Content Overload

The offsetting of bodies and data has only just begun. What role does the art object play in this?

Videonale Festival for Contemporary Video Art 15 Catalogue, 27. Februar 2015

»We have evolved from animations. Those are our ancestors,« explains a fictitious university lecturer with a turquoise bald head and lizard contact lenses to a group of young adults that loll around in equally garish attire in what looks like a talk show studio cum sauna landscape. In the film CENTER JENNY by Los Angeles-based artist Ryan Trecartin (born in 1981) evolution seems to have spun into fast forward: from dinosaurs developed people, from people computer animations ? whose fictitious descendants stick here to the camera lens like YouTube bloggers on cocaine and who continually lose the thread in hysterical personal confessions: »The further we move away from humanity, sexism becomes like THE style.«

Cut. A 3D-animated man sits bare-chested at a bar, whisky glass in hand, reciting bar room wisdoms into the camera while a cigarette burns out in the ashtray. Slippery captions like »Stalked Wed« or »complicity« float across the screen as if blown over from a product presentation, generated by data error. The video installation RIBBONS by London artist Ed Atkins (born in 1982) consists of three screens in three rooms, each arranged slightly differently, on which the same animations run on a loop but in slightly different edits. At regular intervals they synchronise – every time the man hums along to the ERBARME DICH aria from Johann Sebastian Bach’s St Matthew Passion, before his eyes then extinguish and his skin crumples in on itself like a rubber suit.

Bach, of all people! A model work of humanism that would be the first to spring to mind if you had to explain to extraterrestrial ethnographers the designation of mankind from the focused perspective on a transcendental authority – hummed by a computer simulation denied of any physical responsibility, like a spooky satirical tune, a little greeting from the processor’s core.

The names Ryan Trecartin and Ed Atkins regularly come up when the focus is on Post-Internet trends in video art. Their works invite the observer to explore the impact of digital imaging techniques on conceptions of the Human. What happens when avatars from the screens scrutinise us and sing Bach? Or if, like in Trecartin’s immersive installation SITE VISIT (2014) at Kunst-Werke Berlin, they grin out from a camping lounger with the look of a dope head as if they not us were the spectators of a crazy play? Are we not encircled by the post-humanoids from both ends of the short phase of the modern subject, are we not teased by them as they dangle our ripped out roots before us, the foundation myths of humanism ? or better still: our pulled out plugs?

They look like lizards gazing out from the terrarium. But not just that. They look increasingly like lizards gazing into a terrarium.

In September 2014 NASA sent the first 3D printer up to the International Space Station. As handy as a microwave, it promises to make the astronauts more independent from earth deliveries by enabling them to print tools as required – a key step towards the in situ printed space station where it may soon even be possible to cultivate organs.

At the end of 2013, south of Salt Lake City, the Utah Data Center of the National Security Agency (NSA) took up operation. Its server parks are presumed to have a storage capacity of 140 Terabyte per inhabitant which would make it technically possible to permanently store every movement on the Internet in text, image, sound and video to perhaps one day be able to use this against citizens following as yet unknown algorithms under yet-to-be negotiated laws. Meanwhile, the benefits of data storage exceed its costs and data traders like Acxiom categorise Internet users into classes according to their worth for advertising customers. The lowest category is classed as »waste«.[1]

In 2010 the US Supreme Court went one further step in the alignment of the legal status of companies to that of individuals when it gave them the right to fund electoral campaigns citing the freedom of expression certified in the First Amendment.

One percent of the world’s population owns almost half the world’s wealth.[2] And the wealth of the world’s 85 richest people equals what is owned by half the world put together.[3]

You do not need to tend towards political alarmism when you realise that the digitalisation and the concentration of power in private hands is bringing about immense upheaval, both economically and legally. You can regard this coolly as an issue of form: the foundations on which former concepts of the individual and society, of material and information, were based are changing ? with unforeseen circumstances.

This also means a fundamental epistemological change is underway, an incision in the distribution of bodies and symbols; perhaps comparable with the development of central perspective in the Renaissance that coincided with the development of the banking system and the self-governed subject; or the imposition of photography as a window on the world that went hand in hand with industrialisation and modern natural science, but primarily also with the heyday of colonisation.

Central perspective and photography were instrumental in the development of a stable viewer standpoint that reinforced the concept of the autonomous individual that was identical with itself. This viewer’s space is now breaking down. Walls are shifting. The neon tube is becoming a mobile phone. Floors are made of cardboard. The frames tilt towards the observers. The observers are in the screen.

Over the past five years a new motif world has entered contemporary art. Flat aluminum cut out displays featuring animal photos found circulating on the Internet (Katja Novitskova); fetish-charged products from advertising (Timur Si-Qin’s bodywash bottles); industrial components like stage elements and airplane floor strips (Yngve Holen); sculptures made on the 3D printer (Oliver Laric). And every so often the flat screen monitor – carelessly smeared like a corny joke on panel paintings (Ken Okiishi) or lashed up under the ceiling like a new invention of the altar from the stock of an electronics store including generic color sequences and sunsets from stock videos (Michael Manning). The screen here no longer appears as a frame confirming its own place in the world but as a watershed between two world orders that are set off against each other: that of materiality and that of data.

After contemporary art directed its gaze back to the legacy of the modern age in neo-conceptual installations and 16mm projections from the end of the 1990s, these artists now demonstrate a carefree, in part consciously naïve shift towards the present and make fewer art historical references and more references to the smooth aesthetics of technology firms and sports brands. They replace conceptual stringency with the swarm logic of the meme[4] and celebrate the unintentionalities, the transmission errors and the coexistence of the incongruencies in online communication as net art did before them – only they transfer its aesthetics from the non-commercial image blogs into the exhibition space prompting in the past few years the coining of two competing terms: ›New Aesthetic‹ is the more elegant, except that these aesthetics are now no longer new. In the meantime, the term ›Post-Internet Art‹ – coined in 2008 and implicitly referring to a network of artists and gallery owners in Berlin and New York, born around 1980 – was to prevail.

It is understandable that scarcely any artist labelled with the term is happy about it. Yet, the term does not function like early genre descriptions. It cannot be defined via a repertoire of forms like Abstract Expressionism or Minimalism once were. It follows the same swarm logic it describes: like a hashtag on Twitter it links temporarily collective intuitions and then circulates itself as its own reference or quote. Above all else, it describes a contemporary condition: the penetration of all societal processes by digital data and algorithms; and the changing conditions for art production in the wake of the tribalistic image practices seen on social networks.

The overarching subject of this art is circulation. In her video LIQUIDITY INC. (2014) Berlin artist Hito Steyerl (born in 1966) goes through various connotations of the notion of ›Liquidity‹, from sporty adaptability and solvency through to the fluidity of data-based financial trading whose ebbs and flows are subject to similar risk calculations as weather forecasts (which they are increasingly linked to in insurance policies against the consequences of natural disasters[5]). For this Steyerl not only resorts to the weightlessness of computer-generated images that are not subject to any laws of nature; she also dissolves the narrative order of her earlier, video-based films. This is reminiscent of Fredric Jameson’s description of Postmodernism as a sequence of unconnected, pure examples of the present. If only these presents still existed. Instead it feels like you are walking on polystyrene that yields to every step.

Pictures that stepped out beyond their frames were also a feature of Baroque art which, in its way, celebrated overwhelming its audience through technology. Likewise, the tompe-l’œil presenting the impression of a cupola, though none is there, also attests to the fluidity of borders between real and virtual space – the ceiling as a screen. The geometric princely gardens radiating in all directions of those days might today be the server parks of data collectors and the finance industry with its networks of undersea cables. And the castles that staged themselves as the center of the world find their contemporary counterparts in the architectures of the Pentagon and the ring-shaped, new Apple HQ in Cupertino.

In the Baroque the negotiation of new relationships between the inside and out, the periphery and the center, went hand in hand with the exploration of the colonies as a source of raw materials and labor. Today this is joined by a struggle to control data. And the more this is concentrated on a small number of state agencies and oligarchs in Silicon Valley, the more Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz’ vision of a pre-stabilised universe of monads harmonised with each other springs to mind, penetrated by an authority that is itself without bodily form. Leibniz, the pioneer of the calculating machine and binary numeric codes.

It is to their credit that post-Internet artists act at eye level with the latest production media. However, this raises the more important question of whether they also act at eye level with the production ›conditions‹. Hito Steyerl justifies her shift to computer-generated images explaining that only by using technologies of the moment is it possible to capture this moment in its functional logic and also in its dysfunctionalities.[6] For post-Internet artists Steyerl] can be considered the teacher generation. Her journalistic work[7] can be described as a constant effort to provide the tools of emancipatory critique with updates for the altered structures of image circulation. By contrast, post-Internet artists regularly see themselves exposed to the reproach of affirmation. Thus, referring to their work, Susanne von Falkenhausen attests to a similar lack of distance towards their own enthusiasm for technology, as was also characteristic in futurism.[8]

This touches on the central issue of whether and how distance of this kind can be created at all if, as the examples of Facebook or Google News show, the structuring communication formats are increasingly becoming more striking and powerful than the content circulating on them. Most post-Internet artists work on the premise that the classic antagonistic model of critique no longer works. This model was based on the prerequisite of a confident subject counterposing the objects of critique. What now replaces this notion are metaphors of a circulatory cycle that penetrates bodies and of artistic image practices as antidotes that need to be injected into the cycle. An example of attempts of this kind is offered by DIS Magazine[9] that is a platform and inspiration to many post-Internet artists with its features and projects focused around art, design and fashion. Instead of actually inventing new aesthetics, here synthetic commercial imagery is met by strategies of travesty and diversion. Often the question of a border between fine art and popular image practices like Instagram is no longer posed.

However, by abandoning this distinction art is taken into new fundamental contradictions. By acting on the conventional, author-based art market post-Internet artists sit in two camps at the same time: one being the immaterial, swarm-based circulation that transcends subjects and objects that are identical with themselves; and the other being physical production that consolidates the latter. Susanne von Falkenhausen talks of the art object as a stumbling block for circulation and thereby sums up the systemic paradox of post-Internet art:[10] A circulation counting only in moments makes the physically shippable art object superfluous. Yet this same circulation forces artists to produce objects. This contradiction is unresolved and it is also, Falkenhausen explains, unresolvable.[11] The question remains as to how this contradiction can become productive.

Post-Internet artists easily run the risk of being the painters of exotic idylls: they consolidate something that is in constant movement and thus blur vision with their clichés. They export the ›Self‹ into the ›Other‹. While they are testing the new permeability of the borders between the real and virtual, actually they just semi-consolidate these again as they progress. By this means post-Internet seems in part like flotsam that has been flushed back by the data flows to the beaches of the analog world. In actual fact, discussion on liquefaction goes hand in hand with a new questioning of materiality that however leads – often with a hasty reference to new conceptualisations of ›animism‹[12] ? to a naïve trust in the idea that materials and their stories can speak for themselves. Piles of found objects or ones ordered online are furnished with instruction leaflets full of excessive material specifications – in the case of Jason Loebs’ mineral stones placed on shipping boxes, even the relevant mine where they come from is listed: »Ore mineral, optically variable security ink, shipping carton, silver ore (minerals: argentiferous galenite in fluorite, 50 oz silver content per ton of lead = 1,500 g/t ?Pb, mine: Les Trappistes, Sembrancher, Valais)«[13]. Here objet-trouvé strategies from conceptual art are used while, at the same time, their acuity gets lost through pure accumulative logic.[14] For this tendency Jennifer Allen coined the term ›Rococo Conceptualism‹, which could be considered as the contemporary equivalent to Baroque Mannerism: a tautological feedback loop of form refers to none other than just the logic of circulation over and over again. While the art object in its physical form is questioned, a downright hysterical accumulation of physical objects takes place as if it were a question of hauling objects onto an ark to save them from the rising data flow. It sometimes feels like it is a competition about who can assemble the most obscure materials[15] – as if museum halls were morphing into warehouses of mail order firms like Amazon where the most disparate of objects are arranged side by side and only the databases know what is on which shelf. Yet unlike Amazon, here the algorithms appear to be missing to give order to this ›content overload‹ – and, what is more decisive, to bring it into friction with actual upheavals in patterns of perception, experience and objectness.

The key paradigm shifts in art history did not occur merely when new content or media arose but when new formal conflicts occurred with them: Manet’s modern way of seeing or multi-perspectivity in Cubism. However, formal conflicts in post-Internet art are still rare. Many artists seem like App programmers: they arrange new content in existing structures. Yet the question really should be: who will crack the App Store of pre-fabricated forms? Who will develop new code?

This means Ryan Trecartin’s innovation does not lie in transferring popular trash aesthetics into art – already achieved before him by Paul McCarthy or John Waters – but in a singular use of editing. Trecartin’s films are characterised by constant switches: sound and vision come in and out, accelerate, break off, the perspective changes constantly. So every frame is perpetually leveraged as it develops, figures and narrative orders are decentralised and, thus, so is the viewer. The piles of sofas and camping furniture in the installations set up by Trecartin’s work partner Lizzie Fitch look ever more rigid in front of the screen. It seems that these orders or arrangements of the material and information, of material-based capitalism and of data transcending product form, have only just started learning how to talk to each other.

Thanks to Hito Steyerl, Heinrich Dunst, Susanne von Falkenhausen, Amadeo Kraupa-Tuskany and Christopher Kulandran Thomas for key conversations.

1 Byung Chul Han, »›Tut mir leid, aber das sind Tatsachen‹« (I’m sorry but those are the facts), ZEIT WISSEN, 05/2014, http://www.zeit.de/zeit-wissen/2014/05/byung-chul-han-philosophie-neoliberalismus/seite-3 (21/12/2014).

2 Jill Treanor, »Richest 1% of people own nearly half of global wealth, says report. Credit Suisse study shows inequality accelerating, with NGOs saying it shows economic recovery ›skewed towards wealthy‹«, THE GUARDIAN, 14/10/2014, http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/oct/14/richest-1percent-half-global-wealth-credit-suisse-report (21/12/2014).

3 Graeme Wearden, »Oxfam: 85 richest people as wealthy as poorest half of the world. As World Economic Forum starts in Davos, development charity claims growing inequality has been driven by ›power grab‹«, THE GUARDIAN, 20/01/2014, http://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/jan/20/oxfam-85-richest-people-half-of-the-world (21/12/2014).

4 A phenomenon, generally in image or video form, which rapidly attracts collective attention and that thus develops into hype.

5 Razmig Keucheyan: Lukrative Unwetter, Le Monde Diplomatique Nr. 10360, 14. 3. 2014 p. 1, 20-21

6 Kolja Reichert, »History in a Time of Hypercirculation«, roundtable discussion with DIS, Hito Steyerl and Susanne von Falkenhausen. In: SPIKE ART QUARTERLY # 42, December 2014, pp. 40–53.

7 Hito Steyerl, THE WRETCHED OF THE SCREEN, Berlin 2012.

8 Reichert, »History in a Time of Hypercirculation«, p. 48.

9 http://dismagazine.com (22/12/2014).

10 See Susanne von Falkenhausen, »Too Much, Too Fast«. In: FRIEZE D/E # 17, December 2014, p. 81.

11 Reichert, »History in a Time of Hypercirculation«, p. 52.

12 See Irene Albers, Anselm Franke (ed.), ANIMISMUS. REVISION DER MODERNE, Zürich 2012.

13 Susanne Pfeffer (ed.); exhibition booklet to »nature after nature«, documenta and Museum Fridericianum Veranstaltungs-GmbH 2014, p. 17.

14 See Jennifer Allen, »Rococo Conceptualism«, in: MOUSSE # 37, February-March 2013, pp. 106?113.

15 See Kolja Reichert, review of the exhibition »nature after nature«. In: SPIKE ART QUARTERLY # 41, September 2014, pp. 196-197.

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