What's Postinternet Got to do with Net Art?

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Courtesy grouphab.it and Harm van den Dorpel.

An extended and altered version of this text will be published in... You Are Here: Looking at After the Internet (Cornerhouse Books 2014), edited by Omar Kholeif.

Earlier this month, Rhizome presented a panel discussion at the ICA in London titled "Post-Net Aesthetics." Following in the wake of prior panels (titled "Net Aesthetics 2.0") which were organized by Rhizome in 2006 and 2008, this edition was precipitated by the recent discussion of postinternet practices by a number of art institutions and magazines, including Frieze. We invited a longtime Rhizome collaborator, critic and curator Karen Archey, to chair and organize the panel, and what emerged was a wide-ranging and extremely generative conversation in which participants began to articulate some of the shifts they'd seen in artistic practice in recent years, while critiquing those shifts and their framing as "postinternet."

One dynamic to emerge from the panel discussion is an intergenerational tension that has played out in comment threads on Rhizome and Facebook. This tension was in evidence even before the panel in, for example, a response by Mark Tribe (b. 1966) to a question about postinternet art for an interview that was published in Art in America in September:

Internet art was a movement that arose in 1994 and waned in the early 2000s. Post-Internet artists stand on the shoulders of Net art giants like Olia Lialina, Vuk Cosic, and JODI, not in order to lift themselves higher into the thin atmosphere of pure online presence but rather to crush the past and reassemble the fragments in strange on/offline hybrid forms. See also: New Aesthetic.

Examples of efforts by postinternet artists to "crush the past" are numerous; one example can be found in "The Image Object Post-Internet" (2010), in which Artie Vierkant (b. 1986) wrote, "New Media is here denounced as a mode too narrowly focused on the specific workings of novel technologies, rather than a sincere exploration of cultural shifts in which that technology plays only a small role." While Vierkant is using the term "New Media" rather than Tribe's "Net art," he does so in an effort to articulate a new relationship with technology in contrast with preceding generations. 

It should be noted that, within postinternet discourse, there are many who do cite the importance of art and technology precursors, such as Karen Archey, Chris Wiley, and Hanne Mugaas in the recent Frieze roundtable. Equally, established curators and artists like Tribe have, even while acknowledging the conflict between "postinternet" and its precursors, done a great deal to support emerging artistic practices. In this article, I hope to build on this existing dialogue to further encourage ways of thinking about recent artistic practices engaged with the internet as both distinct from and connected to recent histories of art and technology. To do so, I discuss several works by Olia Lialina spanning 1996 to 2013 in relation to Marisa Olson and Abe Linkoln's Abe & Mo Sing the Blues (2005) and the exhibition "Brand Innovations for Ubiquitous Authorship" (2012), in order to show how the problems associated with generational shifts also played within an individual artist's practice. In this discussion, "postinternet" emerges as a useful term for tracking artists' shifting relationships with the rapidly-changing cultural objects we know as "the internet," in that its definition has changed so dramatically since Olson's original articulation. 

The reference normally given for the first use of the term postinternet is a 2008 interview, but Olson remembers using it as part of a 2006 panel organized by Rhizome. In an email discussion that was printed in TimeOut New York in 2006, she wrote:

What I make is less art "on" the Internet than it is art "after" the Internet. It's the yield of my compulsive surfing and downloading. I create performances, songs, photos, texts, or installations directly derived from materials on the Internet or my activity there.

As critic and curator Gene McHugh has pointed out, this was an early articulation of what Olson would call a "Post-Internet" way of working. The term has since evolved considerably, sprouting an array of differing use cases that would take considerable effort to catalog in full. As a result, today one often hears the criticism that "postinternet" is a vague neologism, but for Olson, it had a specific meaning, referring to a mode of artistic activity drawing on raw materials and ideas found or developed online. 

Abe & Mo Sing the Blues (2005) screenshot from:www.linkoln.net/abeandmosingtheblogs  

One example of making art "'after' the Internet" is Olson's 2005 collaboration with Abe Linkoln, Abe & Mo Sing the Blogs, an album in the form of a blog. Each "track", or entry, consists of the copied-and-pasted text of a found blog post, a link to the original post, and a link to an MP3 in which either Linkoln or Olson sings the the post. Authors of the found posts included music critic Sasha Frere-Jones, artists Ubermorgen, someone named Glue Factory Bob, and Eggagog, the mysterious author of Internet classic "THIS IS FUN TO MAKE A BLOG ON THE COMPUTER WEBSITE." Abe & Mo Sing the Blues now functions as an archive of the blog form at what, in retrospect, feels like its peak moment; in many cases, the posts used as source material are no longer online. The website draws together source materials and offers them up for the analysis of a visitor; removing the posts from their original context strips some of their original meaning (what is Frere-Jones is talking about when he says "Look at all the fives. It's like a five factory?). By rendering the posts opaque, Olson and Linkoln make them available as internet objects of study for an observer who is positioned (at least temporarily) on the outside. At the same time, though, by using the blog posts as readymade scripts for a series of performances, Linkoln and Olson inhabit these objects, or perhaps the objects inhabit them; they allow them to move through their body as performed songs. This is a kind of mimicry, but by investing their performances with emotion and energy, Linkoln and Olson participate Olson and Linkoln's artistic project can be seen as an attempt to come to an understanding of a quickly-evolving internet culture from a perspective that is both inside and outside of it.

If "making art 'after' the internet" in 2006, then, involved being a participant-observer of an emerging internet culture, then many other artists of the time also worked in a similar mode, including other participants in the first "Net Aesthetics 2.0" panel, hosted by Electronic Arts Intermix in New York and organized by Lauren Cornell for Rhizome. (The other participants were Cory Arcangel, Michael Bell-Smith, Caitlin Jones, Wolfgang Staehle, and myself.) The "2.0" in the title was, in part, a slightly facetious nod to the hype surrounding "Web 2.0," a term used to describe the increasing use of centralized services rather than independent websites to share and access content online. It was clear that the web's culture was changing: social networking sites were growing in popularity, and YouTube had launched the previous year. In broad strokes, these changes meant that many more people were making and sharing content online, and they were doing so through a smaller number of channels.[1]

But in addition to this nod to changing conditions on the web as a whole, the "2.0" was also a provocation, pointing to a shift in the ways that artists were engaging with the internet. This can be seen not only in the work of artists like Olson, who came to prominence well after the initial, heroic phase of web browser-based art, but also in the trajectories followed by artists who were associated with that initial period, such as Olia Lialina.

In the 1990s, Lialina's work often took the form of web pages that used various elements of the nascent language of the browser for narrative purposes. In My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996), Lialina used HTML frames and hyperlinks to tell a story that opens out across nested HTML frames; in Agatha Appears (1997), she used changing URLs as a narrative device; in Anna Karenina Goes to Paradise (1996), she queried three separate search engines (Yahoo, Magellan and Alta Vista) to narrate the searching undertaken by her titular character.

In 1998, Lialina described her interest in the web during this first heyday of net art:

At that time [1996], I spoke of the Internet being open for artistic self-expression, that the time had come to create Net films, Net stories and so on, to develop a Net language instead of using the web simply as a broadcast channel….[2]

With this text, circulated to the artists, writers, and internet thinkers of the nettime mailing list, Lialina announced a shift to working as a net art gallerist. Shortly thereafter, she launched the website art.teleportacia.org, which offered a series of single-page web-based artworks for sale to collectors for $1000 to $2000 each. Lialina later said she was "not really intending to become a gallerist, so the next exhibition, Location=Yes, was not about selling." She may not have been selling, but she was acting as a champion for the practitioners of the emerging artistic language of the "Net."

Increasingly, Lialina's focus seems to have included championing not only the work of self-described artists, but also the work of the many non-art identified internet users who also were crucial in developing this "Net language." This interest was manifested through talks and illustrated essays, such as A Vernacular Web: The Indigenous and the Barbarians (2005), which celebrated the popular forms of self-expression on the early web and critiqued the more truncated forms of online expression offered by the centralized services of the Web 2.0 era. This shift can also be seen in a collaborative project with her partner Dragan Espenschied, With Elements of Web 2.0 (2006), consisting of a series of aluminum prints that bring together tropes of the vernacular web (outer space backgrounds) or even older forms of cultural expression (a spiral notebook) with iconography of the Web 2.0 era, such as the Google Maps navigation buttons.

With Elements of Web 2.0 (2006)

A decade separated With Elements of Web 2.0 (2006) from My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996), and there is evidence of a changing set of concerns in Lialina's practice. While the early online work was keenly engaged with the problem of articulating a new artistic language through the internet, Lialina increasingly began to respond (in her solo and collaborative artistic practice, and through her writing) to the wider conditions of cultural production and circulation online. It isn't so much that her artistic project changed. It's the web, and the critical discourse around it, that changed. Commercial companies structured vernacular uses of the web and profited from them long before the advent of Facebook, but with the rise of Web 2.0, they started to get a lot better at doing so. And by 2006, the time of the first "Net Aesthetics 2.0" panel, coming to grips with this changing internet landscape seemed like a most pressing task for many artists. Artie Vierkant characterized this shift as follows: "Artists after the Internet thus take on a role more closely aligned to that of the interpreter, transcriber, narrator, curator, architect."

Both Abe & Mo Sing the Blues and With Elements of Web 2.0 (2006) reflect the artists adopting this role. For their series, Lialina and Espenschied appropriated materials harvested from the web; they presented these materials as solid objects, as aluminum prints rather than digital codes and liquid crystals. While their tone is markedly different from that of Olson and Linkoln's website—melancholic, where Abe & Mo is celebratory; contemplative, where Abe & Mo is participatory—the series can also be thought of as "art made 'after' the internet," per Olson's formulation. Olson's "after" was connected to a historical shift (to re-state it, the explosion of online creators on centralized web services constituting an internet culture in which artists increasingly acted as participant-observers) but it did not refer to this shift; it wasn't marking out an epoch. Instead, it referred to a delineation within the artist's practice, which could be experienced in everyday time, not historical time: "I surfed, and then I created art." Maybe it was just a convenient way of referring to a more general structural boundary between artistic practice and internet culture. Art outside of the internet.

After Olson's 2006 formulation, of course, the cultural conditions of the internet continued to change, rapidly. It's not popular, these days, to ascribe cultural shifts to the appearance of a new technology rather than shifts in perceptual regimes or economic models[3], but let's just say it: the iPhone was released in 2007. Olson's language of making art "after" being online, though surely not meant to be taken literally, initially suggested a perceived boundary between time spent online and off. This boundary was eroded with the proliferation of smartphones and the growing pressures of an attention-based economy. And so Olson's concept of making art after the internet no longer applied in the same way. There was no after the internet, only during, during, during. The artist could no longer realistically adopt a position on the outside.

In this context, it no longer makes sense for artists to attempt to come to terms with "internet culture," because now "internet culture" is increasingly just "culture." In other words, the term "postinternet" suggests that the focus of a good deal of artistic and critical discourse has shifted from "internet culture" as a discrete entity to the reconfiguration of all culture by the internet, or by internet-enabled neoliberal capitalism.

Many of the artists who are working on these questions are acting less as "interpreter, transcriber, narrator, curator, architect," and more as fully-implicated participant: Ann Hirsch performing as a cam whore, Auto Italia South East setting up a workspace for immaterial laborers in a major London real estate development, Ed Fornieles' manipulation of other people's social media profiles. One useful example of this shift is the 2012 exhibition "Brand Innovations for Ubiquitous Authorship" at Higher Pictures, in which "a large group of international artists were asked to produce an object using a custom printing or fabrication service such as CafePress, Zazzle and Walmart, which delivered the objects in sealed boxes directly to the gallery." These rules circumscribed the process of artistic creation entirely within the more or less truncated forms of customization available on the internet; one might reasonably draw the inference that all forms of creative production are similarly circumscribed. The process was made visible through a series of YouTube videos in which the gallerists documented the "unboxing" of each artist's work, fresh from the factory, entirely unseen by the artists up to that point, wrapped in bubble wrap or immersed in packing peanuts. The videos were given slightly macabre titles (Unboxing Marisa Olson and Unboxing Jon Rafman), equating the artist with their product and conveying the impression that the artists' names are also brands.

Unboxing Maria Olson at Higher Pictures, filmed by Artie Vierkant (2013)

Unboxing Jon Rafman at Higher Pictures, filmed by Artie Vierkant (2013)

As much as the Unboxing videos highlighted the artists' participation in digital economies, they also highlighted the objects' participation in such economies. Through exclusion, the videos call attention to the highly organized systems of authorship, production, and distribution that brought these objects into existence, and brought them to the gallery. They do not try to represent these systems, only to represent their participation in them.  

The strategy of calling attention to these systems of production and circulation is not limited to the world of solid, stable objects. Here, we can return to the work of Olia Lialina. Lialina's past online work has often made creative use of the URL, and she has also written about the importance of the URL in creating the context in which an online artwork exists. The most notable example of this is her work Agatha Appears (1997), one section of which involves a series of pages, each featuring an identical image of a woman, that moves the user from one URL to the next, each one adding a bit more narrative information. The current version of the work uses the following URLs: 

http://www.coryarcangel.com/agatha/goes_on.html

http://www.johannes-p-osterhoff.com/agatha/makes_stupid_things.html

http://www.tema.ru/agatha/has_no_idea.html

http://www.irational.org/agatha/wants_to_teleport.html

http://www.tobi-x.com/agatha/teleports_and_teleports.html

In summer 2013, Lialina released another project in which the URL played an important role. Summer (2013) is a short animated loop in which the artist swings from a playground swing that is seemingly fixed to the top of the browser window. Each frame of the animation is played back from a different website, and so the browser must re-direct quickly across a number of websites, such as:

http://1x-upon.com/~despens/olia/summer/

http://www.newrafael.com/olia/summer/

http://www.entropy8.com/olia/summer/

The URLs in Agatha Appears are used as by Lialina a creative tool, while those in Summer are modified by the artist in the most generic way possible, through the addition of her first name and the title of the work. Thus Lialina's use of the URL here, rather than offering a means for creative expression, merely highlights one aspect of the network in which her work circulates. In this, it has something in common with the "Brand Innovations" project, which also seeks to highlight the networks in which the works circulated. In contrast with that exhibition, though, Lialina chooses to circulate her work in a network defined partly by friendship and shared interests, not solely economics and production. Lialina's work calls attention to the work's reliance on a network of friends, a kind of autonomous zone in which her image circulates, in contrast with the endlessly implicated position of "Brand Innovations," which calls attention to the artworks's reliance on a network of logistics and manufacturing, and no such autonomy is assumed to be available to the artist.

In Olson's articulation in 2006/2008, the term "Post-Internet" positioned the artistic creation process "after" or structurally outside of the internet, while acknowledging that the artist was a compulsive participant in internet culture. In the more recent example of "Brand Innovations," artistic creation is more explicitly tied to a system of circulation of brands and images and objects, an internet-enabled neoliberal ether. The outside is not presumed to exist. Lialina points to this problem, but her response is to try to set off a semi-autonomous zone defined by networks of friendship and trust; the artists of "Brand Innovations" do not assume such autonomy.

This fully-immersed position has interesting implications not only for artistic creation, but also for the circulation, reception, and discussion of art. In other words, it has interesting implications for me, a writer a and curator. I wanted to write this text in a way that would appeal to olds like me (I'm not really an old, except in internet years), and so I assumed a serious voice, I tried to stick to the facts, I tried not to make too many grand and unsubstantiated claims. But, this kind of writing somehow feels inadequate for a discussion of postinternet practice; it assumes a critical stance outside of art and internet and even neoliberalism, when in truth I am immersed in all three. So although the word "postinternet" is now about to collapse under the weight of its overuse, even though its position inside of the digital ether may be easily mistaken for a lack of critical politics, I still think there is something true and interesting and complicated about this refusal to buy into the assumption that artwork, artist, audience, and art worker can assume autonomy, and I'm still grappling with this in my own practice as a writer and curator. Even as they criticize the woolly discourse around postinternet art on forums and social media and in the pages of art magazines, I hope the other olds are doing the same.


[1] For an excellent contemporaneous critique on this term, see MUTE Vol 2, No. 4, "WEB 2.0: MAN'S BEST FRIENDSTER" (January 2007).

[2] Olia Lialina, "cheap.art," Message to Nettime-l mailing list, January 19, 1998.

[3] See, for example, Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep, New York: Verso, 2013. p 36: "This pseudo-historical formulation of the present as a digital age, supposedly homologous with a 'bronze age' or 'steam age,' perpetuates the illusion of a unifying and durable coherence to the many incommensurable contituents of contemporary experience."

Updated 11/1 to add the sentence, "Equally, established curators and artists like Tribe have, even while acknowledging the conflict between "postinternet" and its precursors, done a great deal to support emerging artistic practices."