On ViewInstitute of Contemporary Art
February 7 – May 20, 2018
The genre of digital art was born directly into an identity crisis. Alongside Video Art, it was the first truly new medium to be adopted in the wake of Modernism, emerging in the midst of an explosion of boundary-defying creative formats that would come to define the postmodern era. Since then, audiences and creative practitioners alike have struggled to locate the medium’s place within the fine arts, and even questioned whether it wants to belong at all. With the coming-of-age of digital natives—individuals with few recollections predating the Internet—this longstanding inquiry may be resolved at last. For this generation, digital media may be an indispensable mode of expression, but it is also, simultaneously, thoroughly banal.
The Institute of Contemporary Art Boston’s survey Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today begins in the year that computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee proposed to CERN a time-saving data transfer protocol capable of easily linking a variety of file types, a standard that paved the way for what we now call the World Wide Web. Eva Respini, Barbara Lee and Jeffrey De Blois, curators of the exhibition, understand the Internet even more broadly: “The Internet for us is more than technological protocols and cables and wires,” said Respini at the show’s opening comments, “We’re thinking about the Internet . . . as a social construct, a set of social relationships that has profoundly affected every aspect of our lives.” Accordingly, not all the works on view are screen-based or overtly reference Internet tropes. Each of the show’s five thematic sections—the electronic circulation of information; hybrid co-existence of the body with technology; the virtual; surveillance; and the formation of the self in the digital-era—grounds contemporary art against one or more historical precedent. Thus, the exhibition is less a document of “Net art” than an exploration of the Web’s rhizomatic influence. Its contribution to the New Media conversation is significant, but is perhaps most remarkable for revealing that this medium no longer sits uneasily in the realm of art or ordinary experience, but is firmly entrenched in both.
The exhibition begins with a choreographed chaos of scrambled videos and early CG wireframes flashing across a 52-television “videowall” titled Internet Dream (1994). The artist is Nam June Paik, neologist of the term “electronic super highway” and father of Video Art (he bought the first Sony Portapak in the United States in 1965, and shortly after helped develop one of the first video synthesizers). Opposite this piece, the collective HowDoYouSayYaminAfrican’s (a.k.a., The Yams Collective) 24-monitor thewayblackmachine (2014-present) flashes other kinds of images: digitally processed jpegs, video clips, tweets, and documentation surrounding the killings of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and other victims of police violence. Unlike Paik’s Internet Dream, The Yams’ work is a living, real-time archive of algorithmically crowdsourced materials. Paik forecasted these formal possibilities, but by the time of his death in 2006, they hadn’t yet fully come to technical fruition, nor had their implications for the democratic flow of information. A stark counterpoint to the wide-eyed optimism at the Internet’s dawn, The Yams’ piece instead chronicles a dystopian twilight haunted by cycles of brutality we have yet to transcend.
Much of our inner life now lives outside us, in our phones and computers. There is a certain vulnerability and anxiety to this dependence, but it also transforms the otherwise ineffable stuff of selfhood into a malleable material. Multidisciplinary artist Juliana Huxtable has spoken about how the ability to transform her image through digital photo editing and social media helped her embrace her fluid gender and sexual identities—an experience that offers insight into the ambivalence of selfhood in the digital age. Echoing the installation of the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial, Surround Audience, Frank Benson’s CG-meets-real-world bronze sculpture of Huxtable, Juliana (2014-15) is again coupled with her photographic self-portrait, Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm), 2015, and for good reason. The two pieces belong together. Benson’s work lends a sculptural complexity to Huxtable’s inkjet print, which adds a sense of humanity in return. For most of us, identity is no longer singular, but bound up in interactions with our devices, and the imagined viewers for whom we perform.
The Internet is, among many things, an economy of images. When circulating our photos, status updates, and even locations online, we anticipate their consumption not only by friends, relatives, and co-workers, but also strangers, corporations, and bots. But like anything else, the Internet, and digital culture generally, can cut both ways. If our viewers remain clandestine and invade our privacy, the social contract shifts and they become spies. One of the show’s chapters, “States of Surveillance,” investigates that fine line, culling together pieces like Lynn Hershman Leeson’s camera-embedded, web-enabled toy dolls (CybeRoberta, 1995-96; Tillie, the Telerobotic Doll, 1995–98) and Trevor Paglen’s photos of surveillance infrastructure (RAVEN 2 in Corona Borealis (Signals Intelligence Satellite; USA 200), 2015; NSA-Tapped Undersea Cables, North Pacific Ocean, 2016). Rabih Mroué’s The Fall of a Hair: Blow Ups (2012), shows the flip side of the equation: citizen journalism. These cell phone photos, uploaded by Syrian protestors, capture snipers’ images sometimes moments before the photographer’s death. Mroué enlarged them as part of The Pixelated Revolution (2012), a lecture-performance project exploring the citizen documentation of the Syrian Revolution. Images such as these fueled the social media-facilitated wave of uprisings collectively referred to as the Arab Spring; here, they serve as a testament to the exceptional power of images to mobilize a robust civilian response during times of unrest and government overreach. Like The Yams Collective’s thewayblackmachine, these frozen scenes of dissent seem to both ask and answer: what if a critical mass of imagery can somehow, in the aggregate, become a bulwark?
While end-users have managed to détourn web services in ways that designers may not have foreseen, the vernacular of web “engagement” remains dominated by corporate marketing Newspeak (“join the conversation” etc.), a reminder that most of what transpires online is in the service of commerce. Digital art has outgrown its infancy; in some moments it approaches Hollywood levels of candy-coated CG, seamlessly reflecting the consumerist values it once sought to displace. It’s easy to let this wash over you without asking too many questions, but let’s not rush to click “subscribe now.” We don’t hear enough, in this exhibition and elsewhere, about issues of labor (e.g., conditions in overseas tech manufacture), or these machines’ increasing carbon footprints. And the show is generally silent about the nefarious powers hacking our personal information or undermining our democratic principals and sovereignty—some of the most important cyber-issues facing us today. Whether this is a curatorial or artistic blind spot (after all, artists need time to process, and a museum cannot exhibit what does not yet exist), these absences attenuate an otherwise astute and enthralling show. But in its best moments, Art in the Age of the Internet makes palpable the transformative power that constantly awaits at our fingertips. That feeling is much more real than virtual.