Interview with Bob Bicknell-Knight

Bob Bicknell-Knight is an artist and curator based in London. He is the director of contemporary art platform isthisit? and co-founder of A217gallery.

Marilyn Roxie of VIDEO HOOK-UPS: What other curatorial platforms, online or off, inspired isthisit?

Bob Bicknell-Knight: There were a few spaces I was interested in and looked to before I launched isthisit?, particularly other digital galleries that showed me that this was an actual possibility. A few years ago I had a fairly naive sense of the internet and wasn’t even aware that online galleries existed. I remember looking at Chrystal Gallery, an online space that literally duplicated the white cube of the stereotypical gallery and Lawrence Lek’s Bonus Levels, particularly A Collective Tower. Made for Art Licks in 2013, this was essentially an artwork that transported 21 London based galleries into an interactive landscape. Still fairly close to simply duplicating the standard offline gallery setting, but that idea of interactivity really grabbed me. I was also seeing Delta Sorority’s online residency program unfold at the time, as well as generally looking at lots of websites that facilitate physical galleries too. In general though I think everything you see and do influences your practice and daily life in various ways, so it’s quite hard to pin these things down to specific inspirations.

VH: How have you found balancing your own personal art practice with curating online and off, and are there ways that these overlap?

BBK: I see everything that I do as one encompassing practice, if I were to split up these labels into different sections it would be impossible to navigate. So I see my curation as an extension of my art and vice versa which allows for a continuous overlap of ideas and interests. This is one of the reasons why I’ve inserted my own artwork into some of the exhibitions I’ve curated in the past, as they’re usually focused around ideas I’m currently interested and invested in. Obviously there are times where I’ll spend more time sending emails for my curation than making actual work, but I think that’s the same across the board these days. Artists have had to adapt and become their own promoters and gallerists, applying for funding and navigating that balance of actual art making with everything else that’s involved with the production of a new piece. So yes, everything overlaps and I think that’s an important way of keeping everything under control and manageable.

VH: What atmosphere and positive attributes do you think the format of an online exhibition lends to video that differs from the traditional physical gallery space with projections or darkened rooms? I have found that there is something intimidating particularly about people actually picking up the pair of headphones offered and listening to the audio accompanying a piece in a physical gallery space.

BBK: For me having a video work available to view in an online space is great. Being afforded the ability to actually spend time with a film, rather than continually worrying about the time or whether there’s a comfortable place to sit, is definitely a positive attribute of having access to video art on the internet. Watching a film in a gallery context can be a frustrating exercise sometimes, which usually translates to watching it when you get home on the internet, although there are many instances of the work being no-where to be found online; a slightly unexpected turn of events when every blockbuster film seems to have been pirated and streamed hundreds of thousands of times. I do understand the necessity for not having a video accessible online, digital editions, exclusivity, etc, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating. Bearing this in mind however, when a video truly grabs you, is installed magnificently and hooked up to an incredible speaker system, truly drawing you in, it’s hard to say that it’s not the definitive watching experience.

I always think of a Jon Rafman installation; sinking into a ball pit or being trapped in a seemingly innocuous piece of office furniture. These are amazing experiences. It’s just not the same when you’re watching in bed, pausing every so often to chat to a roommate whilst simultaneously scrolling through your Facebook feed. It’s a balancing act.

In the hyper-connected world of today, constantly multi-tasking, I sometimes see an immersive video work as an excuse to simply relax into it, to put down your phone and just watch it. Who needs to check Instagram when a snake is swallowing itself in front of you? This is why VR interests me so much, you can no longer look away from the work, and it’s quite hard to take a selfie whilst consuming it.

VH: What do you see as the future of online gallery experiences, for isthisit? or more generally?

BBK: It’s unfortunate, but due to the lack of funding for the majority of online projects, isthisit? and many other spaces like it on the internet are all inherently doomed to fail, fading into the abyss where the domain name will eventually be allowed to expire. They are, and will continue to be, free cultural spaces that involve a lot of time and effort on the part of the unpaid organisers. Obviously that’s a very pessimistic point of view to have, but I feel like it’s an important aspect of these micro organisations that needs to be highlighted.

Bearing this in mind, I obviously hope to continue with isthisit? for many years to come, hopefully having a permanent physical space in the future to realise more experimental offline exhibitions, gaining sponsorships for the magazine and building a portfolio of digital artworks to sell on the shop side of the website. The increased affordability of technology like VR will definitely broaden what can be done on the internet with virtual gallery spaces, although right now there’s a widening hardware class divide that’s never going to be truly resolved. It’s a shame, but after undergoing online projects for a while, I’ve begun to realise that the internet isn’t as great as everyone wants you to think it is.

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