“Art in the Age of the Internet: 1989 to Today,” an exhibition that was on view at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston earlier this year, promised to “examin[e] how the internet has radically changed the field of art, especially in its production, distribution, and reception.” The survey “I Was Raised on the Internet,” currently at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, “focuses on how the internet has changed the way we experience the world.” In 2015, the periodic New Photography exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York carried a title—“Ocean of Images”—that characterized the internet as “a vortex of images, a site of piracy, and a system of networks,” and claimed to “prob[e] the effects of an image-based post-Internet reality.” “Electronic Superhighway: 2016–1966” at the Whitechapel Gallery in London aimed “to show the impact of computer and internet technologies on artists from the mid-1960s to the present day.” Back in 2001, John Weber, one of the curators of “010101: Art in Technological Times” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, made an observation that could easily be slipped into a statement for any of the more recent shows: “many contemporary artists are responding to the superabundance of material goods, information, and images in the world today, an upwelling of pictures and products that is itself inextricably linked to technological culture.”1
A pattern emerges. Exhibitions like these—which from here on I’ll refer to as internet shows—all work with the same set of ideas about the circulation of images, the accelerated movement of information, and so on. Internet shows include art made in a variety of mediums, including works meant to be viewed online, though examples of net art are always outnumbered in these exhibitions by sculptures, offline videos, and paintings. Internet shows give audiences and funders the impression that the museum is taking on fresh, relevant topics, that its programming speaks to contemporary everyday experience. These are good things. But internet shows can be frustrating, too. They tell us that they examine, focus, and probe, yet they stop at the benign observation that the internet has changed the way we live without getting into the specifics of how. There’s a depthlessness to them, a lack of substance, expressed in the pale platitudes that pass through their accompanying curatorial texts. I’ve seen a number of internet shows, and I never leave feeling that they contribute to a growing body of knowledge about art and technology. Each one ends in the same place where it started: some hazy notion of the internet’s importance.
The problem is that internet shows are always thematic rather than historical. The museum’s traditional role is to historicize art, to mount exhibitions that demonstrate contextual connections among works, artists, movements, and sociopolitical events. Retrospectives and midcareer surveys—historical exhibitions that present narrative accounts of the work of a single artist—remain staples of museum programming. But when it comes to group shows of contemporary art, thematic exhibitions have largely displaced historical ones.
There are several reasons for this. Contemporary art has a complicated relationship to history. Many artists and curators have rightly challenged the dominant narratives of art history that perpetuate privileges and exclusions by prioritizing the tastes of wealthy collectors and the work of white men. The art world has become global. It is sensitive to diverse, parallel histories that can’t be bound up in one cogent narrative. Biennials—which are almost always international and thematic—have set the standard for the presentation of contemporary art, and though the format originated outside the museum it has influenced what museums do, in part because of the prestige that organizing a biennial can bestow on a museum curator.
These are the cultural reasons for the ascendance of the thematic group show. But there are practical ones too. Thematic shows are cheaper. They don’t require the intensive, long-term scholarly research that goes into historical shows. Curators can find artists whose work fits their themes while jetting around the world to biennials and fairs and symposia. This glamorous travel also creates opportunities for entertaining trustees. The same can’t be said of a week in an archive.
For these reasons, shows like “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” at the Guggenheim Museum in New York last year—which traced the development of local art scenes in relation to increasing access to media and global networks—are less common than ones like the roughly contemporaneous “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon” at the New Museum, also in New York, which proposed an intersectional understanding of queerness in art. While a bad thematic show is a hodgepodge of dubious relations, a good one, like “Trigger,” has a rich dissensus, allowing a multiplicity of approaches to an idea to open up unresolved dialogues that speak to the complexity of the world and the mind.
Internet shows, however, have problems that exacerbate the weaknesses of the thematic format and minimize its delights. One is the repeated use of the theme of the internet as a basis for exhibitions. The first time I saw an internet show, I thought it was great!2 But because the internet is perceived as a perennially relevant topic, the theme gets recycled, usually along with the same artists and ideas, and becomes more tiresome with each iteration. Because the internet is everywhere and carries all kinds of information, the selection of it as a theme builds in an excuse for sloppy organization. Moreover, as an ontological category, the “theme” is not fully adequate to the internet. The internet is a material. By this I mean not only that the internet is a material for artists, the stuff of net art, but also that it has a material existence beyond the art world: the hardware and software that make high-speed, long-distance communication possible and the social forms and relationships that result from it. Artists, like other users, find communities and exchange ideas online and, as theorist Josephine Bosma has argued, these interpersonal networks—along with browsers and screens—constitute the materiality of net art.3 While a historical show reconstructs connections among artists, the thematic show removes works from their original contexts so that it may create a new one for them, which makes the format particularly ill-suited for meaningfully representing how artists use the internet. The internet show puts viewers in the position of a user encountering works at random, rather than providing them with an understanding of how artists have engaged in conversations about the use of various tools, platforms, and concepts.
A panel at the last edition of Art Basel Miami Beach featured Eva Respini, curator of “Art in the Age of the Internet,” and Omar Kholeif, curator of “I Was Raised on the Internet.”4 The moderator—Michael Connor, artistic director of Rhizome—said that while museums have previously presented new media as a topic with an air of novelty, “now there is this major push to treat the internet as historical,” implicitly characterizing these shows as attempts at historicization. But they aren’t, even though the promotional language around them encourages that misconception. They dress themselves in the accoutrements of historical shows without adhering to the standards of that structure. They mislead the public by tossing a few older works—sometimes by dead artists— among recent pieces, and bracketing dates in their subtitles.
While not an internet show per se, because of the period of its focus, “Thinking Machines: Art and Design in the Computer Age, 1959–1989,” an exhibition on view at MoMA from November 2017 to April 2018, exemplified this problem. A 1987 CM-2 Supercomputer, a cubic black bulk with blinking red LED lights, was its centerpiece, and a fitting one. As the wall text said, the designers added superfluous lights and patterns to give the machine a more compelling appearance. So it was throughout the exhibition: pretty surface effects with no correspondence to material realities. At the entrance was a hummingbird animation that Charles Csuri made in 1967 by using a plotter to print computer-generated drawings on film stock. It was presented in a different medium: as a projection of a digital file. In Dave Theurer’s Tempest (1981), angular, spindly shapes dart and flip in complex formations across a black screen. It’s a game, but you wouldn’t know that from its display as a playthrough recording on a monitor. Hanne Darboven never worked with computer technologies, but a series of her drawings was included in the show, as if her interest in numbers and seriality justified putting her work in the sightline of a beige Macintosh designed by Steve Jobs. For the sake of fairness, I should acknowledge the limitations of “Thinking Machines”: it was a small show in a peripheral gallery, organized by two junior curators using objects from the collection. But when an institution like MoMA abandons attempts to establish meaningful historical connections to play with superficial affinities and stylistic coincidences, then we, the public, are in trouble.
RESPINI CLAIMED that her exhibition “Art in the Age of the Internet” was “the first comprehensive institutional exhibition in the United States” on the topic.5 But with an arbitrary array of themed subsections and misappropriation of historical works, it was more like a comprehensive collection of the internet show’s flaws. It began with a juxtaposition of two video installations: Internet Dream (1994) by Nam June Paik and thewayblackmachine (2014–) by the collective HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? Both comprise grids of video monitors, fifty-two and thirty, respectively. In Paik’s work, electronically modified images and colorful abstractions dance across the screens. The other piece collects social media posts and cable news videos documenting instances of police brutality against black people in the United States. Paik dramatized the network’s shape by creating a kaleidoscope of images and movement unfolding across multiple screens simultaneously. HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? traces how the network delivers information. You might say that the pairing laconically conveyed a shift in attitudes toward the internet from a utopian imaginary to a sober appraisal of its reality. But the adjacency drained nuance from both, while obscuring the specificity of the processes and the materials of each work. It reduced them to their form.
This juxtaposition of obvious and superficial formal similarities was the show’s primary organizational logic. Not far from the opening corridor were works by Dara Birnbaum and Simon Denny that had little in common aside from the fact that they incorporated prints on plexiglass held by aluminum supports. Birnbaum’s work, first made in 1992 and fabricated anew last year, shows her designs for an unrealized installation for the lobby of Sony’s corporate headquarters that would have showcased the capabilities of the screens the company produces. Denny’s project, which was first shown at the New Zealand pavilion of the 2015 Venice Biennale, is about David Darchicourt, a designer who gained notoriety when internal NSA documents featuring his illustrations and diagrams were leaked by Edward Snowden. Are these works about labor within institutional frameworks and the contract worker’s interpretation of institutional clients? Was the pairing meant to evoke the connections between corporate and government surveillance technologies? Possible associations piled up but didn’t cohere, producing a headache-inducing intellectual noise that echoed between the visual rhyme of plexiglass and aluminum.
Further along, the section titled “Hybrid Bodies” featured recent video installations by Ed Atkins, Kate Cooper, and Sondra Perry, all of whom use 3D avatars, like the ones in video games, as protagonists in their work. While the uncanny physicality of these figures may speak to the feelings of dissociation that can accompany internet use, and while the avatars are usually purchased by the artists as readymades from online databases, the connection of these works to the internet seems slight. It is slighter still in the case of Judith Barry’s Imagination, dead imagine (1991), which was shown nearby in the same section. In this installation, images of heads seem to flatten against the sides of the glass cube they are projected onto. Fetid liquids seep through their skin and pool in the hollows of their faces. At the aforementioned Art Basel panel, Respini said Barry made the work during the AIDS crisis as an image of bodies under attack, and that it could be read today as an expression of bodies under attack from the internet or the viruses encountered online.6 Even if you can forgive Respini’s glib trivialization of AIDS, her comment shows how eager curators are to overlook the historical context of a work’s creation when yoking it to a theme.
Though the catalogue for “Art in the Age of the Internet” was touted as a “major scholarly publication,” it is more of a warmed-over presentation of familiar ideas. Caitlin Jones, director of Western Front in Vancouver, begins her essay about the display of net art in galleries by joking about the Sisyphean futility of the debate, which she has pursued in a number of essays and panels over the last two decades. She arrives at an unsurprising non-conclusion that net art should be understood broadly, as a medium that can manifest in multiple forms. Lauren Cornell, chief curator at the Hessel Museum of Art at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, writes about surf clubs—collectives of artists who shared images and texts found online—and quotes an essay by curator Ceci Moss on the same topic that Cornell commissioned for Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century (MIT Press, 2015), an anthology she edited with critic Ed Halter. The catalogue does not present new research. It’s recycled material.
The exhibition itself sometimes felt like an anthology of other internet shows, as if Respini had visited them and leafed through their catalogues and picked out items she liked. Birnbaum’s Sony designs were previously put in dialogue with more recent works in “Art Post-Internet” at the Ullens Center in Beijing in 2014. Juliana Huxtable’s self-portraits, in which she appears as an alien figure in vividly colored landscapes, and the monument to her by Frank Benson, in which she poses like an odalisque, were displayed together in “Surround Audience,” the 2015 New Museum Triennial; the arrangement, perhaps the most widely photographed one of that show, was copied almost exactly in Boston.7 Some say the use of the term “curation” to describe the management of social media accounts has degraded the value of the work done in museums. But I’d say that it’s more damaging to the curator’s profession to put together exhibitions with the rigor of a Pinterest page.
FOR THE CATALOGUE of “Art Post-Internet,” curators Karen Archey and Robin Peckham conducted a survey of artists, curators, and writers to measure attitudes toward “post-internet” as a term.8 One of the most common complaints was that it gives a false impression of finality, and prematurely permits a post-historical understanding of the internet.9 The title of “I Was Raised on the Internet” seemed to offer a clever solution to this problem. The show was conceived by Kholeif, who previously organized “Electronic Superhighway.” Reviewers of that show (which I did not see) described how it opened with a chaotic jumble of recent work, meant to evoke the condition of information overload, and receded to a quieter display of artifacts related to Experiments in Art and Technology, the organization that facilitated collaborations between artists and engineers in the late 1960s and early ’70s. “The boundaries of the internet are constantly shifting, with no (apparent) spatial or temporal limitations—perhaps it is this nonhierarchical, nonjudgmental, user-oriented principle that this first gallery attempted to mirror,” Ajay Hothi wrote in this magazine. “Unfortunately, the exhibition—without defining boundaries at its outset or, arguably, its core—rendered much of that territory formless.”10 Writing in the Guardian, Adrian Searle concurred: “As a history, ‘Electronic Highway’ cannot do more than present a series of snapshots. It is very uneven but, like the internet itself, throws up fascinating asides and moments.”11 When “I Was Raised on the Internet” was announced, I wondered if lessons had been learned. The first-person pronoun of the title indicates an attentiveness to how artists develop their approach to their work through individual experiences of the internet, rather than an attempt to generalize a common condition with all the pitfalls that entails. The show promises to relate history in the mode of memoir, through a polyphony of distinctive voices.
But it doesn’t. “I Was Raised on the Internet” turns out to be a catchy decoration on the same old mess. There are, however, several compelling works that share personal narratives, along the lines suggested by the title. Porpentine Charity Heartscape’s The Shape You Make When You Want Your Bones to Be Closest to the Surface (2018)—an online work, included in a portal presented on the MCA website and on a row of computers outside the galleries that house the show—is a haunting interactive story about growing up queer in a family with predilections for fundamentalist Christianity and conspiracy theories. The first gallery has a pair of poems by Juliana Huxtable printed in bold, black capital letters against acidic, hazy fields of purple. Untitled (for Stewart), 2012, shares memories of choosing female video-game avatars, which “fueled my rage against boyhood, albeit through arguably the most ‘boyish’ of means,” and taking part in fantasies of seduction and violence involving virtual vaginal monsters. Jacolby Satterwhite’s video En Plein Air: Music of Objective Romance, Track #1 Healing in My House (2016) cuts footage of the artist dancing in wanly lit settings—his studio, probably; a gay bar bathroom in off hours—into computer-generated fantasy landscapes, where copies of his image move in chorus with clippings of gyrating porn stars. Snippets of text that float amid weird beast-machine hybrids and impossible geological formations are taken from his mother’s notes for possible inventions, like “Spit In Bowl,” a spittoon for the bathroom, and “a shoe roller coaster to select the shoes to wear.” While these works may not be strictly autobiographical, they present digital media as a space of adolescent risk and discovery as well as a means for the transformation of that experience into art.
Overall, however, the first-person of the show’s title causes confusion as to whose story is being offered up for view. The first work you see when entering the show is Evan Roth’s Self Portrait: November 1, 2017 (2017), several large-format glossy pages spilling in copious folds from the wall onto the floor. Though it’s called a “self portrait,” the work doesn’t show Roth but the cache of images that appeared on his computer screen in the course of a day. Most of the bigger images are blandly pleasant snapshots—a relative’s vacation photos glimpsed on Facebook, perhaps—and stock imagery that Roth probably encountered while doing an image search on Google. App icons and the full emoji keyboard pattern the margins.
Most of the works are even more impersonal than Roth’s. There’s a seductively tactile assemblage by Ethiopian artist Elias Sime, made of scrap metal, battery fragments, circuit boards and other high-tech garbage collected at an open-air market in Addis Ababa. It’s about the experience not of the internet but of its material detritus: a story of metals mined in Africa and then sold back there after being assembled into devices in China.
The show’s organization into thematic sections—“Look at Me,” “Touch Me,” “Play With Me,” “Control Me,” “Sell Me Out”—only muddies matters further. Roth’s image chronicle is in “Look at Me,” but who in his work is making the request—the artist or the images that pass across his screen? Squaring “Touch Me” with Sime’s assemblage means wondering whether the networks’ copper scraps are crying out for affection, or if it’s the artist who longs for sensual contact with machines. There are so many inconsistencies, so much outright nonsense, in the organization of internet shows that cataloguing their flaws has a tedious decadence to it. I could point out, for instance, that “I Was Raised on the Internet” claims to explore the experience of the millennial generation, but includes several artists—Sime, Hito Steyerl, Stan Douglas, Douglas Coupland, Laura Owens—who were born far too early to be raised on the internet. But why? The obfuscating fog of the internet-as-theme renders all attempts at sense-making moot.
SO WHAT IS to be done? How can institutions treat the internet not as a theme, but as a material? One way is to return to a traditional function of the museum: the preservation of works of art. This is the approach taken by Rhizome, the New York–based organization that has curated, collected, and promoted net art since 1996.12 In 2016 Rhizome introduced Webrecorder, an archiving tool that records and restages websites to keep the interactive elements live, rather than saving screenshots as other online archives do. That technology is the basis of Net Art Anthology, an online collection of works from the 1980s to the present. By focusing on net art as a medium and reproducing the look and feel of browsers and sites where the featured works were originally created and experienced, the Anthology does what the internet show fails to do: it presents each work with a sensitivity to its context.
The project is an anthology, not a narrative, and the curators sort the works into chronological chapters rather than attempting to demonstrate connections between them. But common ground emerges nonetheless. Much of the work in the Anthology from the late 1990s maps nascent structures of surveillance and control. There is aerial footage recorded by an early drone of various Silicon Valley company headquarters and government buildings. The plane was designed by BIT, or Bureau of Inverse Technology, an anonymous collective that included Natalie Jeremijenko and Kate Rich.13 Antoni Muntadas’s The File Room (1994–) includes an interactive database cataloguing instances of censorship, where users can submit accounts of their own experience of being censored. The chapter that covers 2005 to 2010 documents artists’ infiltrations of platforms for mass use. Pedro Vélez orchestrated a soap opera on MySpace. Ryan Trecartin’s I-Be Area (2007) is included as it was uploaded to YouTube, in an out-of-order sequence of choppy segments.
By preserving not just the works but the interfaces in which they appeared, Net Art Anthology acknowledges that the interactions between artists and their audiences are central to the experience of net art. In 2008 and 2009, Ann Hirsch maintained an account on YouTube under the username Scandlishious, where she posted videos of herself dancing to pop songs and delivering introspective monologues in the persona of an awkward young woman named Caroline. The messages sent by Caroline’s desirous male fans, in effect part of the work, are included in Rhizome’s presentation of the project.
Not every institution that wants to address art and the internet has the resources to pursue a commitment to digital preservation equal to Rhizome’s. Indeed, you could say that Rhizome does this so other institutions don’t have to. But the attention to the context of the creation and reception of work in Net Art Anthology should be emulated—after all, that’s what museums are supposed to do.
A comprehensive historical show about art and the internet may be too ambitious an undertaking, but institutions can make productive contributions by mounting shows with narrower temporal and geographic parameters. I would love to see an exhibition about Nettime, the email listserv that hosted lively and influential discussions theorizing the internet in the 1990s; such a show might include works by artists who participated in the list, including artistic interventions into the list itself, as well as ones presented at conferences attended by its members. While I’m not a fan of post-internet art, I would be excited to see an exhibition devoted to the artists—most of whom were based in Berlin in the late 2000s—most closely involved in developing its aesthetics and theories, without interlopers from New York or the 1990s who happened to make work that is superficially similar. Internet shows feature art predominantly from the United States and Western Europe, tokenizing artists from elsewhere. It would be great to see small group shows that explore how artists address regional specificities of internet use and access. Of course, big institutions want to mount shows that match their scale, ones worthy of adjectives like “definitive,” “comprehensive,” and “landmark,” so curators might have a hard time obtaining support for smaller shows of the sort I’ve sketched out here. One solution would be to do an internet show that replaces the thematic subsections with historical ones, focusing on a handful of groups of artists working at different points from the ’90s to the present who influenced ideas about what the internet means for art.
Critics who seek ways to praise internet shows usually settle for saying that they re-create the internet’s effects. But to make sense of the internet you have to go against its logic. In part, this means approaching the museum as a place of learning, rather than a vessel for reproducing the spectacle of other media technologies and taking their mystification as an inevitable given. “Ephemerality is often pictured as a force of nature, like a building destroyed by wind and water,” Dragan Espenschied, Rhizome’s director of preservation, has said. “But nothing digital is a law of nature, it is all completely made up. So ephemerality is more or less an excuse for accepting that you don’t have control over anything.”14 Other curators can take up this attitude, too: that they have control over the context that they see and shape and present. When they do, the public can attain an understanding of art and the internet beyond the limitations of the internet show.