Articles

Five Problems With Showing Internet Art

by Kyle Chayka on June 15, 2011

Lindsay Howard's Speed Show, installation view

Art Fag City associate editor Will Brand responded to my review of curator Lindsay Howard’s Speed Show Awareness of Everything on Facebook, and the conversation quickly turned to the intricacies and etiquette involved in exhibiting internet art. Here are a few of the issues.

I provide quick answers to these questions based solely on my own opinion. Please feel free to disagree! Loudly! In the comment section!

There are really no cut and dry answers to any of these questions, but I think it is important that we start to ask and talk about them in a larger art world context. Hopefully we can grow the conversation from there. Any other questions about internet art? Add them to the comments, and maybe we’ll make it a series.

1. Do you have to ask permission?

Q: Brand kicked it off by asking curator Lindsay Howard, “did you ask everybody’s permission to put them in this show?” The answer was yes, following the Speed Show’s original format. But do you really have to ask permission to show some people a website? In this case, Howard’s show didn’t really involve any discrete pieces; it was more about the artists’ online oeuvre. So do you have to ask to display work that’s already public?

A: Yes. Plain old manners and etiquette should tell you that it would be nice if you asked an artist’s permission to show their work under your own name, at least in a formal gallery show, in a physical space. Do you have to ask to re-blog? Is re-blogging a form of curating? That’s one for another post.

2. What do you show it on?

Q: Howard’s Speed Show took place in a real-life internet cafe, so the computers that the works were shown on weren’t exactly commercial art gallery quality. They were beat up, old things, largely outdated. Yet these retro (c. 2011) computers gave the show a particularly informal vibe that helped visitors approach art they may have not been familiar with, a vibe that wouldn’t have been there if the works were projected onto a white cube wall. So can a junky computer show internet art?

A: Anything you want. Different formats impact the work on display in different ways, adding formality or informality, divorcing the viewer from the work or bringing them in, creating a shiny complete object or showing a work in progress. It’s up to the curator!

3. Is one screen enough?

Q: Internet art often can’t be boiled down to a single discrete piece of art: there’s no one canvas to point to, no definitive version. In fact, a work will look different on literally every different screen it is shown on. Some projects are distributed across the internet in viral iterations, others exist as YouTube or Vimeo-hosted files. So how do curators create the illusion of a single work to put in a show?

A: It’s complicated. The best curators and exhibitions of internet art will be sure to actively show that versions of a single piece exist outside of the gallery. There’s no illusion of scarcity when what you’re showing is an artist’s Tumblr or a GIF file. It’s possible to do that through exhibition text, catalogue content or simply displaying lots of examples or versions of a piece.

4. Can you check your email?

Q: Just because internet art is sometimes displayed on a computer doesn’t mean you can feel free to check your Gmail. Or does it? Should curators invite viewers to use the computers for activities not originally planned by the artist, or does this interactivity take away from the high-art nature of an exhibition?

A: Only if the curator says you can. Again, this is a curatorial and artistic decision that has no specific answer. The choice to allow interactivity, as Lindsay Howard did in her Speed Show, gives the work an informality that might allow viewers to find it more connectible. Aram Bartholl, the creator of the Speed Show format, states that visitors should be free to use the computers as they will. In the Facebook thread, Nate Hitchcock noted that he friended one of the artists in the show at the same computer their work was shown on. Way to connect with your audience!

5. Do you have to see it in person?

Q: Yeah, internet art exists online, and you can easily see it from the comfort of your own home in your pajamas, while drinking the beverage of your choice. So why bother seeing an exhibition of it in person?

A: There are advantages to a physical space. In a physical gallery setting, it’s much easier for curators to physically juxtapose works, placing them nearer or farther away, collecting pieces in contextual groups, creating a narrative with space. This is more difficult (though quite possible) online. In Howard’s Speed Show, it was nice to be able to compare and contrast the different styles and approaches on view together. Unless you have an enormous monitor, you probably can’t align all of these websites and image files next to each other like a gallery display. There’s also the community factor — physical openings bring artists, writers, curators and fans together to talk, trade ideas and hatch plans. Yeah, you could gchat, but where’s the fun (or plastic glasses of white wine) in that?

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  • http://www.abladeofgrass.org/ A Blade of Grass

    Thanks for reposting this debate!

    One hand Brand seemed to be arguing against artistic control: once something’s up on the internet, artists who need to be consulted before we look simply don’t get the internet.

    But he’s simultaneously arguing for curatorial control–no checking gmail. You’re also deferring to the curator on this point and at least starting to ask a larger question about the relationship between the internet and the act of curation when you bring up re-bloging.

    There are meaty bits here about the very nature of cultural production in an oversaturated media environment. Is it more powerful to make content or to choose content right now?

    • Will Brand

      Exactly. I think curators still have some boundaries: don’t call things ‘art’ that their creator wouldn’t call ‘art’, and don’t display net art which is not served from a server directly or indirectly under the artist’s control. Beyond that, though, all bets are off. 

      Are there issues in display that artists will have opinions on? Absolutely. Different monitors display different colors with different intensity, for instance, and displaying a page on a wall projection would have a different effect than displaying it on an iPhone. If an artist is involved in a show, and has an opinion on these practical issues, they should be accommodated, within reason. The inclusion or exclusion of a work from a show, however, should never be a question: if I can view it at home, if I can view it with a friend, then I see no reason why I shouldn’t be able to show it to all my friends. Next to other art. In a show. 

      As for curatorial control, the issue, as I see it, is one of information generally: there’s too much information, and we need every possible tool (including access to the information itself) if we want to have a hope of making anything from it. In terms of e-mail, I don’t think there’s a single answer here – it’s going to vary from show to show. Given Lindsay’s history of using that internet cafe when she first moved to the neighborhood, I think it’s actually sort of beautiful letting everybody check their e-mail for free. It’s a nice thing. It fits. 

      However, if I as a curator want to express something as strongly as a writer or painter can, I need to be able to dictate the exact nature of my show as precisely as a writer can choose words or a painter can choose colors. Some shows – like Lindsay’s – are open-ended by nature – most of the sites up had dozens of artworks within, provided without direction. That’s fine. That’s a legitimate expression, and asking questions is useful. Eventually, though, we’re going to need to start providing answers, and statements reward exactitude. If a more historical show, or a show which sought to compare specific works, were to allow people to check their e-mail, that would be a mistake. It wouldn’t ruin anything necessarily, but it would weaken its potential as an expressive tool.

  • http://www.abladeofgrass.org/ A Blade of Grass

    Hey Will,

    Interesting. Is the purpose of curatorial activity to express something as strongly and specifically as a writer or a painter can?

    –Deborah

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