Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 11, 2021
There Are Times and Places
Koffler.Digital, Koffler Centre of the Arts, Toronto, 2019–ongoing
Wuulhu, detail from Emergency Indigenous Meme Machine, 2019, digital image, from There Are Times and Places, Koffler.Digital, Koffler Centre of the Arts, Toronto, 2019,

(Click here to view the online exhibition.)

Under the direction of Letticia Cosbert Miller, There Are Times and Places appears on Koffler.Digital, the web platform of Toronto’s Koffler Centre of the Arts. Launched in 2019, the show is ideal for the homebound circumstances of 2021. It features original projects by Wuulhu, Mani Mazinani, Coco Guzmán, and collaborators asinnajaq and Dayna Danger, all designed to be rendered on a web browser. This strategy hearkens back to the early days of net art, but it has received renewed attention as the conditions of the pandemic highlight the importance of exhibitions that directly engage the internet as an artistic environment.

The show’s website playfully acknowledges these web-based art histories. The stylized navigation bar will be familiar to any former users of Netscape, and the pages cultivate a distinctive 1990s GeoCities aesthetic: backgrounds feature twinkling stars and falling raindrops; animated graphics and ROFLing ASCIIcopters dance across the screen; a visitor counter appears frozen on 1337. These elements contrast with the technical sophistication of the site’s overall design, highlighting the head-spinning speed of aesthetic “periods” on the web and the resulting agility and adaptability of net art.

A reflective essay by production assistant Emma Steen offers a more serious framework for the exhibition. Steen departs from a 1996 text by Métis Cree Canadian artist and activist Loretta Todd that examines the promise and perils of approaching the internet as a (cyber)space of liberation, a subject that preoccupied many thinkers as computer networks were entering daily life. Steen focuses on Todd’s speculation that cyberspace might “enable people to communicate in ways that rupture the power relations of the colonizer and the colonized” (“Aboriginal Narratives in Cyberspace,” in Immersed in Technology, MIT Press, 180). Acknowledging the power imbalances that dominate today’s internet, Steen nevertheless makes the case for the decolonizing potential of the artworks in this exhibition. But her argument rests on a series of familiar conceptual slippages: the internet is more accessible than offline institutions, and accessibility is equivalent to democracy; participation—which, online, is inevitably conflated with clickability—is inherently empowering for art’s audiences; the inclusion of Indigenous artists (three out of five identify as Indigenous) always produces a decolonial frame. Ultimately, Steen’s text falls short in its task to unravel the complexities of the exhibition’s artworks. The essay thus does a disservice to the works, reading them through reductive notions of form, content, and artist biography.

The “About” page asserts the exhibition’s general curatorial vision: that the works in There Are Times and Places all address the social functions and failures of computer networks. This is also not quite accurate; the internet is site but not necessarily subject for all of the included projects. However, There Are Times and Places has brought together a group of artworks that effectively use the web to explore how we know and how that shapes personal and collective identity.

Following the order of the navigation menu (although I encourage you to enjoy the freedom to meander between artworks without architectural constraint), the first project is the only one that directly addresses Steen’s decolonial frame. Wuulhu’s Emergency Indigenous Meme Machine greets visitors with a vivid red graphic of an arcade game—red is one of the project’s many knowingly generic signifiers of Indigeneity. Inside the game window is a Wuulhu “Indigi-meme,” Oblivious Anime Guy sporting a mustache and stylized Native tattoos, his book labeled BAKWAM. Clicking the right and left arrows browses through the artist’s often darkly critical meme collection: Pikachu holding a “DeCOLONIZE” banner; shocked Pooh Bear reading the Indian Act; a drowning red hand being high-fived by the white hand hovering above. Hitting “SPIN” sends the image whirling along three axes to produce a random tripart image; “SAVE” allows you to download either whole or spliced memes. Aside from Koffler’s institutional watermark on the downloaded image, the project embraces the meme’s condition as an authorless, distributed, and endlessly iterative format. By lacing its images with free-floating signs of Native-ness, the Machine also highlights how network culture exacerbates the disembodied, circulatory quality of Indigeneity itself. Critic Aria Dean has argued that, online, Blackness appears less as a characteristic of an individual and more as an unmoored, consumable formation, exemplified by the meme. I am borrowing from Dean to suggest that what we might elsewhere call the appropriation of Indigenous culture appears in Wuulhu’s Meme Machine as a similar dislocation and promiscuous circulation, intensified by the internet’s tendency to encourage the exaggeration and consumption of Otherness. But Wuulhu’s memes also contain words and graphics that speak directly to specific, contemporary Indigenous knowledge. These referents don’t resist legibility—lmgtfy—so much as demonstrate a lack of interest in whether or not they can be read by anyone else, thereby alluding to the promise of the internet as a tool for autonomous communication and collectivity. Threading between spectacle and critique, the Emergency Indigenous Meme Machine thus sits simultaneously in the neocolonial and anti-colonial potentials of life online.

Next is Mani Mazinani’s Bounded; however, astute visitors will soon realize they’ve been encountering his work across the site in the pitches and drones that rise and fall as you browse. Bounded is also primarily a sound work, although its black screen and gray text feel like an abrupt silencing after the visual noise of the main site. At the center of the page is a randomly selected phrase from a set of Heraclitean fragments; you can generate a new text by hitting the refresh symbol. I first encountered “As they step into the same rivers, other and still other waters flow upon them,” which some philosophers treat as a parable for how we experience music: repetition defined by change. Unpredictable change is at the core of Heraclitean philosophy, and contingency likewise shapes the experience of Bounded. Visitors can click on white letters scattered throughout the phrases to generate sounds, building to a crescendo or toggling them individually. The work also asks you to attend to variable factors like equipment, sound perception, and ambient noise, imbricating network and physical environments and gesturing toward the compositional experiments of John Cage. Connecting the ancient and contemporary, intellectual and sensory, Bounded is an elegant web application that invites consideration of different forms of knowing across time.

Whimsy returns with Coco Guzmán’s What is that?, an animated game in which you play a postapocalyptic archaeologist excavating the goods left behind by a lost generation. Guzmán introduces the premise in the style of a web comic before bringing players into the gameboard-cum–dig site. A click of each of your shovels (turns) excavates a mound, revealing a found object and the inquiry, “What is this?” You can choose from three imagined uses, acted out by curious, alien animals: a Polaroid camera, or “a mirror that is always late”; a floppy disk, or “a very small flat in a very expensive city (Toronto?)”; a cassette, or “a pair of awesome glasses.” Once you’ve used up your shovels, you can save an image of your board and/or play again to uncover more mounds. All the buried objects are twentieth-century art and information technologies that linger today between nostalgia and obsolescence and, like Bounded, allude to how knowing changes over time. But Guzmán’s game asks us to reflect specifically on how we record and share knowledge, and the possibility that a loss of one form of communication could produce new and surprising ways of being in the world—although it seems that our postapocalyptic universe still hasn’t escaped the economic conditions that threaten to price artists out of the urban hubs where so much of today’s knowledge is produced.

The final project diverges from the clickable web-application format, instead, as Steen argues, asking the viewer to participate by bearing witness. asinnajaq and Dayna Danger’s Intimacy Piece is a looping video featuring a body hovering just below the surface of a gray expanse of water. The performance unfolds at a slow, meditative pace; it feels luxurious to watch in the comfort of your own home. As the water shimmers, flashes of hair and limbs come in and out of view; eventually a new hand appears, drifting tenderly through locks of hair, never quite touching flesh. The water acts as both a barrier to connection and a conveyer of intimacy across distance, ripples lapping from one body to the next. Framed in 2019 as a staging of vulnerability amid the struggle of human relationships, the longing this video inspires is sharpened today by pandemic life and the conflicting fear and desire that now suffuses the thought of close contact.

In Intimacy Piece, knowing happens in the body. Elsewhere in There Are Times and Places, knowing occurs through symbols and ideas, listening and playing, excavating and reimagining. By exploring these themes online, the works in the exhibition simultaneously embrace and challenge the internet’s status as dominant repository of human knowledge, asking us to consider a time when the material and social conditions produced by networked life will be transformed. What do we want the world to look, sound, feel like then?

Megan Driscoll
Assistant Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art History, University of Richmond