The Internet Is Not Dead (Yet)! On the Past, Present, and Future of Post-Internet Art

Marisa Olson,WellWellWell (dotguru video #1)

By Marisa Olson: After the champions of net.art, the techno-utopians of the early 1990s, were forced to acknowledge that the Web would not bring down the classical institutions of art as primary exhibition spaces, a new generation of artists who also reacted to the Internet took over.

The catchphrase of Post-Internet Art quickly caught on. The term was coined by artist and theorist Marisa Olson: “I’m going to toggle back and forth between video and Internet because some of the Internet art I make is on the Internet, and some is after the Internet.” While this has the ring of a particular attitude to life, Post-Internet Art quickly became a collective term for artists who once again created works for the museum or gallery space, rather than the browser.

What good (or evil) is social media today, and what does that have to do with art?

I.
On the morning of New Year's Eve in 1984, twenty-five million international television viewers woke up to a satellite broadcast of an ambitious neo-vaudevillian spectacle organized by pioneering video artist Nam June Paik and simulcast out of production studios in New York and Paris. As host George Plimpton said in the English introduction to the program, Paik's vision was to create a spectacle that tugged at the sense in which society had already far exceeded George Orwell's 1949 dystopian projections about the degree to which omnipresent surveillance would reign by the year 1984 in his eponymous novel. Ubiquitous eyes loomed over the sets and frequently acted as a key when video channels fed into each other throughout the show, underscoring the dual motifs of surveillance and spectacle itself.

For all its innovation at the time, the program might register as mildly kitschy today. The collaborative spirit channeled in GOOD MORNING MR. ORWELL is a cocktail of Fluxus, a very white We Are the World, and a kind of science experiment in which all the kids in the class are avant-garde or pop-chart artists. All pith aside, it is strangely wonderful in its meta-humor and exploitation of form, and in hindsight its critique of a new era gives us an archival turning point in order to look back on what has changed about both technology and its utility in creative collaboration among friends. Despite “Orwell’s” novel commentary being about the ability to rapidly send messages across the world, this highly social project depended heavily upon a group of friends and collaborators being in the right place at the same time in order to exchange communiqués with additional interlocutors (their viewers). This fact was underscored in a moment of technical difficulty when one performer filled time by improvising a "space yodel," which they hoped would signify the affect of a voice bouncing back and forth off of a satellite. The echo never manifested, but the space-time metaphor was there, and Paik was satisfied that the improvisation further kindled the mood of “liveness” for which he was striving.

Indeed, like many of those 1960s-1980s video experiments, “mood” was the word of the day. Psychic space easily intermingled with physical, embodied, and geographic space as themes, arguably to a much greater extent than in the mature art of today’s ELECTRONIC SUPERHIGHWAY, forecast by Paik in 1974. GOOD MORNING MR. ORWELL was neither Paik's first nor last of such collaborative international broadcast experiments. But there is something about this one that provides so many points of entry for considering life before and now during social media, if not to start imagining what our social exchanges and visual culture will look like when the world wide web will disappear and give way to another dominant system of transmission.

The One That Got Away from Marisa Olson on Vimeo.

One such moment that hits home for me is in CAVALCADE OF INTELLECTUALS, a comedic bit presented as a split screen in which two performers, who we're told are "standing in" for Susan Sontag and Michel Foucault from New York and Paris, respectively, get into a spirited debate about the impact of television on intimacy. One of them takes a more emotional approach and the other one a more philosophical one, and in a moment of winking fakery, the guests perform a scene in which the live feed snaps and they appear to believe that the audience cannot see or hear them. In this "intimate" moment, they break character and slip into a different code, arguing with each other about their conversation during the previous night (New Year's Eve) which, it is suggested, was about a romantic proposal. One of them is despondent, the other one is on the fence, and emotional stability is as broken as the purported feed until the moment the transmission is declared to be patched, communication is restored, and then ultimately drowned out by a hand-off to a live performance by the band Oingo Boingo.

This dramatization could well have been a fictional reenactment of an exchange over a much more recent social media platform, a change of venue from a public Wall or Timeline to a direct message inbox, or an act of simply losing interest while interacting online and switching to a different browser window (the window being the channel of the 1980s). What is revealing in this brief moment of electronic playacting is not only this longstanding tension between public- and private-sphere communication (and the personas crafted or donned in each case, the information shared or withheld), but also the ongoing debate about the impact of a medium on intimacy. Of course, debates also persist as to whether the problem is getting worse or not, and undoubtedly Mr. Orwell would have an opinion on the latter.

II.
The tension today is that social media platforms in fact often create a tug of war in the lives of their users. From an idealistic perspective, these networks not only condense communicative barriers in time and space (part of an ongoing trajectory as old as the move from horse-and-buggy postal delivery to railway post), but also allow for a perceived recursive, non-hierarchal, real-time exchange of a broader range of media. Yet in reality, social media is a closed system with a limited number of participants, no matter how global, and filter bubbles within them not only limit algorithmic access to certain participants or ideas on the platforms, they also silo systems of thought regarding network participation.

So some may find themselves thinking about things like intimacy on platforms as a universal tension between being closer to friends versus no longer seeing them in person due to an addiction to seeing them online instead. However, what tends to be forgotten in these considerations is the fact that these aggravations apply to a very specific demographic of users distinguished by class, age, location, and access to both devices and bandwidth. In other cases—in other parts of the world—a relationship to intimacy online is defined by social media networks being a family's only point of access to the web, or by the platform's role in contributing to a genocide, or the hijacking of a national election. In the midst of this, Facebook has admitted to conducting multiple psychological experiments on hundreds of thousands, if not millions of its users in recent years.

It didn't start out this way. Sure, Mark Zuckerberg founded his website for the purely misogynist reason of ranking the desirability of female students. But the web felt different and more creative then, at a time when billions of people weren't addicted to what became of his project. In fact, once upon a time, social networks had a different name. When social bookmarking website  del.icio.us (RIP) was still active, I had an active tag called "FOAF," standing for "Friend of a Friend," in which I would bookmark the pages of friends of friends that I came across (Flickr, Friendster, MySpace, etc...) as well as articles regarding the theory and economy of FOAFs. In this same era, a small group of friends and I got so excited about sharing links this way, ranging from actual websites to GIFs and videos, and the potential of such list-making and sharing, that in 2006 we began our own website called NASTY NETS.

We were a group of Super-Sharers or Professional Surfers, as we called ourselves. We resisted any kind of artist statement or manifesto about what we were doing, as each of us was doing our own thing as friends sharing a URL. But in general we were posting our best finds on the version of the Internet that we still loved, and occasionally remixing these finds either before posting them or through a comment thread shared with other members and visitors to our site. In artist talks, people would sometimes coyly ask me how I felt about sites like Tumblr or websites that aggregated memes, and I would explain that those sites came after ours, but also that ... it kind of didn't matter. We had our community, they had theirs; sometimes there was overlap, but the more the merrier. In cases of affinity, it was a demonstration of a shared cultural or creative impulse, a zeitgeist. But one great thing about the Internet at the time was the broad way in which so many people were doing their thing, sharing it, celebrating it, and critiquing it.

We were a community, and in fact, NASTY NETS was nominated for an Ars Electronica award in the Community category. Sadly, or perhaps inevitably, we sort of fizzled out at the point in which people lost interest in sustaining that community. Around 2009-2010, it felt as if there was a kind of mass exodus of creative participation in the weird, fun part of the Internet. Geocities was gone, MySpace as we knew it was effectively over, people hosting strange folksy gifs on sites like Photobucket started closing their accounts, early adopters of the Web and many first-generation net artists had moved on to other endeavors, people were using cookie-cutter corporate templates to make their websites rather than DIY homepages, the signal-to-noise ratio on Tumblr was starting to get fuzzy, and meanwhile many people were investing whatever spare time they had to be online on mega-sites like Facebook or Twitter, which greatly restricted free and creative expression the way big-box stores clamped down on friendly local businesses.

Unlocking My Sandbox (screencap) from Marisa Olson on Vimeo.

As New York Times critic Holland Cotter has shown brilliantly, artists and their organizations often find great creative impetus in rising from such constraints. Social media's whitewashing of the world wide web has had many impacts on the creative community that embraces technology. A few years prior to the exodus I described, there had already been an expansion of the field of Internet-related work as many artists were embracing Post-Internet Art as a creative strategy, using not only browser-based works but also offline forms to represent and critique the formal and aesthetic qualities of the net. Yet very shortly after the movement blossomed as such, the commercial-gallery world and the segment of the museum sector that pivots around it co-opted the term without a real understanding of it, alienating many of the artists taking the creative risks. And then in another flash, the economy collapsed, queuing the circumstances for a domino effect in which wedge after wedge was driven between generations of artists who did or wanted to engage the Internet in their work. Surprisingly, if not obliviously, article after article was written in which critics posed the question of what the role of Instagram (a Facebook property) was in the contemporary art world. Whereas the unregulated art market was proving unsound on the base of a crumbling economy, social media was the infrastructure for so much of the art at the time—for all of the moods, the ideas, the intimacies (such as they were), and exchanges behind its production and consumption.

But a few New Year's parties later, where does that leave us? What good (or evil) is social media today, and what does that have to do with art?

III.
I was recently at a baby shower at the home of my good friend & fellow NASTY NETS member, Petra Cortright, and it was a nice opportunity to see both her and our fellow original surf club member, Guthrie Lonergan, offline. At one point, Guthrie and I were chatting about making websites and one of us made a comment along the lines of, “the Internet’s not dead yet,” at which point we both giggled with a combination of awkwardness and sincerity… I say “one of us” made this comment because this sentiment was so mutual, it could have been either of us. And if one listens closely to those who talk about the Internet as a subject of research, it seems that this sense of impending demise is a matter of some consensus.

When I first started talking about Post-Internet Art and culture, it frustrated me greatly that people misunderstood the term Post-Internet and anxiously, dismissively mischaracterized the “post-” in the descriptor as heralding the death of the Internet. Even as early as 2006, in the Electronic Arts Intermix/Rhizome “Net Art 2.0” panel discussing the relationship of Internet art to social media, in which I first began discussing “art after the Internet,” I tried to make clear that the “post-” in “Post-Internet” was more of a condition, much in the way that Lyotard discussed the “postmodern condition.” And later, after 2013 – particularly after the (completely unsurprising) revelations of Edward Snowden regarding the PRISM program and other government efforts to spy on private citizens’ social media activity – when I began to rethink my own definition of Post-Internet to reflect the broader political context of network culture, which is dominated by what artist Suzanne Treister might describe as the impact of a post-surveillance ethos, I started saying that Post-Internet was both the era and the condition writ large, of which art (a.k.a. Post-Internet Art) was just one symptom.

But the time has come for us to think differently about the question of whether the Internet is dead or dying. And it requires us to first square up our terms. Today, people most often use the word “Internet” to refer to the world wide web created by Tim Berners-Lee, rather than the network that ARPA first invented in order to facilitate communication for military-research purposes. In fact, it is arguable that for many the phrase “on the Internet” has become a vernacular shorthand for social media in recent years.

Tim Berners-Lee’s original, if idealistic vision for the web was inherently social and peer-to-peer. But this vision of non-hierarchical sharing has been replaced by a vision of sociality in which most sharing happens on what has been branded “Social Media.” Globally, Facebook and Alphabet (Google) account for over 70% of Internet traffic (most of which is now accessed on mobile devices), and in some parts of the world, social media is a dominant point of access to the web, communications infrastructures, and news media. By default, the social has become corporate. Yet these corporations are already forecasting the death of the web and investing in other networked devices and experiences. To be clear, as former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said in his speech that sounded the death knell of the web in 2015, there will still be plenty of IP addresses, we just won’t see them. Rather than websites, we will have objects belonging to the Internet of things and connected rooms – and one imagines that we will soon also have a different social understanding of the concept of connection, given the wirelessness of everything, ranging from our electrical charging processes to our health insurer’s access to our private data.

WellWellWell (dotguru video #1) from Marisa Olson on Vimeo.

It seems that the future of the Internet – the true Internet writ large – and therefore likewise the future of Post-Internet Art is reflected in immersive media. This may strike some as surprising or even discordant with what they think of when they picture Post-Internet Art, particularly with regard to materiality and the aesthetics championed by those gallerists who co-opted the movement. But it may be helpful to return for a moment to the first definition of Post-Internet Art: art after the Internet. As I have said elsewhere, this definition did not mean chronologically after the Internet – though for the purposes of our current conversation we could speak of art that follows the step into the era of the aforementioned Post-Internet condition, or art made in the twilight of the world wide web, insofar as the word “Internet” is often used as shorthand for that platform. In truth, the phrase “art after the Internet” has always meant art in the style of the Internet, very much like an art historian might describe a painting by a follower of Rembrandt – or one for which attribution to Rembrandt is not one hundred percent certain – as “after Rembrandt.” Art after the Internet is self-referential. It intentionally invokes the Internet, whether with regard to its form, content, or aesthetics. This is true across a spectrum of media, from Cory Arcangel and Artie Vierkant producing physical objects that draw heavily on gradient effects; to JODI.org or Screenfull making web-based works that exploit code or intentionally crash browsers with content; to artists like Olia Lialina and Sondra Perry who move fluidly between online, offline, autobiographical, appropriative, or abstract in a way that interdigitates the aesthetics and anthropology of the web.

If it is true that we are moving away from browser-based networked experiences and toward immersive experiences, which are to date designed as typically solitary attempts at vérité – physically and socially alienating manifestations of the ever-increasing distance between one’s literal self and the ideal form represented (be it a space, an object, or a friend) in the rendering – then where do we interact outside of this illusion of interactivity? Where and how do we communicate? With whom do we communicate, and what value do those exchanges hold? Can they take form outside of these virtual ideals? It is difficult to know if these questions are epistemological worries that spring from doing media studies in the trenches of the so-called anthropocene, or if they are symptoms of the sublime anxiety of anemoia: the pangs of nostalgia for a time one has not actually experienced; a time when one did not feel tethered to a network of machines in so many ways.

IV.
In the end, we have to ask ourselves what social media really is, or what we want it to be. Regardless of form, what personal value does a Friend-of-a-Friend network hold for each of us?

Although I am trained as a cultural historian of technology, I was also recently described by the director of a major German film festival as “surprisingly sentimental," so of course my opinion is as subjective as anyone else's. I will say that I naturally begin from the perspective of human experience. I was particularly moved by Artforum editor David Velasco's essay on friendship in the introduction to the December 2019 issue of the magazine, in which he posited that "[k]eeping each other alive is our most important, most impossible, task." His essay was foregrounded by the loss of Douglas Crimp, but came at the end of a year in which there had been a staggering number of deaths of beloved art world figures, as well as a staggering number of political chasms, environmental catastrophes, and a general sense of chaos, instability, and the need for... well, friendship.

The subject of kinship and the ways in which it is constructed or compromised by technology and its broader impact will be a defining theme of the coming decade. The stakes here are high. Friendship and kinship may not be exactly the same thing, but to my line of thinking, they are two fibers in a supportive web. Without this network, there is no creative expression, no keeping each other alive. And the question of social media's relevance to art becomes a mute point.

As Donna Haraway has contextualized it, kinship pertains not only to humans, but also to non-hierarchical interspecies relationships among all those inhabiting this damaged planet, extending to a holistic understanding of our connection to those who have already passed. If we are to open up our thinking to this kind of continuum of listening, sharing, and attempts at understanding, there needs to be a space through which information flows (i.e. media), where species are free to be (which to my mind fundamentally includes expression), and which bears in mind that truism of which Velasco reminds us: "Friendship is not a set of rules or behaviors. It is not a stop on the way to somewhere else."

First published in: LINK IN BIO. ART AFTER SOCIAL MEDIA. The catalogue is published as part of the exhibition LINK IN BIO. KUNST NACH DEN SOZIALEN MEDIEN held in the Museum der Bildenden Künste Leipzig from December 17 2019 until March 15 2020.

BIO

Marisa Olson studied Fine Art at Goldsmiths College, History of Consciousness at UC Santa Cruz, and Rhetoric at UC Berkeley. Her work combines performance, video/new media, painting/ drawing, and installation to address the cultural histories of technology and wellness, experiences of gender, and the politics of participation within pop culture. Her work has been shown at the Whitney Museum, New Museum, Venice Biennale, Fotomuseum Winterthur, C/O Berlin, National Museum of Contemporary Art-Athens, Tate Modern and Liverpool, British Film Institute, PS122, Performa Biennial, Samek Museum, Bard CCS.

She is a founding member of the Nasty Nets Internet surf club, which exhibited at the Sundance Film Festival, New York Underground Film Festival, amongst others.

Her work has been written about in the New York Times, Interview, Frieze, Art in America, Art21, Folha de Sao Paolo, Liberation-Paris, Le Monde, Wall Street Journal, the Globe and Mail, Dis, and Dazed. Her own critical writing has appeared in Artforum, e-flux, Aperture, Flash Art, Art Review, Afterimage, The Guardian, Wired, Surface, and numerous books  in multiple languages. 

She is the former Editor & Curator of Rhizome, and the former Associate Director of SF Camerawork. She has curated projects at the New Museum, Guggenheim, SFMOMA, White Columns, and Artists Space.

Olson has served on Advisory Boards for Ars Electronica, Transmediale, ISEA, Creative Capital, the Getty Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Kennedy Center, and Tribeca Film Festival. She was Artist-in-Residence at Eyebeam, Master Artist in Residence at the Atlantic Center for the Arts, and has been a Visiting Artist at Yale, Brown, VCU, SAIC, Oberlin, and elsewhere in addition to serving on the faculty at RISD and NYU.

CREDITS

Marisa Olson, THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY, 2005, Video Project
Marisa Olson, UNLOCKING MY SANDBOX (SCREENCAP), HTML and javacript-based video animation
Marisa Olson, WELLWELLWELL (DOTGURU VIDEO#1), 2018, Performative Project

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