Tom Milnes interviews Bob Bicknell-Knight

Tom Milnes worked with Modern Art Oxford on Activating our Archives, a project that culminated with an event he co-curated with the Activating our Archives project lead Sunil Shah. This Image is No Longer Available took place on April 27 and was a celebration of both the project and the ways that artists and art galleries work with digital space and online presence. Below Tom discusses the relationship between contemporary art and digital media and the advantages of curating both online and offline with Bob Bicknell-Knight, founder of isthisis? an online platform for contemporary art.

The relationship between contemporary art and digital media can be a confusing affinity for artists. Although artists themselves embrace a wealth of post-digital practices, the institutional context for its dissemination can seem archaic. Somehow, contemporary digital practice can seem curtailed by red brick institutions and established commercial paths. However, with artist-led practice being priced out of formally affordable city spaces and the rise of Post-Digital Practices amongst artists has led to a demand for curated online platforms. A number of initiatives exploring the effects of the internet’s impress have emerged in recent years providing a stage for prescient, critical practices which assess the socio-cultural influence of digital media. Notably, these initiatives are independent and provide vital support for emerging artists.

Tom Milnes: isthisit? has been running since May 2016, nearly 3 years now. What were your motivations for setting it up back then?

Bob Bicknell-Knight: I launched isthisit? in the middle of 2016 as a simple, easy and cost effective way of learning about what a curator was and could be. Also at the time I was studying for my BA in Fine Art at university, and no one in my group of friends was making work that aligned with my own interests, so I decided to create a digital platform that resided on the internet, allowing me to interact with hundreds of artists and curators around the world who were making and curating work that I had, and continue to be, influenced by. I began the platform by hosting weekly online exhibitions, which slowly evolved into organising an online residency and inviting other curators to produce online exhibitions for the platform, alongside curating offline exhibitions and designing and editing a series of books.

TM: Is this the main advantage of curating an online space then that it gives an artist or curator a certain flexibility with who they work with and how they create shows? What else do you think is advantageous to online curating?

BBK: Organising online exhibitions does allow me to reach out to anyone, whether it’s an artist I’ve just met at a private view in London or a curator that I’ve never met whose based in America. The ability to create an unlimited amount of web pages also allows you to work with as many artists as you’d like, a premise that Àngels Miralda pushed to extremes when she organised I don’t wanna curate anymore, I just wanna accumulate content in 2016, launched online in collaboration with Chalton Gallery, London. There were well over 100 artists in that exhibition, a lot of organisational labour, although fairly minimal in relation to a physical exhibition of a similar scale.

So, for me the main advantages are being able to work with anyone you’d like, as long as they reply to your email, alongside having low overhead costs, with a domain and website builder costing around £50 a year. Even though a lot of galleries do look down on the online model, and don’t really class the online exhibition as noteworthy in an artist’s CV, I think the online gallery is a fantastic space to experiment and reach a larger, worldwide, audience. Although I’d love to have a physical space in the future, for the moment the online gallery is a good alternative.

TM: So, do you think there will be more crossover between these spaces in the future? Between physical galleries and online platforms? What areas would you like to see isthisit? exploring in the future?

BBK: I think there are already crossovers occurring within offline gallery spaces, but the idea of the online exhibition is usually tagged onto a larger, physical exhibition, rather than being the main centrepiece. It usually feels a little like an afterthought, or simply extra content for you to sort through. A space that executes this well is Arebyte, a physical gallery space on London City Island, which has an accompanying platform called Arebyte on screen (AOS), dedicated to artist videos, multimedia experiences and curatorial interventions utilising digital formats to address current political, economic and theoretical discussion, viewable 24/7 both online and via a screen in the gallery window. Another great example is Daata Editions, an online platform that commissions digital art functioning predominantly on the internet whilst collaborating with physical galleries, exhibiting at art fairs and organising screenings, showcasing the work that’s been commissioned, purchasable on their website. For Daata it’s a way of physicalising the artworks in order to sell them, so even though they’re a fantastic platform that provides artists with money and resources, they’re still intent on showing the work in physical spaces so that people will actually see and engage with the art, rather than simply opening a tab on a computer and not bothering to watch a whole video, listen to an audio clip or read a poem. Crossovers are and will continue to occur, but offline experiences are still the most important thing within art, even though most of our time is spent looking at our phones.

I guess everything isthisit? does offline stems from beginning as an online platform, starting out on the internet, but when I’m invited by a gallery to curate an offline exhibition or when physical copies of the books are printed, I don’t see that as specifically taking online work offline, or the online collaborating with the offline. I’m involved in both, and don’t think either/or is mutually exclusive anymore.

For isthisit?, I’d like to have my own physical gallery space in the future. Working with artists over long periods of time to put together in depth, considered exhibitions would be the dream, alongside carrying on with my own artistic practice. But to do that, especially in London, would require money and connections that I don’t have access to at the moment. I love curating online exhibitions and being able to work with hundreds of artists around the world, but it rarely if ever feels as valued as an offline exhibition. For now I’m working with a number of guest curators for different online exhibitions on the platform in the future, collaborating more with physical gallery spaces to organise offline exhibitions alongside continuing to produce books as part of an ongoing series. For now that keeps me busy, accompanied by working two part time jobs and continuing with my own artistic output.

Bob Bicknell-Knight is the founder and current director of isthisit?, a platform for contemporary art, exhibiting over 700 artists since its creation in 2016. Online, it operates as a gallery producing monthly exhibitions showcasing emerging to mid-career artists, hosting a roster of guest curators experimenting with the medium of the internet to interrogate a variety of concepts. The website also hosts monthly residencies, where artists are given a web page to create new work that exists on the internet as a piece of net art. Offline, it has held exhibitions nationally and internationally and is the publisher of isthisit?, a book series released on a triannual basis.

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