and in an exploration of digital exhibition formats, works that would be appropriate to the emerging contexts of experiencing art in isolation.
Is Online the new IRL?
Who needs a festival theme when you have a pandemic to contend with? Hadn’t curation better deal directly with the urgency of this present moment – by developing appropriate themes, exploring new exhibition formats, or simply by providing continued support frameworks for artists and communities? Given that we had just around three months left, this prospect was daunting. But the choice to redevelop the 2020 iteration of Vector Festival from the ground up meant that we could open our programming to the new realities of a ‘socially distanced’ world in which computer-mediated interactions were becoming the only way of connecting with others. It also allowed us to invite artists to consider new contexts for art-making in which the affordances of digital interfaces were demarcating new horizons of possibility for what media art can be right now. In a new open call, we posed the same questions that we, as curators, were grappling with to those exploring what it means to make art in these uncertain times.
We knew there would be no straightforward answers to any of these questions. But in extending them to artists, the whole festival could became an experimental platform for thinking through these issues, with a focus on works that are resonant with themes of virtual connectedness, isolation, distanced interaction, or the formal choices through which artists approach them.
No New Normal
To bring this to fruition, we invited proposals from artists with experience in web design, to build a custom-tailored online platform for hosting the interactive artworks, live-streamed performances, art games, panel discussions, online workshops, and screenings included in this year’s lineup. The platform is itself conceived as an artistic contribution to the festival; it provides not only the technological framing for presenting the artworks, but it also represents an effort to take up conceptually some of the questions and concerns expressed in the open call. As such, for example, each visit becomes part of a dynamic visualisation of the virtual presence of our audience at any given time.
Partway through our planning for the festival’s online edition, the horrific murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor sparked mass-scale protest in the U.S. and elsewhere, reinvigorating the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement. As part of this, important critical conversations also emerged, on a massive scale, about systemic racism within cultural organisations around the globe, and about the urgent need for (and lack of!) much more diversity, solidarity with anti-racist movements, and support for the dismantling of white supremacy.
Now, not only were we running Vector Festival against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, but we also wanted to take the planning of the festival as an opportunity to think about and respond to the anti-racist movement. This led us to work closely with our host institution InterAccess in reflecting critically on our curatorial practices, in order to identify and address blindspots in institutional and professional practice that reinforce systemic racism.
There is a real need to rethink our processes in order to create meaningful and equitable access within arts organisations, and engage the many creative and critical voices that have long been marginalised, excluded, or ignored. The resulting program, I hope, is compelling in its inclusion of critical conversation related to anti-racist work being done by artists and arts organisers.
A Program For Uncertain Times
Has the repeated rethinking of what we do and how we do it, as curators and festival organisers, resulted in a program that is somehow more fragmented, or lacking in focus? No more so, I think, than the fractalised experience of a Zoom call with a few too many participants in it, and no more so than any of the myriad other improvised ways of being, thinking, and creating things these days – always alone-yet-together, and in rapid response to volatile, emergent situations and contexts. In this sense, this year’s Vector Festival echoes many of the things that have been exhilarating, exhausting, unsettling, and inspiring us over the last few months. And it is precisely these experiences, after all, that we hoped to conjure up and respond to when we decided to redevelop the festival very last minute.
There is much to see and much to do at Vector Festival this year, and there are many echoes to be found both of the promises and of the challenges presented by the present moment. Some of the workshops, for example, speak directly to new regimes of surveillance and control (both state-dictated and self-inflicted) that the pandemic has produced. Many of the artistic contributions seek out moments of contemplation, solitude, and connection with oneself, which are becoming more difficult to achieve these days, despite lockdown-imposed isolation. In panel discussions, we address the emerging realities of online-only curation, and the anti-racist networks that can be fostered in and through art communities. Live performances experiment with new forms of participation across digital distances. Interactive works meld into time-based pieces, which in turn might lead visitors onwards to live-streamed contributions coming directly from artist studios. Art games and video pieces address virtual forms of love and connectedness, while some web-based artworks explore how web tools or distant technical devices can become proxy interfaces between our bodies and nature. What might once have been siloed in different events is now integrated on a platform that allows many new crossings-over. The result, I hope, is a diverse and engaging experience of works that add up – aesthetically and formally – in new and perhaps unexpected ways, to stake out nuanced balances, and new perspectives that provoke thought and entertain, that inspire and offer respite.
-Martin Zeilinger, 2020
The conceptual approach behind the Vector Festival 2020's exhibition space stems from the current cultural zeitgeist. The thought was to integrate a form of anonymized data visualization or influence based on the platform's web traffic. In a way, the festival's platform will become a living and breathing anonymous artifact of those who visited, viewed and participated on the platform and with the festival. It will highlight the unique situation we are all in and try to create some form of digital representation of our connectedness despite being physically isolated in one capacity or another. We may struggle to process our connectedness tangibly, but the concept for the Vector Festival 2020 is not only an exhibition platform but an invitation to discuss our online shared experiences, participation and connectivity online during COVID-19.
The subtle visual cues that present themselves on the platform's background represent the real-time presence of other visitors on the site who are joining, leaving, scrolling, clicking and navigating around the festival. Through the shared visual representation of physical and digital interactions, the goal is to encourage discussion and contemplation about remote collaborative viewing and joint online participation other than video, voice or text. What does it look like when we attempt to translate the busyness and embodied physical and spatial cues of our actions and interactions experienced in the physical pubic sphere and recontextualize them to hold meaning in an online environment?
Jordan Shaw is an internationally exhibited artist and creative technologist raised and currently based in Toronto, Canada. He received his MFA from OCAD University's Digital Futures program exhibiting his thesis project, Habitual Instinct, in 2017 during Vector Festival at InterAccess. Before that, he completed his undergraduate degree at Carleton University and Algonquin College, where his final installation was exhibited at ACM SIGGRAPH.
The manifestation of Jordan's work seeks to visualize the hidden interactions between people and technology, data collection and these digital systems trying to understand the physical world. These technical systems are not always physically tangible to the human senses. Jordan's work intends to creatively express the invisibility of modern-day techno-culture into a tangible and concrete experience that exemplifies the connection between participants and digital systems. He's exhibited at festivals including ACM SIGGRAPH, Vivid Sydney, Toronto Design Offsite Festival, Vector Festival, Nuit Blanche and OPC's Winter Light Exhibition.
Hiba Ali (Canada) / Amanda Amour-Lynx (Canada) / Miriam Arbus (Canada) / Benjamin de Boer & Sophia Oppel (Canada) / Meagan Byrne (Canada) / Jennifer Chan (Canada) / Meghan Cheng & Cheryl O (Canada) / Ronnie Clarke (Canada) / Sarah Cook (Canada) / Hilarey Cowan (Canada) / Thirza Cuthand (Canada) / Maya Ben David (Canada) / Steph Davidson (USA) / Patricia Domínguez (Chile) / Trudy Erin Elmore (Canada) / Hannah Epstein (Canada) / Jord Farrell (Canada) / Elijah Forbes (USA) / Simon Fuh & Rowan Lynch (Canada) / Dimitris Gkikas (Germany) / Milumbe Haimbe (Canada) / Keiko Hart (Canada) / Renika Hall (Canada) / Fay Heady (Japan) / Ayodele Hudlin (Canada) / Alex Jensen (Canada) / Amay Kataria (USA) / Samuel Kiehoon Lee (Canada) / Lana Kuidir (Canada) / Belinda Kwan (Canada) / Ashley Jane Lewis (Canada) / Natalie Logan (Canada) / Brianna Lowe (Canada) / Gina Luke (Canada) / María Angélica Madero (Colombia) / Sameen Mahboubi & Oscar Alfonso (Canada/Mexico) / Annette Mangaard (Canada) / Justin Massey (Canada) / Taylor McArthur (Canada) / Ben McCarthy & Cale Weir (Canada) / Joselyn McDonald (USA) / Amelia Merhar (Canada) / Lorna Mills (Canada) / Matt Nish-Lapidus & Philip Leonard Ocampo (Canada) / Julie Reich (Bile Sister) (Canada) / Daniel Rotsztain (Canada) / Roberto Santaguida (Canada) / Juli Saragosa (Germany) / Jordan Shaw (Canada) / Olivia Shortt (Canada) / Fallon Simard (Canada) / Jordan Sparks (Canada) / Diseiye Thompson (Canada) / Lee Tusman (USA) / Geneviève Wallen (Canada) / Syrus Marcus Ware (Canada) / Tough Guy Mountain (Cat Bluemke, Jonathan Carroll, Iain Soder) (Canada) / Qirou Yang (Canada) / Xin Xin (USA)
Graphic designers: Emi Takahashi & Rebecca Wilkinson
Web developers: Jordan Shaw & Marcelo Luft