The Unexplored Potential of the Internet as Art Medium

marcel duchamp fountain

Oh, Fountain. Go to any first-year art history course and Duchamp’s urinal-turned-art-piece will be one of the most debated topics of the term. There are always those students who insist the merit of any work of art is in the skill of the execution, of which Duchamp demonstrates none. But the concept—a critique of the posh High Art world—always prevails and Fountain is hailed as one of the strongest works of the European avant-garde.

Fast-forward to 1992. Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gómez-Peña tour museums in Europe and North America with their performance piece The Couple in the Cage, where they play a primitive couple from the fake island of Guatinau. Supported by the authority of the museums in which they exhibited and even an Encyclopedia Britannica entry with a map showing the supposed site of Guatinau, the artists found that “Despite their intent to create an over-the-top satirical commentary on Western concepts of the exotic, primitive Other, it turned out that a substantial portion of the audience believed in the authenticity of the Guatinauis.” (Ginsberg)

Skip ahead another two decades. With the internet as it is today, “there’s never been a means for so many people to contribute about so much at the same time,” writes Amanda Peters. We are so overwhelmed with information that “finding that truth in amongst all of the information available—in the form of arguments, counterarguments, dissenting voices, and the few indomitable trolls who just want information included in the lexicon that makes no sense and has no relevance to anything—is a nearly impossible task.” (Peters)

But—wait—what do a urinal and a pair of fake Amerindians have to do with the internet? Hang on, we’re almost there.

By submitting Fountain to an exhibit, Duchamp was using the institutions of the art world to critique the art world itself. By adopting the customs of an anthropological museum exhibit, Fusco and Gómez-Peña exposed the inherent racism of such a setup. In both cases, the customs of the establishment were used against the establishment. It was a critique from the inside.

The internet, in its turn, is ripe for the same kind of critique. And it’s been done: In 2001, a pair of artists released a harmless computer virus from the Slovenian Pavillion at the Venice Biennale. The purpose of the virus, biennale.py, was simply to spread itself; to show that a computer virus is not an evil external force, but necessarily dependent on human systems, much like a biological virus. It was a virus meant to critique the perception of viruses. But, unfortunately, biennale.py, did not make nearly as strong an impression as Fountain or The Couple in the Cage.

So let’s take it further. The information overload that Peters refers to makes it relatively easy to fake the same kinds of customs that Fusco and Gómez-Peña did. In fact, The Couple in the Cage was a sort of pre-Network Realism piece. Fusco and Gómez-Peña crafted a quasi-believable background to the Guatinauis, and supported it by referring to otherwise-credible sources. The faux-didactic panels, as well as the museums themselves, granted the Guatinauis a level of authenticity that was enough, for some audiences, to overcome the many obvious clichés. Now imagine this on the internet, supported instead by a Wikipedia page, a Google Knowledge Graph, and a couple of blog posts. Part of the concept of Network Realism is that “The increasing effectiveness of the Network flattens reality … Truth is only public consensus.” (Simas)

With enough points of validation, any story can become true. This has been mostly explored by trolls: “when the actor Paul Walker died,” Sydney Barnes points out in a response to Peters, “there were articles denying his death created by people simply looking to stir up controversy.” And for some time, Paul Walker was revived. The Onion often has a similar effect—even though they are famously a parody news site—simply because people often fail to notice the source of the information. Coco Fusco wrote, “In such encounters with the unexpected, people’s defence mechanisms are less likely to operate with their normal efficiency; caught off guard, their beliefs are more likely to rise to the surface.” The Network is pregnant with possibilities.

And these possibilities aren’t open only to capital-A artists. The examples so far came from the High Art world, in the form of visual art, performance, and Internet Art. But literature (and probably music, though that’s beyond the scope of this post) has a place here as well: if the Richard Castle novels weren’t a blatant marketing ploy for Castle, the police procedural starring Nathan Fillion, they would have been a good example. Here we have a fictional author featuring on best-seller lists. A Duchamp-esque critique of the artificiality of best-seller lists? Perhaps. Or instead it might be exposing the general gullibility of the public, like Fusco and Gómez-Peña. In the end it’s just a missed opportunity; but it borders on the insider-critique I’m looking for.

The fact is, the Network itself has not been very widely explored as a medium—rather than a container or facilitator—for art. Or, by the nature of the Network, this type of work is out there, only I haven’t heard of it. And because it hasn’t reached me, in my world it doesn’t exist—but this is my truth.

One of the obstacles may be monetizing the art. It’s much harder to sell a piece of viral code than it is to sell a painting, for example. It’s been done, but by art-world standards, the values are very low. (Mijuk) But I fear the main obstacle is acceptance. The Network isn’t as easily grasped as an art medium as paint or even HTML code. And when an artist does use the Network, there’s a good chance the public will take it as “just a dadaist-inspired attempt to create online mischief.” (Mijuk)

My hope with this post is, in part, to encourage the use of the internet as art medium, even if public acceptance will be against it. After all, someone needs to be the Duchamp of the internet.

3 Replies to “The Unexplored Potential of the Internet as Art Medium”

  1. Hi Shed,

    First of all, in my art history survey we were never introduced to The Fountain, so thank you!

    Horse_eBooks and Pronunciation Book were also one of the first things that I thought of—particularly the disappointed reaction following their reveal. But, your post immediately made me think of this piece from PBS Idea Channel: Are LOLCats and Internet Memes Art?

    http://youtu.be/b9Zyswk07vg

    So are they? I get the definition about communicating personal experiences and transmitting feelings so that others feel that feeling. But it’s also astonishing to consider all of this “throwaway” ephemeral Internet culture as a form of art—but is it so different from any other kind of temporary art? And is it less of an art because just anyone can do it in a few seconds?

    All ideas that I find interesting. I do agree that the Internet holds a great deal of potential for art with network realism but I’m also not seeing it, perhaps because I’m not looking in the right places either.

    1. Whether memes are art is a tough call. Different people have different ideas of the definition of art; I reject them all. There is no way to comprehensively describe every single type of art. The transmitting feeling idea is fine, except plenty of art is made un- or subconsciously—art made by kids, for example, who are just having fun throwing around some paint.

      I’m a subjectivist. My preferred definition of art (if you could call it that) is that anything intended or received as art is art. I prefer to keep the argument of whether something is art or not, and the argument of whether it is good/successful or not, as two separate things (many people get them confused: “I don’t get it therefore it is not art”). So while memes may be art to you, they are not to me, because I don’t approach and interpret memes as I would, say, a painting or a book. But if the meme creator came up to me and said, “My memes are art,” I would fold and say, “Alright. It’s art.” Then we could move on to the (much more interesting) discussion of whether it is good art.

      Assuming we accept memes as art, I can better answer your questions. Here’s another point of subjectivism: what I think art should be is entirely different from what you think it should be. My description of what art should be comes from something I heard in my early years in art school: “[Great] art doesn’t move you. It stops you.” (Source unknown.) Interpretation varies with each piece. The minuscule amount of time and effort that go into them have little to no effect on their success. Memes tend not to stop me, although occasionally they do make me consider some greater aspect of life. Those that do are the better ones when it comes to evaluating them as art; but they are not not nearly on the same level as Fountain, for example, which makes you stop and consider the nature of art itself. (It’s partly thanks to Duchamp that I now have such a solid footing on my ideas of what ir and what it should be.)

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