Four 2014 Books on Art and the Internet

This review of four books on Art and the Internet appeared in Art Monthly issue 379 September 2014 


How the art world turns. A few years ago conferences and university canteens were abuzz with debates hinged on the usefulness, accessibility and adaptability of contemporary art and its habitus. But while new institutionalism, participatory practice, the educational turn, deschooling and archive fever guaranteed sold-out seminars and journal subscriptions, art and the internet was a niche concern you couldn’t get arrested for. Today things are different; the net has moved centre stage. More artists than ever are using it as both material and medium, and the ubiquity of video collage, digital image manipulation and meditations on the flatness of HD are all seen as evidence that an online sensibility has migrated offline as ‘net aware’ or ‘post-internet’ art practice.

What has remained the same is the accelerated velocity of evolution in the field. In print this leads to the redundancy problem: the idea that publishers hoping to examine an area subject to a high rate of change must consider the risk that books they commission may become completely irrelevant in the time they take to be written. The smart way to avoid this trap is to pitch your publication as a speculative thermometer in the digital mouth of contemporaneity, to cast it as a measure of the transient climate artists and theorists are operating in and not as a definitive take on the state of things. You Are Here: Art After the Internet, a collection of punchy, impassioned if occasionally scant texts, wisely employs this strategy.

Edited by London-based Whitechapel gallery curator and AM contributor Omar Kholeif, You Are Here has been conceived as a platform for 25 invited artists, curators and writers to air their views, or reflect on the subject of art post-internet. As such it is a mixed bag. There are some pointed and well-argued contributions, and then there is the filler – a slight, unrevealing and entirely dispensable ‘questionnaire’ featuring James Richards being a case in point. But You Are Here isn’t a yawn-inducing, narrow-but-deep book. It is best to approach it as an energetic textural snapshot of a group of peers articulating aspects of their net-based or net-aware practice and its context. The most spirited piece in the compendium comes from Chicago-based artist Jennifer Chan: the only writer to seriously consider the occidental bias the whole field of internet art operates under. Chan’s essay ‘Notes on Post-Internet’, because of its singularity here, not only reminds us of the zero self-criticality problem that pervades the field and this book (have you ever read a serious critique of current internet art that wasn’t Claire Bishop’s ill-informed Artforum bait piece?) but also offers a tantalising view of where You Are Here could have gone with a tighter, more astute editorial remit. Still, by bringing this collection together, Kholeif should be lauded for emphatically sticking a pin into the ever-expanding map of internet art practice.

Black Dog Publishing’s Art and the Internet follows the traditional survey route. Bookended by three introductory essays from writers and digital culture specialists Nicholas Lambert (UK), Joanne McNeil and Domenico Quaranta (both US), and an appendix of reprinted interviews and classic texts like John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace from 1996, the book’s core consists of single paragraph profiles of artists whose works use, are situated on or reference the internet. Editorial focus here divides the field into five categories in which artists are then aligned:; activist art and surveillance-related work; internet-enabled participatory, interactive and video art; postinternet art (their lack of hyphen); and social media influenced art and identity construction. You have to doff your hat to the team for attempting to define and demarcate the discipline, but inevitably errors pop up – are the Italian-born New York based Eva & Franco Mattes, previously known as, really ‘postinternet’ artists? Although some headway is made in redressing the western internet art bias – with the inclusion of part Korean duo Young-Hae Chang Heavy Industries, the Chinese-American artist Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung and the India-based art groups Sarai Media Lab and Raqs Media Collective – Art and the Internet breaks no new ground, but it will prove a valuable reference tool for initiates and undergraduates.

It was only a matter of time before the Documents of Contemporary Art series – Whitechapel Gallery’s Linnaen attempt to commission a writer for every concept, category, or sensibility that was ever of any consequence in the art world – would turn to the internet as a subject. Rather than a straight reflection on the medium, Danish art historian and curator Lars Bang Larsen’s Networks cleverly focuses on the once-hot-but-now-not topic of the fundamental and perhaps autonomous power (ie not purely assignable to or activated by human beings) of interconnected nodes or networks. Like most of the documents series it is an exhilarating and exhausting read, with a selection of key texts from heavyweight thinkers who in this instance include Joasia Krysa, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Hakim Bey and Yuko Hasegawa. Essays cover the practical, economic, socio-cultural and metaphysical implications of networks, pre and post-internet. The only issue for the potential reader is fatigue. Actually there are two issues, the second being monetary. Because a lot of the texts in the book are freely available online, parting with hard cash for access will present you with a quandary. Ultimately, what you are paying for is Bang Larsen’s research and curatorial vision, which as always is impressive, rigorous and surprising. Networks, then, is an essential read and a potential series classic.

Finally, Limor Shifman’s Memes in Digital Culture drops past artists and overarching abstractions to zero in on that single unit of cultural production, famed for its ability to spread across networks and into individual’s consciousnesses: the meme. What makes this short, digestible book a brilliant and compelling read is that Shifman – senior lecturer in the department of communication and journalism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – stages a unique taxonomic analysis of the cultural phenomenon. As the reader goes deeper into the text new modes of analysis are introduced and by the book’s end a whole set of novel terms and critical tools will have passed from Shifman to you. This is invaluable stuff in a field awash with anecdotal reflections on digital media that oscillate between entreaties for the field to be taken seriously and weak assertions that ironic tendencies have cultural value (the dreadful narcissism of artists using Facebook as a ‘platform for performance’ being one). Ultimately, Memes enables you to think about memes as objects that can be broken down into units of analysable properties, the presence or absence of which facilitate qualitative analyses – that is critical reflection – which lead to a form of judgement a world away from the egocentric Greenbergian standard that certain critics still mourn the death of. This is undoubtedly what the field of digital culture and internet art needs, limpid and inclusive critical work that doesn’t get lost in contemplation of its own virtual navel. Consequently, in Memes Shifman has written an academic rarity: a generous book, a challenge really, designed to encourage you to think deeply about the ostensible clutter clogging the net’s arteries and to continue the work she has begun. It is one reason among many that this is my pick of the bunch. Buy it.

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