THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
“I Was Raised on the Internet,” a sprawling new show at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA), comes close to evoking the Internet as uncurated space. In fact, the show spills over from the MCA’s physical galleries onto an accompanying website, which links to a number of games, YouTube series, and other works of art, as well as readings from a wide range of academics, venture capitalists, and, in the language of TED Talks, “thought leaders.”
Then again, “uncurated” may be too strong. To use a deliberately archaic simile from meatspace, the exhibition is more like a traditional English garden (informal, a bit weedy, and, at unpredictable moments, awe-inspiring) than a traditional French garden (formal to the point of regimented; if awe-inspiring, awe-inspiring after the fashion of an airshow or the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics).
The show is loosely divided into five sections, each of which boasts a smirkingly erotic title (to be fair, this could also plausibly be rationalized as an evocation of the contemporary ‘Net’s anarchic spirit and basically adolescent climate). “Look At Me,” an exploration of identity in the age of social media and, in my judgment, the weakest section of the exhibition, foregrounds those coy little Insta-dances that so often degenerate into dopaminergic tarantism. For ideological reasons, these phenomena are evidently best handled using the Butlerian concept of “performativity” or some other postmodern ready-made.
Performativity can be a shield—that is, a means of self-defense rather than trustworthy self-revelation. See Evan Roth’s Self-Portrait: November 1, 2017, for example. A bunched-up vinyl print scroll of the websites Roth visited that day is billed as a self-portrait. Yet the visible portion of the scroll reveals nothing compromising. Does Roth do anything inappropriate or even moderately embarrassing online? Apparently not (in fairness, not all of the scroll can be seen). On the other hand, he has nothing to lose and potentially much to gain by including a Jerry Saltz tweet.
Jon Rafman, Transdimensional Serpent, 2016.
Mixed media with VR video (color, sound, 4 minutes 38 seconds).
The second section of the exhibition, “Touch Me,” examines the limits and possibilities of the Internet as a medium for something like physical contact. The third section, “Control Me,” addresses state control and its ramifications for global Netizens (mind you, the Internet has reflected state control at least since the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPANET, was developed under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense). “Play With Me,” the exhibition’s fourth section, is a crowd-pleaser that also gets to claim that it’s exploring the, y’know, complex theoretical ramifications of being a crowd-pleaser (maybe it has something to do with performativity). In all seriousness, who wouldn’t want to have their skull encased in a virtual reality headset to experience Jon Rafman’s Transdimensional Serpent as it plummets toward disorienting realism from abstract beginnings? Apparently the future, or some dimension parallel to our own, is the domain of bullheaded deities and a small army of twinks.
Section five, “Sell Me Out,” moves from the exploration of state oversight in “Control Me” to a parallel investigation of corporate control. Only a few pieces consider how or why the two intersect. Sidenote: in a separate gallery, Simon Denny explores some of these issues pretty effectively in Risk Crypto-Anarchist: Blockchain Conquest, a scaled-up tabletop game that familiarizes viewers with what is at stake in the emergence of blockchain-based cryptocurrencies and related technologies.
Again, though, the exhibition’s five divisions are loose. Sophia Al-Maria’s monumental The Litany, a video projected onto a 2001: A Space Odyssey-esque monolith that looms above a heap of trampled sand, broken glass, and malfunctioning smartphones, does not gain or lose much from the curators’ conceptual framework. Al-Maria’s film brings to mind Matthew Barney and, yes, Stanley Kubrick. The shape-shifting Islamic architecture forms a convincing foundation for the piece’s overarching techno-skepticism. Ian Cheng’s Something Thinking of You, described as “a live simulation constantly evolving before our eyes,” is more optimistic and comparably self-sufficient. Cheng’s contribution quietly points up the generative potential of the Internet and information technology more broadly, which often seems infinite.
Although most pieces are oriented toward the future, many have unexpected parallels across art history. I must pause to observe that I am arguably doing exactly what Angelo Plessas accuses contemporary intellectuals of doing in the exhibition’s immersive The Eternal Internet Brotherhood/Sisterhood: “Let’s remember that nowadays it is easy to surrender to a nostalgic past or an unattainable future. Our mind is conquered by these two mental hegemonies. The PAST and the FUTURE are the milk and honey of contemporary intellectuals who are obsessed with re-interpreting the former and re-inventing the latter... Consequently the PRESENT has become a happy fiction.”
On that self-critical note, I will argue that Elias Sime’s Ants & Ceramicists: FORTHCOMING recalls the work of Gustav Klimt. Instead of using scarce gold leaf or silver to drive up the aesthetic and material value of his paintings, Sime uses computer circuitry and an abundance of other found materials--objects that others might simply consider the detritus of industrial society. Meanwhile, the history of Western aristocratic portraiture is subtly conjured up by Constant Dullaart’s Glowing Edges_7, 10 and Plastic Wrap_20, 15. 15. The two pieces come from a controversial series that uses the first image
Constant Dullaart, Glowing Edges_7. 10, 2014. Lenticular print. From the series “Jennifer in Photoshop, Creative Suite 6.” Image courtesy the artist and Carroll/Fletcher.
ever manipulated in Photoshop, which depicted Adobe Photoshop creator John Knoll’s wife. Knoll’s wife has become an (admittedly unwilling) version of Lorenzo de Medici or some other aristocratic subject of Renaissance painting. In somewhat the same way, the Sonoma County field depicted by Goldin+Senneby in After Microsoft is perhaps our closest equivalent to certain iconic religious images or battlefield scenes (the era of guerilla sniping and occasional Tomahawk missile strikes, brought to you in prime time on CNN or at odd intervals by soldiers with access to Flickr, does not lend itself to Leonidas at Thermopylae; maybe real war has always been too ugly and human to warrant an epic treatment). After Microsoft is a 2006 recreation of Bliss, Charles O’Rear’s 1996 photograph of that same valley that eventually became the default background image for computers running Windows XP.
This set of reflections, like so many engendered by “I Was Raised on the Internet,” is a little too strange to be outright melancholy. On the other hand, no one would mistake it for satisfaction with the present or, worse yet, enthusiasm about the future. Is it really a surprise that most of the artists in this exhibition are Millennials?
Angelo Plessas, Eternal Internal Brotherhood/Sisterhood, 2012-ongoing. Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.
Nathan Worcester is a writer and assistant editor of the New Art Examiner. Is it really a surprise that he’s also a Millennial?
Sophia Al-Maria, The Litany, 2016. Sand, glass, smartphones, computer screens, tablet computers, and USB cables, with multichannel looped digital video (color and black-and-white, sound) and digital video pro-jected vertically (color, sound). Photo by Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago.
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