Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Todayby Will Fenstermaker
ICA Boston | February 7 – May 20, 2018
There can never be a complete history of the internet because the internet is, to a degree, atemporal—like culture or consciousness, it either exists (in one form or another) or it does not. This places it fundamentally at odds with linear narratives. The internet, by definition, is only a set of rules that allows computers to talk to each other. It is a set of protocols (IPs), or maybe by now a byzantine bureaucracy. But philosophically, the internet is much, much more. When we use the word “internet” colloquially, we’re usually referring only to the web, a single service developed around 1989—decades after the internet—which uses the internet’s infrastructure. Different societies have different degrees of access to the internet (in some countries—such as Indonesia, where Facebook dominates the landscape of the web—many Facebook users aren’t aware they’re accessing the internet at all). These degrees of access—never mind the garden of forking paths that is the small corner we call the “web” —raises a conundrum for a curator and for a writer, namely that there’s no single internet any more than there’s only one culture. The internet is too big and too complicated to cover in one show or review; at a certain point, one is just reviewing the internet. (Steven Pestana did much of the work tracing this impossible thread in last month’s Rail so I won’t duplicate his efforts here.) The closest we can come to telling the history of the internet is through its version history—Web 2.0, Web 3.0—or by telling the history of a contemporaneous pursuit and mapping their points of influence and intersection. Enter, Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today, an exhibition at ICA Boston that embodies an important truth: when we talk about the web in its third decade, we’re mostly just talking about culture and cultural production at large. It’s spurious to draw a divide between “culture” and “internet culture” in 2018, an age where 4Chan conspiracies boil over into live-shooter drills, and proprietary algorithms determine public elections. In the time of #Pizzagate and swatting, it can be life threatening to deny they’re one and the same.
For those of us who were born digital, it’s natural to understand language, images, identities, politics, and art along the internet’s paradigms of fungibility, as opposed to believing them stable, fixed. But when it comes to answering this question of how to make sense of the internet or give it shape, curators Eva Respini and Jeffrey De Blois attempt to historicize it, positioning their exhibition as a survey of “the last avant-garde of the twentieth century,”1 invoking internet art as a continuance of modernism, in five categories familiar to those who’ve been following along: “Networks and Circulation,” “Hybrid Bodies,” “Virtual Worlds,” “States of Surveillance,” and “Performing the Self.” Many of the artists and works will be familiar to visitors of New Museum triennials and MoMA PS1. Repeatedly, as I passed through the galleries, Respini and De Blois’s exhibition seemed to anticipate my thoughts, placing before me the works I thought should be there—as if the curators had modeled a show from my browser history. This was most unsettling when I turned a corner thinking idly of Mark Leckey’s work and the recent spontaneous cackling of Amazon Alexas, only to find myself before his very GreenScreenRefrigeratorAction (2010), installed as a humming altar. The sense that Respini and De Blois had constructed a clean and organic narrative that mirrored my own, from nodes within an information network that is, essentially, a fragmented mess, speaks to the uncanny and solipsistic experience of browsing today’s predictive web.
Had the exhibition been titled Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to, say, 2015, it would be a near-perfect show, but as is, it stops short of fully reaching the “today” explicit in its title. A sixth section might be called “Hacking and Cyberterror,” a seventh “Technofeudalism,”2 an eighth “Metadata,” and a ninth could include artists who work with machine-to-machine images (ones made by computers to communicate with other computers, typically unseen by humans), such as the flat files for 3D scans made evident by Clement Valla. And so on. This game of naming what could or should have been included in an art exhibition is always a tedious one and usually beside the point, so I’d avoid it altogether were it not also a question central to the existence of the web itself. In his documentary Lo and Behold, Reveries of the Connected World (2016), Werner Herzog interviews Ted Nelson, who in the 1960s defined hypertext and many of the ideas that would be adapted into the World Wide Web by Tim Berners-Lee and others in 1989—though not without some major modifications.
All my computer work has been about expressing and representing and showing interconnection, among writings especially,” Nelson tells Herzog. “Writing is the process of reducing a tapestry of interconnections to a narrow sequence. This is, in a sense, illicit. This is a wrongful compression of what should spread out, and today’s computers, they’ve betrayed that.”
The system Nelson conceived for cutting and pasting—for removing text from one context and placing it in another—maintained a two-way link, before the terms were redefined by Macintosh in 1984 into how we understand them today. Jaron Lanier—a philosopher and technologist who traded in his early optimism regarding an impending techno-utopia, to write instead informed and cautious essays on our digital environment—describes it this way: “In a network with two-way links, each node knows what other nodes are linked to it. That would mean you’d know all the websites that point to yours. It would mean you’d know all the financiers who had leveraged your mortgage. It would mean you’d know all the videos that used your music. Two-way linking would preserve context.”3 In Lanier’s telling, the decision by Berners-Lee to structure HTML with one-way links in 1989 only passed because “we were all impatient and bored and leapt at the thrill of quick adoption.”4 Nelson calls this “a crime against humanity.” In a sense, the web was born on life support and remains half dead.
Due to this restricted visibility, the age of the internet is a perpetual age of innocence, as by the time its paradigms rise to the surface some new one has insinuated out of view. Several artists within the exhibition do indeed work with this idea, notably Harun Farocki and Camille Henrot. The full implications of this dangling link, however, are only now being grasped. Lanier notes that social networks “like Facebook were brought into existence in part to recapture those kinds of connections that were jettisoned when they need not have been, when the Web was born.”5 Facebook’s outsized role in shaping the results of the 2016 election is evidence that this two-way link remains disconnected, or else that it can be exploited without its impact being fully understood. Palantir and Cambridge Analytica could not exist in their current forms if users understood that every packet of data could also hold a trace. Web 4.0 has yet to be defined, but to begin it must take into account the ways in which metadata has been weaponized as governments, “digital-first” companies, and black-hat hackers have learned that the anonymity and malleability of the internet, and its paradox of context (that context is both infinitely available at one’s fingertips and incessantly out of reach, relegated to metadata if anywhere at all) are features that can be exploited for political and capital gain.
Each gallery in Art in the Age of the Internet is structured as a small show unto itself, mostly shaped by a Y2K anxiety of a utopia-cum-dystopia. The exhibition contextualizes the works within its first galleries by invoking Seth Price’s influential essay “Dispersion” (2002), which posited a way around the traps to which earlier twentieth-century avant-garde movements fell. While modern, conceptual, and Pop artists were largely unable to avoid having their work monumentalized and institutionalized—which undercut their power—Price argues that images distributed along an open information network such as the internet could avoid being commodified if they were properly fragmented and dispersed. The internet could potentially provide home for “an art that insinuates itself into the culture at large” by truly dematerializing the art object and spreading its image among the populace.
Early net art (let’s say 1989 to circa 2004) was messy, crude, and anarchistic, drunk on its own promise of a new democratic information network and its potential for subverting markets and existing power structures. However, as Chloe Wyma noted in her recent review of Hito Steyerl’s Duty Free Art (the artist’s Liquidity Inc. is presented in conjunction with the exhibition), such techno-utopic dreamscapes often lapse into a “speculative kind of magical thinking.” Wyma writes, “even as Steyerl gestures toward a left technophilic program, she cautions against expecting technology to bring progressive transformation on its own. ‘The internet,’ Steyerl notes, ‘spawned Uber and Amazon, not the Paris Commune.’” Time and again, as with the modernists whom Price calls forth, idealism proves corruptible.
Danny Hillis, a pioneer of artificial intelligence interviewed in Lo and Behold, sums it up: “Because the internet was designed for a community that trusted each other, it didn’t have a lot of protections in it. We didn’t worry about spying on each other, for example.”
One has to look no deeper into the web than at porn for evidence that “content” on the internet would prove easily commodified. The industry led the development of online payment systems and the commercialization of numerous visual technologies followed. Like the web itself, Art in the Age of the Internet has nudes in every gallery; the first to appear in the exhibition is from Thomas Ruff’s series in which the artist enlarged pixelated images, simulating a Richterian blur. In nudes lox22 (2000), a man, bound and gagged, is jerked off into the corner of the frame. Yet in Ruff's series, the explicitly pornographic, hyper-focused, pupil-dilating images of people fucking is obscured by a cloudy, idealized eroticism evident in the pixel mosaic. In 2005 Ruff said, “The internet is the perfect medium in which to show the self … and also be an exhibitionist who shows his desires.”6 In just over a decade, this idea has become prevalent to the point of becoming offensive. Five of the few paintings in the exhibition, Celia Hempton’s “Chat Paintings” (2015 – 17) are loose, gestural portraits made as the artist browsed chatrandom.com (obviously NSFW), a site that connects strangers, often masturbating vigorously, via webcam. An unsolicited image beamed to your screen—is there a more common way my generation experiences the nude? But this disillusionment isn’t seamless or universal; the internet immediately became, and remains today, a way for members of minority communities to seek each other out, for those who feel like they don’t belong to find a place to belong to. For several artists in the exhibition, the proliferation of nudes on the web, particularly in the diaristic mode prevalent on social media sites like Tumblr, has opened a space in which every kind of body can be depicted and cherished—Juliana Huxtable’s Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm)(2015) and Frank Benson’s 3D-printed model of the artist (2014 – 15) assert Huxtable’s intersectional identity as a woman who’s also trans and black.
Similarly, “Hybrid Bodies” references the exhibition’s second manifesto—Donna Haraway’s on cyborgs, which bred both an interest in splicing and reconfiguring individual identities and attaching them to something else, as well as a generation of artists who misread in Haraway’s work a glorifying posthumanist vein or feminist techno-utopia, positions which Haraway has rejected. As in the previous gallery, early works tend toward idealism but give way to a more insidious reality; they’re alternately rehumanizing and dehumanizing. Josh Kline’s Saving Money with Subcontractors (FedEx Worker’s Head) (2015 – 17) is a sculpture printed from a 3D scan of a delivery person’s head, disassembled and set into a box with packing peanuts. Nearby, in the artist’s film FedEx Delivery Worker Interview #1 (2014), a different subcontractor for the delivery firm details his exploitation. A student and aspiring filmmaker, the young man is held back by his employer, who recently demanded he pay $700 for a missing package, and is treated poorly by half the people he meets—a cog in the information economy.
The pattern continues in the section on surveillance. Artists like Trevor Paglen, Julia Scher, and Jill Magid draw attention to surveillance mechanisms, from satellites in the sky to the omnipresence of CCTV cameras. Paglen is treated somewhat unfairly as something like an introductory artist within this exhibition when in fact his work is consistently on the cutting edge—his two prints are from his iconic bodies of work photographing the infrastructure of surveillance and internet technologies. His Autonomy Cube (2014), which establishes Tor-protected, anonymous Wi-Fi in public spaces—but which is, admittedly, purposefully forgettable as an object—is included in the show but is installed unremarkably, by itself near the exit of Jon Rafman’s virtual reality commission, View of Harbor (2018). Paglen’s recent portraits that make use of machine-to-machine images would have been timely inclusions. Then there’s Rabih Mroué’s The Fall of a Hair: Blow Ups (2011 – ongoing), a series of found photographs culled from social media in which Syrian protestors shot photos of snipers with their cell phones, often mere moments before being shot themselves. Fitting, that photographers and gunmen would share their language.
Images like those by Ruff and Mroué are of a kind that Steyerl has named “poor images”—low-resolution, transferable, shitty pictures that reject the high-fidelity aesthetic advanced by Adobe and other tech companies that dominate the uniform visual landscape of the web. Like Price, she argues that such imagery could act as a form of resistance. “Poor images are the contemporary Wretched of the Screen, the debris of audiovisual production, the trash that washes up on the digital economies’ shores,” she writes. “They testify to the violent dislocation, transferrals, and displacement of images—their acceleration and circulation within the vicious cycles of audiovisual capitalism.” And yet here they are, objects in this museum of art. Most art, though painting is officially (un)dead ten times over, remains object-oriented. As Wolf Lieser, founder of the Digital Art Museum in Berlin, reminded me, it’s harder to sell a jpeg than a painting.7
Only one image in the show stands out to me as a truly poor image: A single chromogenic print from Amalia Ulman’s Excellences and Perfections (2014), in which the artist staged an artistic and mental crisis, documenting on Instagram a post-breakup breakdown following the artist’s move to Los Angeles. Her followers—none of them in on the gag—tagged along, encouraging her quest to become an L.A. It-Girl, liking selfies of the artist’s ass, commenting on her (staged) breast-augmentation surgery, offering scorn and condolences when she struggled, and cheering her rehabilitation through avocado toast and yoga at the end of the summer. Parodying the trajectory followed by any number of “influencers” was in part a commentary on the way in which morals and values are created, projected, and abandoned within digital communities. In real life, Ulman’s gallerist feared she was ruining her artistic career with negative and crass attention, or by dumbing down her #brand. The photo of Ulman holding up a bejeweled phone as she takes a selfie in the mirror is a proper poor artifact. Excellences and Perfections is not so easily reduced to a single isolated image, dependent as it is upon the very media it critiques Instagram. Ironically, this makes it the most successful artwork of the entire show. It alone is aware of how digital media has exploded our desire to comprehend things immediately and entirely through an iconic image; meanwhile, Ulman’s work is not so easily contained. It’s not irrelevant that her entire project is only a Google search away—this “sending-out,” this image that operates as a portal through which one can access a culture at large, this establishment of a two-way link is what art in the age of the internet can do best. It can be a conduit; it can arm the user with the knowledge necessary for interpreting an information repository. It can’t be about the image as an image any more—it must rather take interest in its omissions, its missing context, and everything else that seeing an image as spectacle leaves out.
Art in the Age of the Internet settles the most egregious misconceptions about the internet beginning with its first words on the wall: “The internet is many things. It is physical: a set of networks, cables, wires, and protocols operated by disparate software and hardware across the globe. It is also a social and political construct: a set of social exchanges that have wide-ranging effects.” Camille Henrot’s Grosse Fatigue (2013), a thirteen-minute video installed in an annex off the first gallery, combines scenes from the physical archives of the Smithsonian and the digital archives of the web with a voiceover extolling the virtues of storytelling and our ability to make sense out of our primordial mess. In this sense, the video sets the guiding principles for the exhibition, which reiterates in each room that we are not, after all, damning an entire generation to social ineptitude and a cultureless void. But the question remains, where does that leave us? What, then, can art in the age of the internet do?
It can break connections or open pathways. It can assault you, knock you around, fuck with your head, and leave you questioning what you thought you knew to be true. It can show you how images you love come from places you fear. It can carve out communities or space for entirely new thought. More humbly, it can also, as Lieser told me, “make people aware of what’s really going on,” expose how our utopian visions have been coopted, and restate the rules of the game. But the internet’s true potential for a radical revisioning of how we understand our world and our place within it, how the internet might serve as a reliable tool for redress, lies in what Vilém Flusser called “second-degree imagination,” which arose with the transition from a knowledge-centric intellect toward an information-centric one. First-degree imagination “produces images that represent the concrete world,” whereas second-degree imagination pulls “clear and distinct elements, of which rational thought is composed”8 out of a linear structure and places them into a mosaic structure. Let’s call those units “pixels” and their fabric a “two-way link.” With hindsight, this is what manifestos like “Dispersion” failed to predict—the internet is more than just a distribution network or an arena for free ideas. It’s even more than social media, a surveillance machine, a cyborg, a simulacrum, or all of these things combined. The internet is an ontology, a way of being in and understanding the world. The web, in Herzog’s words, is the internet dreaming of itself. And it’s all remapping our brains in ways we’re only beginning to understand.
Meanwhile, the coders are hard at work. “Reed’s Law” states that the utility of a network is directly correlated to its size—scientific studies are more accurate given larger samples; echo chambers more effective with louder reverb; dragnets more powerful given access to larger user-bases. This is especially true, David Reed argued, for social networks: large numbers are predictable, small numbers are not. Lanier notes that while collecting data is only the beginning of a scientific process, companies will turn it toward its own ends. Big data abhors subjectivity and thus the subjective experience. Four billion people—half the world population—will be online this year, denizens of the anonymous horde. Glory be to the internet, the great equalizer. With knowledge converted into information, facts and nonfacts align. Each and every citizen hollowed out in favor of potential consumership. You, the x-ray scan cross-referenced against the database. You, the drone’s eye, the lone blip on the radar screen. You, who are worth only your data, the status update. You plugged in, now all your base are belong to us. Welcome to art in the age of the internet. It’s not what we were promised, but it’s what we got. The question is, now what are we going to do about that?
- Vuk Ćosić, quoted in Eva Respini, “No Ghost Just a Shell,” Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today (Boston: Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston in Association with Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 2018).
- I’ve argued in the Rail that technofeudalism, “an economic condition in which the means of production has shifted from ownership of land to intellectual property,” is the endgame of capitalism reaching the web. See “Content is King,” The Brooklyn Rail (June 2017).
- Jaron Lanier, “Two-Way Links” in Who Owns the Future? (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2013), 227.
- Lanier, “Why Isn’t Ted Better Known?” in ibid, 230.
- “Two-Way Links,” 227.
- Thomas Ruff with Vicki Goldberg, The Brooklyn Rail (June 2005).
- Though blockchain has now given us a way to edition digital files.
- Vilém Flusser, Into Immaterial Culture (New York: Metaflux, 2015), 30–31.
Will Fenstermaker is associate editor of the ArtSeen section of the Brooklyn Rail and digital editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He holds an MFA in Art Criticism & Writing from the School of Visual Arts.