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Covid-19 magnified overlapping crises: climate change, racial inequality, the lack of a social safety net in the United States, to name a few. From mutual aid initiatives to demonstrations, the past year has revealed the importance of cultivating authentic and compassionate community. This work can and should predate a crisis. The lesson was driven home for me years ago in response to the 2016 Ghost Ship fire. Mere hours after the flames engulfed the Oakland warehouse, a shared Google spreadsheet was set up to help crowdsource information about attendees’ whereabouts, phone numbers, family contacts, etc. Without the document, it would have taken weeks or months to identify those who were lost. While I mourned, I realized something fundamental—all we have is each other. This sense of love and responsibility has developed for me over time and through art—in other underground music venues, at art shows, and on dance floors. I’ve built a personal philosophy in which the practice of creating and experiencing art serves first and foremost to strengthen a sense of kinship. In our current moment, as many artists and arts organizers reconsider what continues to draw them to their work, I’ve been reflecting on recently emerged projects that directly focus on community. The online project space virtual care lab (VCL) took the crisis as an opportunity to forge community while we were all isolated and separated.
Seeking greater depth in virtual connections during a time when all activities were shifting online, artists Sara Suárez and Alice Yuan Zhang dreamt up and launched VCL within the first few weeks of lockdown. To build the platform, the artists collaborated with NAVEL, an organization located in a downtown Los Angeles loft that operates like a research-oriented hub for creative development, and whose community-focused spirit helped inform VCL’s early ethos. The platform quickly developed a lively community that together cultivated an online public space that was focused on, as they described it, “genuine presence, purposeful online/offline connection and collaboration, and digital well-being.” By embracing a communal spirit and maintaining a nimble framework, VCL’s unique structure has allowed urgent and timely projects to emerge organically.
Through an open Discord channel, a communication platform originally built for gamers, anyone is welcome to join and get involved. Newcomers are prompted to introduce themselves to the group and are invited to regular gatherings such as Lab Hour on Sundays (for ideation and community check-ins) and virtual Field Trips on Saturdays (a group exploration of online presence on the web). A “Conversations” area allows for looser discussion on subjects like gardening, the diaspora, and technology. The Discord channel organizes ongoing exchanges between members, but events or performances can take place anywhere on the web. The platform has grown to include an international group of artists, activists, designers, and technologists who discovered VCL while sheltered in place.
VCL has quickly fostered a dedicated community oriented around consensus and process, values that are explained in a participant-generated document titled “Terms That Serve Us.” Subverting the corporate “terms of service” agreements that force a user to comply with confusing and obscure legalese in order to access a digital platform, “Terms That Serve Us” comes from an entirely different vision for participation online, one that encourages empathy and experimentation.1 VCL contributors collectively fleshed out an open and fundamentally more human-centered framework for online interactions by naming and defining a series of terms. Some of the words in the list include “embodiment,” “care,” and “presence.” Each entry seeks to define a new understanding of each term. For instance, under the header “community,” they note how trite the word has become, and how digital platforms and marketing firms alike claim to create community when, in reality, they “amass users to generate data for profit.” Instead, VCL imagines community as a process of “creating kinship” that “exceeds a single platform.” Another entry, “study,” points to Fred Moten’s theory of an undercommons that exists outside of strict academic gatekeeping, another forum in which the group can resist institutional boundaries. For VCL, laughter, listening, and meditation can be a form of “study.” They ask: “What forms of media, practice, listening, or imagination count as ‘research’? How do everyday moments constitute study, [when] shared with each other?”
The “Terms That Serve Us” not only establish a shared understanding of what VCL is and does— they also serve as a guide for other organizers to use in their own facilitation. Reading through the list—and the position it takes toward fluid, compassionate, and generative interaction—I was struck by what a simple, yet grand, paradigm shift it represents in contrast to how most art spaces typically convene and present work in a one-way fashion, where interaction with the public lacks any continued exchange or conversation. More horizontal in nature and built around process over presentation, VCL is a malleable structure with community, trust, and support as its end goal. The “Terms” are a form of movement building that—in their words—reflect “an essential trust in, and respect for, other beings.”
Many of the art institutions currently in existence do not center these values from the ground up, and as a result, are struggling. This is evidenced by even a cursory look at the controversies engulfing the art world: the opiate-producing Sackler family’s philanthropic dominance in the arts; Warren B. Kanders’ departure from the Whitney Museum’s board due to protest over his company’s production of tear gas and riot gear; or the frustration and despair expressed in the near-daily posts on the Change the Museum Instagram account. As museums, galleries, and arts spaces scramble to “rethink,” “pivot,” and “listen,” perhaps the real way forward is to start from scratch—to nurture alternate means of gathering, to encourage lateral, grassroots arts organizing, and to plant seeds.
Artists initially heard about VCL through word of mouth and were ultimately attracted to its culture of access and invitation. When I asked what drew her to VCL, Utah-based artist Kristen Mitchell said that VCL was described to her as a “room of requirement”—i.e. the kind of space that incites active participation—and, as such, she found it “irresistible both to contribute to and reside in.” As a member of the ongoing improv music and performance ensemble Living Marks, Mitchell plugged into VCL’s community and was able to collaborate with other like-minded composers and dancers. Within the organization, Mitchell initiated multidisciplinary participatory improvisational sessions with other participants and with the general public, which were then archived on the Discord channel. When I asked how VCL impacted her artistic practice, Mitchell explained that these sessions encouraged her to let go of the common expectation of “muscling through” a performance in pursuit of an end result. Instead, Mitchell learned to “explore ideas without agendas using invitation, intention, and action. This freed the project up to breathe on its own.”
VCL’s open framework also allows participants to rapidly initiate and launch projects in response to current events. In the fall of 2020, one VCL contributor, an immigration lawyer named Daniela Hernández Chong Cuy, put the group in touch with a client named José Miguel Galán Najarro, who was facing deportation and was being held at the Adelanto ICE Processing Center. Due to Covid-19, Adelanto halted family visitations in March 2020. It also suspended video calls. Detainees like Galán Najarro were left in almost total isolation while periodic Covid-19 outbreaks tore through the for-profit private prison. Attorney meetings, paid and monitored phone calls, and postal mail were his only connection to the outside world. A prolific poet and rapper, Galán Najarro shared his writing and drawings with Hernández Chong Cuy, who collaborated with other VCL participants to build the online portal josemiguel.virtualcarelab.com in order to share his work with the wider community. On the site, he expresses how the process of making his art, and knowing it would be received beyond the horrific conditions of Adelanto, helped him carry on.
The community being formed through VCL echoes current conversations and debates regarding the need to redesign online public space toward a public good. For example, this past year saw the launch of New_ Public, an organization founded through the University of Texas at Austin’s Center for Media Engagement that is dedicated to research, organizing, and advocacy for more collectively oriented online public spaces. New_ Public brings together experts from many disciplines—journalists, activists, and technologists are among its team members—to act as “digital urban planners” in order to imagine an alternative to the current state of privately-owned, profit-driven platforms that dictate how we exist online.
These discussions run parallel to those surrounding the arrival of Web 3.0, where AI, machine learning, blockchain, and ubiquitous computing will further entangle, customize, and optimize a user’s experience of the internet. (In many ways, this is already happening.) Take this understanding of the internet’s trajectory, alongside the pandemic’s push toward a near-constant digital social life, and one recognizes that arts institutions that see themselves as important sites for public gathering must fully recognize and attend to these crucial conversations and innovate accordingly. Seismic technological shifts are fundamentally changing our experience and understanding of public space. Arts organizations—creative entities that in theory are well poised to imagine creative solutions—should be forerunners in that discussion. While many arts organizations quickly pivoted to online programming in 2020, the run-of-the-mill Zoom artist talks, badly shot curatorial walk-throughs on Instagram Live, or other instances of less inventive, hastily taken up forms of digital engagement don’t work to create any communal discourse, especially not in a way that meets the critical demands of what it means to be public in 2021.
With so much shifting in online spaces, I asked Zhang what the leading principle guiding our building of an equitable Web 3.0 should be:
Cultivating trust is a central thesis for our practice. What does it take for us to trust (or at least intend to communicate with and understand) each other without setting any explicit boundaries based on identity, discipline, geography, body, or legible politics? Intentionally, this is also the looming question regarding our broader digitally mediated realities today.
Under Covid-19, trust has deteriorated exponentially. Part of the rebuilding will involve amending and fortifying that trust—trust in each other, in our institutions, in our tools. Reflecting on virtual care lab’s position within the context of all the pain and hardship the pandemic has wrought, as well as the evolution of public life vis-à-vis technology, Zhang’s words provide a concrete sense of hope for what an artistic community could be in this moment. To prioritize trust in this way is a radical proposition.
This essay was originally published in Carla issue 26.