Printed Matters

Printed Matters – Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century

Published in 2015, Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter, is a hefty tome for an art genre that still seems young and new. A compilation of essays from artists, art writers, and curators, the anthology takes on the subject of internet art in depth. It should come as no surprise that the topic is complicated, though I confess I began with naïve questions: What is considered internet art? And since the genre is so new, what would a history of it be like? Mass Effect became my thorough, though occasionally tedious, education—more like a graduate seminar than a primer.

Cover image of "Mass Effect," featuring Cory Arcangel, "Drei Klavierstücke op. 11," 2009 (still); single-channel video, sound, color; 15:58 min. Courtesy of the Artist and Team Gallery, New York.

Cover image of Mass Effect, featuring Cory Arcangel, Drei Klavierstücke op. 11, 2009 (still); single-channel video, sound, color; 15:58. Courtesy of the Artist and Team Gallery, New York.

Although I’m familiar with contemporary art history and theory, before reading this I could not have easily named artists who seemed to clearly fall within the genre (for example: Cory Arcangel, Petra Cortright, Seth Price, Cao Fei, Trevor Paglen, Hito Steyerl, Ryan Trecartin, and Angela Washko). Internet art has an expansive definition: art that is either made with, for, and/or in response to the internet. So, like the art historian Claire Bishop in her controversial 2012 essay, “Digital Divide: Contemporary Art and New Media” (originally published in Artforum and reproduced in the anthology), I found myself wondering why the art world doesn’t seem to have a flourishing relationship with new media. Her essay received substantial and hostile criticism of what was perceived as her ignorance of existing new-media and internet-art communities, enough to prompt the editors of Mass Effect to invite Bishop to pen a follow-up response for the anthology, which is worth reading for its additional context and contemplation about the topic.

Seth Price. Dispersion, 2002–08. Courtesy of the Artist and Petzel, New York.

Seth Price. Dispersion, 2002–08. Courtesy of the Artist and Petzel, New York.

The anthology has a chronological structure and begins with a genre I’d never heard of before reading the introduction. “Net art” is the term for the early generation of internet art, created during the time when the internet was clunky and less accessible to the masses; a relatively small number of users were capable of creating content. In our current age—when creative consumers habitually curate their newsfeeds, when Pinterest makes collecting content easy and addictive—it’s hard to remember that the internet was once unwieldy. At one point in time, the mere act of folks posting and sharing content—in “surf clubs”—held its moment as a burgeoning, creative, pre-Tumblr practice.[1] The year 2002 marks an important turning point, and the bulk of the anthology focuses on the period since then, the history of which is admittedly new but nonetheless rich. After 2002, the internet ceased to be a new medium and became a mass medium, a more widely accessible (though one still dependent on various socioeconomic factors) and assumed condition.[2]

Guthrie Lonergan. Excerpt from webpage presentation for “We Did It Ourselves” lecture at Light Industry, 2009 (screen capture of HTML webpage). Courtesy of the Artist.

Guthrie Lonergan. Excerpt from webpage presentation for the “We Did It Ourselves” lecture at Light Industry, 2009 (screen capture of HTML webpage). Courtesy of the Artist.

I found myself working hard to read most of the essays. I’m no stranger to slogging through academic texts laden with theory and specialized references. And I don’t find digital technologies inherently alienating, though at times they seem mysterious. But I found myself craving more simple and accessible language from the book. Often I latched onto transcribed interviews between artists and curators, hungry for shorter sentences and clear statements: writing that made me want to spend some time with the art. Throughout the book, I noticed a tendency to foreground historical and theoretical justifications above nuanced visual descriptions and any mention of emotions. Might the subject of a fresh genre be an opportunity to change the style and institution of academic art writing? The pressure on the editors to adequately historicize a semi-new medium with the pomp of traditional art history must have been great, but I found myself wondering how this anthology could be different. What role might an accompanying online exhibition or publication series play? Both editors are affiliated with Rhizome and the New Museum, which just this week launched a comprehensive digital exhibition of net art; though not clearly associated with this publication, it promises an engaging, perhaps more accessible, experience.

Martine Syms. Black Vernacular, 2013; illustration for the lecture “Black Vernacular: Reading New Media” at SXSW Interactive 2013. Courtesy of the Artist.

Martine Syms. Black Vernacular, 2013; illustration for the lecture “Black Vernacular: Reading New Media” at SXSW Interactive 2013. Courtesy of the Artist.

Of course, internet art and its accompanying texts fall prey to the same pitfalls of other genres. The predominantly male scene repeats chauvinist patterns, despite one’s hope that new technologies and the knowledge they bring would have a positive, equalizing effect.[3] Notably, the anthology’s essays that specifically address dynamics of race and gender (such as those by Martine Syms and Karen Archey) fall toward the end, indicating that they are the most recent publications. Perhaps this is adequately representational of the growing canon of the literature. But it is heartening to find such works included as the latest and, hopefully, most impactful of the genre, representing the springboard from which the next generation will launch.

Notes:

[1] Guthrie Lonergan, “‘We Did It Ourselves!’ AKA ‘My Favorites’: Volume 1, 2005 to 2009,” in Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter‬ (MIT: 2015), 184.

[2] Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter, “Hard Reboot: An Introduction to Mass Effect” in Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter‬ (MIT: 2015), xv.

[3] Paraphrased from “Aleksandra Domanović and Oliver Laric in Conversation with Caitlin Jones” in Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century, ed. Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter‬ (MIT: 2015), 116.

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