Founded by Bob Bicknell-Knight in April 2016, isthisit? began life as a succession of weekly exhibitions, assemblages of video, audio and visual content, rapidly prototyping the curatorial possibilities of the browser window. Simultaneously, isthisit? facilitated a testing ground for young emerging artists and formed an informal network of mutually beneficial collective advocacy. Making it a key member in the growing field of online galleries.
Soon afterwards followed offline exhibitions (as isthisit? terms them, referencing the normalisation of online shows), a monthly residency program , online shows by guest curators, a book series tackling topics of digital technology, interviews and an online shop selling digital editions and 3d printed USBs containing isthisit? content.
Constantly open, always inviting visitors to ‘send an email’, the model employed by isthisit? has permitted a meteoric expansion in its first two years, evoking the hyperactive accounts of Hans-Ulrich Obrist’s youth. Now counting 600+ artists, curators and practitioners of one form or the other amongst its contributors, the ‘Artists’ tab has become a directory, suggesting a gallery that verges towards a being a social media platform.
Today Bicknell-Knight is preparing for his latest exhibition, Duty Free, which brings together a long list of artists, duos and collectives, including: Émilie Brout & Maxime Marion, Joshua Citarella, Elliot Dodd and Molly Soda alongside Bicknell-Knight himself. Looking to the near future, Duty Free promises an examination of where our hyper-consumerist, algorithmic, corporate-led society may go. Tinged of course with the tone of mild dissatisfaction that isthisit? evokes.
Elliott Burns: On the isthisit? ‘About’ page, the site is referred to as a ‘platform’ rather than gallery, a term that seems a recognition of the utilitarian service you provide of highlighting the work of emerging artists, whilst simultaneously reflecting an openness akin to social media services. Could you talk a little about how the isthisit? model was established and what you believe to be its strongest assets?
Bob Bicknell-Knight: I began isthisit? by being fundamentally interested in what it means to be a curator, slowly recognising that you ultimately end up wearing a number of different hats and taking on various responsibilities and roles, many of which from an outside perspective one wouldn’t overtly identify with the role of a curator.
For me the term platform evolved out of this curatorial experimentation, with isthisit? slowly picking up various roles that a curator has the ability to become, from publisher to invigilator, and ultimately taking on more responsibilities than an average curator, transforming into a platform rather than a curator in the most stereotypical sense. The idea of a platform feels a lot more prestigious and weighty to me, a corporate front that hides the man behind the curtain.
Even though the online shows have slowly become less of a focus point to what I’m attempting to achieve with isthisit? I think they’re still incredibly important to me in regards to the assets that isthisit? possesses. They have an embedded grounding of countless hours spent emailing artists and uploading images and video URLs to the internet. However, in retrospect the book series probably has the strongest impact and weight to it, in the very obvious sense that they’re physical objects but also in that over the course of four books there have been something like 30 or so essays, nearly 200 artists and around 700 actual pages of content included. I think that kind of weight visualised in a physical form is still incredibly important, even if what I do is predominantly based in the digital.
EB: Being online, building relationships digitally, permits a level of mystery, allowing as you say the ability to engender a more corporate presence. How have you felt working with artists where your identity is somewhat obscured behind a “curtain” and equally theirs too may be polished, exaggerated or undersold?
BBK: I haven’t ever felt like an artist has oversold themselves to me online, I usually undergo a fair amount of research into the people I work with before initiating contact. So if they have a website I’ll look at past work and shows, read their blog, find their LinkedIn alongside browsing through their various social media presences. Of course, this is all online and could be fabricated, but that would be a lot of work to simply be in an exhibition I’m organising.
I much prefer meeting people offline, chatting at private views or going on a studio visit, there’s a lot more trust involved in the relationship between artist and curator when you meet in that way. I like the corporate facing structure but at times it can be detrimental to a relationship that you’re attempting to build. I think the isthisit? identity is much stronger than my own personal one, an identity that’s basically running everything that isthisit? does, so when talking with artists and planning shows hopefully they’re seeing me and what I do on a personal level rather than the corporate persona. If I had more time I’d meet everyone I work with face to face.
EB: On Instagram, isthisit? has a bit over four thousand followers; on Facebook close to one point five thousand. Structured for easy perusing, Instagram in particular, seems now to be the front end of many arts organisations’ public relations. Equally for the curator it offers a parallel to the degree show as a site to search out new artistic talent. What changes do you feel these platforms have made to the curator <—> artist and the gallery <—> public relationships?
BBK: The advent of these platforms, facilitating the perusal of hundreds of thousands of artists and artworks at any given time, has certainly made the curatorial process ‘easier’ to an extent. The ability to scroll through someone’s feed, be it an artist or gallery, tracking their progress and easily viewing their work, is both exciting and assumedly incredibly detrimental to the conceptual rigour that’s usually hidden behind the glossy images that you see on a daily basis.
As a curator who’s slowly amassing a following on social media, I too think having a strong presence is incredibly important. Both as a tool to ‘get’ things, from being offered opportunities to be on panels and gaining access to spaces to exhibit, to (hopefully) gaining valuable insight from your followers (the people who you’re ultimately producing this work for) whilst throwing your own opinion out there too.
It’s a lot easier to be ‘called out’ on certain issues, or to simply question why things are a certain way. When I visit an exhibition I’ll take a picture, post a comment or two whilst tagging the artist and gallery. More often than not I’ll get a response from both the institution and the artist, if I was positive they might thank me for visiting and if I was negative they will potentially question my criticism, telling me a little more about the work and beginning a dialogue. For me this begins to bridge the gap between the artist and viewer, which I’m all for.
EB: Do you find the same happening back at you? Do you get critiqued through social media at all?
BBK: I have been critiqued online once or twice regarding the exhibitions I’ve held, but nothing hugely influential or thought provoking. The majority of the critique or conversations I have are with these artists and galleries critiquing my critique of their work. I would love my exhibitions to be critiqued more, to be questioned. If not I’m ultimately in my own bubble where I assume everyone is fairly ambivalent to what I’m producing.
Of course I have offline conversations with artists, fellow curators and people who see the exhibitions, but the online aspect interests me a lot more. As we’ve seen with the rise of Reddit and 4chan, communities of predominantly anonymous individuals, critique thrives behind the safety of the screen. I think I’d like to be critiqued more through social media, a space that allows the critic to share their thoughts behind that delicate glass.
EB: Anonymity has taken on certain negative interpretation recently, yet for a time (pre-Facebook) it seemed to be the norm. How do you feel looking back on that often romanticised moment before web 2.0 altered the internet landscape? And correspondingly what do you think of where we are now, where we willingly submit our real details?
BBK: I think pre-Facebook, pre-corporations pushing the idea of an individual identity being this incredibly important aspect of online living, people young and old were always on the same level. I’m too young to have interacted with these types of bulletin boards but it does seem like a beautiful conceit; everyone so excited to be connecting through the world wide web that you wouldn’t think to troll. On the other hand, I don’t know if this wonderful depiction of the past is true, and all my early memories of the internet consist of incredibly slow browsing speeds and the sound of a screeching modem. I generally subscribe to the idea that we’re currently living through one of the ‘best’ times in human history to be alive, with high life expectancies, revolutionary medicines and access to high speed internet across the world. I’m very doubtful anyone would truly want to go back to that early point of web 1.0.
The old quote ‘If you’re not paying, you’re the product’ comes to mind with regards to willingly submitting details and giving over our own time and data to these social networks. Oddly enough I usually come to the conclusion that I’m okay with being part of the product, part of the over 2 billion Facebook users submitting their name, age and various other details to become part of the system. It’s an unusual predicament that I and probably many others find themselves in. Who would willingly pay money for Instagram, Facebook or Twitter? Information is much more valuable.
EB: Your upcoming exhibition, Duty Free, positions itself, and us, in the dystopian reality which is emerging from the “rubble of a pre-internet utopian neoliberal ideology”, a place where consumerist desires lead to our eventual obsolescence. In your day to day life where do you personally see cause for such concern?
BBK: The quite reactionary language and position that I’m attempting to take with the show is of course, perhaps quite obviously, partly influenced by the upsurge of news surrounding Cambridge Analytica’s involvement in various political events over the past few years. The fact that data mining has become commonplace, enabling targeted ads and mass market manipulation to occur throughout the internet and social media is a worrying idea, on a personal and public level.
When it’s discovered that the world is dominated by companies influencing everything from government policy to your daily intake of news, and you realise that their primary focus is on marketing products to you as a consumer, I feel myself inclined to worry for the future. A future that will have incredibly reduced government regulations, allowing companies to do whatever they want in search of the almighty dollar, ultimately reaching peak neo-liberalism and facilitating no one but the uber rich.
EB: Cambridge Analytica is being treated as a turning point in public awareness. Yet, I have a scepticism as to whether this will induce any sea change in how we engage with online platforms. Do you see any speculative futures envisioned by the arts as an alternative to the seemingly inevitable?
BBK: I’m inclined to agree that it won’t be a dramatic turning point, everyone thought that the Snowden revelations would be a turning point and it kind of was, but not one that flipped the world, changing how we act on a day to day basis. Everyone keeps going to work, living their life, using social media and documenting their lives whilst continuing to accept a fresh set of terms and conditions whenever their chosen device initiates an unwanted update.
Most artists seem to respond to the inevitable dystopian future not so dissimilarly to how the media reacts in times of chaos; thriving and capitalising on the overwhelming distress by pushing the idea further. A reaction to this sort of narrative was actually proposed by the collaborative duo patten a few months ago in early 2018 at their solo show at Tenderpixel in London, titled 3049. Alongside the exhibition reimagining various distinctly dystopian science fiction scenarios in popular blockbuster films it was accompanied by a publication consisting of over 50 contributors, all responding to the question ‘How do we make it to 3049?’.
This was a fantastic conceit, although I still think both utopian and dystopian portrayals of the future are equally valid. If there was only one narrative it would be like switching on the news and only seeing one side of a given argument, even if this is already happening all too frequently, an example of this being Jeremy Corbyn continually being portrayed negatively by the BBC, or just generally all the fake news that continues to fill my newsfeed.
EB: Between the exhibition and the accompanying publication you’ve got possibly surveyed the opinions of a similar number of artists as patten did. Where do you believe their estimations of the future fall on the utopian / dystopian fence?
BBK: Most of the work in the show probably takes a negative stance, which could be considered stereotypical, although as mentioned previously I do believe that as an artist and curator you have a – sort of – duty to reflect what’s occurring in contemporary politics and the world in general, which seems to be breaking down on every rung of the societal ladder.
One of the more subtler pieces featured in the show is from Jillian Mayer, titled Value Indicator (2018) and manifesting as a small brass keyring emblazoned with the forward-thinking survivalist statement “FIND IN CASE OF EMERGENCY”, referencing preppers and the apocalyptic mentality that’s overwhelming the youth of today.
Another work, a video by Jonathan Monaghan titled Escape Pod (2015), sees a golden deer traverse through environments of affluence and authority, encountering a riot gear boutique, immigration checkpoints and a duty free store in the clouds. The video is played as an endless repeat, subtly looping forever, with the newly born deer being continually overwhelmed by these beautiful depictions of abuse, surveillance and the state. Monaghan’s depicted world is beautiful, but so are the luxury apartments that continue to be built throughout London.
All of the work will be displayed on or around an aluminium structure in the shape of Primecoin, a cryptocurrency whose symbol is in the shape of the Greek letter Psi. This could be seen as a warning against crypto, against the sharing economy and peer-to-peer infrastructures, although I hope it’s a little more ambiguous than that.
EB: Beautiful depictions of abuse, speaks to how beguiling new technologies can be, even if they are stepping on long held freedoms. I’m sure many people won’t mind paying the price. I’m sure we’re all partly sleep-walking into this future. I’d like to close by asking you about your personal relationship with technology, what do you use on a daily basis, what couldn’t you live without, what do you want to disconnect from, what are you looking forward to?
BBK: I tend to agree, right now it feels like we’re allowing ourselves to be seduced by the tech, not really worrying too much about what’s being taken away, more interested in what’s coming next, being drip fed by an industry slowly eking out ‘evolutionary’ technological developments. Although perhaps that’s just me being unaware and letting it happen without putting up much of a fight…
I have a PC, not a MacBook, as well as an android smartphone, both of which are incredibly dated at this point, although that’s more a monetary concern rather than a conscious decision to use old tech. I was recently given an Amazon Echo, at first it was fun but now I keep it unplugged. I’m not sure why, it just feels creepy, the always on, always ‘listening’ aspect is incredibly disconcerting, even if my phone has the ability to function in the same way.
Bearing this in mind I am partly looking forward to the future, smart homes becoming the norm and laptops becoming lighter, although it’s the caveats that accompany these moments of supposed bliss that worry me, like personal data being sold, content being curated for you and social credit systems being implemented. This future feels more Black Mirror esq. than the utopias portrayed in Ursula Le Guin’s communist novels, dividing labour and rejecting future economies.
EB: Do you feel bad about turning Alexa off?
BBK: Oddly enough, as the Echo was a gift I feel bad about not utilising it, so any emotional connection I have to the object is a reaction to a distinctly human act, rather than a betrayal of the voice inside the machine.
Popular sci-fi has taught and encouraged us that robots will be developed in the form of the human image, replications of their creators, primarily due to the want and need for an emotional connection. In the long run I highly doubt this will be the case, once AIs begin to evolve by themselves I assume they’ll be able to develop and create new, stronger, faster forms than a human could ever come up with, distinctly different from anything we might assume an android or robot to be.
Duty Free runs from the 16th-23rd of June at Chelsea College of Art, 16 John Islip St, Westminster, London SW1P 4JU, with the accompanying publication available to buy at the show, online or as a PDF.
The fifth issue of the isthisit? book series, focussing on surveillance, launches, alongside an accompanying exhibition at Annka Kultys Gallery, in August. Alex Tobin is the current isthisit? online resident.
You can find out more about Bob Bicknell-Knight and his art practice by visiting his personal site.
Elliott Burns is an independent curator and writer living between London and Mexico City. Having graduated from Central Saint Martins’ MA Culture, Criticism and Curation program he has worked as a curator for UAL on a series of exhibitions, as production assistant on Art Night 2016, and co-founded Off Site Project , an online exhibition space.