Utilising the digital realm has taken on a new meaning for artists and art institutions globally. As galleries quickly crafted ways to virtually engage with their audiences in a meaningful way, the promotion and creation of new work often became a secondary consideration. Recognising the need to continue to work with and support contemporary artists during a period of suspended living (and consequently, working), the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art (ACCA) launched a new commissioning program in April – inviting Australian artists and collectives to submit ideas for new projects to be presented online.

Art Almanac spoke to ACCA’s senior curator, Annika Kristensen about the six commissioned projects, which she described as being ‘united by a sense of possibility for both art and technology to spark curiosity and create connection in new and original ways. Included among the projects are a soundtrack, an AI chatbot, 3D animated film and an infinite audio-visual process – each of which will offer audiences multiple ways to digitally engage with art – from anywhere and at any time… the opportunity has encouraged the artists to themselves ‘do art differently’ and adapt their ways of working for the current landscape in which we find ourselves. Further proof of the enduring creativity and resilience of artists, as well as the relevance of art and culture in testing times.’

Sean Peoples, OFFWORLD, 2020 (production still). Courtesy the artist, STATION, Melbourne and Sydney and Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne

I understand you had an overwhelming response to the original call-out (and were fortunate to receive additional funding to expand the commission base), congratulations, the number of applicants speaks volumes to the inherent need and urgency for this type of opportunity. Did shortlisting the finalists present any difficulties?

We received an incredible response to the ACCA Open callout, with over 340 applications submitted from artists across Australia. Shortlisting these to a final six projects was a humbling experience, but we had a great panel of people who each brought particular knowledge, interests, skills and subjectivities to the shortlisting process. The overall list of six artists are representative of many generous and generative conversations that took place throughout the process (which was much smoother than it could have been!) and in the end we landed with a group of projects that I think we were all very happy to agree upon.

As curators, the shortlisting process also introduced us to practices that we were unaware of; to artists from around Australia; and to projects that artists were working on at a time when studio visits were impossible. As such, the shortlisting process also served as curatorial research for projects outside of the ACCA Open opportunity. Kent Morris’ recent billboard project Never alone (currently on display in St Kilda as an offsite project in the lead-up to ACCA’s forthcoming exhibition ‘Who’s Afraid of Public Space?’) came out of an original proposal for ACCA Open, and likewise do we hope that there are many other opportunities to work with other artists that we discovered through the ACCA Open callout over the coming months and years.

Amrita Hepi and Sam Lieblich, Neighbour, 2020 (still). Courtesy the artists Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne

The role of a curator is arguably continuously in development. How did you approach curating a solely online show, did you have to revalue and reset engagement considerations?

The restrictions placed upon us during the COVID-19 pandemic have certainly made me reflect upon my role as a curator, as well as that of an art institution at a time during which we cannot physically welcome the public into the gallery. In the early days of the first lockdown, ACCA staff met as a team to discuss how we might continue to do the work that we do within these prescribed circumstances. ACCA Open came out of that discussion and in essence, it is no different to how we might go about curating an exhibition during ‘normal’ circumstances. We wanted the opportunity to support artists in the creation of new work – with commissioning being an important part of our regular exhibition programs – while also reflecting ACCA’s mission to ‘Do Art Differently’. While we may usually work within a physical gallery space, a large part of our role as curators is responding to the specifics of a site, and here that site just so happens to be online. Across all our programs – education, public programs and exhibitions – ACCA has embraced the capacity for digital programming to reach new and diverse audiences, including people interstate, overseas, or otherwise unable to physically access the gallery. We’ve learnt a lot through the process of adjusting to the digital delivery of our programs, and much that we will continue to put into use in the future, even when we can return to more regular gallery-based exhibitions and events.

Sean Peoples, OFFWORLD, 2020 (production still). Courtesy the artist, STATION, Melbourne and Sydney and Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne

Can you explain how you have worked with the six recipients to realise their projects? 

Working with each of the artists during a time of enforced physical distancing and isolation has been counter to the way that we usually like to work at ACCA – although I did manage one studio visit in person during the weeks between lockdowns which was a rare treat! As such, we’ve probably been less hands-on than we may be used to being as curators, and the artists have largely worked independently to develop their works from home. The strange silver-lining to working from home is that people seem much more available to meet, so regular zoom meetings, phone calls and emails have helped us all to stay in touch and keep each project progressing.

Australian Centre for Contemporary Art
19 August to 1 November 2020

The six projects for ACCA Open will be launched online:

From 19 August How much time do we have? by Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey. Also, Neighbour by Amrita Hepi and Sam Lieblich.
From 30 September Multiply by Archie Barry and AOAULI by Dr Léuli Eshrāghi.
From 28 October OFFWORLD by Sean Peoples and The Magic Mountain by Zanny Begg.