Julia Weist, Reach (2015), displayed at 107-37 Queens Blvd, Forest Hills, New York
The latest in a series of interviews with artists who have a significant body of work that makes use of or responds to network culture and digital technologies.
Reach, your first public artwork, a billboard produced 14 x 48, is up on Queens Boulevard. Can you talk about that work and your thinking about the connection between public art and the public space online?
Reach is a billboard featuring an analog word that I made digital. This word was used in print in the 1600s, but rarely since and never online until earlier this year when I created a single search result for it. I worked carefully with Google’s Webmaster Search Console to control the crawl and index of a webpage I made, after some missteps with DNS, nav menu, and even permalink indexing that created multiple hits for the word. The Reach webpage includes a short text about the enduring value of emptiness as well as some strong language requesting that no one else use this word anywhere else online.
The project is really an experiment in the viability of singularity on the internet, but also an attempt to render a digital impression physically. When the billboard goes up, I’ll plug in a lamp in my home that will turn on each time the webpage is visited (through a series of interconnecting scripts, a circuit board, and an internet-enabled outlet).
We’re all pretty familiar with the idea of sharing a lone experience—think a solo hike in the middle of the wilderness—with scores of non-present entities online. But what we’re less familiar with is the case where hundreds of thousands of people experience the same thing in real life, but create no shared digital footprint. I’m interested in the fragility of that proposition, and in measuring the project’s progress through a domestic indicator.
Mel Bochner, BLAH, BLAH, BLAH (2008)
A version of this essay was initially written for a panel discussion with Pitchfork's Ryan Schreiber, Isaac Fitzgerald from Buzzfeed Books, and LA Times art critic Christopher Knight at Superscript: Arts Journalism & Criticism in a Digital Age, a conference at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Watch the panel discussion here.
Look at the title. I'm asking has, not "how." Contemporary art is still in the early stages of the digital shift that other industries have already experienced. To better understand what might be happening to art criticism, we should look to other fields and assess the structures that have developed as a response to the internet's effect.
There are two facets to this "internet effect": the first is in publishing and circulation, the second in the way this dissemination shapes a discipline and the discourse around it. Music and literature experienced the digital shift in a much more extreme way than contemporary art has thus far. This experience began with circulation—the adjustment from object to mp3 and from independent, or even megachain bookstores to Amazon—but continued with an altered discourse that poses really valid questions about the function of criticism. I'll call it "service criticism." In a nutshell, "service criticism" is criticism that's discovery-oriented. Criticism that assumes the reader who is looking for recommendations.
Take Pitchfork, for example. I remember the first time I heard of Pitchfork. I was a teenager and I had a friend who spent his days reading Pitchfork reviews, then (excuse the illegality of the following) downloaded all the albums he thought he'd find interesting in order to listen to them. (The embrace of streaming technologies helps with the legality question today.) That's a great use of criticism: as a direction, pointing to the good in the midst of overproduction.
This text (original title: "The Outskirts of the Internet") was originally commissioned for the book Turning Inward, with contributions by John Beeson, Svetlana Boym, Marta Dziewańska, Philipp Ekardt, Felix Ensslin, David Joselit, William Kherbek, John Miller, Reza Negarestani, Matteo Pasquinelli, and Dieter Roelstraete. Edited by Lou Cantor and Clemens Jahn. The text was modified slightly, including the deletion of a section about Rhizome's own activities. Published by Sternberg Press, 2015. Orit Gat is a Contributing Editor at Rhizome.
Jim Campbell, Library. GIF excerpt from documentation video.
Fifty percent of arts organizations in the United States maintain a blog. The Metropolitan Museum of Art calculated that while the museum draws six million visitors in a year, its website attracts 29 million users and its Facebook page reaches 92 million. Of these millions of people interacting with the museum online, only a small percentage would ever walk up the New York museum's famous steps. If the internet has changed the definition of what a museum's audience is, then it also poses the difficult question of how to interact with it. This adds a new dimension to the museum's relationship with its traditional audience: How to extend the relationship with visitors beyond the museum's walls? This twofold task—both to generate a public and sustain existing relationships—has created a new landscape of digital engagement where museums look to their websites, dedicated apps, and online magazines as tools to involve this new online public.
As museums are rethinking their relationship to their audience online, an increasing number chooses to publish online magazines, and many of these publications emerge from institutions that are not necessarily the major museums in art world hubs. The attitudes toward these publishing initiatives vary—some choose to outline the scope of their publishing platforms in the shape of their programming, while others produce magazines that are thematically related to subjects the museum covers but are not directly linked to the art on view. What they all share is a feeling that online publishing expands the museum's audience, making it a potentially global one. The idea that a museum's public is to be found beyond visitorship is full of potential, but publishing online does not automatically overcome geography and create new relationships with international audiences. On the contrary, these institutions are working to generate content in an environment that is arguably already saturated. Digital presence does not automatically make for global reach, and much of the writing produced online by museums is bound to disappear in the vast amount of content on the internet. YouTube famously has more videos on it than anyone could ever watch—in fact, with 100 hours of video uploaded to YouTube every minute, it would take over a thousand years to view the total running time of videos posted on the platform—this, in less than ten years of existence. Alexa—the Amazon-owned service that gives public estimates of website metrics—makes online publishing seem almost futile. According to Alexa's data, the most visited website in the world is, of course, Google, and an average user spends nineteen minutes and nine seconds a day on it. Facebook averages 27:34 minutes and the New York Times 3:57. Visitors spend almost twenty minutes a day on YouTube and less than three on the New Yorker's site. When so much content is offered, and so little of it seems to attract readers, the goal of museums joining the online publishing game should not be to reach the largest audience, but rather, to create platforms that expand research and the production of knowledge that builds on the museum's mission statement and expands it, regardless of how many hits it generates—a difficult leap to make, especially in terms of the way museums represent their activity and receive funding.
There's a great scene in the first episode of House of Cards where the ambitious young journalist Zoe Barnes is sitting on the floor of her rented apartment's living room scanning the half-shredded documents of an education bill that was forwarded to her by her source/lover Frank Underwood, the Majority Whip. She's drinking wine, taking notes on her laptop, and scanning on her small all-in-one desktop printer/scanner. The next day she shows up at the office of the newspaper where she works with a 3000-word text and the 300-page document scanned, prompting her editors that "We should get this online right away."
Barnes's character is young and ambitious. Later in the season she moves on to work for a site called "Slugline," an early-Politico-like newswire, where "journalists post news directly from their phones." Her obsession with technology is used as a narrative device in the series to set her apart from her older, more conservative editors at the newspaper. And her ambition to upload information to the newspaper's site as soon as possible, to give the public the raw data before it can be filtered or analyzed, stands for her idealism.
The romanticized image of the scanner is based on the assumption that by scanning and uploading we make information available, and that that is somehow an invariably democratic act. Scanning has become synonymous with transparency and access. But does the document dump generate meaningful analysis, or make it seem insignificant? Does the internet enable widespread distribution, or does it more commonly facilitate centralized access? And does the scanner make things transparent, or does it transform them? The contemporary political imaginary links the scanner with democracy, and so we should explore further the political possibilities, values, and limitations associated with the process of scanning documents to be uploaded to the internet.
What are the political possibilities of making information available? A thing that is scanned was already downloaded, in a sense. It circulated on paper, as widely as newspapers or as little as classified documents. And interfering with its further circulation is a time-honored method of keeping a population in check. Documents are kept private; printing presses shut down. Scanning printed material for internet circulation has the potential to circumvent some of these issues. Scanning means turning the document into an image, one that is marked by glitches and bearing the traces of editorial choices on the part of the scanner. Although certain services remain centralized and vulnerable to political manipulation, such as the DNS addressing system, and government monitoring of online behavior is commonplace, there is still political possibility in the aggregate, geographically dispersed nature of the internet. If the same document is scanned, uploaded, and then shared across a number of different hosts, it becomes much more difficult to suppress. And it gains traction by circulation.
Kenneth Goldsmith at Labor Gallery, Mexico City, 2013. Posted on Printingtheinternet.tumblr.com with the caption, "We printed the fucking internet."
"Printing the internet is not creative nor art. It is a waste of time and resources. Please, find something more creative to do."
So reads a comment on a petition on change.org. Directed at Kenneth Goldsmith, the petition was published in 2013 in response to a project the poet organized at LABOR gallery in Mexico City, where Goldsmith invited people from all over the world to print out the internet and send the pages to the gallery.