Remove Justin Bieber from your internet. Slice up subway posters for easy remixing. Mix LEGO, K’nex, and Lincoln Logs in an incestuous scramble of childhood toys. Star in your own guerrilla TED talk. Those are just a brief excerpt of the mischievous things an active viewer can accomplish at Eyebeam’s exhibition F.A.T. Gold, a retrospective of the hacker-internet artist-new media graffiti collective F.A.T. Lab.
The acronym stands for Free Art & Technology, which is as good a tag as any for the cross-platform, multi-media shenanigans of the collective’s 25 members, who range from 4chan creator Christopher “moot” Poole, Buzzfeed co-founder Jonah Peretti, and director of Carnegie Mellon’s STUDIO for Creative Inquiry Golan Levin, to a phalanx of artists like Kyle McDonald, Aram Bartholl, and Evan Roth. They position themselves at the intersection of open source and pop culture, as one infographic on their lens flare and faux-metal effect-covered website announces. They are “dedicated to enriching the public domain one mutha-fuckin LOL at a time,” they write. It might help to think of the gang as the Anonymous of the digital art world, except not so anonymous.
F.A.T. Lab doesn’t create art in the sense of fellow collective Bruce High Quality Foundation, so much as engineer tools and experiences that break down the normal boundaries of our technology-enabled culture. One can’t slot them into an easy designation; it’s better to just describe what the gang has done, as featured in this show curated with a brash sense of fun and play by 319 Scholes curatorial director Lindsay Howard. Kyle McDonald hacked into the computers on display in an Apple store and recorded images of the people looking at them in his piece “People Staring at Computers,” which later caused FBI agents to raid his apartment. Tobias Leingruber created an ID card system dependent not on any government but the identity currency of choice today: our Facebook profiles. Graffiti artist KATSU tagged Eyebeam’s façade with a fire extinguisher, accidentally splashing some of the pigment on Paula Cooper gallery — a perfect example of F.A.T.’s IRL trolling practices.
F.A.T. Lab comes out of an interesting aesthetic moment, when marathon hacking sessions (“hackathons”) which feature artists have not only become common but are approaching cliché, big brands work with artists to create advertising experiences, and the landscape of the internet has edged even closer to becoming a multimedia playground for users of any orientation or skill level. Yet F.A.T. Lab manages to retain its sense of edgy fun and constant surprise simply by not really giving a fuck — they just create, insistently and addictively. They make fun of Google, staging a Street View car in a fake accident in “Fuck Google.” They bring street artists and computer hackers together (again see the infographic) by creating Graffiti Markup Language, a visual lexicon of graffiti strokes. They have no idols and no limits, but they’re also not into showing off (unlike the art world’s traditional enfant terrible types, Dash Snow and Dan Colen).
Part of F.A.T. Lab’s appeal is the fact that they work behind this collective name, a strategy that is more common for artists working in the digital space than, say, painters or sculptors. Anonymity is easier when working online, where the artist can use an avatar. Working in a collective also destabilizes authorship when the works are presented often credit-less on the open internet, leading to a sense that projects are more collaborative and ego-less, with an inherent air of improvisation and cross-pollination. Such is also the case with Computers Club, which includes artists like Nicolas Sassoon and Petra Cortright, creative open-source software creations like openFrameworks, and the endless stream of digital image-making presented by The Jogging. F.A.T. Lab’s popular success presents a hopeful move toward artists becoming active participants in global culture, high and low.
Not that there aren’t downsides to the exhibition. It has to be said that there’s a frat-house sensibility at work in F.A.T. Gold likely due to the fact that crew is majority male, a disparity that especially plagues technology-based art. Addie Wagenknecht and Pablo Garcia’s “Webcam Venus,” in which erotic cam-girls (and guys) are asked to pose mimicking iconic works of classical art, provides a counterpoint — the piece ennobles webcam performance, bringing a critical timelessness to a very contemporary online medium and pointing out the possible exploitation inherent in the Old Master paintings. Though the work here is more critical than many flashy new media projects, at times the art also doesn’t go very deep. Posing in your own fake TED talk in Roth’s “Pirate TED” is viral and funny, sure, but it’s a one-liner.
Yet the careening creativity and play of F.A.T. Gold makes it an unqualified breath of fresh air in an insular art world. It’s no coincidence that the Lab was also founded at Eyebeam — the space provides a rare, fertile ground for experimentation and the collision of media and personalities. Venues like Eyebeam and groups like F.A.T. Lab, content to remain outside of the constant debilitating debates over auction prices, commercial gallery expansions, and micro-celebrity personality clashes, keep hope alive in art’s ability to impact the world at large.
F.A.T. Gold runs at Eyebeam (540 West 12st Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 20.