BLEED Festival: Save New Changes?

(First pubished as part of the BLEED Echo program, part of the BLEED festival.)

Inside the lounge room of my Doonside share house, I sit on the couch and drag my thumb down on my iPhone, refreshing my Twitter feed for the umpteenth time that night. Masterchef is playing on TV. I am thirsty for a post that is empathic to my sadness because Jess, everyone’s favourite Asian contestant, has just been eliminated. The first half of my scroll is populated with recap gifs and crying emojis. But by the time my thumb is half way down the screen, the crying emojis are replaced with videos of burning buildings and a single recurring selfie of a Black man who is donned in a dark hoodie and standing in front of a brick wall. His name, George Floyd, is trending. Across Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook, the outrage is palpable. The brutal murder of George Floyd has restarted the Black Lives Matter movement in the global consciousness, and with the fierce regaining of this momentum, the border that separated the URL and the IRL starts to blur. Over the week I watched #blacklivesmatter become the basis of coffee chats, phone calls, Facebook comment section debates, and tennis match arguments across living rooms.

We’ve seen the internet mobilise both rampant social media activists and grassroot organisers who have traditionally operated outside of social networking sites. It got me thinking, can one be successful without the other? Can the URL and IRL stay separate or are they already coexisting? Social media has united the unimaginable. KPOP fans are using fancams to flood policing apps and witches are posting hexes for people to write on protest signs. Could the URL be both the great uniter in tearing down racist, colonial, capitalist and imperialist systems, and the answer to surviving a global pandemic IRL?

“Every part of our lives is flooded with digital. It’s inescapable. One cannot truly disconnect in 2020, because to unplug is to sever all connections to communities, consciousness, and culture. However ephemeral the virtual may feel, our online actions, as in our physical lives, can have palpable consequences that affect society at large.”

Every part of our lives is flooded with digital. It’s inescapable. One cannot truly disconnect in 2020, because to unplug is to sever all connections to communities, consciousness, and culture. However ephemeral the virtual may feel, our online actions, as in our physical lives, can have palpable consequences that affect society at large. We saw this on the 2nd of June when many social media users deployed black tiles with #blackouttuesday and #blacklivesmatter. Valuable social real estate was compromised, and Black sentiment was drowned out by performative allyship. “I love the solidarity, but question the efficacy.” DJ FlexMami shares on her Instagram. What use do digital spaces have when acts like this continue to silence the voices we need to hear the most? Although the internet is oftentimes treated like a casual space for passive social engagement, a complex architecture exists behind our glowing screens.

How does art fit into this expanse of digital space? Curated and presented by Arts House (Melbourne) and Campbelltown Arts Centre (Sydney), BLEED explores the ramifications of an increasingly digital existence in an ever changing artistic world. With nine talented lead artists, five diverse artist projects, and a broad public program of talks and writing commissions, BLEED lifts the lens on the intrepid blue screen and our wavering relationship with it. This online contemporary performance festival unpacks the digital global sphere, where borders also become paywallswhere office buildings become Zoom and where TikTok becomes a scathing critique of Millennials.

This festival interrogates the dichotomy between the IRL and the URL. On social media, the Black Lives Matter movement has revived public scrutiny of Aboriginal deaths in Australian police custody. My breath is calm but my heart races as I share Wongutha-Yamatji actor Meyne Wyatt’smonologue from his debut play City of Gold to my Instagram story. I’m yelling alongside him online, but I’m struggling to keep that volume in offline conversations. Is this telling of the digital’s incredible ability to bring justice to light and hold agents of oppression accountable, or is it a criticism of the systemic flaws and power imbalances that govern us IRL? BLEED stands as a reaction to the unfolding power shift in our digital existence. Citizens, corporations, and governments merge into an evolving dance of convenience and cooperation.

Carefully curated to address the changing world, BLEED touches on topics that cut right down to the arteries and capillaries that make up the internet. Campbelltown Arts Centre and Arts House have platformed a genuinely diverse range of artists that speak to the dynamic arts consumer. The five artworks come together to create one large picture — one that invites us to critically engage with how we consume art. This collection does what art does best; make sense of multiple truths and translate different experiences across platforms that seek to understand and expand.

BLEED champions the various models of sharing art and the wonders of modern technology; particularly its ability to celebrate cultures across borders within a digital public sphere. While the digital movement in art spaces started long before COVID-19, forced distance has ensured that all spectators have equal, if not identical, entry to exhibitions. Digitalisation has stripped many, if not most, barriers to art. It has allowed services like Audio Description and Closed Captioning to shine on these platforms, and for some, consuming art has become a private experience purely metered at their own pace. As borders fall and connections thrive, BLEED continues to ask — what’s missing? Long-winded TV shows with queer plotlines have always been my safe space, like Killing Eve​ ​on Stan, ​The Family Law​ ​on SBS, or ​The Heights​ on ABC. As I yearn to connect again to the greater outside world, the digital has become my catharsis IRL.

Amidst uncertainty and confusion, BLEED celebrates art in all its bittersweet glory. These highly anticipated works from acclaimed Australian artists take a deep dive into how the digital seeps into our everyday. They celebrate the ways in which the URL facilitates different modes of engagement. Running from Monday 22 June to Sunday 30 August, BLEED will become available online in our pockets. These artworks greet audiences where they already reside; online, hyper-connected, and virtually networked. While I am yet to experience these artworks IRL, I can acknowledge this as a curated collection that develops a critical lens, connecting the blue screen and the observer in a way that blurs the line between URL and IRL. BLEED affords people like me a closeness to art that has long eluded us. Art does not need to mean a stressful drive to an inner-city gallery. It isn’t always black turtlenecks and fine wine. Art can mean community and the building of connections so genuine that we see into parts of ourselves that the everyday IRL or URL cannot reach alone.

As social media icon and fellow gaysian Benjamin Law says on Twitter: “In our most dire hours, art keeps us sane, lights the dark, ensures we stay human. We turn to art for help. So make sure you help the arts through – and on the other side of – this.”

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