Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of commissioned essays for The World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium on Saturday, March 9, 2013.
I created my first internet artwork in 1993. At the time I was trying to have my work shown by various galleries but without success. The piece was titled “BKPC” (1993), or “Barbie and Ken Politically Correct.” It was a series of 12 photo-vignettes that told a story. This was before the World Wide Web and browsers. Most people accessed the internet via 1440 baud dial-up modems. I was a member of a computer BBS (bulletin board service), called thing bbs, which consisted mostly of text forums, although you could upload low-res GIFs that other members could download. I decided to present my artwork, one image a week with a short blurb, on the BBS.
One day I was visiting T’Z Art Gallery in Soho (one of many I was courting), and I found myself chatting with the dealer, Thomas Zollner. He was called away to take a private telephone call, and as I sat in his office I glanced over at his computer and was surprised. There on his screen were my “BKPC” images. He was using them as a rotating screen saver. I found this to be quite revealing. Although my work wouldn’t move through the standard gallery system, it did circulate on the internet. Zollner had responded to the aesthetics of the piece, not the physical object and its market potential. My art was being exhibited in a gallery, but in an ambient, aesthetic manner.
The next year, the internet’s first popular web browser was released, and everyone started building websites. I took “BKPC” and made a client pull animation that presented one image at a time, a sort of slo-mo slideshow.
The structure of the two different versions of the “BKPC” works are early examples of how 2D images were and, in some ways, still are presented on the internet. They also signal a shift away from traditional art and publishing models of presentation. In the first, an alternate system for image transfer was set up through the thing bbs. There was no art object carrying the aesthetic information. The second presentation was a shift away from publishing in the form of net art. “BKPC” still exists; you can view it online at thing.net.
This begins to chart a path for new media art that follows the idea of “versioning” in software in the computer industry, with its constant cycle of upgrade. In this context, a new media artwork doesn’t really have a fixed form that is tied to a specific tool or medium. It does refer to earlier practices of process and conceptual art from the 1970s; the Guggenheim Museum is trying to organize a historical framework for this, called “Variable Media.” In fact, the nature of new media art is that it tends to be a deconstructed series of events spread out over the course of any project or an artist’s lifetime. This type of art is more a kin to a form of aesthetic research, which derives its meaning within the information sphere of established global networks. This is actually a move beyond postmodernism that doesn’t really have a term attached to it.
With these new publishing models and the development of art and images on the internet comes the problematic issue of copyright. An image or a link can be used anywhere on the web. The idea of ownership is antithetical to the internet. In fact, sharing images is one of the more interesting aspects of the internet. There has been a discussion about the whole notion of gatekeepers and aesthetic filters that has put the high-art curators in an odd position. They have insisted that they (and by extension, the whole art gallery/museum system) are the only true arbiters of quality. This is actually an interesting discussion. Artists are the ones who create the initial aesthetic products; they define what art is at any moment in time. The gatekeepers, on the other hand, simply verify that the work is of good quality. Of course, this is a simplification of the idea of curating, but it’s interesting to note that the recent past has had artists acting as curators and conversely curators who consider their projects to be art. On the internet, you might look at content conglomerators as curators with various degrees of aesthetic filtering, from un-curated to narrowly focused.
Speaking of gatekeepers, there is a parallel system occurring on the web, with artist-run websites and more recently blogs and blogazines. The earliest examples in New York were the thing, ArtNetWeb, and Rhizome. These started either as a BBS or listservs and transitioned into websites, finally becoming blogs. These all have a sort of hybrid model that is part group dynamics and part publication. Interestingly enough, the blogazine Hyperallegic is continuing in this tradition but has also added a community-centered aspect through their tumblelog, which evokes the earlier artists’ websites I am familiar with. It must be noted that the earlier artists’ sites all used custom software to create a blog-like environment. Since this earlier phase, the invention of database-driven publishing platforms with RSS capabilities (Drupal, Joomla, WordPress, etc.) has greatly simplified the process of web publication. Indeed, the idea of republishing articles from one site to another via RSS feeds has become standard practice in web publishing, as you can see by its integration on YouTube, Facebook, Tumblr, and other social media services. Eyebeam, a new media art center in New York, has even released a software called reBlog that automatically posts blog articles on your own website via feeds that you select and customize. This highlights the problem of maintaining copyrighted materials on the Internet.
This also points to several new aesthetic systems within the internet and its information space. One is the idea of the Semantic Web; another is the search function for both image and text (metadata); and the third is a sort of curating or sampling of items on the web to create a particular aesthetic position within a website, sometimes called content conglomeration. You can present images, sound, text, video, etc. produced by others on your website, blog, or Tumblr page. It’s all tied to the notion of tagging (metadata), which is used to enhance a search engine’s ability to index and find your content. Along with search engines comes the possibility of an artist curating an aesthetic experience. This is reflected in playlists in music or sampling songs to create new ones, and it comes from the notion of collage and montage as a way to create a new aesthetic, part of both the Surrealists’ and Dadaists’ strategies for making art. This idea of curating web content can be traced back to the first internet art exhibition by ArtNetWeb at the MIT List Visual Arts Center in 1997.
More recently, in 2011, New York art collective Artists Meeting used a custom-designed content conglomerator called you3B.com to put on a series of YouTube parties at Postmasters Gallery in New York, as well as separate events in the UK and Germany. An Eyebeam project conceived by Jeff Crouse, designed and coded by Andrew Mahon, and produced by both, You3b is a tool that allows users to make triptychs out of YouTube videos. What’s interesting about this is the de-authoring of content. This is a strategy that YouTube, among other web companies, has championed. You own the content, but the videos are a part of the overall social media environment. Lawyer Daliah Saper explains:
… YouTube always allows the owners to retain ownership of their work. But what they require in their terms of service is that you grant to YouTube a non-exclusive, worldwide, perpetual license to freely sub-license, re-distribute, re-publish, monetize, and whatever they may want to do with your video. They’re basically requiring that you grant YouTube all of the same rights that you have with your video, short of turning over your rights to them.
In other words, the curator or conglomerator shares the same rights as the author.
You3B plays with that online reality by “repurposing” YouTube. Artists Meeting escalated the process by curating you3B videos and presenting them in an art gallery. The group was following the notion first posited by Marshall McLuhan that “Art is anything you can get away with.” In this situation, aesthetic choices become a web version of the objet trouvé (found object), a strategy first presented by Marcel Duchamp with his readymades, which are found objects recontextualized as art, and later enlarged upon by Sherrie Levine’s rephotographing of Walker Evans photos, which are photographs of photographs of people.
Indeed, in a parallel occurrence in the contemporary art museum world, found footage has been used in many recent installations, the most famous example being Christian Marclay’s “The Clock” (2010), which could not have been possible until the advent of search engines and digital editing techniques. I don’t know if Marclay used a search engine, but the organization of a vast matrix of information highlights the importance of being able to access and organize a massive database. In any case, the notion of intrinsic value for any particular artwork has been questioned, and the idea of extrinsic value, or fair use of copyrighted material, has been deemed the new aesthetic norm, even if the legal conditions surrounding that new reality are still in flux. What we are asked to do is look through the artist’s eyes as they choose or curate these existing materials, essentially giving them new meanings. During the first half of the 20th century, the Austrian-British philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein investigated the primacy of language in organizing thought and meaning. His famous maxims still hold true and seem appropriate for this discussion: “The meaning of a word is its meaning” and “The meaning of a word is its use.” Around the same time that Wittgenstein was investigating language, the Surrealists were formulating their own ideas about art. They believed that all art springs from the subconscious, and they experimented with automatic writing, recognizing that ideas can be recombined to create new meanings as if in a dream.
Now, looking at the World Wide Web, we can begin to define some parameters. We can say that the web has a linguistic structure, which is part of its linking and search functions. We can also say that this linguistic structure can produce different meanings depending upon how the content is organized and presented. In fact, we are dealing with something close to the idea of a collective unconscious, which was first proposed by Swiss psychotherapist Carl Jung. Within this collective unconscious are symbols called archetypes. We can thus propose that archetypes are often presented within the content of the web to convey meaning. Furthermore, much of this communication is based on the idea of a meme, which is a copied or duplicated behavior or image.
We can now look at the way files (text, image, video, sound) on the web have two or maybe three different values. One is the intrinsic value of the artwork. That is the original meaning and intention of the work — the meaning of a word is its meaning. A second is the extrinsic value of the artwork (the meaning of the word is its use). We can also say that there is a collective unconscious (memory) that has been created with the World Wide Web, which many view as a new form of global consciousness. Here’s a good link that drills down a little deeper into the subject.
Plumbing the Depths
Tumblr operates within the parameters I have laid out. It is a content conglomerator that allows the user to curate an aesthetic experience, begging the question, “What experience is one trying to convey?” As examples, I would like to highlight two ambient image projects from two different artists, Maria Joao Salema and Raphaele Shirley. Both artists have a certain classical methodology when assembling their artistic vocabulary. Theirs is a tradition that is rooted in the Surrealists’ idea that art springs from the subconscious.
In the past, especially during the time of Abstract Expressionism, artists would keep what they called a morgue. This was generally a folder with images torn from magazines that the artist found intriguing or inspiring. In the process of constructing a painting, the artist would often go to the morgue and pull out images that suggested ways to compose the painting. This might be a direct representation or an archetype or a trigger for an emotion. Both Salema and Shirley use this technique. Salema is more of a painter, and Shirley, more of a sculptor. I use these terms loosely, as simply a starting point of interests. Both artists have been curating images that appear on their tumblelogs, and I encounter their feeds on my Facebook newsfeed — the point is that I get prompts that they are adding images in real time. They are essentially sending me messages about their internal aesthetic state of consciousness at any given time. It’s what they are seeing, what they are thinking about, and it’s artist-to-artist communication. They are reblogging images that appear on Tumblr and also organizing their own Tumblr pages — an ongoing linguistic pursuit that has become part of my information topology. What is apparent is that each artist’s unique vision and their “soul” is being communicated just as it would in a more classical artwork, but in this case, they’re also part of an overall information stream that’s always there and ongoing.
Salema tends to find classic black-and-white stills — this triggers a tradition that feeds us both or informs our aesthetic development, but it’s very subtle, and the meaning is subconsciously activated. I find that, often, what’s most interesting is not what we are concentrating on but rather what is at the periphery of our vision or thought. Salema also finds specific feminine archetypes that I assume she is responding to. She presents these as well. Interestingly enough, an earnest feminist began to critique her use of the black-and-white nudes as being sexist, not really understanding what Salema was up to. Rather than sexist, I find Salema’s project to be a grounding and celebration of her womanhood. I also find it to be very conceptually advanced.
Shirley, on the other hand, views the world as filled with interesting phenomena and structures. She conveys a sense of wonder at discovery. I find her image stream, as well as Salema’s, to be similar to an artist’s sketchbook, or perhaps the building up of a series of thematic motifs that can be used in an artwork; however, the collection of images is, in fact, the artwork. But what type of artwork is it? This begins to suggest some of the more advanced ideas of new media art and network art. The artwork is ongoing. There’s a uniform sense or point of view because of the choices, but the ideas and processes are constantly changing and flowing. One may dip into this image stream at any point and come out with an aesthetic sense, but what that is depends on when you access the information and where in the image stream you happen to engage.
This gets at the larger notion of media that function on a system of linkages. In Shirley’s work, I find an affinity to earlier conceptual art projects that use the photograph as the site of the artwork. In other words, the initial meaning of any image is altered by its use in her project and becomes part of a continuing aesthetic discourse. Meaning is fungible. The site of meaning is both physical and virtual. Indeed, part of what is occurring is that artists in the 21st century are comfortable with the overlap of these worlds. Both Salema and Shirley are operating on a very high plane of aesthetic communication, using the latest internet technologies to bring out and explain sensations and structures embedded in their subconscious in much the same way that the Surrealists did.
When I did “BKPC” in 1993, one of my friends remarked that Laurie Simmons (of the Pictures Generation) was known for photographing dolls and that my piece would be viewed as derivative of her work. I found that comment very revealing in its inability to view the work on its own terms and in the context of networked art. It was as if my friend thought I was going to embark on a career of photographing dolls as my signature style, to plug into the art as commodity system. I was, in fact, mixing old media iconography with new media delivery methods. If anything, the work had an anti-commodification message.
Of course, on the internet today there’s a push for commodification, where delivery of users equates to advertising dollars. What’s interesting, too, is that social media sites are also involved in “versioning” — trying to upgrade the communication structures of any blog or social media site to grab users. Tumblr, for example, is a more aesthetic blog with more creative tools than you can get with Facebook. That is what attracts artists to it. But there is something else going on with Tumblr that clarifies and focuses the creative impulses in them. Artists are using it as a web-centric sketch pad and communication tool. This is a new sort of ambient aesthetic discussion that is totally personal and global at the same time.
Hyperallergic would like to thank Pernod Absinthe for their support of the World’s First Tumblr Art Symposium essay series.