Major New York museums have been reluctant to invest in new-media art, despite the fact that artists working in a variety of disciplines increasingly use the medium. Since the Whitney’s disastrous 2001 Bitstreams exhibition, only Rhizome’s 2005 show, Artbase 101, and MoMA’s Automatic Update in 2007 have attempted to take on the subject. However, neither the former, a survey show of internet art, nor the latter, a small acquisitions-inspired show, seemed to escape the enormous shadow cast by Bitstreams. While Rhizome arguably fared better, only two years later the paltry MoMA exhibition received almost no attention, except for a few blogger complaints and some exposition from The Voice.
Difficult to execute and low in attendance payoffs, such shows don’t seem appealing to launch. Rhizome, the online veteran focused on technology-based work, should, however, offer a lower-risk investment for institutions wishing to put together new media exhibitions. Unsurprisingly, Unmonumental Online, the final installment of the New Museum’s inaugural exhibition, offers a significant improvement upon Bitstreams and Automatic Update, even if the results are mixed.
Assuming it’s possible to ignore the museum’s decision to install the exhibition in stages, a process creating unnecessary hierarchy among mediums, the final stage to Unmonumental integrates seamlessly into the larger show. Sure, it’s a bit of a scavenger hunt to find all the work — it is, after all, scattered across several floors of the museum — but I like that, for once, the new media portion of the exhibition hasn’t simply been displayed on the gallery’s public computers in the education center. The display also adds a unique dimension to pre-existing work, which is high in humble materials and, until now, low in wall-mounted flatscreens.
Displayed on one such monitor, Michael Bell- Smith’s deeply depressing Subterranean House (Oonce Oonce) loops a modified excerpt of one of Bob Dylan’s first ‘electric’ pieces, in which the musician holds up song lyrics to for the camera. Replacing the 60s counterculture verse with the empty echo of nostalgic late-90s house beats, and a single repeating card with the onomatopoetic “Oonce” eliminates the political message and the sound of technology dominates the new cultural landscape. Next to this work, John Michael Boling’s Three Guitar Solo loops three YouTube videos of teenagers rocking out. The dancers were chosen for their similarities, and the artist draws from a virtually bottomless pool of performance reiterating itself, much like the hollow sound of Bell-Smith’s looping video.
While the dialog created between these two works is brilliant, the choice to include the video Subterranean House (Oonce Oonce) as opposed to the artist’s internet art pieces raises a number of questions about Unmonumental Online as a whole; most obviously, why the number of projects included, that either by virtue of medium (as in the case of Bell-Smith) or mode of display, don’t meet the basic thematic criteria of the exhibition. Kenneth Tin-Kin Hung, creator of the site www.11111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111111.com, [Ed. Just google his name] and new-media artist Petra Cortright undoubtedly fare the worst in regard to the latter issue. Hung’s provocative, loud and kitschy political collages work brilliantly on his site — the web inspiring, at times demanding, this kind of bombastic communication style — while similar images become ham-fisted animated slam poetry in the medium of video now displayed in the gallery. Similarly, a relatively successful landscape made by Cortright, once framed by the scrolling bars of a browser, and now removed and placed on an ill-fitted flatscreen monitor, feels utterly stale, an attribute exacerbated by Paul Slocum’s fast moving Time-Lapse Homepage (2003) hanging directly to the left of the piece.
Despite these problems, none of the online works was awful, with the possible exception of Nina Katchadourian’s The Continuum of Cute, a vapid piece asking users to arrange photographs of animals found on the Internet from “uncutest” to “cutest.” Either unaware of or simply content to disregard more successful like-minded web phenomenons such as CuteOverload.com and Hitler Cats, the piece is unworthy of an artist who has come up with many more-inventive ideas — her bird chirping car alarms are a personal favorite. Other works, however, such as Guthrie Lonergan’s Internet Group Shot, 2006, engage the subject of the Internet with greater dexterity and depth. Culling cheerleaders, NASCAR drivers, janitors, bridge players, priests, businessmen, teenagers at proms and countless other photographs identifying people for their interests and professions, the collage of found jpegs uses one unique browser feature; images move up and down slightly when scrolled over. The effect only re-enforces the banality of its chosen subject: the Internet, a deep archive of unremarkable choices and activities.
Ultimately, the compelling works outweigh the weaker pieces, though the balance of good to bad isn’t as high as it should be. Unmonumental Online, focused largely on artists’ engaging with the net, manages to bring online work into the gallery with all but a few snags. At the very least, Unmonumental Online signals an end to the nasty legacy of the Whitney’s Bitstreams exhibition, opening up, once more, an offline museum space for the online community.