Morgan Quaintance on the end of post-internet art
Another right shift is taking place among technocrats. Just as the Californian ideology (hippie liberalism to neoliberalism) and hacker ethic (information must be free) aligned cyber-utopians with laissez faire capitalism (small government, unregulated markets and unrestrained trade), the concept of an all-pervasive, immaterial internet, while often touted as the liberatory next stage in human evolution, is also a boon to corporations profiting from the economic exploitation of workers and users. It is an idea that plays into the hands of technology plutocrats – those who have monetised and will continue to capitalise on behaviours birthed and facilitated by online sites and services – for a simple reason: general acceptance of the theory creates a captive market in the economy of attention. This is because when data and extended matter are intrinsically and inextricably linked, when the internet is the world and augmented reality is the baseline of the real, nobody will want to be offline again.
As if this rhetoric of an entirely digital world wasn’t hard enough to stomach from the digerati, it is now making inroads into the art world. At the end of a recent panel talk at the January 2015 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Google’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt stated that, in our immanent, data-lined future, the internet will effectively disappear: ‘There will be so many IP addresses ... so many devices, sensors, things that you are wearing, things that you are interacting with that you won’t even sense it. It will be part of your presence all the time.’ Three months later Sternberg Press announced the release of The Internet Does Not Exist, a new compendium of critical texts written by its familiar roster of information-age thinkers, including Hito Steyerl, Franco Berardi and Diedrich Diederichsen. The accompanying press release opened with the statement that ‘the internet does not exist. Maybe it did exist only a short time ago, but now it only remains a blur, a cloud, a friend, a deadline, a redirect, or a 404’. Schmidt was essentially talking about the connection of objects, livestock and humans to the internet through nanotechnology and radio frequency identification (a process dubbed the internet of things); Sternberg is selling observations by popular theorists on the various socio-cultural phenomena that are arising because of this state of affairs. What is present in both is the acceptance of a specific worldview: the internet has disappeared into the fabric of the world leaving complete digital saturation in its wake.
While Sternberg’s title might well include critical deconstructions of the supposed inseparability of concrete and digital realities, there is a tendency in the art world, recognised as the first bottom-up contemporary movement of the 21st century, that was founded on an unquestioning and uncritical acceptance of the digitisation of the world narrative. Initially this was perhaps a heroically avant-garde stand against the irrationally net-averse, mid-noughties art world. Now it has become ideological quicksand, pulling an inert style down into the stale muck of inconsequence. Put simply, post-internet art – purportedly, art made on or off the web, primarily influenced by or dealing with the socio-cultural effects and affects of the internet – has come to its end. Like kinetic art, Abstract Expressionism or relational aesthetics, or like a transitory fashion or subculture, post-internet art’s end will be marked by a gradual and pervasive recognition that its linguistic framework, behaviours and aesthetic tropes are outmoded, unsophisticated and signify all that is passé.
A handy visual reference for this dynamic is available in the technology hype cycle graph developed by information technology research and advisory company Gartner. Broadly speaking, from 2011 to 2015 post-internet art has been operating at varying levels of intensity around the ‘peak of inflated expectations’. It is now descending headfirst into the ‘trough of disillusionment’. There are two prominent overarching factors contributing to this decline. First, post-internet art is a victim of its own hollow rhetoric. If all art is, as many commentators suggest, post-internet art, then you arrive at the dissolution of any special category and are just left with art – a shoddy first principle whose logical conclusion is negation of the field it has been deployed to support. Second, post-internet art has become overexposed. The once marginal, niche affair, vying for inclusion in the mainstream, has shifted to the centre. Art-world actors in or on the periphery of the post-internet orbit – Steyerl, writer and curator Karen Archey, DiS Magazine etc – have seen their cultural capital rise exponentially and are in high demand for artwork, curation, comment or analysis. Many keystrokes have been hammered in either contesting terminology (is it post-internet, postinternet or Post Internet?), protesting the pertinence of the movement or defending post-internet art against the perennial, dismissive force of mainstream ludditism. Lastly, and in spite of the aforementioned defensiveness, post-internet art has been pulled into the broad yet chilly embrace of the institution. Ads for post-internet art shows grace the pages of Artforum, while the Berlin Biennale 2016 is under the directorship of DiS editors and, following Archey and Robin Peckham’s ‘Art Post-Internet’ exhibition at Ullens, Beijing, and Lauren Cornell and Ryan Trecartin’s maximalist post-internet triennial ‘Surround Audience’ at New York’s New Museum, it is almost inevitable that top-tier institutions on these shores will be planning surveys set to appear in 2016 or 2017.
But do shaky conceptual grounds and media saturation equal the end of a movement? Surely the fact that internet connectivity is almost universal (the US government recently classified the internet as a utility), and nearly all physical artworks have an immaterial referent (a digital image) floating online, means that artists, institutions and critics are all making, showing and writing about work after and with an awareness of that state of affairs? Perhaps. But, although these may be the conditions that have led to its development, increased connectivity and the proliferation of digital images are not post-internet art. Despite the tendency for supporters and indirect critics to frame it as a general condition of contemporaenity, post-internet art is also not a temporal framework, epoch or broad disciplinary umbrella incorporating a heterogeneous array of internet-aware practices. Post-internet art is a style. It is an aesthetic, a way of being – a look, even – furnished by a specific sensibility, and it is the widespread adoption of this that is coming to an end. To survey its demise it is worth exploring its beginnings.
The origins of post-internet art are said to lie in earnest attempts to provide a set of criteria by which such work may be construed and the term itself defined. New York-based artist Marisa Olson used the term to describe her own condition as someone whose work is made ‘after the internet’ as ‘the yield of my compulsive surfing and downloading’. In his 2010 essay ‘The Image Object Post- Internet’, New York-based Artie Vierkant talked about ‘internet-aware art’ and a post-internet culture of ‘reader-authors’, implying art made in the shadow of the internet by and for an audience simultaneously digesting and producing content. And from 2009 to 2010 New York-based writer Gene McHugh’s year-long blog, now available in a single publication titled Post Internet: Notes on the Internet and Art, developed an argument that value in post-internet art was located not in single works but in the execution and reception of set procedures conducted over time that could be viewed as performance – like writing a year-long blog on post-internet art, for instance. While all three describe some general ways networked technologies have altered their own practices, or that of a select few others, the perspectives they put forward did not define the cognitive, behavioural and aesthetic parameters of post-internet art as executed over the past four years. Put simply, post-internet art did not come from Olson, Vierkant or McHugh. If there was a single catalytic event that kick-started its practice and widespread coverage and display, then it was the introduction of popular smartphones in 2007. Mobile connectivity made the internet so easy to use and access, and so widespread and intergenerational, that it became an undeniable feature of daily life. In addition it is likely that the financial crisis of 2008, followed by a wane in the popularity of and support for various socially engaged practices and tendencies in the art world (relational aesthetics, the educational turn, participatory projects and environmental art), created both the optimum conditions for artists heading online and an appetite for the purchase, representation or display of post-internet art in an image-starved and increasingly apolitical arts sector – especially in the US where criticism has become a pantomime of ad hominem attacks between jaded, established male critics and where institutions are almost totally dependent on corporate sponsorship and private money.
To reiterate, what emerged from these circumstances as post-internet art was not a general condition of contemporaneity, it was a style. Furthermore, it was and is a style born of a specific sensibility, a sensibility that is itself the intellectual construct of a homogeneous in-group – mostly concentrated in the narrow western geographical bases of London, New York and Berlin – whose members share extremely similar linguistic frameworks, values, lifestyles, behavioural norms and class affiliations. Binding these elements together is the overarching socio-economic and psychological condition of privilege, which can be inferred because to make post-internet art a computer, multimedia tools, an expensive art education and the leisure time to feel a sense of ennui and anxiety about it all are needed.
Post-internet art’s primary domain of interest is not the internet but a portion of the world wide web dominated by US popular culture. Its forms (YouTube videos, Tumblr pages, Instagram and Facebook posts etc), aesthetic characteristics (including, but not limited to, amateur and corporate-style web graphics, dual-layer foreground-background moving and still images, airbrushed stock photography) and language (the jargon of critical theory filtered through compressed web speak and appropriated ebonics, or vice-versa) are all harvested from social-media sites, blogs, imageboards and forums. These are the grounds from which so-called ‘internet culture’, characterised by commercialism, juvenilia, narcissism, superficiality, sociopathy and rampant objectification has sprouted. Consequently, post-internet art’s overarching tonal register, its main conscious mode, is irony – personified in Casey Jane Ellison, a New York-based artist whose shallow socialite alter-ego provides vacant commentaries on the ‘art world’ as a humorous (for which read obvious and desperately unfunny) critique for insiders. This is the politically ambiguous manner of address that engenders post-internet art’s specific brand of weak, indirect criticality, where criticism of late capitalism should be inferred from an artist’s participation in, mimesis or re-presentation of, its strategies and forms of alienation, objectification and commodification – as employed in different ways by May Waver, Ellison, Ed Fornieles, K-Hole, Amalia Ulman, Ryder Ripps and others. To borrow a line from Whitney Phillips’s This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things, a sharply observed book on the links between online trolling and US mainstream media, post-internet art ‘replicates precisely the cultural logics it [allegedly] seeks to dismantle’.
A case in point is Ulman’s Excellences & Perfections project of 2014. Ulman created an Instagram account to document an assumed fake identity as an aspiring actress who relocates to LA and goes through a number of cosmetic surgery procedures. The results were several constructed and filtered images of Ulman in her underwear, Ulman looking vacant, Ulman’s designer clothes, Ulman’s teddies and Ulman’s ‘new’ breasts. Was this an innovative critique of objectification designed to disrupt the hegemonic order of the ‘male gaze’ by satisfying it, or an artist fully indulging latent narcissistic tendencies using the ‘art project’ as an alibi? It was all a question of gender perspectives for Ulman, who told Dazed and Confused magazine: ‘most of the people who got it were women. Men were like, “what? I don’t get it, she just looks hot!”.’ In reality, Excellences & Perfections, true to the post-internet sensibility it sprang from, didn’t dismantle anything, it just revelled in, fed off and profited from the exploitative logics of late capitalism. While some felt Fornieles’s New York New York Happy Happy, 2014, a gala event for Rhizome in which paid performers acted out various hedonistic, destructive and exploitative roles (including a naked woman covered in food that attendees removed to eat), was a novel instance of this strategy of comment and critique through engagement and re-presentation, patience has now worn thin with the approach. The in-group criticism of Ripps’s 2014 work ART WHORE – a project in which Ripps hired prostitutes to create artworks for him, essentially the same conceit as Fornieles – and his wider practice as a whole demonstrates this. An uncharacteristically judgmental Rhizome described it as ‘unthinking, unethical and dull’ and a recent Archey review of Ripps ended with the line ‘if we’re going to prevent contemporary art from becoming a full-tilt attention game, we need to stop showing artists like Ripps’.
But to return to the end of post-internet art, the decline of the movement will be measured in inverse proportion to its increased popularity in both zero-criticality fashion and lifestyle publications like Dazed and Confused, and through increased display in late-to-the- party, large-scale survey exhibitions. This will be seen in two ways: one, former self-identifying or at lest self-aligning post-internet artists will retreat from the style and repudiate the sensibility, and two, those who have reached a profitable level of success with the post-internet style will continue to make works that seem repetitive, myopic and increasingly pedestrian to all but the market and other late adopters.
Chicago-based artist Jennifer Chan’s recent public declaration of contempt is exemplary of the artist-withdrawal condition. Always uncomfortable with post-internet art’s monocultural membership and field of symbolic reference –‘the art world is a white frat house’, she has written, ‘and most post-internet discussion has been between ... North America and Western Europe’ – Chan finally distanced herself with the following tweet: ‘Postinternet: I renounce my intellectual contributions to this colonial movement. It’s been a massive ideological jerkoff.’ While conceptual and aesthetic inertia in post-internet practice is evident in the work of Trecartin, an artist (the closest to blue-chip in the field) whose hyper-camp video nightmares have essentially replayed and restaged the same digital delirium, crisis of identity scenarios since the mid-noughties.
There are three inherent limitations that have contributed to this state of affairs. First, post-internet art is almost completely apolitical and a-critical. While net.artists wrote subversion into the label itself (Vuk Cosic and Alexei Shulgin made up the story of the tag ‘net.art’ emerging in a body of glitched text – see ‘lonely Arts’ AM379; each time the story is written as fact, the authority of art-historical writing is undermined and the veracity of journalism as a whole is brought into question), post-internet art represents the depoliticisation of its antecedents by capitulating to the culture industry and coveting the corporate – see K-Hole, the trend-forecasting group that somewhat bizarrely insists on claiming its for-profit, corporate brand advisory service is art. There is also no room for institutional critique. Again, artists who maintained a considered exploration of the internet as medium and material like Cornelia Sollfrank (see the Female Extension project), Eva and Franco Mattes (see their Darko Maver project) and Heath Bunting have all in their own ways revealed the hypocrisies and questionable behaviours of institutions in and on the fringes of the art world. But depoliticised post-internet art remains silent even in the face of what many allege (and with good reason) is highly dubious patronage from London-based collector and gallerist Anita Zabludowicz (‘Artists Must Eat’, AM384). Consequently the style has no base level of criticality to support the far riskier operation of critiquing spaces designed for its display (as Michael Asher, Andrea Fraser and Brian O’Doherty have). This leaves much questionable activity unanalysed, including data-tracking practices on the online portals that display and discuss post-internet work. For example, Rhizome allows commercial data trackers Quantcast to work through its site; similarly the New Museum grants access to the pervasive Doubleclick ad network. Is this the online equivalent of the corporate partnerships that compromised the supposed neutrality of the white cube?
Second, the field has swallowed wholesale the idea that identity formation and representation are the bedrocks upon which life online, and thus the socio-cultural future of our information age, is founded. Whether it is the importance of authoring your own singular and consistent identity, or exploring the idea that, as social psychologist and broadcaster Aleks Krotoski has put it, ‘identity is prismatic and multiplicitous, context-dependent and subjective’, the self, followed by narcissism, followed by sociopathy, comprise post-internet art’s predominant subject matter.
Third, post-internet art supports the disappeared internet by deriding the differences between reality offline and online, and dismissing those who maintain this split as ‘digital dualists’ – scoffingly named after René Descartes’ redundant schematic of mind-body dualism. The reason that a disappeared internet is important for the post-internet field, even though it plays right into the hands of free-marketeer plutocrats, is that it legitimises the asymmetry of attention that pervades the field. That is to say, there is a clear bias in post-internet practice towards subject matter, aesthetics and behaviours that have originated or been made possible by the world wide web. This underpins and rationalises both the field’s lack of criticality and its obsession with the dynamics of self-actualisation through social-media web portals of all stripes (Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr etc). It is what allows post-internet artists to turn away from real-world politics in whatever form, whether it is the Zabludowicz controversy, social cleansing in London or the inhumane conditions workers who make the computer screens for these immaterial works are kept under. Of course, artists are not obliged to be overtly political. The point here concerns post-internet art’s limitations as a mode of practice, its existence as a constraining style and sensibility too narrow to allow an artist the freedom to be overtly political if she or he wished.
In sum, post-internet art is not the byword for our current art-historical epoch, nor is it a movement born of a group of foundational texts in which explicit aesthetic criteria or methodologies were set out. It is a style and sensibility whose norms of praxis (web-derived aesthetics and tones of address) and ideological commitments (the disappeared internet) are articulated through works of art authored, written about and displayed by members of a culturally and economically homogeneous community that is predominantly western, middle and upper-middle class. Although it could arguably be credited with pushing the subject of art and the internet from the margins to the centre, its limitations have created a conceptual deadlock from which it is now necessary to escape.
Like the end of, say, grunge music, the end of post-internet art is a development that should be celebrated. This is because it signals a will to move beyond the limited aesthetic, methodological and conceptual confines of a narrow field; a field unequal to the task of exploring the socio-cultural ramifications of the contemporary internet, a field incapable of exploring anything other than narcissism, sociopathy and the commodification of self on the world wide web.
Morgan Quaintance is a writer, musician, broadcaster and the Cubitt curatorial fellow for 2015/16.
First published in Art Monthly 387: June 2015.