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The Artlab Editors take a refracted look back at our first year of publishing work from writers across the globe—and discover themes that echo across geographies.

Place a glass of water on a windowsill, and look through it. The world beyond looks different. It’s warped; the lines don’t line up. As a principle of physics, refraction is both simple and vexing. Light behaves differently as it passes through water. It slows down, changes direction. It opens into a larger metaphor about the role of art when we attempt to understand the world. Our perceptions of reality change when we experience art. The world feels simultaneously larger—and smaller. Established connections don’t make sense. New ones insist upon themselves.

We began the first year of Artlab Editorial with this concept as a guiding metaphor. How does the experience of art change us, and change our relationship with the world? Over the past months, we followed writers as they explored the globe and the archives of contemporary art; we looked closely at the practices of thought-provoking artists, while taking a step back to appreciate the themes that define our communities; we commissioned travel guides, essays, and original digital works—all designed to explore how art can both complicate and streamline, focus and constellate. Below, the editors at Artlab discuss some of our key takeaways from our writers and artists.

Social Exploration

Any exploration of a year’s worth of art and culture will also grapple with the social issues that define our day. As such, immediate focal points addressed the most urgent issues facing society. As part of her monumental Hyundai Commission in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, Cecilia Vicuña presented a series of quipus partially constructed from materials salvaged from the banks of the Thames, lapping just outside the museum. As she explored the porousness between material and memory, mind and body, self and community, the critic and poet Barry Schwabsky responded to the work’s intimate poetics, calling her sculptures “instinctive, three-dimensional script[s].”

Equally poetic and powerful is the legendary text-based work of Barbara Kruger, whose acclaimed retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art provided the occasion for Wendy Vogel’s essay on the intersections of linguistics and feminism. Writes Vogel: “Kruger’s punkish critique of culture crosses high art and popular aesthetics. It is instantly legible, yet unexpected, as though bubbling up from a collective wellspring of discontent.”

Yet just as any attempts to filter art from social issues would be futile, so is it important to trace our present moment back to its various historical precedents. Enter Samantha Culp, who also considered a  LACMA Program—albeit one that started a half century earlier, the LACMA Art + Technology Lab. Her piece looked to past synergies between artistic and technological production in order to better understand the implications of such partnerships today.

Constructing Communities

In the face of daunting social challenges and an unknown future, we come together. The exploration, strengthening, and creation of communities is central to Hyundai Artlab’s mission. Communities also provided the logic and lens through which we saw the majority of art this year. Last spring, Rahel Aima’s essay "The Artist as Sentinel" spotlighted Tania Bruguera, Agnieszka Kurant, and Doreen Chan as examples of how contemporary artists use community as a metaphor to articulate today’s pressing political issues. Claire L. Evans’s essay "Fellow Travelers" looked to the practices of Choe U-Ram and the artist duo MOON Kyungwon & JEON Joonho, noting the pitfalls and potentials of non-human intelligence as humanity searches for a path forward.

At Artlab Editorial, we don’t simply aim to reflect upon collectivity and collaboration as guiding principles for contemporary artistic production. We create new opportunities for artists and  writers. Take Orit Gat’s piece on blockchain technologies, “A New Art History: How Digital Lineages Change How We Make and Own Artworks.” To accompany Gat’s essay, we commissioned original artwork by Shuhua Xiong. By linking Gat’s words with Xiong’s images, and circulating them together as one, we opened collaborative space between critical writing and contemporary art.

Flowing Through Boundaries

Now, as we look back upon this year, and prepare for the next, the passage of time has clarified another dynamic: having looked at the world through the lens of art, how do we continue to change? Art we’ve seen this year suggests the shrinking division between nature and technology. Many of the most visible moments on radar gleefully explored a robotic world, such as Yunchul Kim’s piece at the Venice Biennale’s Korean Pavilion. Described by Dean Kissick as “ecstatically engineered… psychedelic, ancient and futuristic,” Kim’s work overflows boundaries to represent life and energy in all its forms.

A similarly ecstatic piece was LACMA Art +Technology Lab grant recipient Nancy Baker Cahill’s “Slipstream Times Square,” which writer Charlotte Kent praised for its animist qualities, and its ability to transform the frantic locale of Times Square into a site of meditative communion between the body and the late capitalist cityscape.

Art as Organism

Communion between unlikely aspects is perhaps an unlikely place to end a year defined by political, social, and ecological strife. And yet, as the Artlab team in Seoul describes it in the interview “Radical Compositions:” “We think of Artlab’s many initiatives like the different parts of a living organism.” Culture, we’ve found, should be considered in the same light.

Speaking of light, let’s return to our refracting glass of water, which should still be where you left it, sitting on the window sill. Staring through it, the world looks even stranger than usual. Things don’t connect. Nothing adds up. So let’s try something, now that we’ve come to the end of another year. Pour it down the sink, and look outside with a renewed clarity.

Take a Closer Look

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