The fluidity of information, meaning and identity on the internet offers an apt analogy to the malleable sign systems of contemporary art. Young artists are fearlessly exploring that formal corollary with media old and new. 22 of them, almost half 30 years old or younger, address the ways in which information is distributed and distorted online in the New Museum's latest exhibition, Free
(through January 23), curated by Lauren Cornell, executive director of Rhizome
. Qualifying the perceived freedoms offered by the internet, many expose the limits of the open network, while others test the boundaries of its openness. Another, related motif finds artists translating online activities into the "real" world of concrete acts and objects. A few pieces' relationship to the web remains more thematic or allusive. Throughout artists pinpoint the ways in which this semi-free space located almost everywhere—issues of access go frustratingly unacknowledged, as though the internet were carried on hydrogen molecules—has changed not only how we access information, but also the type of information that we value.
Disjunctures between the sentimental, aesthetic and market currencies of images and objects are explored throughout. Amanda Ross-Ho
's constellation-like arrangement of earrings purchased on eBay in "YOU AND ME FINDINGS (ROTATED 90o CW)" (2005) pinned to a black canvas, evoking a sparse Fred Tomaselli
composition, does away with the shiny jewelry use value. Another scourer of eBay auctions, curator Hanne Mugaas placed kitschy items like a puppy dog fountain and hand-painted shoes on stepped shelves for "Secondary Market" (2010), suggesting the ways in which the internet economy mirrors the art market. By contrast, some emotionally precious things unavailable online are put through the digital blender. Aleksandra Domanovic
assembled previously un-digitized introduction animations from Yugoslav news programs and asked techno DJs living in the former Yugoslavia to remix them. Her two-channel projection "19:30
" (2010) commemorates the nightly national ritual of watching the news at 7:30pm, which persisted until the nation descended into violence. The mashup aesthetic, applied to emotionally loaded artifacts, underlines the internet's double-edged function as cultural repository and global DJ crate.
Memories obliterated or obfuscated by war are also the subject of Lisa Oppenheim
's surprisingly powerful slideshow "The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere" (2006). Like a digital updating of John Baldessari's "Commissioned Painting
" series, Oppenheim found photos of sunsets uploaded to Flickr by U.S. soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan, and photographed her own hand holding their images over the sunset in Manhattan. The piece—a charming combination of digital photography, global telecommunications and the same kind of slide mechanism neighbors might have used to show each other their vacation photos in the past—underlines the limits of internet freedom. The sunset photos are available to all who take the time to seek them out, but many other images and documents pertaining to American forces fighting overseas are locked up tight behind firewalls in encrypted Army servers.
A nearby video of Saddam Hussein's death—Martijn Hendriks
's "Untitled Black Video" (2008)—with the image reduced to perpetual black in the uploading process, only shows internet commenters' reactions to the footage, from the celebratory to the skeptical: "This video didn't show anything. He's probably still alive." David Karp
and Ryan Trecartin
take the opposite approach to internet video with their website project "riverthe.net
" (2010), streamed live onto a gallery wall. Anyone can upload clips ten seconds or shorter to the site, resulting in exactly the cross-section of footage you'd expect: porn, cats, babies, fights, homemade music videos, etc. As a deadpan comment on the uses we make of free webspace and content, it's extremely entertaining.
Even more enjoyable, but much easier to miss as it's tucked into a hallway, "Refresh" (2007) consists of a series of court documents and sketches that chronicle the artist's attempt to change her legal name from Kristin Sue Lucas to Kristin Sue Lucas
, or to "refresh" her identity as one would a website. The transcript of her conversation with the confused judge demonstrates how a concept borrowed from a browser interface might be invaluable elsewhere. The hall wall it adorns leads into Alexandre Singh
's hilarious "The School of Objects Criticized" (2010), ostensibly a self-reflexive critique of the exhibition's zeitgeisty mode of address. A set of objects—a bottle of bleach, a taxidermy skunk, a slinky, tape recorders, an abstract sculpture voiced by L Mag
-favorite Michi Barall
—exchange snarky, soap opera-caliber comments, including a dig at Times
art critic Roberta Smith for her attack
on the prevalence of such conceptual objects in New York City museums. Though less explicitly related to the internet, it made me think of the many Twitter accounts created for inanimate objects
. If only those were as clever or funny as Singh's Wildean comedy.
Outside that conversation room, four pieces from Jon Rafman
's "9 Eyes of Google Street View
" provide a fitting bookend to Oppenheim's Flickr-sourced sunsets. Rafman's images, another kind of found photography freely available on the internet, are scenes captured by Google Street View cars, a contemporary corollary to Brassaï's Parisian street photography and the concept of the flaneur. Rather than the bustle of the modern metropolis, Rafman finds moments of eerie, surreal tranquility, like a suburban house on fire in "Eagle Point Dr, Sherwood, Pulaski, Arkansas
" (2010), or a pale woman, seemingly afternoon in the sunlight, looking out to sea from a rocky beach in "58 Lungomare 9 Maggio, Bari Puglia, Italia
" (2010). In this series, as with many of the pieces in the show, the roles of artist and curator are blurred, creativity located as much in the act parsing through the internet's informational flotsam as it is in contributing to it. The striking visual and aural variations artists in Free
come up with offer a compelling antidote to the repetitive newsprint motif in The Last Newspaper
on the floors above. In fact it's telling that with only one gallery to Newspaper
's three, Free
feels far fuller, featuring works that stick with the viewer much longer than the conventional internet attention span would lead one to expect (of course, also counter-intuitively, it lacks the old media exhibition's interactivity). If you do feel moved to contribute to "riverthe.net," though, please, keep it SFM—safe for museum.
(images courtesy the artists, the New Museum)