October 13, 2012

Internet Feelings


[This text was originally published in Spike Art Quarterly #25.]

As an artist I feel more or less irrelevant. It seems to me that I am one of approximately a billion artists on the planet, all making our little projects, hoping that someone will see them and, for a few moments, be interested. All of us trying to scrape by and whip up a modicum of success. In the grand scheme of things the work I make, and the work I see, barely feels like ephemera, as if it were vanishing as soon as it appeared. YouTube seems important. Facebook feels significant. I don’t play videogames, but I suspect there is something happening there as well. I cannot think of a single artist or group of artists today that can begin to match the society-changing force of these technological innovations. Maybe in the sixties, maybe even in the eighties, but not today.

All of this is, most likely, an unfair comparison: artists are artists and the Internet (and video games) are global technologies with military origins. Perhaps art simply isn’t, or is no longer, about changing the world. It is about enriching our lives within the moment, in our direct encounter and experience of it. Nonetheless, when I am working, attempting to make something, more and more such comparisons are never far from my mind. There was one paradigm shift with the invention of the printing press, another intense shift with the introduction of a television set into every Western home, and possibly, as we speak, another overhaul with the predominance of the internet. I can certainly not prove it, but I have a feeling, this suspicion: in terms of art, the internet changes everything. What makes this fact potentially negative is that we haven’t even begun to understand what these changes might be or mean. At least I haven’t.

(There are of course many artists today working on and about the internet. That is not quite what I mean. I am wondering about something larger, some more fundamental shift.)

When I was growing up there was a great deal of talk about post-modernism. You don’t hear nearly as much about it now. For me, what post-modernism most resembled was television. The juxtaposition of different positions and historical styles felt like different television channels, sitting side by side yet not particularly affecting one another. The idea that everything could be shoved together in every possible way, what did this resemble more than flipping channels: programs, commercials and music videos all blurring together into one never-ending flow.

When both radio and television were first invented, it was proposed that they could be revolutionarily democratic mediums, that everyone could broadcast from their homes, that new pathways of global communication were opening, but quickly monopolies developed and they became something quite different, much as we know them today. For the time being, the internet fulfills certain of the early democratic aspirations of radio and television. Anyone can post a YouTube video. Anyone can start a blog. It is quite likely that no one will watch my video or read my blog, but this reality is also somehow democratic. As Emily Vey Duke has concisely stated, YouTube replaces the one-to-many ratio of traditional media with a one-to-one ratio. I post a video and my friend watches it. Complete strangers might also watch it but it is unlikely there will be very many. And then every once in a while, like a hurricane, there is a rush, a meme, a million hits and it’s done. As an artist I can put my work on the internet, potentially have it seen everywhere in the world at once. But of course everyone else, artist or not, can do exactly the same thing.

The way radically different materials are juxtaposed on the Internet seems, to me, significantly different from the way in which different television channels, or television shows and their commercials, press against one another. On YouTube, when I am watching a video, there is a long list of related videos down the right hand side of the screen. This selection of related videos is generated by an algorithm. Often selections appear within this list that seem strange, make no sense, where I am unable to see the logic of the choice. This list is provided in order to be helpful, but within its helpfulness there are moments of pure dada (or data.) In a way, it is only an acceleration, an increase in the degree and quantity of simultaneity. But like any acceleration, it brings along with it qualitative changes as well.

The internet as collage-machine: where massive amounts of related and unrelated materials exist side by side, all at the same time, separated only by the same monotonous click. (Other loose examples: Having four or five browser windows open at the same time. Or a Wikipedia page in which a compendium of different authors and sources are formatted to appear as a single text.) And yet, considering the breadth and variety of material available, it is shocking to me how narrow and limited my use of it is. Most days I look at the same handful of sites, occasionally following a few loose threads but rarely following them very far. I have the strange feeling that, within me, the internet promotes an ever-increasing lack of curiosity. I can click forever and nothing will genuinely catch my interest. (Or at least I would be required to look at far too many things before stumbling upon something that eventually did.) Taken as a whole, it is more information than I could ever digest. An endless bricolage of the entire world: in all its crassness, banality, confusion, redundancy, interspersed with tiny yet electric sparks of interest, compassion, violence and difference.

I have suggested that the internet embodies a certain democratic potential. While this is my personal experience, it is also highly suspect, since when I am attempting to use the internet in a democratic manner, at the same time I am also generating data trails that subject me to new forms of social monitoring and control from corporations, advertisers and the state. A strong mix of (illusory) freedom and (potential) surveillance blankets the web. I don’t necessarily experience the informational trails I generate, or the surveillance I am subject to, and therefore will leave such Big Brother aspects, obviously troubling, aside (in the same manner I put them out of mind when I am surfing the web.) Yet the discomfort persists: that the collage I generate through my random curiosity (along with my email writing, profile constructing, etc.) may be used to monitor, manipulate, somehow control me.

The fact that Facebook, to this day, fails to make a profit: I hope this is a timid sign of what the future might still hold in store. And yet the possibility that Facebook is little more than Big Brother run by Deep Blue, this is the other, more pernicious, face of what might be to come.

Perhaps, in a more ordered, coherent world (for example the 1920’s), avant-garde strategies of visual juxtaposition and bricolage might have felt jarring or provocative. Instead, we now live in a flow of anti-contextualizing visual and informational chaos. For the most part, we don’t experience this chaos as such. We select. We make our little stories that navigate us through the ambush (I am interested in this, this and this, considerably less interested in the rest.) We are not worried about missing out, since we know that everything outside of our little stories, everything else, is only, now and forever, just a click away.

I remember reading about how in the eleventh century (as least I think it was the eleventh century) people would go on a pilgrimage, walk for several weeks to see a painting, and how it might be the only reproduced image they would see in their natural lives. I try to imagine what it would be like to walk for three or four weeks simply in order to see an image, what the experience of viewing an image might mean after such a journey. I am unclear whether or not this anecdote is historically accurate, but nonetheless it is a way of thinking about an experience of the image, in this case a painting, that is radically different from our own, that we have no way of accessing, no reference points for or towards.

Feeling irrelevant, marginal, powerless, these are also lacks that fit very neatly within the guiding principles of capitalism and neo-liberalism. If I feel marginal I must work harder, network more efficiently, promote myself with greater panache. As I do so I might fail to notice many things: not only how, year by year, power is being further consolidated by corporations with an ever-expanding global reach (the corporations I in fact feel powerless in relation too), but also how in some small, tepid manner my own actions and motivations mirror the insatiable expansionism of the corporate world. There is a certain kind of artist that, suspecting it is impossible, still wants his or her work to have the impact of a Hollywood blockbuster (but of course with a much greater sense of integrity.)

This sense of lack is also (always) an excellent trait for a consumer to possess. I will try to fill this undefined sense of emptiness with purchases, career goals, with an endless variety of goals of every kind that I will select for myself as if from a market shelf. I will not necessarily realize that this sense of lack has been created within me in order to make me a more voracious consumer. Because, of course, of the massive amounts of images and information that are available to me, so many of them, in one way or another, have been put in place in order to sell me something. And I don’t want to sell anything. In fact, I don’t want to sell myself. But, also, I don’t want to sell myself short.

I believe art should fight the status quo. At the same time, it often seems to me that much, or most, art I see is actually doing the exact opposite, that it is barely a millimeter away from the ruling logics of our time, just a hairbreadth from power. Resistance is rare, often ineffective, but nonetheless must be cherished. As I write these things, I worry they are little more than empty platitudes. I want to write them anyways. I don’t hear such statements often and therefore crave to see them in print. And yet how do you resist within an ever-expanding field of informational chaos? What do you resist? Where is the solid ground from which to launch an attack, the runway along which one can effectively achieve liftoff?

The power of bricolage and collage lie in their ability to show us radically different materials side by side, to allow us to compare and contrast, see how things might be put together in ways we would have never previously expected, generate new possibilities. The internet also does this. In a work of visual or literary collage, it is the author or artist who decides what information is juxtaposed with what. On the internet, we ourselves (partially) decide with every click. However, this limited sense of autonomy is rarely invigorating. Through a lens of deep information-fatigue, it is difficult to view such juxtapositions crisply, for them to keep their critical edge in relation to one another. Everything blurs slightly (or not so slightly) around the edges. Radically disparate materials begin to feel increasingly the same.

Every difficulty, every strangeness, is also an opportunity. And I return to my earlier suspicion: that in terms of art, the Internet changes everything. I stare at this statement and realize that the problem, at least in part, might be that I was born too soon or too late. I have fallen in between, somewhere in the gap between television and internet. Perhaps the artists who will fully grasp this shift, which may be little more than a mirage, have not yet been born. But as Borges wrote: “Like all men, he was simply given bad times in which to live.”



Anonymous said...

Hi Jacob, I'm so glad you wrote this. It's such an important discussion, but so many people are afraid to talk about it for fear of suggesting their own art may be worthless. You raised a lot of points I hadn't thought about and I hope the post triggers more debate. It's definitely way more uplifting than some of the stuff I've been reading on the topic. Personally, I'm maybe a bit more optimistic than your last 2 sentences. I think we're heading for a serious broadening of what art means, and as artists we're on the verge of being the first to define it - those of us born between tv and internet included! cheers, ben

Alan said...

This is brilliant. Thanks.