This November, the New Museum and MIT Press will kick off a new series of critical anthologies with Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century, co-edited by The New Museum’s Lauren Cornell along with Ed Halter. The new series revives a six-volume set that ran between 1984 and 2004, spawning such influential works a 1984’s Art After Modernism: Rethinking Representation and 1989’s Blasted Allegories: An Anthology of Writings by Contemporary Artists.
“I remember both as a student and as a teacher frequently going back to the original books that the New Museum and MIT did together,” said Johanna Burton, the Keith Haring Director and Curator of Education and Public Engagement at the New Museum, who is in charge of overseeing the entire series. “I think people still teach from those books.”
In the ten-plus years since the last volume was published (“they didn’t officially die, but they just stopped being made”) Burton noticed a dearth of books filling the void left by the series. “Obviously there is a ton of information out there and a million publishing initiatives and blogs but what was different about those books is they were almost places where people could argue around emerging and seminal questions in culture and in art,” she said. “And when I looked around in the current context to see where those arguments were happening there didn’t seem to be that resource anymore.”
In some ways, Burton views the new volumes as textbooks—“not low level textbooks, but the kind of books you carry around when you’re in grad school,” she clarified—pointing to the “distinctly pedagogical and research based and even scholarly” essence that still holds weight in physical books.
Although there are four provisional titles on deck, Burton was scant on information beyond Mass Effect and to say that she is currently co-editing the next volume with two other people (Shannon Jackson and Dominic Willsdon) about the waning of social services globally and its effect on artistic and social practice.
Each volume will pair together editors working within the museum with outside specialists. Burton called Cornell—who was curating the most recent New Museum Triennial while putting together the book—as a “natural fit” to re-ignite the series. “We really felt like it was a great moment to look at the intersection of technology and art,” she said.
ARTnews conducted an interview with Cornell and Halter about their volume via email. Their answers are below.
Why do you think that up to this point there has been a limited amount of books related to 21st century Internet-engaged art?
Lauren Cornell: It’s recent history. Much of the work for this volume involved gathering primary materials—assembling image portfolios, commissioning new scholarship, and transcribing lectures and conversations—which, we believe, provide context for the way various expressions of this field evolved over the past 15 years. It often seems, to me, that art discourse relies on an incomplete history of ‘art engaged with the Internet,’ one that jumps from the net.art that took shape in the ‘90s to current projects that fall within the vague visual grammar of ‘post-Internet art.’ There is a very rich and international history that lies in between these two markers, one that forms the core of this book, and we think provides an essential background to understanding where we are today.
Ed Halter: General art-world and academic interest in Internet art has waxed and waned over the years. After the turn of the century, there was a flurry of writing about the net.art of the 1990s, and so that decade has now come down to us as the best covered. If you know anything about art and the Internet, you probably know about first generation net artists like JODI, Olia Lialina, Vuc Cosic, et al, thanks to their inclusion in these histories. The work that has happened since then, however, has more often been considered via profiles of individual artists. There have been many artists who came after them who are now widely known—say, Cory Arcangel or Seth Price or Paul Chan, to name just a few—but they’re not usually considered together as part of a more general historical movement, despite the fact that they and others were deeply engaged with the Internet, and in some cases were directly influenced by that older generation. The recent use of the trendy term “post-Internet” has made matters worse by implying a crude and inaccurate historical argument in its very name, seeming to claim that there is a “before” and “after” the Internet that might define a current generation of artists. For all these reasons, Lauren and I quickly realized that the most pressing need was to remedy these gaps by creating a history that picked up where the net.art of the 90s ended.
There seems to be a large and varied list of concerns addressed in this book, and a fairly long timeline. Was it a goal to make a volume that was a definitive portrait of the past 15 years of Internet-engaged art?
Halter: Yes, in a sense we wanted to provide a definitive portrait of the past fifteen years, but we also knew it could only be a definitive portrait, not the definitive portrait. Lauren and I make no bones about working from our own perspectives, which are inevitably shaped by living in New York City and the U.S. And due to our backgrounds, we are particularly attuned to queer culture, the Internet’s relationship to cinema and television, and other shared concerns. Another set of editors in London or Paris or Moscow could have put together a somewhat different collection. That said, we hope that our choices do prove comprehensive enough to set the conversation going in a productive manner, and allow for even more work to be done on this incredibly fertile period of art making.
Cornell: Like other volumes in the Critical Anthologies series, Mass Effect intends less to be a survey—trying to stuff in a little bit of everything—and, instead, really put forth an argument, in this case, about how art transformed in response to a variety of factors and events, such as the complicated legacy of net.art; progressive and uneven globalization in the arts; the introduction of mass platforms for creativity and socialization; the entrenchment of data-mining and surveillance in these platforms; and, the broader dispersion of ‘Internet art’ across form. Our introductory essay ends with a question of whether such a volume on Internet art as a distinct practice will be relevant in 10 or 20 years or, whether, everything will just be “pre-Internet” as the artist Oliver Laric suggests in an interview included.
What is the biggest change you have seen in the past 15 years in terms of how Internet-engaged art has developed?
Halter: One major shift is marked in the very name of the book. In the 1990s, net.art operated in a relatively subcultural realm, during an era when most of the world was not online. Now, of course, we all operate in a much different time, when the Internet has become a truly mass medium, and permeates nearly every aspect of our daily lives. Making art with and about the Internet in this context entails a very different set of concerns because of this radical shift in the Internet’s scale and reach.
Cornell: Agree with Ed. This is what the book tries to capture. Also, in our introduction, we lay out a series of questions that inspired the book. One is: How can we retrieve, experience, and study art operations that anticipated our current mass tools, when changeovers in formats and platforms can make the past unreadable? For Ed and me, as teachers and curators, this is really important. I’ve seen peoples’ eyes glaze over many times when I try to recall previous attitudes or practices, like artists making computer graphics at Bell Labs or, first embracing the potential of an email list for international communication or, working in group blogging formats pre-Tumblr. The incredibly fast rate of obsolescence quickly renders history—even very recent history—hard to visualize and grasp. We are hoping, particularly, that the artist writings in this book, by Guthrie Lonergan, Aleksandra Domanovic, Raqs Media Collective, Trevor Paglen, and many others, will help make the recent past more readable.
In a new media and Internet driven culture, why do you think that it’s still important to publish something like this in print?
Halter: The collection includes previously published material as well as new commissions and previously unpublished transcriptions of panels and lectures. While some of this work is available online, much of it is not, and even some things that were once online are now gone. Putting these items in a book together gives a better sense of the conversation that’s been going on about these issues over many years, which we hope will help counter the short-term-memory problem that plagues discussions of art and the Internet. We also asked several authors to write postscripts to essays they published years ago, both to respond to debates that may have arisen from their work, and to give a better historical context in a swiftly-changing field.
Cornell: I’m a “person associated with tech” and I much prefer reading a book—over, say, a kindle—and lug books all around town to the detriment of my very “embodied” back. Point being, I feel these contrasting questions of print vs. web or physical vs. digital are too stark for the way we adapt to technological change: the reality is always much more incremental, nuanced and disorganized than the clean marketing hype of, say, a ‘digital revolution 2.0’ that attempts to encapsulate shifts. Something that marks the practices of many of the artists in this book is that they are aware that the history of art engaged with technology is, in part, one of failure, obsolescence, and iteration, and they build this knowledge into their practices.