Art about the Internet: Now and Then
The fact that you're reading this right now means you are a participator in the internet. There are approximately 3,675,824,813 users of the internet around the world. This is not really surprising because it's so prevalent. The most valued restaurants and cafes now are those with wifi. The internet is a source of boundless imagery, which alters the visual landscape in contemporary art. I mean, I am using it right now to share imagery with you. It's not necessarily a bad thing, but it raises questions of: how do we now approach visual stimulation and what has the internet taught us to look for in that imagery?
Art In the Age of the Internet at the Institute of Contemporary Art tackles these questions. In the entry-way to the exhibit coexist two pieces posing different images of the mass source of imagery that is the world-wide web.
The first is a piece titled HowDoYouSayImAfrican? It's a collective, crafted by a host of artists. It consists of a grid of screens aligned in an arc so as to partially surround the viewer. Each screen contains a different visual. I have done my best to capture it in the photos below. Videos were not allowed.
You don't know where to look. Every screen is flashing at you, competing for your attention. When I got closer, however, I was able to follow individual screens. One involved a computer generated image of a man's head floating and being mapped as though for surgery or to locate the weakest spot (with the implicit aim of doing violence to it). Another showed film of black protests by the black lives matter group. Another, a twitter feed decrying white police brutality. Another, statistics on white supremacists. Another, an interview of someone who knew Michael Brown, the black victim of white police in Ferguson who died and became a symbol for the world of what happens when a certain population group dominates another in inhumane ways.
Each of these visuals is displayed on a relatively small screen about the size of a mac laptop screen (the screen I'm using to write up this post).
The sense of the whole piece is one of OUTCRY. All of the voices pouring forth from each screen rush together into a cacophony of noise. And this, I think, is the point. I can't really enter into any one of the screens very well because they're all moving, distracting my eyes. I can't really hear any of the individual voices very well because they're all speaking at once. In the end the effectiveness of the OUTCRY is diminished. It becomes a garble of noise, sound, moving images, bodies, text. I think this piece is exploring the limitations of responding to injustices of our times through media outlets such as twitter, the news, amateur uploads to youtube, etc. Yes, these responses do hold power, but this piece raises our awareness to the fact that the power of each is modified by all the other voices speaking out at the same time. Or is it? Could it be that the power of each is intensified as they all join together? In this piece specifically, I think messages and narratives are confused. That said, the pieces does give a great sense of the range of responses to police brutality after and since Ferguson. It presents simultaneously the incredible resource the internet has been in documenting police violence and responding to it, but at the same time it demonstrates how that response is often adulterated by its' commonness.
Directly across from this piece is one entitled Internet Dreams, by Nam June Paik. It is similar in construction. Old television screens are arranged in a gridded configuration. Images are sometimes contained within individual screens or flashed across all jointly to create a larger image. The majority of the imagery is taken from older movies starring actors and actresses like Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant. The date of the piece is also much older, 1994. Upon a little research I found that the piece is what is termed a 'video-wall.' I remember seeing similar displays in grocery stores and malls when I was a kid (late 1990s, early 2000s) before large-scale electronic billboards existed. It was cutting-edge technology at that point, to create a singular image across multiple screens. And it must have been cutting-edge when Nam June Paik first displayed it. The global internet did not come into being until the late 1980s. I'm not sure the state of the internet when Nam June Paik first displayed this, but it was still a novel technology. Hence, this piece looks at what is possible through the internet: the hyper-stimulation of media and transfiguration of traditional cultural staples (ie classic films) to a broader global media system. Hence, by creating the 'video wall', Nam June Paik is taking the individual television system, which is a personal, privately used media system, and demonstrating how images become social, interconnected, and pervasive.
The possibilities for such a system are exciting. On the plaque in the ICA, a commentator writes: "the early internet promised to democratize culture." It promised to connect all the privatized experiences of individual citizens and make them shared. This is one of the great strengths of the internet: that through facebook we can share things with others. Yet, anybody who has spent any time on the internet knows that that sharing can quickly turn into white noise. We fail to pay attention to any individual piece of information or graphic because of the overabundance of shared information. There are a few good reads on this topic. One is The Shallows: What the Internet is doing to our Brains by Nicholas Carr, which explores how being able to click away from anything quickly makes us surface-level thinkers and responders. Another is Amusing Ourselves to Death, by Neil Postman, which has more to do with various forms of entertainment, which lends to our passivity as a culture.
The screens in Internet Dream all flash brightly and simultaneously. It's overstimulation. This, it shares with HowDoYouSayImAnAfrican. But the overstimulation is even greater. Images change at a greater speed. The colors are intensely bright. Manipulation of the video is drastic. Images break apart, move, collapse, and flash at you in such a way it's hard to see them as anything coherent, but more of a fascination with the technology itself. And this, I think is one of the differences. HowDoYouSayImAnAfrican is more interested in the discourse surrounding politicalization and free speech, whereas Internet Dreams is simply manipulating imagery. HowDoYouSayImAnAfrican presents a look at different corners of the internet relating to a current issue, exploring both its potential and its harm through a curated experience. Internet Dreams looks at the internet itself as new form of communication and shared experience in culture in more of a positive light.
Both, however, don't present either exclusively a positive view of this technology or a negative view. Rather, they reflect the times in which they were made and the means for which the internet was and is being used in those times.