“Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today” at ICA Boston
Eva Respini and Isabella Zamboni in conversation.
The first email was sent from a computer engineer, to himself, in Cambridge in 1971, and Facebook was invented at Harvard University in the early 2000s: Boston is the birthplace of experiments that have structurally changed the way we live in the world. In celebration of the innovation of the region, home to world-class universities and high-tech companies, fourteen art and education institutions are offering exhibitions and events exploring the relationship between art and technology. ICA has organized the lead show, with the aim of taking stock of the parabola that binds art to the internet, a sort of inevitable evolutionary threshold that has nevertheless recently attracted criticism, considering the misfortune of the term “post-internet” art, or the debates around the 9th Berlin Biennale. Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today presents seventy works, from painting to performance to virtual reality, by an international, intergenerational group of sixty artists. In the following interview, co-curator Eva Respini speaks about the curatorial research process; the shift from utopian to dystopian art scenarios; the problematics of defining “digitally informed” art; the non-neutral configuration of the exhibition space; and what it means to have a body today.
Isabella Zamboni: Tracing an overview of art in the age of the internet appears to be a complex endeavor, bringing together an immense variety of cultural experiences and connotations. Can you explain your selection process in terms of the artists, and the development of the five chapters?
Eva Respini: The research process began three years ago, but I actually began thinking about this exhibition long before that. When I came to Boston about two and a half years ago I realized it would be a great context for such a presentation because Boston has a robust history of technology that’s had cultural impact: the first email was sent from here; Facebook was founded in Cambridge; Ted Talks was developed here. Many things now part of our cultural landscape have roots in Boston. So it was a show that began with a site specificity to the context of this city. The selection of artists and the thematic chapters came from artworks I’ve been seeing in recent years, beyond just the time that I’ve specifically been working on the show. I’ve been thinking, who are the artists responding to the big questions of our era? Questions about how images and information circulate today, about privacy and surveillance, about how we perform our online identities and how that relates to our real-life personas. There were certain artists who from the very beginning became anchors to help me understand these issues through their unique lenses and who also, to me, changed the conversation: Hito Steyerl, Camille Henrot, Nam June Paik, Lynn Hershman Leeson, Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch, among others. The selection began to mold around these works and the thematic sections arose from there—namely, larger questions that the artists were addressing, whether they were using technology or not, from different decades, different global contexts. It was important to me that the thematic chapters involve open-ended questions and a variety of methodologies and viewpoints. There is no one single answer, of course, to these complex issues.
IZ: There seems to be a shift between the first artistic experiences related to the internet, in which it’s envisioned as a utopian place of freedom, and the most recent tendencies, which increasingly involve dystopian scenarios. The turn is probably analogous to the internet’s own trajectory: from the potential of an unconstrained hypertext to a highly controlled system run by large corporations, dependent on market-driven algorithms, with only an illusion of openness and self-ruling choices. Is this shift somehow perceivable in the show?
ER: I absolutely agree. I wouldn’t say the show is exactly about a binary of utopian-dystopian, but it does present very different impulses in this respect. Our first room lays out this argument. There is Internet Dream from 1994 by Nam June Paik, the artist who coined the term “electronic superhighway” and whose work really responds to the democratic ideal of the internet, the promise with which it was invented in the 1960s, of reaching across geographies, speaking regardless of language, information shared freely between institutions and people. Alongside that work in the same room is The Way Black Machine by the collective HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? from 2014, an algorithmic piece that responds to various hashtags circulating online, specifically after the murder of an African American man at the hands of a police officer in Ferguson. Employing the hashtag #Ferguson is one of the ways they’re pulling images mainly from social media platforms. This work speaks very much of the reality of how images and information circulate today, in a post-truth moment, how we now live in bubbles where information is very tightly controlled by algorithms that govern the images and information available to us. In organizing this exhibition, several things happened that allowed us to sharpen this argument: Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, “post-truth” becoming the word of the year 2016, and now the latest conversations about net neutrality. What I see is that more and more artists are responding with a sense of foreboding.
IZ: Considering the increasingly structural nature of the digital in our modes of life and our understanding of relations, visuality, politics, economy—hence art—do you think we can still talk specifically about a “digitally informed” art? The internet is “dead” because it’s all over, as Hito Steyerl famously wrote. Geert Lovink affirms that “tomorrow’s challenge will not be the omnipresence of the internet, but its invisibility.”
ER: I don’t think we can, in fact. For me the show is discussing the matter of fact that the digital is a set of social relationships, a social construct that profoundly changed who we are. That change can be seen, yes, in video works; yes, in the practice of artists like Hito Steyerl who are actively thinking about how the circulation of data online has affected us. But this profound change can also be seen in painting, in figures like Laura Owens or Albert Oehlen, who incorporate digital mark making and ideas of digital imprint, and their impacts on life, into the analog medium of painting. I don’t think we can speak of a singular output of artistic production, and it will increasingly be harder to do so. I think the multiplicity of the works on view points to this.
IZ: I was thinking that in the not-so-near future, probably it won’t be possible to make a show with this title.
ER: Yes, probably! [laughs]
IZ: Art explicitly engaging with the digital realm has recently come under a diffuse attack. Consider for example the misfortune that the term “post-internet” art experienced, due to its semantic vagueness and brutal appropriation by the art market, or the 9th Berlin Biennale, regarded by many as in dangerous complicity with the market and the last act of an art chapter. Will this problematic connotation be somehow addressed in the exhibition?
ER: It will be addressed in the book. I don’t use the term “post-internet” in the exhibition context because I think it’s problematic and confusing for the reasons you just outlined. But we do unpack it to a certain extent in the book. There are fifteen contributors to the volume—different voices, different generations of scholars, also artists. The scholarly frame is the right space to discuss this problem, which I explicitly asked to some authors to tackle, like Omar Kholeif, who writes about the language frames with which we talk about the phenomenon.
IZ: Boris Groys recently stated that “the standard white cube is a thing of the past.” Do you agree that the curator has to find a non-neutral configuration of the exhibition space, specific for each art presentation? How is the display conceived in your upcoming show?
ER: In my shows the display is very carefully considered, usually specifically conceived for each project. The galleries of the ICA are architecturally in the tradition of the white cube, but this exhibition also spills out into other, interstitial spaces of the museum. We have a virtual reality piece by Jon Rafman that is sited in a non-gallery space overlooking Boston Harbor. We present works in our MediaTech, usually just an educational space, and there’s an online component that we developed with some special art projects. We’ve considered different expressions and platforms, but fundamentally the core of the show is within the gallery setting of this museum, where each presentation of a work was discussed in depth with the artist, especially some of the video works that require a more custom-built space.
IZ: I am curious to hear about the thematic chapter “Hybrid Bodies.”
ER: That section is asking what it means to be human today, what is the impact of digital technologies not only on our physical bodies but on how we understand the physical body. As a central anchor there is a large work by Judith Barry from the early 1990s, Imagination, dead imagine, a large minimalist cube encasing a giant head, where viscous materials are poured into it—things that look like blood, organic materials of different sorts, then swiped clean, white clean. It was made at the height of the AIDS crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s and was a response to how we understood bodies then as under attack by a virus. Now, in our current context, the expression “going viral” is something we use all the time. The piece, to me, feels absolutely of our moment, even if it originated in response to AIDS. Also in that section we have a number of other artists associated with the so-called posthuman discourse: Josh Kline, Anicka Yi, a new piece by Sondra Perry, an impressive piece by Kate Cooper, Pamela Rosenkranz, Lee Bul, Mariko Mori. Artists of different generations who have been thinking about the cyborg in their work.
at ICA Boston
until 20 May 2018