The Summer Solstice occured in the Northern Hemisphere on 20 June 2020 at 11.43 pm CET, cryptically coinciding with the opening of our Virtual Cocoons.
It is some time ago when we started thinking about a response to the pandemic, just after the start of the lockdown in Europe, and way before the height of the global crisis that followed. It’s been tragic, heartbreaking and scary to see things we seemed to be able to rely on, like healthcare systems, crumble and break apart. Our hearts are with those affected by the disease, whether it impacted, or still impacts, physical or mental health, family, livelihood, or other sources of stability and joy.
At the same time, it has been so encouraging to see artists around the world respond to this meta-crisis with vigorous, inspired and inspiring work. New social and aesthetic codes were assessed and transformed into possible new normalities; psychological implications were mapped; solutions to keep on dancing were found.
Virtual Cocoons hosts a humble selection of 15 artists, whose work reflects on - what we came to call - our involuntary cocooning. The time where we, the ‘lucky ones’ with secured housing and fast internet connections in the global West, were pushed deeper into our screens, spent hours representing ourselves in zoom-grids, and merged with the digital space and our avatars more than ever before. With privilege, as always, comes responsibility, and the theme of what will emerge when our virtual cocoons pop, has been very present in our minds. Going back to what was ‘normal’ is no option, and we have to collaborate, co-create and use our agency as best as we can to make a healthier, more connected, more caring, more equal world.
With Virtual Cocoons we offer an exploration of isolation, transformation and coping mechanisms associated with our time in quarantine. Hints are given at new futures, new ways of life, new selves. However, despite us finding our way out into the world again, now, in the midst of summer, we are by no means done with our process of transformation. That's where the virtuality of these cocoons might give us solace, as they can offer a temporary space for reflection, anytime.
Like all other worlds that have preceded it, the virtual is real. This is an important place to start. What is rendered out of digital material exists, constituted by a material built out of electrical impulses. Software environments lassoed by clever code-striders make tangible the immaterial possibilities lurking inside of ourselves. It is not enough to say IRL or URL. Our worlds are filtered by layers of software, and life happens everywhere —online, and off, in the virtual and the actual. If you made it, even if you can not touch it, it exists. And it matters.
Virtual Cocoons is an exhibition about incubation and extrapolation. Data points read by programmatic entities render immaterial fantasy as legible. Each of the artists in the exhibition use simulation to build worlds, shelter identities, and harbor growth. Of all of the capabilities made possible by the virtualizing tendencies of digital material, simulation is perhaps the most profound. Through simulation, we might make real impossible futures—alternative pathways, utopian probabilities. Better ways of being and better ways of being together. Perhaps this is a kiss as imagined by Paola Pinna; a new kind of hybrid being, like Webtaura; or even designer toilet paper in times of global shortage, as imagined by Combrisi. Perhaps these things are not possible now; but, one day, they might be. Even if they are not, through their virtual cocoon incubation, they exist: waiting ready to expand across material boundaries and into the world.
In the 90s, the popular personal homepage site GeoCities was modeled after actual city neighborhoods. The founders conceived of these spaces as places where their users could live and truly inhabit. While personal webpages and social media platforms have persisted and proliferated since that time, this concept of internet-as-lifeworld has fallen away as the digital has become (often invisibly) enmeshed in the fabric of the everyday.
But we still inhabit the virtual; more so than ever before. People like to think that you post a “version of yourself” to Instagram, not the “real” you. This is an illusion. Anything that comes from you is part of you—is real—no matter how closely it resembles the you that you present in physical spaces. The virtual offers near infinite opportunity for expansion and exploration—genesis and synthesis of what is and could be. You can be the you that you always were, or wanted to be, in the world that is no longer a dream but a virtual reality. How could you possibly say with certainty which “version” of you is more real?
While we have always inhabited digital spaces, the shelter-in-place conditions of the global pandemic have made it obvious that this is truly where we live—that virtual worlds are just as meaningful and just as vital for the functioning of our society as actual ones. Worldwide campaigns for racial justice using all forms of online communication and social media further demonstrate the efficacy and vitality of the virtual—circulation paradigms and information pathways have a real, tangible impact. We cannot ignore this potential.
In times of catastrophe, retreat to your virtual cocoon. Wrap yourself in a virtual lifeworld. Blanket yourself in layers of chimeric realities, to hibernate through winter and emerge transformed in spring. While we might use the virtual for action, for creation, we might also use it for new futures: new future selves, and new future worlds. Digital culture moves fast, but software can be paused, switched off, and re-booted. Freeze the frame and re-render. While there is urgency in the actual, in the virtual we can incubate in real time. There is metamorphosis through simulation. What world exists inside the digital chrysalis? And what will you be on the other side?