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Does looking at, or reading, something online change its meaning?

In his new book, In the Flow (2016), Boris Groys proposes the following: ‘Historically, literature and art were considered fields of fiction. Now I would argue that the use of the internet as the main medium of production and distribution of art and literature leads to their defictionalization.’ It’s an interesting hypothesis and Groys builds a powerful argument to support it. What he means by ‘fields of fiction’ is the escapism that art and literature can provide. He cites, for example, being unaware of the physicality of a book when you’re engrossed in a good novel; being mentally transported out of the theatre when watching an engaging play or film; or forgetting you’re in a museum when you’re looking at a work of art. Highlighting the active way we navigate online, how we literally have to use the internet, Groys says: ‘The user cannot ignore the frame, because he or she created it. The framing – and the operation of framing – become explicit and remain explicit throughout the experience of contemplating and writing.’

Having spent the past nine months working on the redesign of the frieze website, I well understand the framing he is talking about. Re-organizing and restructuring the site – en­compassing 25 years of the frieze archive, five years of our bilingual frieze d/e sister publication and Frieze Masters magazine, the content from three Frieze art fairs, two archives of Frieze Projects, countless Frieze Videos and podcasts from Frieze Talks, as well as the new On View galleries and shows listing section – I have found myself having tantrums with taxonomy, being irritated by information architecture and getting headaches over hierarchies. Increasingly, too, I’ve found myself using techy acronyms – AI, API, CMS, SEO, UX – thinking about front-end and back-end systems, data dumps and content migrations more than is healthy or I’d care to admit. Do I prove Groys’s point?

Thankfully, not every online user has to be versed in HTML5 or be au fait with web jargon. I don’t actually agree with Groys’s assertion that we can’t forget an online framework merely because we have agency in its workings. (If this were true then the plotline to the 1988 film Cinema Paradiso – which is about a projectionist – would not make any sense.) The philosopher goes on: ‘One can say that, on the internet, there is no art or literature, but only information about art and literature, alongside other information about other fields of human activity.’ For Groys, that is not necessarily a bad thing. He points out that this scenario achieves the ultimate goal of the avant-garde: to imbue high culture with grubby reality, to stamp biography onto practice and reveal the bare bones of artistic process. Yet, here, too, I disagree with him: of course there is art and literature online, it just exists amongst all other kinds of information.

What I do concede is that Groys is highlighting the internet’s absorbent and contextualizing nature. A search for an artist, say, returns the familiar matrix of their website, images of their works, links to galleries and their Wikipedia page, as well as videos and news articles, but equally, opening a new tab can take you to a very different set of results. This has created a significant change in the way we view, access and process art both on or offline.

Laurence Scott’s remarkable book The Four-Dimensional Human: Ways of Being in the Digital World (2015) is equally mindful of the way the internet has affected our behaviour. His characterizations of our 4D life – the internet being the fourth dimension – is packed with fantastically apt observations, vividly characterizing the phenomenological, rather than technical, aspects of our digital condition. These include the strangely intimate yet ghostly interaction between Airbnb host and guest; the curious normality  of climbing into bed under a tangle  of wires, surrounded by the lights of electrical objects; seeing the beauty of a building hit by sunlight and thinking ‘that’s ’grammable’. In a sense, the four-dimensionality Scott refers to is the digital extension of our selves through space and time: what the philosopher Rosi Braidotti might call our ‘posthuman’ condition. Self, or subjectivity, now has to be seen in the round: enacted and extended through social media, captured by search engines and Facebook timelines.

It’s true that the increasing technocracy invading language via jargon, and the creepily accurate algorithms that track our movements and predict what we might be interested in, can be overbearing and exhausting. In a recent essay for The White Review, Orit Gat discusses Internet Live Stats, a site that shows the migraine-inducing number of users, websites, emails, photos, videos, tweets and blog posts being produced in real time. (In the space of a single morning, 22,400 images will have been uploaded to Instagram, a figure that will be wildly out of date by the time I’ve finished writing this.) Gat notes: ‘Every two minutes, people upload more photographs to the internet than existed in total 150 years ago.’ This exponentially growing archive creates a two-way drag – the archive extending both backwards in time and forwards in number.

Recently, I saw Aleksandra Domanović’s new work at Tanya Leighton in Berlin. (The show is reviewed in this issue.)  In many ways, it embodies Groys’s ideas of extension and the feeling of time’s compression when looking, for instance,  at a site such as Internet Live Stats. What’s key here, though,  is the artist’s selection of this information. Domanović links ancient Greek sculpture to  bio-engineering: a gendered reading of the history of science with high-tech materials. When  Groys writes that there is utopian potential in the way we manipulate and use the internet as an archive, I think he’s on to something. 

Paul Teasdale is editor of and based in London.

Issue 180

First published in Issue 180

Jun - Aug 2016

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