Visual Arts Review: “Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today”

Art that purports to investigate the nature of the internet, and its effects on our world, can provide what has been traditionally expected of the visual arts: engage the intellect and delight the eye.

Art In The Age Of The Internet, 1989 To Today, at the ICA Boston, through May 20.

Installation view, “Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today,” Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. Photo: Caitlin Cunningham.

By Timothy Francis Barry

Do you remember where you were, the day the world turned Dayglo?

I do. It was 1988, Manomet, Massachusetts. Watching Luis Bunuel films from his Mexican period, on videocassette, ordered from an Evergreen catalogue, which were then mailed to my friends’ home. During a snack break, maybe while we were rewinding a just viewed movie, my friend Karl mentioned he’d received “an email” from a colleague at UC Santa Barbara.

A what? Karl, a computer scientist at UMass Boston, patiently explained that certain academics could access a “web” on their computers, to share information electronically.

“One day soon, everybody will have access to it,” he noted.

Hmm. Sounds….interesting…. Is the popcorn ready?

Fast forward to today.  A world defined by memes and likes and #ATTHISANDTHAT. So when news came that an exhibition of internet art was coming, you had to wonder — was it really necessary? Must digital culture take over everything? Can’t at least visual art stand as the last pure province of cultural creation, unsullied by technology? Don’t pictures still matter?

The answer this exhibition offers, judging from two visits and a read-through of the excellent accompanying catalogue, is  reassuring. Yes, digital technology can add real value to museum art exhibitions. And art that purports to investigate the nature of the internet, and its effects on our world, can provide what has been traditionally expected of the visual arts: engage the intellect and delight the eye.

On a cold, bright Sunday in February, legions of visitors to the harborside ICA seemed to be intermittently amused, entranced, baffled, and engaged by many of the exhibits. Millennial-aged visitors wandered and looked, stopping to read labels and consider images; while those of us who remember (and sometimes miss) our pre-internet brains approached the exhibits with an open, if somewhat wary, mind.

There is a hearty serving of video-heavy works; there are lots of flashing lights, myriad screens projecting quixotic-spirited images. Also three-dimensionality was in considerable evidence: mixed-media sculpture, like Josh Kline’s laugh-out-loud Saving Money With Subcontractors (Fedex Worker’s Head) (2015-17); several works with plug-in light-boxes, and Jon Rafman’s View Of Harbor (2017), which requires a virtual-reality headset. One potential demerit of all the lights a’popping: the ‘too much bling’ effect. Your eye is drawn to one work and then hooked by the flashing activity of an adjacent, interesting tableau. There’s an awful lot to take in.

And, because this a serious, theory-driven exhibition, you have a choice. Take the works in on a surface-y, ‘isn’t that interesting’ level, or delve deeper and explore why the ‘dematerialization of the art object’ is a topic worth considering.

The central question raised by the show’s artists is a critique of existing systems of art and commerce. That might sound dry, but makes for some thought provoking and, in some cases intriguing, artworks.

Take, for example, Camille Henrot’s 13-minute video, Grosse Fatigue (2013). Projected via a continuing loop in a dark viewing space, the narrative offers a quickly changing palette of images that proposes to be a history of lifeforms — conveyed through the familiar template of computer screen windows.

While many of the pieces here are of current vintage, conceived and rendered during this decade, the show also serves as a history of digital art, from pioneering multi-media artist Nam June Paik forward. And for those of us who still value old-school, two-dimensional, hand-made art — yes, paintings and prints and photographs! — there are some sterling examples that provide, within the show’s charter,  illuminating context.

The best of the analog lot include Thomas Ruff’s photo nudes lox22 (2000); Gregory Edwards’ oil on canvas  Human Being (2014); Gretchen Bender’s highly appealing print on fabric American Flag (1989); and especially Celia Hempton’s wall of a half dozen 12” x 14” oil on linen paintings, a grouping called Chat Paintings.

Young British artist Hempton, born 1981, does something particularly provocative. She employs a classically modern British painting style — recalling, say, Frank Auerbach — but derives her subject matter from websites peopled by sexual voyeurs and exhibitionists. This theme of “the performativity of sex in virtual interactions” is also explored in Frances Stark’s feature-length video My Best Thing (2011), which humorously documents online sex-chat.

The history of contemporary art has seen extremes of radical expression: the late Chris Burden’s 1974 performance where he was nailed cruciform to a Volkswagen; the iconic female French artist Orlan, who in 1990 initiated a series of plastic surgeries as performance art; conceptual artist Bas Jan Ader, who in 1975 set sail from Chatham, Massachusetts, a proposed cross-ocean voyage in a very small sailboat — and was never heard from again.

Installation view, Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today, Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston, 2018. Photo: Caitlin Cunningham

This iconoclastic tradition is revisited here by young Argentine artist Amalia Ulman’s Excellences & Perfections (2015), wherein she transforms her persona on Instagram and Facebook, making “radical shifts in her appearance and her life, including plastic surgery, excessive shopping, and dieting.” After four months, she “halted this process, and revealed to her 89,244 followers that it was a performance.” Whether this could be characterized as ‘a hoax’ or not is unclear (did she or did she not actually have plastic surgery?); what is clear is that the performance-still presents us with a woman who looks like Taylor Swift staring at a cellphone. Is this ‘virtual’ self-abasement as an artform? The excellent catalogue essay by Omar Kholeif, senior curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, speculates about Ulman’s “pursuit of visibility and invisibility” in the context of what today’s critics call the “extreme present.” Extreme indeed.

If this is an art practice that “critically engages with the media that it deploys,” as Kholeif argues, is this the digital corollary of ‘making art about the making of art?’ If that’s the case, some of what is coming out of the cyber-studio is not particularly reassuring. One big problem is the unreasonable zeal of internet art’s exponents: artist Guthrie Lonergan waxes rhapsodic that “the struggle of normal, basic internet users to get ‘something real’ through the existing grid is really exciting.” Exciting? Maybe he needs to power-down and get out more.

And, as Lauren Cornell asserts in her essay “Professional Surfers,”  the contemporary artist today spends a lot of time “surfing….collecting, reframing, and altering found images and videos (into new artworks)….” These artists make a fetish of boasting that they find their source material online. Apparently the allure of stalking the boulevards of St. Germain or the gutters of Mission Hill in search of the perfect image, with sketchbook or camera, is a last-century analog notion: this twentieth-century boy finds that not only a bit sad, but at a dangerous remove from fashioning artworks that reflect human experience.

Whitney Museum of American Art curator Kim Conaty’s essay “Machines, Tools and Blueprints: Charting a Connected World,” argues that hallmarks of 20th-century printed cultural matter — including the Whole Earth Catalogue (founded 1968) — can be seen as precursors of internet art. She insightfully tracks the course of “burgeoning cybernetic culture,” beginning with the conceptual gestures of the Fluxus movement in the late 1960’s, when “for many, painting had become irrelevant….and sculpture as a three-dimensional form was to be ‘dematerialized’ into a practice largely based in ideas or actions.” This nutshells one of the goals of the entire exhibition: to present an organized timeline of artistic practice since the death, and rebirth, of painting.

What’s left out of this history? Cultural critic Virginia Heffernan tells us in her 2016 book Magic And Loss: The Internet As Art (oddly not cited in this exhibition….) that “all the liking, tagging, commenting, and regramming can be leveraged for data mining and advertising.” This trenchant critique, a virtual elephant in the room regarding any serious discussion of the internet, is almost wholly absent from the ICA exhibition. The alarming fact that the internet has primarily become a mega-marketing vehicle souped up by powerful Silicon Valley techno-crats is ignored.

Chicago’s Kholeif, who has written three books about internet art, and been involved in curating several internet art exhibitions, admits that the contemporary art world is experiencing a crisis of the soul: “there’s a relentless state of anxiety, which has led to a kind of arranged marriage: the culture of the art fair.” Ah, the root of the problem: ceaseless salesmanship. The art world is now the art business; the pursuit of ‘virality’ amounts to the number of ‘eyeballs’ that see your art. Aesthetics is reduced to the desperate pursuit of clicks. 

Sondra Perry, “Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Workstation, “2016. Video and bicycle workstation. Courtesy the artist and The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Caitlin Cunningham.

Missed opportunities aside, the show’s curators, Eva Respini and her assistant Jeffrey De Blois, have assembled a diverse and challenging group of artists. Of course, the high level of quality here means that the few pieces that are less successful stand out. Trevor Paglen’s two large photographs, one of undersea cables, the other of space and stars (taken perhaps from a satellite), are part of a group of works called “States of Surveillance.” Regarding their social and political implications, the visuals make a trenchant and valid point — we are being watched. As works of art on a gallery wall, they are decidedly ho-hum.

The exhibition’s nadir has to be Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin’s Safety Pass (2016), which, at first glance, seems promising. The artists have built a room-sized sculptural theater; there are padded viewing platforms on which visitors are invited to watch the 21:17 minute video Permission Streak. Picture what might ensue if you gave a group of amateur performers (with a generous serving from the LGBTQ community) “freakish dialogue,” costumed them up, gave them “pharmaceuticals,” and then turned them loose on one another with video cameras. Add in a squalling soundtrack. Voila! Art!

In the catalogue, Kholeif counsels that Permission Streak “speaks of a world that is as inviting as it is uninviting, where the actors … bathed in glitter and pixels … are eternally obsessed with themselves and each other….” Social commentary? Arguably. Watchable? Barely. Enjoyable? Take a good guess. Trecartin, we are informed, is “recognized as one of the most important artists of his generation.” Based on the evidence of this video-installation, this emperor of the art world needs a new virtual fig leaf.

Tim Francis Barry studied English literature at Framingham State College and art history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He has written for Take-It Magazine, The New Musical Express, The Noise, and The Boston Globe. He owns Tim’s Used Books and TB Projects, a contemporary art space, both in Provincetown.

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