Lisa Oppenheim, “The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else” (2006) (image from newmuseum.org)

To see the New Museum’s Free exhibition, you’ll have to fork over at least enough dough to make the $12 admission fee. For an exhibition that’s all about the limitless dispersion of culture quickly, easily, and cheaply through the internet, the title presents an unmissable irony. Despite the joke, Free represents a rare chance of looking at the visual and information cultures of the internet in a controlled context rather than in the anarchy of their native habitat. The New Museum is presenting a chance for removal, a step back from the computer screen and onto the wall. Not so much an escape from commodity or currency culture, Free pushes the boundaries of how we look at the flow of cultural artifacts themselves.

The New Museum introduces the show as confronting this new world of online exchange:

Today, culture is more dispersed than ever before. The web has broadened both the quantity and kind of information freely available. It has distributed our collective experience across geographic locations; opened up a new set of creative possibilities; and, coextensively, produced a set of challenges.

Rather than simply documenting the artifacts that have fallen out of internet culture into the mainstream, Free chooses to confront the aftereffects and consequences of our digital freedom. The meaning of Free isn’t literal, and it’s certainly not “free” in the sense of money or resources, rather, Free is about a lack of boundaries and the tendency of data to be free. Lisa Oppenheim’s slideshow projection “The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else” (2006) reaffirms the slippery state of data freedom by appropriating American soldiers’ photos of sunsets in Iraq sourced from Flickr and shooting them in front of real American sunsets. The pieces are emotional commentaries as much as they are conceptual loops, provoking an instant sense of homesickness and nostalgia.

Trevor Paglen, “They Watch the Moon” (2010) (image via newmuseum.org) (click to enlarge)

Oppenheim’s piece may not have a clear political lean, apart from a siding with the troops rather than the cause. But with the freedom of data also comes the freedom of political conflict. Trevor Plagen, another artist included in Free, works with high tech camera equipment and digital surveillance tools to conduct his own surveillance, reflecting online freedoms back onto the government. Martijn Hendricks created his own video from comments left on an online video of the execution of Saddam Hussein. The public nature of these political artistic ingredients comes as a direct result of the “free” medium of the internet.

Lars Laumann, “Helen Keller (and the great purging bonfire of books and unpublished manuscripts illuminating the dark)” (2010) (image via newmuseum.org) (click to enlarge)

There is also the freedom of play. Joel Holmberg asks humorously abstract questions on Yahoo answers, presenting on the relatively mundane website stage issues of selfhood, existence and love. The screen-capture resulting pieces are poignant yet funny. The blank chalkboard of the internet leaves room for infinite possibilities, and like a giant, multi-colored sandbox, artists play with it.

The New York Times’ Karen Rosenberg critiques Free for being a “conversation and an exhibition that aren’t quite on the same page.” I don’t see Free as being quite so close-minded. Sure, there’s an expansive mess that’s covered in the context of the exhibition, but that’s because Free has a lot of “free-s” enclosed within it. It’s not just about being free from money or free from limitations or free from censorship; it is a little of all these things that together form the larger conversation.

Stay tuned for more analysis of the New Museum’s Free later this week. The exhibition runs through January 23rd on the second floor. You can get in to the museum for (no money) free on Thursday evenings, between 7 and 9 pm!

Curated by Lauren Cornell, Free will be at the New Museum (235 Bowery, Manhattan) from October 20, 2010 – January 23, 2011 and it features Liz Deschenes, Aleksandra Domanovic, Lizzie Fitch, Martijn Hendriks, Joel Holmberg, David Horvitz, Lars Laumann, Andrea Longacre-White, Kristin Lucas, Jill Magid, Hanne Mugaas, Takeshi Murata, Rashaad Newsome, Lisa Oppenheim, Trevor Paglen, Seth Price, Jon Rafman, Clunie Reid, Amanda Ross-Ho, Alexandre Singh, Ryan Trecartin & David Karp, and Harm Van Den Dorpel.

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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,...