Collaboration in Covid Times

Walter van Rijn; Tis True Without Lying; 2020; Ink on paper, In collaboration with drawing robot. Telephone; Image courtesy of the artist

Collaboration in Covid Times: A Look at Two Online Exhibitions that Create Connection

Written by Genie Davis
In pandemic times, when we are all restricted from seeing and experiencing art and artists in person, what could be better than staying connected through creation? Two different projects encouraged just that, with collaborative experiences that defy the virus to infect our spirits.

Seattle-based Nathan Langston has participants using his Telephone, while the Los Angeles-based Kristine Schomaker created Call & Response. Both collaborative projects have shaped a unique, wonderful, and inspiring response to the pandemic isolation.

According to Langston, “loneliness” was the basis for beginning the project initially. “There are many fine, high-brow intellectual pursuits and theories being explored in TELEPHONE, but the beginning was just plain loneliness, which is a splendid impetus for making art and for playing games,” he explains. The project was not originally created due to the COVID-19 experience.
“For the first game, published in 2015, it was because I moved to New York and knew nobody. I figured it to be a good trick for meeting other artists and it worked!” he enthuses. “This time around it was the pandemic and the intense isolation we all suddenly faced. This game is a marvelous gimmick for interacting with strangers, via the internet, in a very intimate way. I hope it works again.” 

Langston connected with artists by initially by contacting everyone who had participated in his first game of Telephone. “That was a start. Then we posted on places like Then we got promoted by folks like Baltimore Review, and Human Hotel in Copenhagen, and Satellite Collective in New York. But ultimately, most of it came (fittingly) from word-of-mouth. All of a sudden, you’d get a bunch of submissions from Berlin or from Buenos Aires or Los Angeles and you’d know that someone there was spreading the word.”

The basic set-up for the project, along with writing a newsletter each week and showcase on social media, is “introducing artists to the folks that made the works before them and after them. Beyond that, we’re setting up our own social platform for the artists to commune with one another. There’s a decent chance that this communion will outlive the exhibition itself,” Langston says.

The project is entirely voluntary for both participants and administrators, he explains. “Our team of ten people (in five time zones) has done this for no money, profit, or revenue. Only three of us have ever met in real life. The entire cost of the project will be about $150. And yet we’ve put in thousands of hours of work and the artists have put in tens upon tens of thousands of hours of work. The entirety of TELEPHONE is driven by hope and generosity and the goodwill of strangers. That’s scary – that we could let down more than 900 artists across the globe.”

Siems, Telephone; Image courtesy of the artist

Langston has no intention of disappointing anyone, and his and his staff’s dedication has more than paid off. “We get letters from players all over the world that elicit instant, joyful tears – letters about how TELEPHONE has been a light during a spectacularly dark year. The other thing – as with the first game of TELEPHONE – many of these artworks seem telepathic. They clearly translate figurative information, let’s say from an abstract painting, that is startlingly precise. We regularly get works back that make all the hairs stand on end. It’s because criticism has not yet been able to accurately describe many of the expressive capabilities of art.”

 The project is nothing if not as massive as it is cutting-edge and inclusive. The end result will be a digitally-mounted exhibition that compiles a “museum of original, interconnected works by artists from 477 cities in 69 countries. Though it’s not a real comparison, because they are such different projects, TELEPHONE is 6 or 7 times the size of the Whitney Biennial. As of this moment, we have passed our original, secret message 7,116,407 kilometers (or 4,442,875 miles) back and forth across the face of the planet. That’s more than 175 times around the circumference of the Earth and more than 9 round trips to the Moon.”

With that in mind, the online exhibition will be online, using an interactive site built by engineers and developers from Google and created by UX designers from Dropbox and Microsoft. “It will trace the original message through hundreds of different paths composed of many art forms, like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure, through a vast variety of direct artistic translations. It will debut in April 2021 and be free to the public in perpetuity,” Langston attests.

It is not an exhibition that could be staged physically due to cost. “Between shipping and insuring and handling and hanging works, as well as securing a space large enough to house 950+ original works from every corner of Earth, the cost could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions.” This is of course a far cry from the enormous project’s miniscule $150 budget.

Langston experienced many highlight moments during the project, which he describes as “The moments when a work is too good to be true and one stands up, electrified, and hollers in an empty apartment and dances. It happens somewhat often. Or the inside jokes, like when you assign an artist in Iran to an artist in Israel. Or when you send a work from Moscow to deep red Texas. Every artist also sent in a description of what it was like to play and those descriptions of the process have been deeply moving, like a time capsule for this otherworldly year.”

But the ultimate highlight were those letters of thanksgiving that he received. “An artist has poured in 20 hours or more of difficult work on a gorgeous work and then sent along a note about how it sustained them during an extremely hard time. They’re thanking us? They’re thanking us for gifting us the digital rights of a masterpiece? It’s outside our reckoning of the functioning art market as we normally figure it. Apologies for the seeming hyperbole but it is holy and even more holy within the context of those that came before and after them. And when we introduce one artist to another? Those conversations can take your breath away.”

While physically located near the Puget Sound, Langston feels that the initial network he reached out to, which was based in NYC, made a real impact on TELEPHONE as a project. “If we had started in Bogota or in Nairobi or Hyderabad, the initial wave would have spread from there and we would have a very different timbre for the game.”

He stresses that no one involved in the project cares about money or getting famous. “Our little team has no ulterior motives. We’d like our folks to look back on this historically devastating time as a moment when we pulled off an impossibly beautiful international project.” He adds “We do care about helping our artists and care about anyone who has helped us. What we found out is that when real trouble goes down, the real purpose of art is revealed. When the whole world gets sick, art is a proper medicine.”

Langston is aware of and delighted with Call & Response, the collaborative project originating in Los Angeles. He stresses that “Call & Response is a gorgeous project, and everyone involved deserves the highest of fives. They trace their ancestry to the Exquisite Corpse games of the Surrealists as do we. But Breton and those fine folk didn’t invent the game. They stole it too. TELEPHONE can be traced back at least to the 18th century, when it was a parlor game of the aristocracy called Consequences.” He laughs “I guess no one had invented a telephone back then. It most certainly preceded that incarnation as well.”
He believes that everyone should be investigating the Internet as a medium for art, and “how information moves and changes and is degraded and supplemented as it is passed from person to person.”

In conclusion he says, “More than anything, TELEPHONE is a creature of necessity. We could not have parties or gallery shows or go to ballets or attend concerts. The internet has been a mile wide and an inch deep and, of a sudden, we needed it to be a mile wide and a mile deep.”

Karen Hochman Brown, Call & Response; Image courtesy of the artist

In Los Angeles, Kristine Schomaker runs a variety of artist-based projects, including Shoebox Arts and Shoebox Projects, which has served as both a physical and virtual gallery space. Her community-based focus led to the inspiration for Call & Response. “When the pandemic started, I sat down with my team at Shoebox and talked about what was going on in the world, in our city and in our art community. We were anticipating artists needs and knew as a support network for artists, we had to up our game in how we were supporting artists and helping them remain in the studio, keeping their communities growing, giving them deadlines and distractions and letting them know, they are valued and their practice is needed and wanted. Round 1 of Call & Response was in March 2020, and we are going on Round 11 in January 2021.”

She found that social media was the best way to get the word out about the project initially. “There are many calls for art/art opportunity groups which I posted in as well as posting on our Facebook pages and my personal accounts. Facebook and Instagram are integral in sharing the information about the project. Since then, we are also posting on call for art websites, to help get the word out to a more diverse and widespread audience.

Schomaker says the biggest challenge of the project so far has been technology. Each of the 11 Call & Response iterations lasts two weeks, at the end of which, the artists’ work is posted in an online exhibition on which is a WordPress site. She notes. “Wordpress is very glitchy and it can take me 3 to 5 hours a day to add all the images and caption information. Then the caption information sometimes doesn’t show up… and sometimes it does.”

The challenges aside, the pleasures of the ongoing collaborative exhibitions are many. “First, it’s
when I get the work from the artists and see the amazing collaborations that take place. The end result of Call & Response isn’t the most important part, to me the process of the artists working together is the most inspiring part of the whole project. I have participated several times with different artists, and it is always a gift creating something new, staying connected and thinking outside the box in the moment.” Beyond the artwork itself, she finds the artist talk that accompanies the online opening of each two-week collaborative session to be “so inspiring, lovely and empowering hearing the artists talk about their new friendships, or experiments in playing with new media or help getting through the stress, depression, anxiety of living during the pandemic. It is a joy hearing their thought process of working with another artist and can be emotional depending on the subject matter. One of our rounds took place in June during the protests with Black Lives Matter. Several artists’ collaborations centered on this.”

Kayla Cloonan, Maybe I Could See Clearly if the Cravings Subsided, Call & Response; Image courtesy of the artist

Schomaker had initially thought of taking the works created during the project to an in-person exhibition when the pandemic ends. “But then the project grew. We have had over 300 artists participating and I think it would be an enormous project to put together in person.” As noted, Shoebox has hosted online exhibitions after each round, which can be found on their website

Like Langston, she is more than gratified by the response from participants to the project. “Many, many artists have thanked me for organizing Call & Response. They have tried new media and are even going to continue working with the artists they were paired up with. For each round, the artists are paired randomly so they have no idea how their collaborations are going to work out.” She adds “Participating has definitely inspired my own work. I have experimented with video performance and started a more regular drawing practice. It has made me question why I am doing what I am doing on a deeper level and even identify it more.”

She notes that while favorite moments and connections are too many to name, she regards one recent collaboration as particularly special “between artists Ibuki Kuramochi and Sean-Michael Gettys. Their videos played off of each other’s so well. It was really beautiful.”

Schomaker says the project will be ongoing for as long as it is needed. “Things won’t get back to normal for a while and artists will need the community and connection for a long time. I would love to continue to get new artists signing up for the project and let it grow. It is international with artists participating from the UK, India, Belgium and Japan which is very exciting.”

On a personal level, “Call & Response has helped me think of other ways to support artists. I started a free peer mentorship program, where I pair artists up to mentor/mentee each other to help them in their careers. We have had over 100 artists sign up so far. And it is international.
My own work has changed in that I understand it more and am able to contextualize it more than ever. Doing the drawings that I did for Call & Response gave me the opportunity to look deeper into my paintings, so I am excited to see where they take me next.” 

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