For those with an internet connection, the global pandemic has turned the home into a nexus of unprecedented data transmissions. We stream anything and everything into and out of our living rooms—news flashes and Netflix, tutorials and music videos, business meetings and happy hours.
But museums? We’ve got a bit of a problem. Even as the commercial video streaming industry has accelerated into new territories, many museums’ moving image collections have remained remarkably stagnant, with online information limited to simple synopses and video stills. How can we share video art from our home to yours?
Enter curator Jihoi Lee of the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Korea (MMCA). Earlier this year, Lee reached out to curators across Asia—at M+ in Hong Kong, the Museum of Contemporary Art and Design (MCAD) in Manila, and MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum in Chiang Mai—to develop an online streaming platform for video art. Watch & Chill, a subscription-based service, launched in August 2021 and will stay online until February 2022. Below, Silke Schmickl (Lead Curator, Moving Image), speaks to Lee about the online/offline curatorial strategies behind this collaboration.
Silke Schmickl: Hi Jihoi! When you reached out to us at M+ a few months ago to share your idea of Watch & Chill: Streaming Art to Your Homes, we felt immediately excited. The project addresses several urgent questions that art institutions are facing and offers some innovative answers.
Firstly, the need to imagine new ways of audience engagement beyond the physical space of museums. The pandemic made it clear that engaging audiences through the digital in times when we can’t travel is key to stay close and connected. While the pandemic accelerated this need, it has been an urgent and to a large extent unresolved challenge for museums since the 2000s to adapt their activity to an increasingly digital world without losing focus on their core mission, which is to creatively work with the collection and make it accessible to audiences.
Secondly, the project invents a new form of inter-institutional collaboration: the exchange of moving image works from four significant Asian museums on both an online streaming platform and in the physical spaces of these institutions. Drawing on the digital nature and reproducibility of these works, Watch & Chill reactivates their natural, fluid circulation—a circulation often interrupted in the context of museum collections, where they are treated as unique, collectable objects.
Jihoi Lee: Indeed, it is an era where the role of art museums is put to the test in terms of public engagement, when myriads of media content constantly distract us. This tendency has certainly gained momentum, particularly so with the pandemic. Creating a digital platform that aims to broaden public access is a way to respond to the changing habits of audiences, quite literally bringing art into their ‘homes’. Watch & Chill is intended as a platform where museums, artists, and audiences cross paths, becoming a mediator that enables such an exchange.
This project is funded by the Korean Government. As a national museum under the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, one of our missions at the MMCA is to execute a global outreach programme, Art Hallryu, in an attempt to introduce Korean culture abroad. Given the programme’s framework, the first thought that came to my mind was to find ways to make this opportunity a multilateral exchange, rather than simply informing others of the content of our collections. At the core of this exchange, there was a question of sharing resources, which included not only collections, but also manpower, administration, and the physical infrastructures of each museum.
I do value how the museum collection gravitates towards more conservative ways of treating objects for the sake of eternity. However, a digital file in a hard drive that sits in storage is, in effect, the material reality of most video collections. Information about these works on a museum website is often limited to a simple description and a still image, which is never enough to comprehend the works. How do we find ways to activate and mobilise these collections while seeking further audiences? Can we adopt aspects of the sharing economy?
Watch & Chill is that experimental portal of time and space which enhances the fluid possibilities of moving image collections, thanks to the kind permissions of the artists and each collaborating museum.
Silke: I agree that museums’ approaches to collecting and preserving moving image works with the same professional care and standards that are applied to other art objects is extremely important. Not only for the purpose of conservation, but also to acknowledge that artists’ moving images are an integral part of twentieth- and twenty-first-century visual culture.
The meaningful activation of a collection is also key for any institution, and Watch & Chill offers an exciting opportunity to intervene in the intermediate space between unlimited, arbitrary, and freely accessible streaming content on the internet and the extremely well-researched narrative of a museum collection. We are often caught between these two extreme approaches, which both have their own relevance and function.
Over the last decade, online film services such as Netflix have successfully addressed this market niche by expanding their activity as a former DVD rental company into the digital realm, offering a wide range of accessible entertainment as well as curated content. Our project also explores this interstitial space by bringing compelling artistic content to viewers’ homes, allowing them to discover these artworks in a new setting and at their own pace.
The title obviously also critically challenges Netflix’s associated habit of watching, if not simply consuming, moving image content from home: ‘Netflix and chill’. How would you describe the difference between Watch & Chill and other streaming platforms? I’m especially interested in the curatorial gestures we’ve taken to relate it back to the serious research and interpretation we practice in our institutions.
Jihoi: Unlike the general over-the-top (OTT) services, the Watch & Chill platform will only be open to the public for a certain period of time before turning dormant. Starting from this year’s grand launch, the Watch & Chill platform will re-launch with versions 2.0 and 3.0 in the coming years with different collaborating art institutions. The ephemeral character of this periodic opening is similar to the cyclical nature of exhibitions at art museums, a forever beta run to better our systems and deepen our curatorial endeavours.
Staging the ‘home’ as a primary site for consuming the Watch & Chill streaming platform, our curatorial research began by speculating how perception of the very notion of ‘domesticity’ has changed. Linked via an unprecedented amount of data transmissions, our homes have gone beyond the mere private function of ‘dwelling’ and have long entered the public realm. The twenty-two selected video works reflect on this expanded ethos of home and have been grouped together with specifically constructed narratives.
The content of the platform is also physically embodied at each collaborating museum, in the form of exhibitions in Seoul and Chiang Mai, a drive-in cinema in Manila, and a series of screenings, talks, and a Mediatheque display in Hong Kong. I think this duality of actual and virtual presentation offers a meaningful level of flexibility, while re-affirming each watching experience to be a unique one.
Silke: This hybrid format is a truly pioneering curatorial experiment that also speaks of mutual trust and curiosity. Each institution had the freedom to select works from their own collection and arts communities, which they felt were relevant for this format and the four themes relating to this notion of ‘home’.
The project opens with ‘Things in My Living Room’, which focuses on objects in the house and scenes of their replacement, arrangement, and circulation. The second programme, ‘By the Other Being’, expands beyond material objects to a wider range of domestic companions, including animals, plants, robots, and intruders. ‘Community of Houses’ proposes an updated vision of community living that occurs outside actual neighbourhoods in a complex network of physical and virtual connections in our globalised world. And finally, there is ‘Meta-Home’, in which physical and spiritual notions of home are poetically evoked.
From your point of view, did the thematic approach help to transform the diversity in curatorial tastes and artistic styles into a strength of the project? What were some of the challenges and highlights in co-curating an exhibition from such diverse geographical perspectives and institutional contexts?
Jihoi: To begin with, there was instant excitement from all parties. It had to do with the uncertainty that all museums faced under the influence of COVID-19, and the fact that the project is a breakthrough in the hardship that we all share.
The four sub-themes equally respond to the destabilising reality of our everyday environment as we know it. In the beginning, these categories were roughly structured as I looked into the MMCA's media collection. Oh Min rearranges an array of objects in ABA Video (2016), Cha Jeamin portrays a changing regional community in Fog and Smoke (2013), Koo Donghee examines the estranged linkage between privacy and publicity in CrossxPollination (2016). These videos were the starting point of potential themes related to expanded notions of domesticity.
The loose curatorial structure allowed other stakeholders to add to, subtract, and modify the selections. Going through your collection at M+ helped a lot, because you have an extensive list available online. I proposed some candidates to you that I thought fit with this project, as did you, and we exchanged ideas as per why and how these works could render interesting narratives for specific categories.
Similarly, the interactions with Joselina Cruz of MCAD and Kittima Chareeprasit of MAIIAM were truly congenial and intellectually challenging as we discussed the particularity of each work and how they responded to the four notions of home as we laid out.
Silke: We were so thrilled that the M+ Collection Online, an important feature of our digital presence and open-source policy, inspired you and sparked the discussion around the initial artist list. Cao Fei, Yuan Goang-ming, and CAMP all made it into the final selection. Cao Fei’s ongoing interest in human relationships, interactions with places, and various forms of alienation that come from modernisation was a natural fit, as were CAMP with their extraordinary work around communities and cross-disciplinary, collaborative practice.
We were also keen to develop a relationship with the themes in our opening exhibitions with the works by Wang Gongxin and Jiang Zhi. Wang Gongxin’s The Sky of Brooklyn – digging a hole in Beijing resonates with the themes of diaspora and global connections in the exhibition Individuals, Networks, Expressions. Fly, Fly by Jiang Zhi illustrates a personal experience of change and the profound transformation of everyday life that is evoked throughout M+ Sigg Collection: From Revolution to Globalisation. These connections allow us to further expand the discussion around exhibiting moving images and highlight the medium’s intrinsic and ever-evolving relationship with modernity.
With Yuan Goang-ming, we chose Dwelling, a non-collection work, as a pertinent contribution, and agreed with Cici Wu and Cao Fei on distinct presentations for the physical and online exhibitions. How did your conversations with the artists shape your selection?
Jihoi: While talking to individual artists about the format of an online platform combined with exhibitions, some of them proposed including other recent works that were not part of the museum collection. Kim Heecheon suggested we include Watching ‘Mumbling in Hell, Tumbling down the Well’ alone—a single-channel video piece embedded in a game engine—and Cha Jiryang was eager to make a new work specific for this presentation—a re-enactment of New Home, a performance he had done a decade ago and whose documentation was acquired by the MMCA.
So, by this time already, the rule of the game was not only to present the museum collection, but also to work around it so that it doesn’t limit our imagination.
The participating moving image artists were generally open-minded and have shown a great level of curiosity about this subscription-based streaming platform and its physical embodiment at four museums. The question was on what it means to have the work mobilised to this extent and where to draw the line of controllability from the artist’s point of view.
For these reasons, some artists have altered the way that the work is presented online versus onsite. Kim Heecheon is making an interview video about Sleigh Ride Chill for the platform to further discuss some of the important elements that the work touches upon, while keeping the offline presentation as written in the manual provided when acquiring the work. Koo Donghee is making a commentary video of CrossxPollination for the platform, with the same actor who appeared in 2016. This content will only be available online, for example.
Silke: Watch & Chill’s playful consideration of time and space are essential to the medium of the moving image. The project’s simultaneous online and onsite nature explores ideas of sequentiality in the unfolding of the online content, and malleability, scale, and duration in the various onsite presentations. What are your thoughts on these unique onsite experiences?
Jihoi: For the physical exhibition at MMCA, we invited Farming Architecture (Choi Jangwon) as a participating artist to design the spaces of four chapters of the exhibition. It takes the form of a model house for experiencing the Watch & Chill platform, a simulated home that has transforms into media environments. At each chapter, the architect had envisioned a spatial embodiment of four distinctive concepts: as fragments of home materialised into benches and screens; as floating pods functioning as viewing chambers; as an impactful, circular sitting furniture that connects all places; and, finally, as slanted walls for future home cinema.
At the end of our journey in February next year, we plan to publish a booklet in the format of a White Paper, containing not only the curatorial statements and a list of the artists’ works, but also the statistics of subscribers and their behaviours, and documentation of each offline presentation and their related activities. We’re also running a satellite project called The Tales I Tell, in which we commissioned writers to produce text in relation to the user experience of the Watch & Chill platform.
Silke: At M+, we chose two different forms of presentation. In January and February 2022, Watch & Chill will be available in the cosy viewing booths of our Mediatheque, the museum’s on-demand library for single-channel works from the collection, and at weekend screenings in our Grand Stair. We will end the project with our next M+ International in February 2022, in which we’ll discuss our collective experiences and rich documentation with international audiences. These talks will take place online and from our homes, of course, to stay true to the spirit of Watch & Chill.
Register here to access Watch & Chill. Prefer to view the videos offline? Works by participating artists will be presented at the M+ Mediatheque from 7 January to 28 February 2022 and at the Grand Stair from 14 to 30 January 2022. For more on curation, tune into talks by participating curators at our next M+ International on 15–17 February 2022.
Silke Schmickl is Lead Curator, Moving Image at M+.