ART AND THE INTERNET – A Conversation With Marisa Olson by Nick Warner


A Conversation With Marisa Olson by Nick Warner

NW: This term – Postinternet – can be useful in talking broadly about the new significance that the internet has come to have in our lives as ʻcultural practitionersʼ over the last, I donʼt know, ten years, referring to the notion that, at some point, the internet stopped being a specialised technology, and became instead a sort of cultural site. Somewhere where we enact not only socially empowering acts of technological engagement (social networking, blogging, uploading videos of ourselves, et cetera) but also a place where we manage our life admin (pay bills, check our bank accounts, do our weekly shop and use the Royal Mail postage calculator to ascertain how much it will cost us to send a parcel, et cetera).

MO: I think we can walk this back a bit and look at this discourse surrounding “Networked Art.” This was definitely an influence on what I first started calling “art after the internet” and then started calling “postinternet art,” to smoothen the mouthful. There was a turn, in this discourse and in the work it surrounded, from work that was strictly networked and/or strictly online to work that beared the signature of life in network culture. The symptoms of connectedness. I would liken the network to what psychoanalysts Laplanche and Pontalis called the “phantasmatic,” in this case, and the art work produced as coming forth out of something like what Victor Burgin called the “popular preconscious.” That is, on some level, the audience for this work is always already familiar with the conditions of its production and reception (its [network-based] culture). In fact, in the 90s and early 2000s, there were a lot of critics and theorists who began to write about what I’m here calling “the symptoms of connectedness,” and in particular how it impacted political action and art practice. But that writing often uses the phrase “network culture” and it’s one I’m a little wary of. Admittedly I use it at times to describe my specific mainstream online American culture, but otherwise “network culture” implies a global homogeny that I think is inappropriate. Nonetheless, I do think it’s time for people with an interest in the concept of postinternet to dig more deeply into the network-oriented roots and implications of the internet.

NW: I agree, to an extent. There are some really interesting examples in art history where artists have been similarly empowered by networks of correspondence, or networks of production. The mail art networks of the late 1960s and early 1970s is an interesting example. What I find most interesting about the comparison though is that mail artists were engaging with a ʻtechnologyʼ that was already almost vintage, which seems kind of true of post- internet artists as well. Whereas in the nineties artists using the internet were kind of pioneering, post-internet artists are making art out of the internetʼs no longer being a new technology, but becoming a standardised life-tool.

MO: As the internet has popularized, certainly in the northern hemisphere, the semantics and aesthetic vocabularies may have shifted, but we are looking at the same idea. If the psychoanalytic model above doesn’t suit you, recall Marshall McCluhan’s: All media are an extension of ourselves, down to our very bodies, and the content of every medium is more media. Don’t get me wrong, from Day-One of the internet it belonged to the government and each day shows us more and more that our “private” content belongs to them. But that just, very sadly, becomes a part of our media subjectivity when we agree to participate in using these tools. The symptoms of connectedness.

NW: With specific reference to the discussion and criticism of contemporary artistic practices, however, it becomes slightly more contentious. How would you define, as the founder of this term, Post-internet, sorry Postinternet, art? Is it simply any art made since this Web 2.0 era was inaugurated? Or is it art that somehow borrows an aesthetic that is some part of the internet?

MO: I have always preferred to use the un-hyphenated term, “postinternet,” just as I write “postmodern,” rather than “post-modern.” I don’t see the “post-” as a kind of flag-pole jammed into the ground, and at some angle to it; I see it as a gloss on the terrain that’s already there. It goes back to the phrase I used to use, “art after the internet,” which I meant to refer to art that (a) couldn’t/wouldn’t exist before the internet (technologically, phenomenologically, existentially) and (b) was in the ‘style’ of or ‘under the influence’ of the internet in some way…. So the answer is sort of “both.” It’s art that embodies the conditions of life in network culture, art after the internet.
With early internet art, there was originally a (cyber)punk spirit or aesthetic to much of it, with many of the artists alienated from the (western commercial) art world and many having a diy/hacker/cracker anti-materialist attitude. When people/places started to collect there was a big debate over whether to take sites offline and whether they would still be “internet art,” if they went offline, if they sat on a pedestal, if they were burned to a cd, etc.
The nature of network conditions, artists’ individual attitudes towards them, everyday people’s attitudes towards them in different parts of the world, etc keep changing, even after work is made. And of course works reflect these conditions differently to people with different experiences of network conditions across different times and spaces. Perhaps that’s Relational Aesthetics 101. But I say that as a segue to saying that I brought up “art after the internet” at a moment when Web 2.0 was pretty nascent, in hindsight. And now that the Facebook Like icon is plastered all over food products and restaurant doors I’d dare say its viability as a platform for public art is well-tested but experimentally tepid.
Postinternet Art is not specific to Web 2.0. I think the heyday of Web 2.0 has passed and Postinternet Art persists, but there are some notable shifts worth considering. The term “Web 2.0” is an economic one, and frankly I’ve never been able to say it without feeling dirty. I cut my teeth working to connect the dots between art and technology in the San Francisco bay area during the dot-com era, yet I’ve always felt a cringe of defensiveness when people ask me to talk about the economics of new media. But let’s get real. During that time, the dot-com gold rush funneled an infusion into arts funding in San Francisco and New York, and it dried up in the bust, along with the start-ups and several other speculative enterprises. In the golden years, a handful of artists had a good run of it, despite cries of cliques and nepotism. (Those are always there, everywhere.) There were some key shows, catalogues, biennials… Ironically, if sadly, there were artists who, were they painters or sculptors with the same accolades on their cv’s, would be raking in the dough, but Artforum profiles and Whitney Biennial inclusion parlayed into dust in the wind, post-boomtime.

The hype picked-up again with Web 2.0 excitement and the phantom promise of the content that might pour forth from the fingers of the Superusers of User Generated Culture. Given the memetic nature of media, this became a “too big to fail” self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways. The explosion of social media epitomized by Time magazine naming “You” person of the year in 2008, complete with a mirrorized computer monitor on their magazine cover also gave the art world and those who critique, curate, and theorize its production a moment to reflect on the tools and content behind the curtain, if not to grease the wheels. But I think that a natural cynicism has sunk in just as the novelty phenomenon has reached maximum inflation. We no longer need a moniker for this era, it just is. Think how superfluous and dorky it would sound to say Postweb2.0!

NW: I am also very interested by what you say about the debates surrounding whether or not websites and net art projects should come offline, and be put on a monitor, or on a pedestal or plinth. This was an area I was researching/thinking
about a lot recently, and I fluctuate between being totally unconvinced that it (putting net art into galleries) has any merit at all, and thinking it is an interesting critical experiment to conduct. I saw Jon Rafmanʼs new show at Seventeen gallery the other day, and he had some of the images from his Nine Eyes project, the photographs taken from sessionʼs spent trawling Google Earth. Heʼd printed them on acetate, like negatives, and they were on display on these massive retro slide- viewers. The audience could sit down, like a detective in a retro film, in some library looking at archive images, and by moving the plate around and twiddling the knobs you could get a grainy, but in focus, black and white image on the screen in front of you. Knowing rafmanʼs practice, I am sure there is a level of introspection in the work, and that it is intended to reflect upon this issue, but I am just not sure how well these images function when taken out of context like that. If you were pinned down, what do you think about making net art or works produced online, physical? Perhaps this is a large part of the remit of Postinternet art? this is what a lot of the work I see as Postinternet basically entails.

MO: I think this is the “work” that a lot of art, in various media across various epochs and stylistic genres or periods does. And I think that can be a very good aim–presenting the “real world” through a different lens, different eyes, a slightly different angle, however you want to put it. This has been done in painting, sculpture, drawing, photography, music, literature, poetics, philosophy, theatre, dance, cinema, you name it… I do think that a line often gets drawn between the more mimetic and the less mimetic and that we often expect certain media to be more or less one or the other; particularly in certain social contexts–i.e. when the work is a commissioned “likeness,” or intended to be educational or journalistic, or escapist entertainment, or blue chip Fine Art, and of course we often impose those readings retroactively as well. (Which can be influenced by the absence of the object’s historical subject for later comparison, or by time’s imposed decay.)
Time also seems to impose differing sets of audience expectations of media–which, again, we can only ever understand from our position as readers looking back. It seems to me that so many media, in their nascency as considered-media, were used self- reflexively. Artists and their audiences wanted them to be used in ways that underscored their specific properties and, in whatever self-congratulatory a sense, pointed back to the medium. I find this very evident in the trajectory of film- and lens-based media that pushed toward the screen and up to computer animation and early net art. There we saw so much self-reflexivity as to code, protocol, applications, hacks. I would almost think of it like work happening inside the machine and inside the network. It would be a complete lie to say that there were not works at this time that were manifested in physical space, or that didn’t think outside of this box, but the prevailing ethos was to stay plugged-in and to reflect on the network via some form of network connection.

NW: Yes, so it becomes inherent that net artists and web practitioners produce networks, and their artworks are implicitly interconnected, almost in a performative way – this is what I mean. Given this performative, temporal
elements to lots of net art, ʻgallerisingʼ it, or placing it in a ʻwhite-cubeʼ freezes it, kills it.

MO: I think that is the perspective of some people, but it is not my perspective. And in fact, most of the postinternet work that has gained popular attention is work that has been manifest physically offline (perhaps because it is more saleable and thus more heavily promoted by galleries and feels more familiar and approachable by traditional critics?), but I believe that postinternet art (work “after the internet”) happens online and offline.
In either case, as media evolves, our desire to push their boundaries often evolve with them. Some of this is the result of a produced “need” on the part of manufacturers (cars go fast now, I need to be able to drive faster!), some of it is ennui or wanderlust, and some of it is a realization that there’s more to say and that it can be said in different ways. Color me jaded, I can be skeptical of any kind of “empowerment” discourse, but I maintain that it is always a positive exercise to present the world around us in a new light. Take your example of Rafman; I don’t think that changing the context of an image is a bad thing because I don’t see images as having a fixed before-and-after or one specific, righteous, untouchable place in time or space. Turning something on it’s head can never be a bad thing, and the world will always need artists to do it in whatever media is necessary–or in as many media as possible.

As a professor, I believe that teaching art students to do this–no matter what their future vocation may be–teaches them empathy by teaching them open-mindedness for different perspectives. In fact, for this reason, it breaks my heart when students sometimes confess to me that they fear they are being selfish in learning or choosing to make art instead of doing something “more productive.”
I think that the term postinternet art is admittedly marked–in fact doubly marked–by temporal terms. The post- may make it sound as if it is on borrowed time, ticking into the 11th hour of some experimental phase; and that phase itself, the precedent to which the post- is wed is internet art, a form of practice that most of the mainstream art world really hadn’t had time to wrap its head around before being hit with another wave. (And I say “another,” because postinternet art is not a sign of the death of net art; net art is not dead.) I would hate for postinternet art to be taken as a gimmick by anyone within any station simply because, like so many technological developments of our period, its self reflexive era was more rapid and less transparent.