New Museum, New York, USA
‘Free’ resisted the stereotype of how the Internet (and much of new-media work in general) has been represented in the museum: the lonely computer station in the white cube that puts the onus on the viewer to figure out exactly what to do with it. This was a new-media show comprising mostly old, very familiar media: printed photographs, books, kitschy eBay finds, slide carousels and cassette decks – anything other than a computer, phone or tablet. Analogue objects took a privileged place, as in Alexandre Singh’s installation The School for Objects Criticized (2010), in which a room of objects on spot-lit plinths exchange knowing, art-world banter. Even Seth Price’s 2002 essay ‘Dispersion’, which curator Lauren Cornell (also the Executive Director of Rhizome, the New Museum’s new media initiative) cites as a key influence on the exhibition, along with Lawrence Lessig’s 2004 book Free Culture, takes form as a sculptural wall piece (Essay with Knots, 2008). All of this signaled that ‘Free’ existed in the tangible, three-dimensional realm, the New Museum gently easing viewers into an open-sourced future.
The museum cannily programmed the exhibition ‘The Last Newspaper’, a highly literal memorial for print media, alongside ‘Free’. The latter exhibition title refers to a multitude of ideas associated with online culture: the price of procured information; the illusion of a safe haven where a rare sense of anonymity is granted; the sense that the Internet itself has no beginning or end, changing shape and authorship rapidly. But digital life has become so engrained into daily habits that its insertion back into these works felt sometimes forced. Collage processes, seen in work such as that of Rashaad Newsome and Harm van den Dorpel, have become standard practice online, treading familiar territory that seems repetitive rather than representative, as does Amanda Ross-Ho’s repurposing of jewelry found on eBay or images sourced online. It’s a testament to our dependence on the Internet that these works appear so commonplace. It’s difficult as an artist today, as it is for the general public, not to rely on the web as the primary source for material, information or entertainment.
And ‘Free’, like all of us, suffered from episodes of self-indulgence that come with instant gratification. In Kristin Lucas’ Refresh (2007), the artist attempts to legally ‘change’ her name from Kristin Sue Lucas to Kristin Sue Lucas, in order to metaphorically hit the ‘refresh’ button on her life. The request inevitably provokes an existential discussion in court, but the work already seems like a dot-com-era leftover. Instead of the Internet as enabler, the artist suffers from overly simplistic website envy; couldn’t we say that we hit the refresh button just by waking up each morning? In contrast, Ryan Trecartin and David Karp’s collaborative project riverthe.net (2010), in which users can upload ten-second videos tagged with three key words, never needs a refresh button: the videos streamed constantly and relentlessly, injecting, into what was a generally mannered exhibition, the disgust and unpredictability that the Internet has made so addictive.
Unsurprisingly, most engaging were works concerned with the collapsing of international boundaries. Martijn Hendriks’ Untitled Black Video (2008) re-edits the widely circulated mobile-phone video of Saddam Hussein’s hanging, so that the viewer is only privy to a black screen and ongoing snippets from chat rooms where the debate revolves around either the authenticity of the video or how to download it faster. Lisa Oppenheim’s The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else (2006) and Aleksandra Domanovic’s 19:30 (2010) share an affecting, hopeful sensibility that isolation is not permanent. A slide carousel shows Oppenheim holding snapshots of sunsets, taken by soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan and posted on Flickr, against her own view of the Manhattan skyline, creating a simultaneously generic and specific moment. Domanovic’s two-channel video presents an archive of introductory sequences from the Yugoslavian nightly news, when the entire country would sit down to receive information from one source, alongside footage of Balkan raves from the mid-1990s, which represents an entirely different manner of collective action. David Horvitz’s Southern-most Inhabited Island of Japan (Hateruma… Public Domain) (2010) is a compilation of Wikipedia articles that plots the course of an image of Hateruma from its own entry through ‘airport’, ‘shrink wrap’ and, ultimately, ‘public domain’, after Horvitz himself travelled to the Japanese island, and contributed his own photos to the island’s entry. The exhibition’s strengths were located at these intersections between common use and individualized experience, and Horvitz’s humble installation stood as evidence that, like the Internet, the ideas could perpetuate beyond any object in itself. Despite its inconsistencies, in ‘Free’ Cornell took a distinctive step towards shifting institutional interpretations of what we do, who we are and how our time is used, online.