Most people I know think “Post-Internet” is embarrassing to say out loud. 1 But so is most of the language that’s used to write about contemporary art, and “Post-Internet” does the job of artspeak so efficiently that people keep saying it, embarrassment be damned. The “Post-” part conjures an aura of historical significance, the mantle of the avant-garde; “Internet” supplies social relevance. Together they lacquer art with an intellectual finish as thin as it is opaque.
The term has recently appeared in a variety of far-flung contexts: a talk at Frieze Art Fair, a forum at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, a panel at the College Art Association conference. Unlike “Neo-Expressionism” or “Neo-Geo,” “Post-Internet” avoids anything resembling a formal description of the work it refers to, alluding only to a hazy contemporary condition and the idea of art being made in the context of digital technology.
Marisa Olson, Gene McHugh, Artie Vierkant and a handful of other writers have made good-faith efforts at describing how networked technologies have changed artistic production in recent years and used “Post-Internet” to summarize these developments. Olson, who has a strong claim to the term’s invention, situated the “Post-” not so much in social history as in her own process as an artist: simply enough, after using the Internet, she makes art. Participation in Internet culture, Olson suggested, yields distinctive approaches to art-making. McHugh was more interested in defining an epoch, one in which the Internet stopped being the domain of programmers and hackers and became an inseparable part of everyday life for people with no special interest in or knowledge about computers. But the widespread use of “Post-Internet” now obscures these writers’ work, displacing it with artspeak’s murky mystique—a doom prescribed, I think, by the term’s self-seriousness despite the good intentions with which it may have once been used.
Whether people like it, hate it or feel indifferent toward it, they all seem to know what “Post-Internet” means today but are unable to articulate it with much precision. “I know it when I see it”—like porn, right? It’s not a bad analogy, because Post-Internet art does to art what porn does to sex—renders it lurid. The definition I’d like to propose underscores this transactional sensibility: I know Post-Internet art when I see art made for its own installation shots, or installation shots presented as art. Post-Internet art is about creating objects that look good online: photographed under bright lights in the gallery’s purifying white cube (a double for the white field of the browser window that supports the documentation), filtered for high contrast and colors that pop.
Supporters of Post-Internet art might say that it’s not the gallery that really matters but the shot of the work there, like a shot staged in a photographer’s studio. But staged photography often disguises the shoot’s environment, or transforms it. Post-Internet art preserves the white cube to leech off its prestige. The same supporters might also say that Post-Internet art offers a critique of how images of art circulate online in service of the art market. But unless the artist does something to make the documentation strange and emphasize the difference between the work’s presence online and its presence in the gallery (and here I’m thinking of Vierkant’s smudged, tinted and distorted shots of his “Image Objects,” 2011-ongoing) it’s hard for me to believe that anything close to a critique is happening.
The Post-Internet art object looks good in a browser just as laundry detergent looks good in a commercial. Detergent isn’t as stunning at a laundromat, and neither does Post-Internet art shine in the gallery. It’s boring to be around. It’s not really sculpture. It doesn’t activate space. It’s often frontal, designed to preen for the camera’s lens. It’s an assemblage of some sort, and there’s little excitement in the way objects are placed together, and nothing is well made except for the mass-market products in it. It’s the art of a cargo cult, made in awe at the way brands thrive in networks.
Post-Internet art is in love with advertising, like a lot of art since Warhol, but it’s the obsession with art-world power systems—as represented by the installation shot—that irks me the most about it. After a century that has witnessed art in newspapers, art on the radio, art in the mail, art on television and art on the Internet, here’s a self-styled avant-garde that’s all about putting art back in the rarefied space of the gallery, even as it purports to offer profound insights about how a vast, non-hierarchical communications network is altering our lives.
A sheaf of essays grappling with the meaning of “Post-Internet” by tracing a genealogy from Olson onward would be inadequate to describe what Post-Internet has become: a term to market art. This isn’t entirely novel, of course. Dealers and critics have long embraced handy labels that help them promote art, terms designed to appeal to art history as an argument for the importance of a particular artist. As a means of skirting this process, I’ll try to offer not an account of what the term means to an idealistic subculture of artists, but an alternate genealogy that reflects how “Post-Internet” is actually used today.
David Robbins was a popular teacher at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) until his retirement a few years ago, attracting students with ideas about audience engagement and the possibility of a “conceptual art for the masses,” which he called “high entertainment.” He collected these thoughts in an “online book” of that title, published in 2009. For Robbins, art is an area of cultural activity distinguished by systemic self-reference; if entertainment appeals directly to its audience, Art (his capital “A”) is a “satellite,” receiving signals from individual artists and beaming them back to viewers, who can receive them only if their perceptual faculties are properly attuned. That is, audiences for Art have to be looped in to the self-referential game, a process that has traditionally required trips to art institutions and formal schooling. Robbins uses the term “platforming” to describe how artists can disrupt this model, reaching receptive viewers put off by the high barriers to entry into the institutional art world. He names the gallery as one platform, but includes it on a list among the radio show, the TV variety show, the magazine and “a certain kind of website (YouTube, Flickr, MySpace . . .).”
Though Robbins is optimistic about the possibilities the Internet gives to artists to reach new audiences, he is not usually credited as a theorist of digital aesthetics. Still, his work may be important for understanding Post-Internet art’s relationship to its audience. His ideas are in Post-Internet art, albeit in a twisted form. Post-Internet art preserves Robbins’s assumptions about art’s essentially self-referential nature while eschewing his embrace of populist entertainment. Post-Internet art operates on a mass platform but doubles down on precisely those qualities that Robbins found objectionable, including: “visual art’s fixation on the complex issues surrounding representation, visual art’s obsession with articulated interplay between form and content, visual art’s propensity for criticality [and] visual art’s narrow historicity.” If Post-Internet art has any of the directness and generosity that Robbins associated with “high entertainment,” it’s in its appeal to hipness, its instant adoption by the cool kids.
Robbins is also important for understanding Post-Internet art because his students are among its most ardent supporters. SAIC graduate Forrest Nash is the founder of Contemporary Art Daily, a site that publishes installation shots of gallery and museum exhibitions most likely to appeal to the tastes of the in-crowd. Not long after starting the site, Nash co-organized an exhibition titled “Mirrors,” presented in January 2010 at Reference Art Gallery in Richmond, Va. Visitors to Reference didn’t see any sculptures, prints or paintings. The white room was empty except for a computer monitor on a pedestal, where viewers could browse images of a virtual gallery and digitally rendered works in it. Later that year came “Exhibition One at Chrystal Gallery,” an online show organized by Berlin-based artist Timur Si-Qin, featuring six artists who created 3-D virtual objects for Si-Qin’s digital space. All the contributions looked like the glossy Minimalist sculptures you might see at New York galleries like Pace or Matthew Marks, except for the installation by Kari Altmann—a huge, misshapen obsidian orb floating impossibly in a darkened room.
“Chrystal Gallery” showed more polish and software skill than “Mirrors,” which had a flippant, punk attitude, with anime stills and plain text presented as wall pieces in a digitally generated white cube. But the choice to simulate the gallery environment in both projects marked a shift away from previous group endeavors in online art, such as Nastynets, a “surf club” founded in 2006 where members (including Olson) shared found images on a collective blog, or Harm van den Dorpel’s “Club Internet” (2008), which reimagined the group show as a series of one-page works in a browser, which were deleted after a month.
When the artists behind “Mirrors” and “Chrystal Gallery” finished art school and moved on to other institutions, they produced work for brick-and-mortar galleries that would have looked good in those virtual ones. In the spring of 2012, Agatha Wara, then an MFA student at Bard College’s Center for Curatorial Studies, organized an exhibition at Bard’s Hessel Museum of works by Si-Qin and Katja Novitskova. Si-Qin showed a series of Nike bags strung from pillars by straps extended to their maximum length, along with two identical diptychs of a blonde model’s beautiful face, cut along the vertical axis to emphasize slight asymmetries. Novitskova showed cardboard cutouts like the ones seen in stores, but instead of portraying celebrities or junk-food mascots they depicted tropical birds and jungle creatures, as well as a couple of anonymous black people. This weirdly racist touch seems even more odious if you’re familiar with the intellectual context constructed around Post-Internet art in Si-Qin’s neo-Darwinian writings that use evolutionary biology to justify both eugenics and Nike’s popularity. Among his essays is “Stock Photography as Evolutionary Attractor” (2013), which describes the social and cultural specificities of modern capitalism as the natural order of things—an appeal to the absolute beauty of money, power and porcelain-skinned women.
But there was one good thing that came of the show. Wara invited DIS—the collective behind an eponymous online magazine that treats art as a lifestyle brand and fashion photography as a form of Conceptual art—to organize a photo shoot at the museum. Social ties and creative collaborations have connected DIS to Post-Internet art. Si-Qin even published his essay on stock photography in their magazine. Post-Internet art ordinarily purges its white cubes of people, preferring to use passively predictable plants as a representation of life. (Sad-looking ferns have become a Post-Internet stylistic trope.) But DIS, in keeping with its lifestyle magazine mission, is constantly asking how humans contort to fit, or fail to fit, the values of fluid image economies, especially in the fashion industry. In one exemplary picture from DIS’s series shot at Hessel, “Competing Images: Art vs. People” (2012), a racially diverse group of people line up beside Novitskova’s cardboard cutout of a black man, the flatness of which catches only a glare of the light that illuminates the real volume of the bodies nearby. In another image, an empty Nike bag dangles by its long shoulder strap while a scruffy man stares downward, weighed down by a few loaded bags of his own.
There’s a promise of broad social commentary in the term “Post-Internet,” but as “Competing Images” demonstrates, it takes real people to bring this implicit commentary to life. Without an external impurity like the human body, Post-Internet defaults to an art about the presentation of art, playing to the art-world audience’s familiarity with the gallery as a medium or environment for art, as well as with the conventions of presenting promotional materials online.
Rachel de Joode’s “The Hole and the Lump,” a 2013 exhibition at Interstate Projects in Bushwick, typified this problem. The exhibition seemed extrapolated from a one-liner about photographic reproduction. De Joode made a series of sculptures in pulled terra-cotta, stretching and spinning the putty, which took on the imprints of the artist’s hands. These objects didn’t appear in the gallery, but images of them were printed on thin sheets of wood and mounted on pedestals that were actually shallow “facades” affixed to metal stands. Walking around the flimsy plinths, which were arranged in rows to suggest a sense of depth that each lacked alone, I felt like I was an intruder on a stage set that would be photographed and rephotographed as soon as I got out of the way.
Consuming Post-Internet art most often means browsing artists’ websites, which may be the optimal space for encountering the work. I recently came across an installation shot of Hhellblauu (2008-12), a work by Kari Altmann that I’d previously seen installed in a group show at Envoy Enterprises on the Lower East Side in the summer of 2010. In the gallery it looked like nothing—a dingy wading pool filled with water, where some prints of the Paramount logo and other found images on chunky foamcore floated about and piled up at the periphery. It did nearly nothing to attract my attention when I saw it in the gallery; it was just an inexpertly assembled installation by an artist who made more compelling work online. But when I saw the documentation I did a double take. The colors in the image—especially the sky blue named in the title—were intensely vibrant compared to the dull ones I remembered. The water in the pool seemed to create a viscous distance between the floating prints and the base upon which the pool rested, a platform that had looked flat when I saw it in person. In short, this bad installation suddenly looked like a good one, thanks to the way the lens of the camera and the lights worked on the materials when Altmann took the photo.
To her credit, Altmann includes poorly lit amateur shots of Hhellblauu on her site alongside the dazzlingly professional ones, mixing both with her collection of images that track the use of sky blue across contexts. She maintains an archive of these images and solicits submissions of more examples from her viewers, who send in stock imagery, commercial photography, logos and anonymous artistic creations. Altmann shares some concerns and visual tropes with Post-Internet art but in my mind she sheds the “Post-.” The way she equates installation photography with other image genres reminds me of the definition of Net art given by critic Josephine Bosma in her book Nettitudes (2011): art that can be present in several places simultaneously, that links its audience to other Internet cultures, “that is created from an awareness of, or deep involvement in, a world transformed and affected by elaborate technical ensembles.”
Bosma’s definition of Net art—which rejects medium specificity, the idea that Net art only happens in a browser—is rather close to the definitions of Post-Internet art found in the writings of Olson and McHugh. But her emphatic disinterest in the art world’s institutions puts her far from what Post-Internet art has become. Bosma is an impassioned advocate of engagement in online communities, and the Net art she champions is never going to set auction records or adorn the homes of top collectors. Post-Internet art, by contrast, is wholly compatible with art markets and art-world detachment—an “over it” attitude signaled by “Post-.” When Robbins writes about the Internet in High Entertainment he describes our time as “post-analog,” which is an easier label to accept. Not much new is happening with analog technology. But the Internet is always changing. The Internet of five years ago was so unlike what it is now, to say nothing of the Internet before social media, or the Internet of 20 years ago, or the Internet before the World Wide Web. And yet Post-Internet artists seem to have a clear idea of what the Internet is: a tool for promoting their work. Post-Internet art flaunts a cheap savvy about image distribution and the role of documentation in the making of an art career. (It’s worth noting that Post-Internet artists are still young, and the venues and locations I’ve mentioned—Bushwick, Chicago, the depths of downtown Manhattan and upstate New York—are still in the art world’s near-periphery.) If the big media companies get their way and Congress fails to pass net neutrality legislation preserving access for ordinary users, then the rest us of may also feel like we have an idea of what the Internet was, and wonder what might come next. But until then, Post-Internet art reflects an Internet where the only change worth thinking about is the extent of an installation shot’s reach.