Beyond the Edge of Our Skin

What could the art world learn from coronavirus? Reflections of a nomadic art globetrotter in her quarantine in Tuscany.

Irene Campolmi on the Great Chinese Wall, a trip made during her residency at The Shanghai Curators Lab, 2019.

Almost two weeks ago, when all European governments took active measurements to prevent the increasing spread of COVID-19, the art world’s inboxes have been bombarded with emails announcing that the scheduled exhibition, symposium, talk, or reading had been unfortunately cancelled until further notice. 

Dear art world, thank you for letting us know. It was obvious that business would not run as usual during a pandemic crisis. This episode emphasised a thought I have had for a long time: we, in the art world, are obsessed with letting each other know what we do, think, and wish. We are fully immersed in a culture of announcements and we care that information is circulated around. The medium is our message, to paraphrase Marshall McLuhan. 

Last week, when I was in Italy to visit my family, I witnessed history unfolding in front of me while Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte announced the country’s lockdown on national TV. My immediate reaction was to write a Facebook post to inform my digital friends that the virus was a serious issue not to be underestimated and that for this reason, I wouldn’t return to Copenhagen, where I usually live, for a little while. I was shocked about the news of a total lockdown, but I was mostly astonished to see how friends around the world would post on Instagram Stories images of their art fair tours, openings, studio visits, talks, or artsy dinners. 

While scrolling my friends’ Instagram feeds and watching in real-time the art world enjoying its events, I realised I was living in the present a situation that the rest of the world would experience in the nearest future: going grocery shopping with medical masks and plastic gloves, and being prohibited to go out, even for a walk. In the short story ‘The Dead’, James Joyce calls this moment of awareness “epiphany.” It is a moment of revelation in which, all of a sudden, the future reveals itself in the present. In this precise instant, we unexpectedly perceive the advent of a change. 

Installation of Island Thinking at MAH – Museum Angra do Heroísmo, Terceira, The Azores (artist Regina de Miguel, artist Jakob Kudsk Steensen, and curators Irene Campolmi and Àngels Miralda); Estonian Pavilion, 58th Venice Biennial team, co-curated by Campolmi; At the opening of the New MoMA, NYC, October 2019.

As a freelance curator, my job is to ‘work around’ wherever I get invited or have an opportunity. Travelling and moving my body has been my primary means not only to learn the boundaries of my human finitude, but also to discover the many different ‘mes’ I could be and fall in love with the multitude of ‘otherness’ I encountered: cultures, people, landscapes, cities, histories, smells, flavours, foods, and colours. 

Last year, I travelled across three continents and thirteen countries in seven months to the extent that those who hadn’t met me before got to know me as #acuratorlonelyplanet, the handle of my Instagram account. Yet, these days lived in a country in total lockdown, I started questioning the value of my nomadic lifestyle. I wondered whether all my travelling would not come to an end and how my hyperactive body, used to train in exhibition marathons, would resiliently adapt to a new order.

Ursula Le Guin talks about the body as a carrier, a microcosmic universe that collects and carries, but also disperses memories of our past, present, and future. I thought whether in my trips I had also carried with me COVID-19, even if without any symptom. I realised that if Italy hadn’t been locked down, I would have probably continued my globetrotter life. Then I understood how bodies who are positive carriers of Covid-19 are an example of the many other social malady we carry around without noticing it. This is how the infected cases multiplied exponentially, because people who were positive to the virus didn’t think that the restrictions to stay home were addressed to them directly. 

The ways people got infected seem to inform us that we carry the novel coronavirus unconsciously the same way we do with another virus, that typical Western perspective of putting the individual’s interests and needs before everything else. The art world is sick of that virus. We notice its latent presence in different contexts and forms: when curators and artists travel without thinking if their presence is essential in the place they visit; when art institutions prioritise the need to realise their program regardless of the ridiculous salaries they can offer to collaborators, interns, artists, and curators; when an art fair pushes its own agenda without even considering the desires and expectations of the community of gallerists, collectors, artists, and curators it supposedly serves and benefits; when we – the art audience – feel we are somehow ‘different’ from the rest of the people working and travelling the world for other business. 

Irene Campolmi at the School of Visual Arts in NYC during her talk in the MA in Curating.

Unfortunately, we are no different than the rest. The art world is a hub of contagion, and we infect each other with our mindless attitude for which our business comes first. As we can stop the increasing numbers of novel coronavirus infections, we can also stop the diffusion of this ‘social’ virus. The quarantine we experience today due to COVID-19 offers us an opportunity to reflect on time, space, and mobility differently. The art world, which always expects you to be there, is nowadays challenged to find ways to come to you. Interestingly, art institutions around the world, from museums to artist-run spaces, are slowly exploring digital platforms to make art accessible online as never before. Superflex’s motto “All data to the people,” could not be more prophetic within a pandemic. 

These days provide everyone the opportunity to imagine new dynamics which could structure the post-pandemic art world. These days teach us to place human interests first and consider the impact of our practice beyond the edge of our skin. If we all use this time alone to question the essence and scope of our artistic and curatorial practices, we might rediscover that vibrant and intimate passion for art that, back in the days, we almost didn’t want to share with anyone. Let us spend time with that passion that we made into a life project, and that urged us to take a distance from social conventions.

Dear art world friends, colleagues, enemies, and competitors, in these times, we are asked to live in quarantine, and it an unconventional condition. We advocate social distancing as the new passive form of activism, mentioning it on hashtags that we hope could gather a critical mass around the topic. Let us use this opportunity to pave the way to construct the community we have only dreamt of before, and, maybe, focus more on connecting emphatically than keeping social distance.

For the last 12 days Irene Campolmi has been in quarantine in Poggibonsi, Tuscany. Like everybody else she goes grocery shopping wearing a face mask and plastic gloves, waiting in line at the pharmacy and the supermarket for many hours.