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The exhibition Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today at the Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston (ICA/Boston) helped to contextualize the history of the internet’s development in light of how it is shaping our interconnected present and, as a consequence, contemporary art practices.
Importantly, the exhibition revolved around the concept that the internet is a cultural product. Such a concept is a fundamental step toward departing from the assumption that technological progress is neutral. The exhibition reflected on the fact that the internet has permeated other artistic practices. As consequence, not only new media art is about the internet. Even though the title might suggest that the exhibition’s larger focus was on the internet itself, the works on view were representative of how digital technology in general has had an impact on contemporary artistic practices. It comes as no surprise then that the exhibition opened with a work by media art pioneer Nam June Paik, whose Internet Dream (1994)—a fifty-two-monitor video installation through which the artist imagines the internet—welcomes the viewer into the gallery spaces.
The exhibition focused on the internet as serving as an epistemological umbrella under which a series of cultural aspects shape our consciousness. Art in the Age of Internet was divided into five sections: Networks and Circulation; Hybrid Bodies; Virtual Worlds; States of Surveillance; and Performing the Self. These divisions live under a larger historical frame that positions the internet as stemming from the technological development of the twentieth century and earlier. The exhibition ultimately suggested that aspects such as a networked society, the hybridization of our body, virtual travel, the constant presence of a controlling superstructure, and the emergence of a self-centered spectacle, do not emerge exclusively with the internet, but they are a result of a longer cultural history that speaks to our being, our fears, and sense of unsettlement as they relate to the kinship between the human and the machine. Thus, the gallery spaces were opened to artists who do not necessarily operate on or through the internet or exclusively with digital media, but rather their work carries certain imagery, aesthetics, or content concerning our experience with information technology, as in the paintings of Gregory Edwards and Celia Hempton.
At the same time, Art in the Age of the Internet featured artists such as Olia Lialina and Cory Arcangel, two names omnipresent in any exhibition that mentions the web; both have a long history of presenting their work online and using the internet as their medium. For those familiar with the early artistic investigation that came to be known as net.art, Russian artist and theorist Lialina needs no introduction. Her pioneering work has been among the first to explore the nonlinear narrative potential of the web, a core characteristic of her featured piece titled, My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996), in which a couple struggles to reunite. Perhaps, to dive into an era in which the internet was seen as a platform for new forms of expression is the hardest part of reconnecting with this early work. Given the latest developments in digital technology and social media, the pervasiveness of interactive devices, the bias emerging from coding, and the most recent Facebook scandal, the work of pioneer net artists might appear naïve. However, the exhibition embedded a crucial criticism and awareness of how the internet works that remains relevant to this day. An example of this is expressed by Taryn Simon and Aaron Swartz’s piece Image Atlas (2012), a work that questions the neutrality of algorithms and reveals their limits.
For an exhibit whose main subject seemed to be the web-sphere, Art in the Age of the Internet featured many non-ephemeral works, but it also included pieces by Oliver Laric, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Jon Rafman, Amalia Ulman, and Penelope Umbrico, all of whom have a history of working with online-related themes through tangible objects. Umbrico’s 5,377,183 Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (2009) is an emblematic work that investigates what kind of content users are compelled to generate and post online. The crucial question Umbrico’s work leaves us with is what pushes us to unwittingly post such an image again and again?
For Art in the Age of the Internet, ICA/Boston commissioned Rafman to create a VR (virtual reality) project. His work, View of Harbor, is an eight-minute virtual journey that begins with a tsunami that destroys the museum carrying away all its content. It is frightening, as convincing as a roller coaster, and derives from an imaginary travel culture that began centuries ago with magic lanterns then proceeded to panoramas and film, and now VR. In a recent interview, curator Eva Respini affirmed that the VR experience was a new one for the museum and visitors alike who might have encountered virtual reality in a gaming context but never in a museum, http://www.wbur.org/artery/2018/04/09/virtual-reality-mass-museums. By commissioning this artwork, ICA/Boston seems to suggest that VR is a valid option to enhance museum audience engagement. Certainly, the museum demonstrated a desire to strategically embrace new forms of cultural production in order to appeal to a larger public, which is not novel, and it should not be seen as deplorable.
The exhibition was accompanied by an extensive catalogue with contributions by curators and scholars of new media art, from Lauren Cornell to Caitlin Jones, from Caroline A. Jones to Omar Kholeif, as well as conversations between artists. The exhibition included a web platform, https://aiai.icaboston.org/, that makes the viewer aware of the “I am watching you” aspect of online browsing by listing on top of the page your location, type of device used for the connection, IP address, and other details. It is a gentle reminder that navigating the internet always leaves traces of our journeys.
Throughout its development, information technology has favored user interaction trackability. As pointed out by many of the catalogue’s contributors, the dependence of the internet on military technology constitutes one of its structural aspects. It has been successfully analyzed and shown that the internet as we know it today—the one that has had the largest impact on our current behavior in relation to “smart” devices—developed as much in military strategic rooms as in university laboratories.
Overall, through an overwhelming amount of content and interrogation of the effects of digital transformation on our body, Art in the Age of the Internet is more about our relationship with information overflow than about the internet per se. We need more exhibitions like Art in the Age of the Internet, just as we need in-depth research into the artistic practices that have been shaped by the cultural impact of the internet. We also need better modes of display for artwork that addresses technological obsolescence; significant steps have been recently made toward these issues by Rhizome, a site dedicated to digital culture, through its online exhibition, Net Art Anthology, and its browser time machine, http://oldweb.today/. This exhibition did not delve into these concerns however. Many of the works on view were video installations, which, along with taking away the interactive aspect of some internet-based art, do not face the same level of technological obsolescence that browser-based projects do. Probably due to the ongoing issue of featuring online work in a gallery space, this exhibition did not include those artists, such as Paolo Cirio, who are working in a disruptive way to undo the dominant coding logic of user control. Other platforms are committed to presenting exclusively online works, such as The Wrong New Digital Art Bienniale, which is now in its third edition. Founded in 2013 by David Quiles Guilló, The Wrong is an inclusive (everyone can apply) digital art festival that happens exclusively online. Different from a more recent effort of The Wrong, which featured more than 1,500 artists, Art in the Age of the Internet chose to reach out to the audience via the physical space of the museum where the viewer can explore material objects, http://thewrong.org/.
Perhaps the only aspect related to the new media intended as digital media that Art in the Age of the Internet does not contemplate is the aesthetics of old media that emerged in response to an obsession with the “new.” In an exhibition that explored the many factors emerging as a consequence of the use of the internet, it might be worth exploring what the digital revolution means for those artists who try to escape from it by nourishing a fascination for the media that once were, or what has been the impact of the digital transformation on the proliferation of such things as old slide projectors and tape recorders in contemporary exhibitions and installations.
PhD candidate, Italian Studies, Brown University