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.