The Digital Culture Odyssey of Post-Internet Art
Tracing the movement’s emergence and its current role in shaping digital culture
Tracing the movement’s emergence and its current role in shaping digital culture
This article appears in the columns section of frieze 239, ‘Re-evaluations’
How to describe something that happened quite recently but feels old? I began researching this essay by looking at some notes from a few years ago – pieces I wrote about post-internet art, talks I gave, lesson plans from art-history and digital-media classes I taught in the mid-2010s. At the time, I kept saying that post-internet art was ‘loosely defined’. Then, I had a working definition for post-internet – it was a group of artists, an aesthetic, a sensibility, a response to a moment in digital culture – but now, from a distance, I feel like there are very few things I can pin down. So, here’s a quick history: The term post-internet started circulating in 2006, coined by artist and curator Marisa Olson, who used it to talk about a frame of thinking affected by scrolling and clicking.
The works that we associate with it are image-based, a response to how internet culture was becoming visual. Facebook was launched in 2004, YouTube in 2005. Users’ relationships to online images, moving-images and image-sharing were shifting, and artists were reflecting on it. When post-internet art really took off, around 2010, so much of the work was defined by its relationship to images, especially on platforms like dump.fm, whose mission was to ‘talk with images’, or The Jogging, a Tumblr shared by a group of artists – including Lauren Christiansen, Brad Troemel and Artie Vierkant – on which they posted digitally composed images that read as kind of weird and kind of funny, verging on the absurd in a way that felt extremely online.
It was slippery then and it still feels hard to historicize. The only thing I can definitely say now is that post-internet is over. It’s over not only because the artists associated with post-internet art – Simon Denny, Aleksandra Domanović, Jon Rafman and Andrew Norman Wilson, among many others – are doing something else, but also because of a cultural change in the way we think about the internet. Already distinct from net.art of the 1990s and the way artists existed online in the early days of the internet, post-internet art ran parallel to the rise of social media and a corporate, advertising-based internet landscape. All the optimism about what our digital lives may be like was running out and, even though post-internet art was collaborative and shared, there was also a darkness to it, a response to a disturbing feeling that networked technology had been turned against its users – to spy on them, to advertise to them, to exploit them – and the sardonic nature of much of this work was actually a critique of how disturbing this reality was. The result, however, was art that could feel like an inside joke, often perceived by viewers as demonstrating the artists’ lack of seriousness. Actually, they were responding to a nascent aesthetic by pointing to its specificity and tying it to a larger critique of the space in which it existed.
We now upload more images to the internet in an hour than existed in totality 100 years ago. In this expanding visual world, one of the roles of art and art history is to offer a theory of image culture that adds analysis and a critical view of this specific aspect of our lives. That, to me, is the real contribution of post-internet art, and I see it in works like Vierkant’s ‘Image Objects’ (2011–ongoing), a series of sculptures that reflects the dissolving boundaries between physical objects and digital images. Each work begins as a digital file that also has countless variations, which are then rendered as prints on Dibond and cut to create three-dimensional sculptures. Vierkant also wrote a theory of the image object that he distributed as a PDF, in which he places post-internet art in relation to both new media theory and conceptual art, and emphasizes reception by tying the role of the viewer to the way attention economies are discussed online. In VVEBCAM (2007), artist Petra Cortright stares into her webcam (before every laptop had one built-in) while little pizza animations float around her, implicating herself and her own image in a YouTube video that foresees the way self-representation has become a definitive part of image culture online.
Recognizing the weirdness, the highly specific aesthetics and the ways social scenes gather around digital platforms is part of writing the history of digital culture
One of the most interesting things about that cultural and technological moment was that it was defined through criticism and exhibitions in real time. I now find it hard to fix what post-internet art was but, in the mid-2010s, several books like You Are Here: Art After the Internet (2014, edited by Omar Kholeif), not to mention exhibitions – including the 2015 New Museum Triennial (curated by Lauren Cornell and Ryan Trecartin) and the 2016 Berlin Biennale (curated by artist collective DIS) – were writing that history. The accelerated pace with which post-internet art moved from the digital medium to the museum and the book exposed an anxiety around this type of work: was it an in-joke that viewers were not privy to, or were these artists commenting on our digital lives in ways other artists weren’t? Was it a little bit of both? To institutionalize this work was a method of historicizing it, silencing the laughter, and affirming that, even if it resembled a meme, it was commentary.
When I studied art history at university, I revelled in how looking at historical art teaches you everything about the texture of a time through the fashions, the home interiors, the objects that were traded. How do people today rediscover these works, that feel so enmeshed in a particular digital life that has now expired? There was a fluidity to post-internet aesthetics: artwork blended with social media, branding and image. It wasn’t always the most poignant critique of this moment in digital culture, but it definitely reflected it.
I texted an artist friend who was loosely associated with post-internet art to tell him about this essay and that I was looking at The Jogging. I shared with him a photo of a urinal with the word ‘LOLE’ written across it. (I can’t remember why the E at the end of LOL was funny, but it was.) It didn’t feel particularly nostalgic, or sweet. It was a social scene and then it wasn’t. But I taught classes about it and engaged with it and the things I was thinking about then – artists making images that critically responded to a shifting moment in larger popular culture – I still find worth discussing.
It might feel uncool to seriously consider an image of a white horse looking straight at the camera with the word BANKSY graffitied on it (The Jogging’s Banksy Tags Horse, 2012). But the lesson I learned from post-internet art is to take things seriously, to recognize that these artworks really did relate to an increasingly visual society that approached images with a new sophistication. The coolness of the post-internet scene may be a deterrent from looking at it again, from thinking about it seriously, but perhaps it’s time. Now that I look back at that moment, it no longer feels scenestery or like a joke that you’re not always in on. In fact, I regard it with little sentiment. I used to tell students that, when we discuss digital culture, our job is to take things seriously: cat photos, government regulation, money, labour and exploitation all exist in the same sphere, and that sphere now defines our lives. Recognizing the weirdness, the highly specific aesthetics and the ways social scenes gather around digital platforms is part of writing the history of digital culture. That’s where post-internet art fits in the history of art. It’s slippery and highly specific and was very social. It was a moment online, and artists were making work (and memes and jokes) that reflected it. They were making history.
This article first appeared in frieze issue 239 with the headline ‘Where are you now?’
Main image: Oliver Laric, Versions (Missile Variations), 2010. Courtesy: the artist