For Nøne Futbol Club’s Work nº2B: La tonsure (after Marcel Duchamp), 2015, the French artist duo convinced retired soccer star Djibril Cissé, famous online for his coifs—an electric-blue landing strip, a mohawk tied into little bobbles, a bleached buzz cut with dyed-on spiderweb design, among other examples of extreme barbering—to get a star shaved onto his head as Marcel Duchamp did almost a century ago. Images of Cissé sporting this new cut circulated widely on the Web, thus disseminating an icon of European modernism via an existing Internet meme.Like a number of contemporary artists and art collectives, Nøne Futbol Club is interested in what happens to pictures on the Internet, a space where few things are stable. In his 2011 essay “What to Do with Pictures,” published in October, David Joselit writes: “Networks…provide life support for the individual images that inhabit them; and as in the human body, failure of the circulatory system will lead to death.” In other words, online images survive by traveling—by getting copied, pasted, resized, downloaded, uploaded, re-uploaded, e-mailed, tweeted, posted, and transferred. And, unlike pictures of the past, online images are flexible, readily altered or recombined to create new meanings.Documentation of Work nº2B appeared in “Co-Workers,” a two-venue exhibition on view this past winter at the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris and Bétonsalon. Featuring a lineup of international artists who have emerged in the 2000s, the show was about art making in a networked world, but also how new modes of communication and information systems are radically altering not just the way we live, but the way we think.“Co-Workers” was only the latest exhibition to address the subject of images in the digital age. Conceived as an update of Douglas Crimp’s 1977 show “Pictures,” which made appropriation artists like Cindy Sherman and Sherrie Levine famous, 2013’s “Frozen Lakes” at Artists Space in New York examined the relevance of these earlier artists’ strategies to contemporary photo-based art. In “Frozen Lakes,” however, the curators’ stated concern was not, as Crimp’s was in the 20th century, the dialectics of production (i.e., the social structures that both informed and were reinforced by movies, television, music, magazines, and other mass-media outlets) but the conditions of circulation—the continuous and continually morphing flow of data on the Internet. “The sense that pictures occupy very distinct places in culture,” wrote curators Richard Birkett and Stefan Kalmár, “and reveal a vertical ‘strata of representation’, has been replaced by fluid, maybe even liquid, modes of accumulation and aggregation.” Among the artists in the show were Ken Okiishi, Jon Rafman, and Slavs and Tatars, all of whom appropriate material they find while scouring the Internet.Fast-forward to the present, and more than one recent show’s rhetoric has sounded eerily similar to Birkett and Kalmár’s. In New York, there was last year’s New Museum Triennial, “Surround Audience,” whose participants addressed “a society replete with impressions of life, be they visual, written, or constructed through data,” and “Ocean of Images,” the 2015 iteration of MoMA’s “New Photography” showcase, featuring artists who use “contemporary photo-based culture, specifically focusing on connectivity, the circulation of images, information networks, and communication models.” “Electronic Superhighway (2016–1966),” up now at London’s Whitechapel Gallery, surveys the Internet’s effect on art. A pioneer, the show’s curators say, is Nam June Paik, who “foresaw the potential of global connections through technology.” And in Washington, D.C., at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, “Suspended Animation” looks at how computer-generated images have changed the way we relate to each other. What the artists in all these shows have in common is a decidedly conceptual—and often text-heavy—take on artmaking in the age of the Internet.Ed Atkins’s video in “Co-Workers: Network as Artist” at MAM, for example, is loosely built around a repeated image of a computer-generated man’s arm with its thumb stuck up. That arm undergoes various distortions—it twists around until it becomes a rubbery helix, its thumb deflates and explodes, its hand gets stuck in an oversize eye. It all feels strangely familiar. Maybe that is because Atkins repeats the same image of a thumbs-up—a stand-in for Facebook’s “like” button—again and again, superimposing it with new text each time.
For Atkins, that text is equally as important as his images—he’s also written poetry alongside his videos. And he’s hardly the only writer in “Co-Workers.” Ian Cheng, Douglas Coupland, DIS, Hito Steyerl, and Ryan Trecartin have also penned essays, poetry, criticism, or some combination of those. One can add to this list a host of artists not in the show who likewise write extensively as part of their Internet-based practice, including Paul Chan, Simon Denny, Juliana Huxtable, Seth Price, John Russell, and Martine Syms. To share pictures isn’t enough for these artists. They also need to write about them and, in the process, incorporate media theory, game studies, film criticism, anthropology, history, philosophy, and scientific studies, perhaps as a way of indicating that they are engaging in art making rather than basic Internet use. (Around the same time “Co-Workers” opened, MIT Press published Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter’s mega-anthology Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century. The book, which includes texts by several “Co-Workers” artists, feels like a companion piece to this show.)In addition to taking a conceptual approach, most of the art in the first half of “Co-Workers” adopts the emotional removal of Internet users. DIS, the über-cool American design collective known for its surreal combinations of material objects and high fashion, designed the scenography for “Network as Artist,” transforming the galleries at MAM into what looked like corporate offices or airport waiting lounges. The gleaming, pristine white stages for the show felt lifeless, as though humans had never touched them. Elsewhere in “Network as Artist,” DIS’s The Island (KEN), 2015, a shower-cum-kitchen-cum-workspace, was accompanied by a fake infomercial advertising the object. A clothed woman may be shown enjoying her shower, but it’s obvious that she’s acting. Her smile means nothing.Similarly affectless is David Douard’s assemblage of photo, egg, fabric, and metal security mesh, We’ve Ne’er Gotten (2015). The work ostensibly should be touching, with its central image of a sad-looking young boy with two fingers in his mouth, but read the wall text and there’s a twist: Douard found the image online. It’s just someone else’s picture after all.Here and there were little moments of emotional honesty. There was Trisha Baga, who superimposed a webcam video of herself dancing onto Madonna concert footage for Madonna y El Niño (2010), and Rachel Rose, who wonders what it means to feel dead in her video Sitting Feeding Sleeping (2013). But mostly, the show’s curators—Angeline Scherf, Toke Lykkeberg, and Jessica Castex—went for something more in line with Mark Leckey’s ice-cold video Pearl Vision (2012), in which the artist becomes a cyborg, his body merging with a metallic drum as he plays it.
Several recent studies have concluded that Internet users are less empathetic than non-Internet users, and it appeared to have been a curatorial decision in “Network as Artist” to obliquely comment on the Web’s numbing effect. On view in London during the show’s run was Jon Rafman’s Zabludowicz Collection commission, which more directly addressed the subject by confronting the viewer with some of the Internet’s more unsettling expressions. Rafman’s recent video works are filled with appropriated images so horrifying—a crayfish getting crushed in a fetish video; a bound-up person in a turtle suit, writhing on a kitchen floor; violent Grand Theft Auto clips—that I thought about them for days on end.If Rafman’s work is any indication, desires become tricky in the digital realm. Online, Rafman’s videos could be considered (at least by some) kinky; offline, they’re tough to ignore—they reflect a society that has all sorts of repressed, messed-up, digitized feelings.In his 2014 video Mainsqueeze, Rafman uses clips from a video of a washing machine breaking down after someone chucks a piece of wood into it. This detached gesture has unforeseen consequences—the machine explodes, its cogs flying out at the camera. The washer could be taken as a metaphor for the Internet. If overloaded with emotionless, perverse images, would our networks spin out and go bust?This is one of the questions raised by “Co-Workers: Beyond Disaster,” Bétonsalon’s experimental coda curated by Mélanie Bouteloup and Garance Malivel. Almost immediately, the show shed the coldness of “Network as Artist,” evoking a post-apocalyptic landscape where the Internet seems to have crashed a while ago. Both shows were about networking, but whereas “Network as Artist” considered it in the Web 2.0 sense of the word (think LinkedIn), “Beyond Disaster” imagined interconnectedness after the Internet. Much of the work in “Beyond Disaster” verged on science fiction—it was speculative, abstract, and, in some strange way, hopeful, even utopian.One of the first things viewers saw here was Pamela Rosenkranz’s Bow Human (2012), an emergency blanket bent so that it looks like a person is underneath. Upstairs, Jasmina Metwaly and Philip Rizk’s video Out on the Street (2015), in which nonprofessional Egyptian actors imagine a new community for themselves, dropped the polished aesthetic of videos in “Network as Artist” for documentary-style filmmaking.And once the real world came into play, the offerings got more diverse. “Network as Artist” was partially about whiteness, in both senses of the word. Every work was spotless, and most people in the works were white. Not so for “Beyond Disaster,” which was both more politically minded and less academic. At the same time, “Beyond Disaster” was also more playful, bringing in new perspectives as society reprograms itself.
Among the new voices heard was that of transgender artist Wu Tsang, who, in her 2008 video Shape of a Right Statement, makes a powerful demand to start new conversations. Standing against a glittery curtain and wearing a wig cap, Tsang reads a statement written by autistic blogger Amanda Baggs: “The thinking of people like me is only taken seriously if we learn your language.”The only artist to appear in both “Network as Artist” and “Beyond Disaster” was Ian Cheng, who makes strange, elusive “live simulations” that look like videos but turn out to be the result of a computer algorithm that keeps spewing out data—a video game of sorts with a life of its own. (Think The Sims, if it were set in prehistoric times and smart enough to evolve.) Cheng’s Something Thinking of You (2015) was shown on a smallish flat-screen TV propped against a wall. Abstract creatures made of geometric planes seemed to be building a new society from scratch. It looked like a video game blown to smithereens, or computer software evolving on its own—which was scary, but also moving.Tsang and Cheng’s work felt like where art—and the world—is headed, but why? The answer may lie in the work of another artist—the French-born Antoine Catala, whose contribution to “Beyond Disaster” was a crew of dinky robots that glided around viewers’ feet. With lights and what appeared to be candies on their heads, the squat machines seemed to communicate on their own, speaking an invented language that viewers couldn’t understand. At first the robots were unnerving, then they began to seem beautiful—they seemed so alive. Over the past five years, Catala has shifted from dealing with online pictures toward teaching us how to feel again using digital technology. If “Beyond Disaster” is any indication, the art world is beginning to catch up with him.“Co-Workers: Network as Artist” was on view at Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris from October 9, 2015 to January 31, 2016. “Co-Workers: Beyond Disaster” was on view at Bétonsalon – Centre d’Art et Recherche in Paris from October 8, 2015 to January 30, 2016.A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of ARTnews on page 128.