The last 20 years have seen revolutions in technology that have transformed our lives. How have art and its institutions reacted?
In the Nostalgia District
The 16 May 2011 issue of The New Yorker featured a cartoon titled ‘In the Nostalgia District’. It depicts a row of run-down buildings. Their facades read: ‘Joe’s FIX-IT shop’, ‘Photo Developing’, ‘Stationery Supplies’, ‘ACME Travel Agency’ and ‘Kwik Konnect Internet Cafe’, all businesses that have been replaced by online services. Yet their storefronts remain: whiplashed by a world that’s changed around them, sudden relics, out-of-sync but resolute. It struck me that there’s a connection between the ‘Nostalgia District’ and what we might call the ‘art district’, for both have experienced seismic technological change and have been reticent or slow to respond.
Since 2005, I’ve been the director of the online organization Rhizome, and have spent a considerable amount of time thinking about why ‘Internet’ is such a gauche word in contemporary art. Here are a few simple reasons I’ve come up with. First, medium-specificity is out of style and the word ‘Internet’ suggests a medium – something separate, something cyber – even though the term can really be used now to describe the experiences that come with an expanded culture and communications system, not just its underlying network protocols. However, this perception of the Internet as a separate artistic territory persists, with its roots planted firmly in the 1990s. In step with Clinton-era rhetoric around globalization, and excitement for new information technologies, the first Internet bubble swelled in the ’90s and burst in the early 2000s, as did patience with ambitious but under-resourced ‘net art’ exhibitions (read: faulty browsers and error signs). Quickly, it was all but abandoned by the art world save for a few ambitious museum media lounges. It’s important to note that much of this ’90s-era ‘net art’ was preoccupied with the technology itself, not with celebrating it, but considering and subverting it. This focus made it somewhat impenetrable for the non-technologically inclined and challenging to exhibit off-line. In the last few years, however, the field of art engaged with the Internet has expanded to being both about new tools and simply how we live our lives – the humanity on top, so to speak.
A second reason for the slow response is that, unlike other industries, such as music and publishing, the art world wasn’t forced to react to cultural shifts wrought by the Internet because its economic model wasn’t devastated by them. The quality of Christian Marclay’s The Clock (2010), for instance, isn’t dependent on YouTube votes or the extent to which it circulates virally, and nor can one download and install a BitTorrent of a Rachel Harrison sculpture. The principles that keep the visual arts economy running – scarcity, objecthood and value conferred by authority figures such as curators and critics – make it less vulnerable to piracy and democratized media. The difference between these models belies a more fundamental opposition in values that might give us a third and final reason why the art district and the Internet are polarized: broadly speaking, the art world is vertical (escalating levels of privilege and exclusivity) whereas the web is horizontal (based on free access, open sharing, unchecked distribution, an economy of attention). Furthermore, technology is bound to what we could call a Modernist narrative of cultural progress, innovation and mastery, whereas art is no longer tied to this model. As the artist Michael Bell-Smith put it: ‘Technology is about fixing problems, art is about creating them.’1
These points describe positions that have begun to break down. By now, every kind of artistic practice has been touched by the Internet as both a tool and as something that affects us in a broader sense. This can be seen in the ways it has seeped into painting or print (as in the work of Tauba Auerbach, for example, whose abstractions can at times look algorithmically programmed), opened up new territories within which to work (such as with Cao Fei or Jon Rafman, who direct films within virtual worlds), served to invigorate Luddite tendencies, or simply changed the way we live, find things out and talk to one another. The novelist and critic Zadie Smith recently deplored Facebook for leading her students to behave in ways that were beneath them, such as ‘poking’.² Similarly, Jonathan Franzen has come down on the idea of ‘liking’, saying it discourages us from engaging with the wholesale, hard realities of love.³ I don’t think Franzen has a Facebook account, but he and Smith have valid points: the way our communication is structured online doesn’t always encourage behaviour we feel good about. Artists are continually finding ways outside of these prescribed behaviours, whether by critiquing the systems themselves – for instance, in Joel Holmberg’s Legendary Account (2007–10), a performance in which the artist asked profound, existential questions, such as ‘What does it feel like to be in love?’, in the user-generated forum Yahoo! Answers, which is commonly used for questions such as ‘Where is the nearest pet store?’– or by recontextualizing these new ways of being into their work, as in Ryan Trecartin’s performances and videos. Some of the most influential work being made today takes the problem of free distribution as a starting point, or considers the economy of images in which visual culture circulates.4 Artist collectives such as honf in Yogyakarta, dis in New York and vvork in Berlin that have strong online presences have fostered international artist communities that have incredible resonance for younger artists. There are countless examples that would demonstrate how artists have quickly appropriated the possibilities of the web, both philosophically and in terms of how they make work, create communities and present projects.
And yet, the structural model of the art world remains relatively unchanged. In the art district, we still commute to museums and international biennials, pay for admission and revolve around large-scale, in-person events. These are the art world’s prescribed behaviours, and the problem is that they are insular. Although performance and moving image have made major inroads into exhibition programmes, institutions have traditionally been less supportive of works that don’t take the form of objects, and they take little advantage of the publishing potential of the Internet. Social media are useful, but content drives the web. When art institutions note how many Facebook friends or Twitter followers they have, I fear they are missing the point. There is a disconnect between having social media resources and actually employing them to engage various audiences, from specialists and academics to those unfamiliar with art-world debates. Wall text has historically been the designated area in which to explain art to the public, but institutions could amplify their educational and social role by publishing – daily and online – a great deal more history, opinion, context and anecdote around their activities, rather than just issuing press releases and visitor information. At the moment, institutions are relatively silent amidst conversations online, when it would really be so helpful to have staff (directors, curators, educators) be conversant outside of physically printed catalogues.
In recent years, contemporary art museums and arts organizations have begun to initiate online programmes, from exhibitions or fundraising initiatives to thoughtful shows (such as the social media around Marina Abramovic´’s 2010 exhibition ‘The Artist is Present’ at the Museum of Modern Art, New York), and this will only increase in years to come. (Amongst others nationally and internationally, US institutions including the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the Whitney and New Museum in New York – at which I work – have been involved in such programming since the mid-’90s.) One reason why it hasn’t begun sooner is that institutional resources are traditionally so tied to exhibitions. It is now not just important, but essential, that institutions stop marginalizing online or non-object-based practices. I find it constantly disheartening to speak with young artists who feel compelled to translate performance, video, web-based projects or sound works into something gallery-ready, because physical exhibitions still remain the dominant way that art is named, seen, reviewed and converted into saleable asset. This issue is connected to one of the most significant questions that institutions with admission fees now confront: how to continue attracting visitors, when everything is seemingly available online for free. This problem is all the more reason for institutions to make a better and more widely available case for the art itself and the experience of the museum, and also better balance exhibitions with other initiatives that usually hang on the periphery of institutional art programmes, like theatre, online curated projects or festivals. Institutions need to figure out how to reconsider their models and coordinate the values of the art district with an expanded public sphere, rather than the values of the nostalgia district.
1 ‘Do Artists and Technologists Create Things the Same Way? Seven on Seven Guests Respond’, survey published on rhizome.org, 11 May 2011, http://bit.ly/mzUIWf
2 Zadie Smith, ‘Generation Why?’, The New York Review of Books, 25 November 2010, http://bit.ly/bAUO7Z
3 Jonathan Franzen, ‘Liking is for Cowards. Go for What Hurts’, The New York Times, 29 May 2011, http://nyti.ms/ijV5UC
4 For example, Seth Price’s essay ‘Dispersion’, http://bit.ly/c4mguw, and Hito Steyerl’s essay ‘In Defense of the Poor Image’, http://bit.ly/5AwXpU
The Rise and Fall of New Media in the Art World
Over the last two decades, we have left behind Postmodernism and its focus on self-referentiality, ironic historical reference and political critique for a new condition marked by a fascination with technology, a casual attitude toward appropriation, and a more complacent relationship to power and capital. But where Postmodernism broke with Modernism, our own time – I’ll call it ‘network culture’ for now – claims no such break with its predecessor. Jean Baudrillard’s observation that history would end with the close of the millennium seems vindicated: with events rapidly proliferating in media, we have lost the possibility of noting significant milestones and seem unable to meter our own position in time.
The break from Postmodernity is also harder to discern thanks to shared modes of production: if industry dominated modernity, then media, services and finance dominate both Postmodernity and network culture. Still, the media landscape today would have been unimaginable 20 years ago. Video, photography and music have all been thoroughly reshaped by technologies of sharing and production while the Internet, social networking platforms and geo-locative technologies have emerged to claim our attention. Services, too, are increasingly technology-based while finance is less the familiar capitalist matter of long-term investment and growth and more a matter of high-speed arbitrage conducted by remote servers.
Ours is a network culture. Citing superlatives about the ubiquity of mobile phones worldwide and penetration of the Internet, or telling you that I am writing this logged into a computer in my office from a lounge chair on my sun deck is rhetorical. Life in 2011 is vastly different than it was in 1991; a large part of that is due to the growth of technologies.
Art has, of course, always been informed by technology, but under network culture technology has permeated art practices in new ways. During the 1990s, artists such as Vuk Cosic´, Jodi, Natalie Bookchin and Alexei Shulgin saw new media – alternatively styled as ‘net.art’ – as a fertile ground for artistic experiment. With Postmodernism becoming institutionalized and turning into self-parody, they aspired instead to a high Modernist specificity of the medium, embracing technological platforms and their limits. But if technology offered new possibilities, new-media artists were wise to how its merciless rate of change dated even the most cutting-edge work within months of its production. Thus the new-media generation frequently produced work that lampooned the graphic and programming demos of hacker culture while evoking 20th-century avant-garde strategies, merging high and low, recent past and distant past. Typically such work embraced interactivity, paralleling the hypertext experiments by writers like Shelley Jackson and Michael Joyce, continuing the Postmodern tradition of non-linear narratives by exploiting the navigational possibilities of CD-ROMs and the Internet. The art market – which had little interest in new media art per se, finding it difficult to commodify – was transformed in its own right during the late 1990s when online art databases made it more transparent and therefore more easily comprehensible to potential investors used to the availability of such data for financial investments.
If not as lucrative, new-media art’s rise paralleled the ascent of the dot.com industry. Exhibits on new media, dedicated exhibition venues such as ZKM in Karlsruhe and curatorships proliferated, only to rapidly crash to a halt when the stock market collapsed in 2000. But the dotcom crash did not kill commerce on the Internet. Rather, it set the stage for more profitable ventures and ultimately led to the spread of new media outside of a technologically inclined subculture.
Even as former supporters pronounced new media dead, it began to permeate the physical world, formerly derided as ‘meatspace’. Launched into a collapsing economy a month after 9/11, Apple Inc.’s iPod set the stage for a new generation of portable technological devices. With Global Positioning System (GPS) devices and mobile phones becoming more common, technologically informed artists, hackers and entrepreneurs alike envisioned that these could be used to produce digital media bound to a particular location in the real world, a system they dubbed ‘locative media’. Where new media art still generally adopted the role of high art, refusing to be commercialized, locative media practices often took the more accommodating stance familiar to the design industries. Take, for example, the influential locative media practice Proboscis, which describes itself as ‘an independent, artist-led, non-profit creative studio’ but cites endorsements from clients such as HP and Orange UK. The difference between locative art practice and a start-up in search of venture capital is often hard to discern.
Locative media remained the stuff of demos and art-technology festivals until 2008 when Apple released the GPS-enabled iPhone 3G. Paradoxically, the mass realization of locative media seems to have taken the wind out of its sails as an art form. Although courses on writing apps proliferate in art and architecture programmes, the promise of locative media seems to remain just that: a promise, its transformational ambitions forever enshrined in William Gibson’s Spook Country (2007), a novel which, tellingly, was set not in the future but in the recent past.
To be sure, new media today remains a community of sorts, but art itself has been permeated by technology. Quite obviously, the more technological of the arts – photography and video – have largely moved to digital means of production. Choosing not to engage in digital technology to produce such art is as much a statement – if not more so – as choosing to. Take, for but one instance, the work of the young photographer Cédric Delsaux. The artist digitally inserts characters from the Star Wars mythos into scenes of the contemporary metropolis. The seamlessness of Delsaux’s imagery is impressive, but we take his technical virtuosity for granted. Rather, Delsaux’s digitally manipulated photographs highlight how the most advanced technologies are not only everyday, but rather banal and tired. More than that, Delsaux’s use of Star Wars imagery recalls the common Internet-based practice of producing and sharing fan fiction, imagery and videos while underscoring the casualness of appropriation in cultural practices today. This is a telling difference between Postmodernism and our own day. Appropriation was a key critical practice in Postmodern art, unusual enough that artists like Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince could make careers out of reproducing existing imagery. Today, with the Internet and software making appropriation laughably easy, an entire generation has grown up obtaining their media through piracy and thinks nothing of slapping together an amusing mash-up music video or biting political remix.
But even painting, so long defined by the presence of the hand, is hardly untouched. Young painters find it absolutely normal to maintain websites and run blogs. To do otherwise is no different a choice than disassociating oneself from the gallery circuit and, in any event, there is hardly any gallery without a website anymore. Take the work of Steve Budington, a young painter who tackles the interface between human and machine, treating the iPod, artificial heart and cosmetic surgery as similar prosthetics. Budington does not use any digital technology in his work, but he addresses how it transforms our lives and, in so doing, remarks upon both its sheer ubiquity and consequent banality.
Far from traditional notions of new media, the work of both Delsaux and Budington reflects how we have naturalized technology in our lives during the last 20 years. Although network culture leaves behind the often cynical political posturing of Postmodern works, technological advances have become something of a stand-in for social change. The Left seems to have faded in favour of a pervasive libertarianism. ‘Are you merely pro-business or are you radically open-source?’ seems to be the question of our day.
If contemporary technology’s influence has been pernicious, it’s precisely here: acting as a stand-in for political action. But technology is ultimately only a set of tools, a concretization of our desires and needs. It is political ideology that has pigeonholed technology into this position. And there are hopeful signs: if the significance of technology in the Arab Spring has been much debated, there’s still little question that it played some role there and it’s even more clear that it helped force more frank accounting of the disaster at Fukushima in the traditionally closed Japanese government–industrial system.
In the work of Delsaux, Budington and other artists who question the role of technology in our lives – even as they don’t suggest we can escape it – we can see an emerging path for future work: the next two decades will bring us a greater maturity and the heightened ability to combine art and technology in ever more critical ways.
Lauren Cornell is executive director of Rhizome and adjunct curator at the New Museum, New York, USA.
Kazys Varnelis is the Director of the Network Architecture Lab at Columbia University Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, New York, USA.
First published in Issue 141