THE WEB IS A LONELY PLACE, COME PLAY
Curated by Akemi Hiatt
Artists: Christopher Baker, Petra Cortright, Jon Rafman, Rafaël Rozendaal & Kate Steciw
The exhibition The Web is a Lonely Place, Come Play brings together five artists who produce work within or through the radically democratized “free space” of the web. Through video, performance, photo-based imagery, interactive installation, appropriation, and animations, each artist explores the web as both seductive virtual playground and subversive artistic studio.
The tone of the work in the show oscillates between vulnerability and openness, the private and the public, and the outdated and cutting-edge. Cumulatively, the work probes at the tension inherent in our overwhelming embrace of new media as well our growing awareness of its influence on our culture. Playing to our increasing love of slick, modern technology, the works absorb, enthrall, and inspire as much as they evoke feelings of apprehension or skepticism.
The online realm has provided untapped potential for new creative and conceptual strategies rooted in the movement of Internet art. We can think of Internet art (sometimes called net art, web art, or networked art) as any form of digital artwork created or distributed via the Internet. In many cases, these works circumvent the traditional dominance of the gallery and museum system, drawing upon widely available technologies to reach their audiences. This form of art is often interactive, either directly engaging the viewer/consumer or born out of a creative process that can involve crowd-sourcing and the remixing or re-appropriation of images, video, and text (1).
Putting New Media Art in the White Box
Many of the pieces in the exhibition do not relate to boundaries existing in the physical realm, nor do they relate to ideas of permanence and preciousness invoked by fine-art as it is shown in galleries or museums. The presentation of web art in galleries or museums poses questions about the fraught relationship between art and commerce, and whether or not that is preserved online. Two of the artists in the exhibition happen to be at the forefront of innovative approaches to the sale of web-based pieces – Petra Cortright by publishing a website in which the monetary value of her videos is determined by an algorithm based on the number of YouTube video views, and Rafaël Rozendaal by transferring domain names to collectors and including their names on the title of the webpage, much as you would credit a public sculpture.
Layers of the Self – A Conscious Performance
The prevalence and power of social networks has made us adept in the art of self-presentation. Personas formed online may be distinct from our ‘real’ identities, as relationships and expectations are increasingly mediated online. Although the public nature of the video work by Petra Cortright and Christopher Baker is in some ways mandated by their chosen medium and artistic process, each artist actively engages themes of voyeurism and the possibilities and pitfalls of self-presentation via the web.
Baker’s immersive installation Hello World! or: How I Learned to Stop Listening and Love the Noise is a video wall comprised of nearly 1,200 video diaries found on the internet. These individuals confide in a potentially massive but imagined audience, with the project addressing the fundamental human desire to be heard. The vulnerability of Baker’s subjects are counter to Cortright’s oddly addictive short films, which mine the territory of webcam performance, clip art, computer graphics, and animated .gifs. Her unabashed performances for the camera along with her physical appearance, invite a kind of voyeurism and allow the films to occupy a space between banality and glamour.
The (Re)Appropriation of Images
Nearly all of works in The Web is a Lonely Place, Come Play reference technologies that we interface with on a daily basis, ranging from stock photography, Google Maps, YouTube, and video games. These tools, some of which might be pegged as “low-brow” are open to the recurring criticisms identified by curator, scholar, and historian Christiane Paul that new media art faces: ‘it’s all about technology’; ‘it doesn’t work’; ‘it belongs in a science museum’; ‘I work on a computer all day – I don’t want to see art on it in my free time’; “I want to look at art – not interact with it’; ‘where are the special effects?’ (2)
Yet, these tools are also being deployed in new and exciting ways - mined for their glitches and unintended possibilities and used to explore new artistic ground.
While Baker employs commonly used platforms like YouTube and Cortright revels in the “low-tech” world of computer graphics, an ongoing project by Jon Rafman entitled 9-eyes began as a Tumblr blog populated with screen-grabs from Google Maps. Collected from the perspective of a street photographer (albeit one who never needs to leave his desk), the scenes are by turns poignant, funny, odd, and terrifying. Some evoke the stark landscapes of FSA photographers (3) or the New Topographics school (4), others seek out surreal moments (such as a tiger strolling across a suburban parking lot), point to errors in Google’s facial-blur technology, or are witness to criminal activity. Most speak to the tension between what is private and what is public, as Rafman freely sources his images and presents them as his own, doubling back both on Google’s intentions as well as that of the individuals photographed.
Also interested in usurping the prescribed uses of daily objects is Kate Steciw, who makes artworks referenced by consumerism and the overabundance of photographs. Her job as a commercial retoucher serves as source material for her manipulated images and photo-based sculptures, in which stock imagery and the capabilities of Photoshop are melded, twisted, and turned, yet outputted as physical objects. Similar to Rafaël Rozendaal, her work describes the emerging tensions of surface versus depth in the highly aesthetic realm of the digital.
An Audience of One…Million (The Virtual Studio)
Making art and existing in such a busy world can be a solitary task, with a single voice at risk of being subsumed by the buzz of a colossal audience. Few artists exemplify the values of web art as much as Rafaël Rozendaal, who employs the screen as a limitless pictorial space, where beauty, accessibility, interactivity, and simple but profound emotions can be explored, occasionally in the form of contained games. Spread out over a vast network of domain names, Rozendaal attracts an audience of over 31 million visits per year.
A nomadic and consistently busy figure, he has lived and worked internationally, opening up his laptop whenever he needs to work and sharing his thoughts and processes via his blog. Considering the historic understanding of the artists’ studio as type of permanent home and sanctuary where artwork is created and which curators, critics and the select few are encouraged to visit, the meaning of this place is significantly altered when all that is required to create and access art is a laptop and a reliable wireless connection. Viewing and being informed about art is more public than it would otherwise be, and pop culture reigns.
Rozendaal’s work is incredibly accessible - the animations invite basic gestures and responses yet rely on the viewer to participate, to come play, in order for the piece to be fully realized. Looping endlessly, they can have a hypnotic effect much like the internet itself. Indeed, his particular aesthetic and way of working is uniquely suited to the inherent qualities of the Internet, as Rozendaal’s work is rooted firmly in the ideal of the web as a free space. The seemingly simple nature of his work becoming its greatest strength when one considers how his content, chosen medium, and relationship to his audience seamlessly intertwine.
The Medium is the Message?
For these artists, and others who share similar practices, the creation of internet-based artwork and the surrounding discourse that molds it are naturally in constant flux, being open to the interconnectivity fueled by online communication and subject to the awesome speed with which new platforms, applications, and hardware is invented. How do web artists navigate this altered relationship to and the expectations of their audiences? Do they attempt a sense of distance that might perhaps be necessary for art-making or, like Baker, Cortright, Rafman, Steciw, and Rozendaal, do they necessarily see everyone and everything as a potential collaborator?
It’s clear that the zeitgeist of our time is marked by an increasing reliance on ( as well as enthusiasm for) modern technology. New forms of communication consciously and subconsciously frame our ways of interacting with each other and the world around us at an ever increasing pace. In considering the tidal wave of content generated by new media, Marshall McLuhan’s famed phrase “the medium is the message” (5) seems more relevant than ever before. As a result it is often difficult (but important) to consider that the technologies that we interface with on a daily basis can provide some sort of deeper understanding of contemporary human existence.
Rather than serving as an overarching survey of web-art today, The Web Is A Lonely Place, Come Play is a presentation of five artists whose practices are fully embedded in the values of this new aesthetic. As intuitive creators they use seemingly simple gestures and tools to explore an uncharted frontier not dissimilar from the ways in which a child uses play to make sense of the larger world – in this case, the limitless possibilities of the web. Yet as attuned cultural critics, adept at subverting the tools at their disposal and aware their social implications, they inform and inspire a closer engagement and understanding of this ever expanding online realm.
- Akemi Hiatt
1 According to Wikipedia, net art is influenced by artistic traditions that include Dadaism, Surrealism, Fluxus, performance art, digital, video and telematics art, among others. As the art form has developed, its historical context has been continually re-visited. Amsterdam-based critic Josephine Bosma defines Internet art as having "five generations", where the first generation of artists did not work with the Internet proper, but with electronic interconnectivity - precursors to the Internet, such as fax, slow scan television and videotext. These earlier forms, defined more broadly as “networked art”, gave way under the spread of the desktop computer in the 1980s and the advent of the Web in the 1990s. The sheer openness of this new platform invited a much broader spectrum of artists to enter the field – artists who were completely independent from art institutions and often purposely at odds with institutional culture.
2 Christiane Paul, New Media in the White Cube and Beyond, 2008
3 The FSA (Farm Security Administration) is well known for the influence of their photography program which took place from 1935-1944 during the Great Depression. Photographers and writers were hired to report and document the struggles of rural America with the goal of "introducing America to Americans." Many of the most famous Depression-era photographers were fostered by the FSA project, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Gordon Parks among them.
4 New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape was an exhibition curated by William Jenkins at the George Eastman House in January 1975 which included works by Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Frank Gohlke, and Stephen Shore. The exhibition had a ripple effect on the whole medium and genre, not only in the USA, but in Europe too where generations of landscape photographers emulated and are still emulating the spirit and aesthetics of the exhibition. In his introduction to the catalogue, Jenkins defined the common denominator of the show as "a problem of style", "stylistic anonymity", an alleged absence of style, stating that “the pictures were stripped of any artistic frills and reduced to an essentially topographic state, conveying substantial amounts of visual information but eschewing entirely the aspects of beauty, emotion and opinion." Rather, "rigorous purity, deadpan humor and a casual disregard for the importance of the images" prevailed.
5 "The medium is the message" is a phrase coined by Marshall McLuhan meaning that the form of a medium embeds itself in the message, creating a symbiotic relationship by which the medium influences how the message is perceived. The phrase was introduced in his most widely known book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, published in 1964.