What Is Internet Art Actually Doing? On Omar Kholeif’s “Internet_Art”

By Cal Revely-CalderNovember 11, 2023

What Is Internet Art Actually Doing? On Omar Kholeif’s “Internet_Art”
TWENTY YEARS AGO, historian Julian Stallabrass wrote that “the average life of a web page is only 75 days.” By 2021, according to Forbes, the figure had increased to two years and seven months. That’s 12 times longer, but still not long. More time has elapsed since the riot at the US Capitol. The internet was born to be transient. Our lives dissolve into 404s. Your teenage GeoCities page is defunct; type “kazaa.com” and you’ll draw a blank. I remember the mania for Bebo, before Facebook engulfed the world; it peaked at 40 million users, some of whom, in 2008, put their messages and photos in a digital time capsule, and sent it from a Ukrainian radio-array to the planet Gliese 581c. It should arrive six years from now. Bebo has long since evanesced.

As a genre, internet art is as old as the web. With its digital protocols, riddled with wefts and holes, the art was built for—and on—ephemerality. Its genre moniker “net.art” is often said to have appeared by chance when, in December 1995, the Yugoslav artist Vuk Ćosić received an email glitched into nonsense, except for one legible, and magically apposite, phrase. That story isn’t true. Ćosić’s peer Pit Schultz, in reality, proposed the .art suffix as a brand: a 1996 summit of early net.artists, held in Trieste, Italy, was titled “net.art per se.” Net artists were already—self-consciously and ironically—assembling themselves into a tribe. Eight percent of all websites were, at that point, artist-made, according to curator Jon Ippolito’s calculations of the previous year. The gang moved fast, and devotedly: “I saw the web for the first time,” Ćosić later recalled, “and dropped everything I was doing. I remember surfing for 18 hours for days […] I believe I have clicked through the entire Yahoo! directory.”

At first, the substance of Web 1.0—static HTML pages—was an obsession in itself. The artist Olia Lialina called it “net.language,” a new idiom for new creative work. Most printed novels, in the West, lead our eyes from top to bottom, left to right. Hyperlinking changed this. In Lialina’s browser-based work My Boyfriend Came Back from the War (1996), a tale of a reunited couple displayed on a single screen, neither the story nor your experience of it is linear. Each of the work’s hyperlinked elements sits in a separate frame. You click on a grainy image, and it’s replaced by a snatch of dialogue—“I keep your photo here;” “Please, look at me.” As you pursue each path, you divide the screen into smaller boxes, scouring the clutter for one more clickable element.

The pioneering net.artists were enthusiasts, but that didn’t make them starry-eyed. Many of them feared that the web’s complexity would favor corporate, not popular, power, and so they sought to anatomize and expose the medium. Take the group named Jodi, comprised of Joan Heemskerk and Dirk Paesmans, and their best-known website, wwwwwwwww.jodi.org (1995). Type in the address, and you arrive on a page of numbers and symbols in bright green, spreading below the visible field. It seems to offer a pointlessly complex door to the site: click wherever you like, it’s all one link. But if you look at the page’s source code, you’ll see it resembles the schema of a nuclear bomb. Net.language, Jodi implied, will end up like any other: its subtexts will be hidden, interpreted best by those in the know.

Others began to harness the web as a tool for activist work. Josh On’s They Rule (2001– ), a data-visualization project, shows how Fortune 100 companies—total profits last year: $1.8 trillion—aren’t siloed, but interlinked. It displays an endless spidergram chain, made of lines of affiliation between the names of those in charge. Click on a bubble, representing a boardroom, and its members pop out at the edge; click on someone who sits elsewhere as well, and another board will emerge, with its members fanning out, and so on. The technology hasn’t degraded, nor has the economy been transformed, and so, two decades later, I can find out that if Glenn Tilton doesn’t meet Robert Alpern on the board of AbbVie, he’ll see him at Abbott Laboratories, after which he can mention him to Gregory Hayes and Denise Ramos at Phillips 66, unless that pair are busy at Raytheon. You probably don’t know who these people are, which suits the order of things: they, and their vast resources, work together invisibly.

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Some institutions and artists helped to catalyze the field. In 1997, the international exhibition documenta featured internet art for the first time. A year later, the Guggenheim commissioned its first digital artwork (Shu Lea Cheang’s superb nonlinear narrative Brandon), and at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the show Beyond Interface gave the genre a public boost. Tate began commissioning digital artwork in 1999, and in 2001 it showed some in its London galleries. In 2000, internet art was included in the Whitney Biennial; a year later, Ćosić went to Venice as Slovenia’s representative. The internet wasn’t, at that point, ubiquitous in Western life. MySpace didn’t yet exist, let alone Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter; the iPhone wouldn’t be invented until 2007.

When Web 2.0 arrived, it brought the churn of social media. In their thousands and then millions, people fed their identities into systems that refracted the offline world through the proverbial glass. Artists once again saw the risks before most of us. Back in 1999, in her live work I Only Have My Name (1999), part of a superproject called Being Human (1997–2007), Annie Abrahams entered an IRC chat room with three other users who took her name (becoming “anniea,” “annieb,” “anniec,” and “annied”); they let Trondheim gallerygoers join the chat, and gave them 15 minutes to figure out which “annie” was Abrahams. But soon the conversation grew hectic, sexual, and weird; one user, “jaceee,” became “annieg” then “lucifer” then “annief.” Abrahams worried that the experiment suggested that the web was epistemological poison: “It would be dangerous,” she later wrote, “for me to continue this ‘play’ (in fact it would mean making a concept of myself).”

That’s exactly what we’ve done. As Natasha Stagg has put it: “[E]very person becomes an avatar in the mind once our main interactions with them are via social media feeds.” We loaned our souls to Facebook and Twitter, and we consigned knowledge, or its archive, to Google. The latter appeared in 1998, and has been the world’s most visited website, almost continuously, for the past 13 years. A number of projects have shown the sinister side of its gigantic data reserves. Charles Broskoski’s web page Directions to Last Visitor (2011) delivered to “you,” in a Google Maps box, just what the title said: directions from you, the user, to the page’s previous visitor. A human being, solitary and nameless, was represented as a pin on a map—a destination, but to what end? On his web page Location of I, Martin John Callanan used Google Earth to take the premise to an extreme: “Every minute of each day since the beginning of 2007 to July 2009, my exact physical location was published and archived online.” Such data now exists about me, and almost certainly you. It has become frightening and banal. In his post-internet project Map (2006–19), Aram Bartholl took the search engine’s power and made it gawkily manifest. He painted the Maps “location” pin on a hefty piece of wood, and then installed it in cities from Arles, France, to Taipei, Taiwan, at the point defined by Google as the “center” of town. Behold, an unspoken model that now governs all of us, all at once.

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Fast-forward to 2023. A genre that began with arrangements of graphics and text has become a formal kaleidoscope, its types ranging from “browser” to “new media,” and the rather woolly “post-internet.” These terms, as with literary theory, cease to be useful beyond a point. Just as it’s hard to disentangle “internet art” from “post-”—immersion, then remove—it’s now difficult to imagine what “non-internet art” would be. Maybe Frank Auerbach, aged 92, still painting the streets of Camden Town? For the rest of us, the world pulls us seamlessly through a screen.

The curator Omar Kholeif, then, is right not to limit their new book, Internet_Art, in saying that its titular genre “isn’t necessarily art for the computer or even art about the computer […] it is art that is produced with a knowing awareness of the networked nature of our collective culture.” Kholeif has worked since 2009 at institutions from the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago to London’s Whitechapel Gallery; in 2016, at the latter, they curated Electronic Superhighway (2016–1966), a landmark exhibition of digital art. Their book aims to offer a “selective survey” and “social history” from the 1980s to today. But it leans harder on memoir, and as such, it speaks to those nostalgic for the internet’s early days. Kholeif’s many anecdotes contain a few undeniable charms. The first computer owned by their family, for instance, was “a second-hand cream-coloured clamshell […] spewing cranking noises.” You may recall your own dial-up modem, its lovable vanished screech. Good, because “remembering things as they were ‘felt,’” Kholeif argues, “is part of the very nature of the hyperlinked mind.”

I agree. The most gorgeous internet art offers us pictures of time preserved, whether peachy or strange or sad. Consider Rafaël Rozendaal’s website Vai Avanti (2006), in which, per the title, you “go ahead,” drifting across endless bright-hued hills, which roll beneath a hot-pink sky. Hypnotic and rudimentary, it resembles nothing so much as a screensaver, a form that engrosses Rozendaal: he curated a 2017 exhibition about them, Sleep Mode, at the Nieuwe Instituut in Rotterdam. Screensavers, once ubiquitous, became obsolete when we swapped the cathode-ray display—into which a picture left in static mode could burn a “ghost image”—for the LCD screen on which you’re likely reading this. The shift occurred in the late 2000s, so if you’re older than Gen Z, you’ll recognize those dreamy video clips, which remain some of the most widely disseminated art in history. Take 3D Maze, bundled with Windows 95 and 98 in hundreds of millions of homes. You slid automatically through a labyrinth, moving along at a constant speed. (While it mimicked a game, it wasn’t playable.) Occasionally, you hit a gray polyhedron and were rotated onto the roof, or, more creepily, you collided with a 2D rat, also traversing the maze. Though few of us have beheld 3D Maze in the last 20 years, there are several clips on YouTube, and they can beat any madeleine.

For the same reason, a love of the lo-fi has never left digital art. Pioneers such as On and Lialina were working with what they had; their successors, in turn, have often wished they could get it back. In Super Mario Clouds (2002), Cory Arcangel hacked a Nintendo game cartridge to remove everything but the blue sky and blocky clouds; now, stripped of their all-action foreground, they drift meditatively past. Cécile B. Evans created the spambot AGNES (2013–14), who talked to Serpentine Gallery visitors through bright text boxes and video clips. “She” was represented by busily typing hands, and once told Swiss curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, “I’m limited to your understanding of me—to the moments in which you turn me on.” Cheerfully unpolished and riotous, it’s as if these works wanted tech to be goofy, or at least anything but the refined swish of later years.

There’s a pining for innocence here, for when life outside the matrix was still comprehensible. In 2011–12, a few years after screensavers had gone extinct, artist André Hemer created Screensaver, an eight-meter-long painted mural at the South British Building in Auckland, New Zealand—pointedly, a former headquarters for an insurance company. Against soft masses of yellow and blue, a jagged waveform traversed the wall, peaking and troughing like an algorithm released from its purposive bonds. The painting’s straightforwardness was a tonic: remember, one line can hold such grace.

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For all its grip on society, the web is absurdly young: no social network is yet out of its teens. But we were warned of what it might do, by the likes of Jodi and Abrahams, and then myriad others along the way. Thirty years later, their art still acts as a beacon.

And yet, for an example of the art world’s complacency, you can’t do much better than Internet_Art. Forget the scratchy old stories of the net.art veterans—setting up listservs, coding alone—and brace for international flights, meetings on Zoom, lunch at the Serpentine Gallery. Kholeif, the insider’s insider, travels the continents dropping names: Obrist, one of the art world’s most influential figures, “constantly reminds me,” Kholeif writes, that Google is a “memory-bank.” Such rarefied A-list insights are paired with self-aggrandizing asides, like “he informed me, as we spoke in front of a full house at London’s Arts Club in October 2015.”

This is the mindset of Soho House: politics as practical ethics is something you have the luxury to ignore. Wretchedly revealing here is Kholeif’s discussion of Everydays (2007– ), a 5,000-piece digital collage by Mike Winkelmann, alias “Beeple,” that was auctioned in 2021 as an NFT for $69 million. Winkelmann created Everydays over 14 years at a rate of one work per day, moving from rudimentary handmade sketches to digital sunsets and robot suits, and the resultant collage has a fitting messiness: hectic and polychromatic, it conjures the churn of the web, a rhythm without a rhythm, sans direction or intent. Kholeif lauds it as a “metaphorical archive for online surf culture” and mocks the “museum suits” behind “weathered desks” who were slow to grasp its “self-deprecating brand of humour.”

But you didn’t need a desk or suit to have an old-fashioned critical eye. Artnet’s Ben Davis trawled through Beeple’s visual cacophony and found drawings of “a fat nerdy Chinese kid,” jabs at “fancy-dancy elite art homos,” cartoons of a naked Hillary Clinton, and captions linking “black dildos” to Donkey Kong. Kholeif doesn’t mention any of this. Elsewhere in the market, over $100 million of NFTs were stolen from July 2021–22, which is roughly $300,000 per scam. The legitimate deals are rarely better: in January 2022, one Bored Ape NFT was bought for $1.3 million, and 10 months later it was worth about $70,000. “Could the thousands of uninitiated,” Kholeif wonders, “who now dub themselves ‘NFT artists’ share a kinship with the reality TV contestant—the aspirational one who makes it through the meritocracy? I will not press this; we all deserve to rake it in, and we fashion our own compass.” Lazy or libertarian? You decide.

How much you care about NFT art at this point is an ideological choice. On the aesthetic front, it’s insignificant; what’s striking about lots of these pieces is how dated they already seem. Where the style is forcedly anti-analog, as in the shiny, floating shapes by “Pak”—currently the world’s highest-selling NFT artist—it’s only as futuristic as 3D Maze and its kin. At least screensavers were inventive; NFT aesthetics are secondhand. The luminous squiggles of Erick Calderon, alias “Snowfro,” look like miniature Sol LeWitts. The geometric drawings of Dmitri Cherniak, produced by machinic calculation—a very midcentury approach—scream “Bauhaus” so loudly that they’ve won Cherniak deals with László Moholy-Nagy’s estate.

At least the best-known NFTs are honestly cynical. Like Barbie or G.I. Joe, each has several accessories that add up to extra lucre. The leading artist behind the Bored Ape Yacht Club, known as “Seneca,” has said that the founders weren’t overly fussy, telling her: “We want punk apes. What do you think that would look like? What kind of style would you like? What do you think will look good?” This is the language of focus groups. But Seneca knew her customers. Crisply drawn and flatly shaded, her apes bear an obvious resemblance to Jamie Hewlett’s 2000s Gorillaz work, which, in turn, isn’t far from his Tank Girl comics of over a decade earlier. Such a style can pique the nostalgia of Gens X and Y alike. And since the designs are formally limitless—just as Barbie’s bag can be any color, an ape can wear any hat—they’re always made artificially scarce. There are only 10,000 NFTs in the Bored Ape Yacht Club; they have made over $2 billion in sales. (Seneca herself, incidentally, gives the lie to Kholeif’s talk about “raking it in.” While she hasn’t gone into specifics, she has called her earnings from the Bored Ape franchise “definitely not ideal,” and now she campaigns for artists’ rights.)

This year, the gimmick, or object of panic, has been artificial intelligence art. This represents “internet art” in its purest and most ouroboric form: AI bots confecting new images from the ones they find on the web. Total monetizability, zero aesthetic interest. Inevitably, they’re cheaper than human designers, and inevitably, their carbon footprint is vast. Yes, most contemporary artworks are, at some level, commodities—but on the visual level alone, it’s hard to stomach AI art’s disdain for complexity or affect. Whatever thrill you find in an unusual work of art—the enigmatic stare of a woman in Bronzino’s Descent of Christ into Limbo (1552); the way fabric abuts a photograph in a Robert Rauschenberg “spread” (1975–83)—it isn’t primarily one of information conveyed, or tidily executed craft. It’s of another order, like the “punctum” that Roland Barthes sought in photos—“that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).”

“I am neither a digital utopian,” Kholeif writes, “nor do I subscribe to the dystopian rhetoric proffered by certain critics who fear that innovations, such as artificially intelligent technologies, could take over our lives.” But to refuse two opposed positions isn’t necessarily to take a third; it can be to refuse to commit when that refusal verges on irresponsible. Instead of leaving the field (i.e., the world) to the neglect of a self-obsessed elite, we should keep asking the same old questions that the first net.artists did. How can society survive a networked state that shreds its users’ sanity? Is the “hyperlinked mind” making useful connections, or overloading every socket at once? What is art on this topic doing? “Interrogating”? “Being complicit”? Wasting our time? Kholeif decries the art industry, which runs on luxury value and “keeping art in the hands of the few,” but their own prose is as ideas-free as a blue-chip sales brochure: “Art’s power exists in its ability to elicit emotions that may otherwise have been left unturned and to pose questions about society at large through contradictory perspectives, which can simultaneously clarify and frustrate.” Yes, or no, or whatever. If you thin ideology like a spirit, soon you’ll watch it boil away.

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Cal Revely-Calder is the literary editor of The Telegraph. His edited selection of Edwin Denby's writing will be published by David Zwirner Books in 2024.

LARB Contributor

Cal Revely-Calder is the literary editor of The Telegraph. He has written for Artforum, 4Columns, Astra, The White Review, and others, and his edited selection of Edwin Denby's writing will be published by David Zwirner Books in 2024.

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