The sound of a computer mouse has become so familiar we are barely aware of it. The tap of this hand size, ergonomic button-box or track pad as it is pressed and released echoes our mental engagement. We think therefore we touch. The invitation this presents to enter or activate something is a beautiful thing for an artist. There is almost something of a fairy tale about this interaction. Like cake to Hansel and Gretel.
Artists have been disseminating and creating work for computers and the internet for decades now but I want to focus on how artists are using the internet at this particular moment and the growing issues around these spaces. There are obvious pros presented by the Internet – a space to exhibit, to experiment and to distribute art, that is cheaper, faster and looked at by a huge portion of the population everyday.
The most immediate example of how to do this is the website as artwork. Margot Bowman’s piece Heaven is for Quitters (heavenisforquitters.com), which also functions as a very abstract music video for Faltydl, is a great example. As the viewer clicks around the screen, various animations of people and furry characters are depicted having sex. A scrolling text links these different couplings stating, “You are sad, You are so alone, You are very lonely”. The viewer can download their unique version from the page to save. Here the artwork lives online, where is has a sense of completeness and access, and lives in another form offline.
Another well established form of online dissemination is the website as gallery or institution. There are numerous online sites dedicated to showing online work. Such as Opening Times (otdac.org), a British non-profit that commissions work and creates online residencies. Opening Times also integrate their work into third party websites with temporary digital takeovers of the Goethe Institute or Philips auction house’s home pages. They have commissioned work like Ruth Proctor’s Always (always.otdac.org), a standalone website that displays a clock, continuously counting from the launch of the Opening Times website. Every time the viewer visits you can press a button and download the time of your interaction.
Cosmos Carl (cosmoscarl.co.uk) is another online space but one that uses existing platforms. Their upcoming shows are advertised via their Facebook page and each project is simply a new weblink presented on their home page. This consists of the name of each different artist and a fresh URL. These temporary shows – which are not archived – lead through to projects on sites such as Ebay, Pinterest, YouTube, Vimeo, Google Maps, Soundcloud, Google Earth, Facebook, Kickstarter and even the dark web. A recent piece was Hannah Anbert’s 'Sacred Work (Karaoke version)', a karaoke video of a euphoric pop song on Youtube, with lyrics about capitalism and economic structures. These works live outside of Cosmos Carl as things people can accidentally discover outside of a web art context. This sliding into the internet’s infrastructures is both critical and accessible, detached and integrated.
Faith Holland (faithholland.com) has made interventions into the porn hub Redtube, with a series of videos that are tagged with pornographic clickbait like “amateur” and “solo girl” and touch on ideas of sex or fetishes but are much more weird. One video for example depicts the artist shaving her legs. The results are detached and almost uncomfortable – which perhaps is a very appropriate comment on the videos uploaded to the porn site in a wider sense.
Angela Washko makes computer game and video projects that examine and rework console-based role playing games such as World of Warcraft. Her latest exhibition The Game: The Game at Transfer Gallery is a dating simulator game where the player in the body of a female protagonist tries to avoid pick up artists in a crowded New York bar. Washko’s work is very much about looking at how games, which are now often online, reinforce and exaggerate cultural and gender stereotypes and violence.
Kari Altaman often uses Tumblr in works that explore ideas around evolving tags, images and videos. For example in sites such as gardenclub.tumblr.com and softmobility.tumblr.com, she explores ideas around feminism, posthumanism, survivalism and alternative currency. Her chosen images and ideas are linked by social media tags such as #jailbreakgesture, #softmobility or #vitalcontent.
Yet Altmann has had serious issues with Tumblr. In Kari’s words, “At some point Tumblr got bought out and went super corporate. At that point a lot of my accounts got shut down without warning, either for having a name like pier1, which Pier One Imports decided they had a right to, or they were shut down for url camping, if they had only one post or no posts. It was considered “hoarding” – part of the problematic way that these platforms eventually try to whittle your identity options down into a very small consumer unit, so they can monitise and wrap information around you via a single algorithm.”
For Altmann, the increasing corporatisation of social media is leaving no space for conceptual approaches, privacy filters and different kinds of content. (She has been starting to write about these issues using a new tag #metaimage.) The writer Dennis Cooper had a more high profile recent case of shutdown by Google. His blog the DCs, which contained over a decade’s worth of work and research as well as gif novels in the style of this collage-like Zacs Haunted House (http://www.kiddiepunk.com/zacshauntedhouse) were deleted entirely without notice - as was his gmail account. Cooper is a writer whose work is notably controversial – often inhabiting the intersection between horror and homoeroticism. His blog inhabited the same space, for example showing profiles of Russian rent boys. He hadn’t backed up his blog and for three months was given no explanation to why his work has been removed entirely. He was exceptionally lucky that due to very high profile interviews and online campaigns, he was given his archive back and is working on reposting it to a dedicated site slowly over time. However, this is something that is not available to many less well-connected artists.
These examples highlight the innate problems around the dissemination of art online. Corporate ownership, corporate censorship, and the commodification of social media and the individual. Instagram has been lauded as a space for artists to show work and reach an exceptionally wide audience outside of the limits of the art world. Yet in its heart, it is a form of marketing where someone’s body and creativity are positioned into a structure predetermined by branded desires. Instagram, now owned by Facebook, own our pictures. We don’t.
Advertising is being increasingly inserted into apps and sites. There are ads in between posts on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram – even between prospective dates on apps like Tinder and Happn. There are ads popping up inside Google searches, even within our own email feeds. In the same way that street art once occupied ignored spaces within urban architecture before they were aggressively taken over and commodified by ad sales companies, so the wild west utopian possibilities that accompanied the early days of the Internet are clearly over.
The design of a smart phone or tablet – and increasingly of computers, especially Macs – do not enable people to amend, change and develop their modes of creation. We are essentially locked out of the white box and not even a screwdriver will get us in. The open source movement is an attempt to combat this yet perhaps reaching a limited code-literate audience. The artwork that will hopefully rise out of the Block Chain is still in its infancy.
Peter Lunenfeld in his book The Secret War Between Uploading and Downloading, writes, “The computer is a rational device par excellence, driven by the exigencies of the Enlightenment, but it is also a desiring machine of the new economic order… Revolution has been co-opted by the marketers… Technologies certainly open up spaces, but they also close them down.” Perhaps this is also part of the legacy of modernism and the entire concept of cultural progress. Lunenfeld quotes Susan Sontag, “Stripped of its heroic stature, of its claims as an adversary sensibility, modernism has proved acutely compatible with the ethos of an advanced consumer society.” It is impossible to make work using social media or the Internet without being strongly aware and critical of its relationship to global capitalism. To put it simply, shopping isn’t going to change the world.
(c) Francesca Gavin