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I’m sure everyone reading this blog has had the same brain-fart online experience: someone sends you a link, you catch something on Twitter, you open a recommendation from a friend, but as soon as it pops in to a new tab in your browser, you forget about it. It’s not that the new thing isn’t interesting, or that you don’t mean to open it, you just get distracted. Twenty minutes and an email/Twitter/Facebook update later, the tab catches your eye catches and you click into it. Often, I find that I have no idea how I found the thing I’m opening, where it came from, or what it is. This built-in web browser surprise creates an interesting context (or lack there of) for online content, particularly for images.

Part of the experience of surfing the web is a kind of serendipity that follows the meandering path between one link and the next. Jumping between an art blog and an artist’s site is the result of a meaningful connection between the sites and the internet’s omnipresent web of hyperlinks. You might be surprised to suddenly encounter a new gallery show announcement or photos of a well-designed home in your travels, but it’s a pleasant surprise, a web encounter not unlike coming across an unusual rock during a stroll in the woods.

Joy Garnett, “Fence” (2007) (Courtesy Winkleman Gallery)

But what happens when all context is ripped away from an image online? After putting my computer to bed one night, I opened it the next morning to find this photo of a strange, delft-infected, too-perfect kitchen shot. My browser cut off the information on top of and below the image, so all I saw was this singular visage that for all I knew was a Jeff Koons kitsch sculpture. The image packs a far different punch when you don’t immediately grasp that it’s part of a toothless, luxury home slideshow. Without it’s New York Times background, the photo becomes somehow nastier, more cynical, more baroque: all in all, better and more interesting. When we can’t see the source of an image, that circumstances that it was created in, the image becomes more of a free association that allows a more immediate emotional rather than intellectual reaction. Kind of like going to a museum without the aid of a guide, labels or even an exhibition name.

Some websites take advantage of the atomization of data online and the availability of single images, employing this de-contextualizing web browser surprise to their own advantage, some for the sake of art, others for the sake of efficiency. 4Chan is probably the best-known; the site is essentially a forum for images where context is not only removed from pictures, but from users as well. Anonymous posters post anonymous pictures that are all the more visually and mentally shocking for their lack of background. Because images are so easily copied, it no long matters where the picture comes from; the context you see it in and the connotations the image itself brings up are the only factors that influence interpretation.

Blue Cauldron, part of a .gif file posted on by user Guest

A good demonstration of this idea of internet atomization of content and context are the paintings of Joy Garnett. The artist finds news and current events photographs online, archives them until they lose the attachment of their previous contexts, and then paints the pictures onto canvas, transposing a worked-up, aestheticized surface to images whose meaning has been lost. Joy has also been tweeting the sources of her images, exposing a little bit of their origins as well.

The blank slate of the internet can also be used to re-frame found internet artifacts as art. Spirit Surfers, a significant web-surfing club, uses a plain, white, reverse-chronological blog to archive their works. Constituted of digital mashups and the detritus of wandering on the internet, random GIFs are jerked from one context, their source, and re-created as pieces of art in the “white cube” space of the Spirit Surfers blog “Monastery.” Nasty Nets, a fellow surf club, also presents its found objects in a similarly lo-fi, minimalist gallery space.

So the next time you have 20 tabs open and aren’t sure what they contain, savor the surprise. The internet is a unique place to view pictures simply because it allows us to experience the same stuff in a new way, re-contextualizing and de-contextualizing in one fell swoop. The browser window turns the familiar into the undiscovered.

Kyle Chayka

Kyle Chayka was senior editor at Hyperallergic. He is a cultural critic based in Brooklyn and has contributed to publications including ARTINFO, ARTnews, Modern Painters, LA Weekly,...