Boris Groys’s latest book of essays, In the Flow (Verso Books), has been marketed as being about art on the Internet. This is deceptive. For one thing, Groys’s definition of “art on the Internet” refers not to net art, digital art, or art about the Internet, but how we picture art online—or, what happens when artworks that appear IRL get documented on URLs through images, tweets, essays, and whatever else. This is never explained in a concise way; one figures it out over the course of about 190 pages.
A good chunk of this book deals with the modernist avant-garde and its failures. For Groys, the Internet age is as much about Kazimir Malevich, Clement Greenberg, and Soviet Russia as it is about Google and Instagram. Groys can’t think about art on the Internet without considering everything that came before the Internet.
“Our contemporary age seems to be different from all the other historically known ages in at least one respect,” he writes. “Never before has humanity been so interested in its own contemporaneity.” The book’s title refers to existing in the flow of time, and for art to live on the Internet, the author believes, artists must learn from the past and its mistakes, and ultimately transcend them.
One such mistake was the belief that art would last forever. As Groys puts it, “Traditional art produced art objects. Contemporary art produces information about art events.” Groys’s style is to talk in generalizations, which means avoiding discussing individual art objects. But if he were to rely on an example for this, he might use Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1965), a performance in which the artist had audience members cut off pieces of her clothing until she was left naked. The piece, like many early works of performance art, was viewed in the moment by only a handful of participants, and all that remains of it now are ephemeral objects and incomplete photographic documentation.
Groys’s interest in invisible things isn’t a coincidence—he dabbles in continental philosophy as well as art theory. Russian conceptualism, modernism, and spirituality are Groys’s longstanding concerns. Add to this a more recent interest in online archives, which may explain why, with In the Flow, Groys finally tries to historicize his claims. How has the trend toward dematerialized art objects led to the way we view art online? In other words, why or how did conceptual art contribute to the way art exists on the Internet? Groys’s concern here is how the analog past has led to the digital present—not necessarily a grand idea, but one that’s very of the moment in a time when scholars are beginning to historicize art about the Internet.
Groys constructs a loose narrative of how art arrived at this point. He begins with Malevich, whose 1915 painting Black Square destroyed images altogether by distilling art to its most basic features, a black square inside a white one. According to Groys, Malevich “join[s] the universal material flow that destroys all temporary political and aesthetic orders.” Along the way, Groys’s rapid walkthrough of the 20th century also includes self-congratulatory musings on why critical writing is important (“artists need theory to explain what they are doing”) and the problems of art activism (“Art activists want to be useful…but at the same time they want to be artists”).
If all this seems confusing, it’s because In the Flow reads like the cobbled-together collection of essays that it is. Five out of the 12 essays in the book have appeared elsewhere first, and a sixth has already been published, in a barely modified form, not only in e-flux, but also in Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter’s recently released anthology Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century. In the Flow’s thesis is tenuous because, as a book, it feels scattered. Connections between the chapters feel forced, such as when Groys leaps from Ilya Kabokov’s installations to Greenberg’s modernist art theory, or when an essay about realism leads into one about conceptual art.
Nevertheless, In the Flow’s attempt to create a historical narrative is very contemporary, and the book works best when history is made explicit. Groys is at his strongest in a piece called “Modernity and Contemporaneity: Mechanical vs. Digital Reproduction,” which compares how images were produced in the 20th century to the 21st century. In modernity, Groys argues, in a clear nod to Walter Benjamin, “The presence of the present can only be experienced in one moment.” We know Jackson Pollock produced his magnum opus one at one time, in one place, and every time it is re-printed on postcards and posters, the painting loses its aura. But now, “Under the conditions of the digital age, Internet users are responsible for the appearance or disappearance of digitalized images and texts on their computer screens. The digitalized images do not exist unless we as users give them a ‘here and now’…”
In his essay on Google, Groys writes that the search engine “plays today the role that traditionally was filled by philosophy or religion”—the age-old quest for meaning in life is now fulfilled by a repository of information. WikiLeaks, he says, brings up ancient questions about gazes and surveillance, rendering them anew through “the copy-and-paste operation that defines the functioning of digital media.”
Internet-inspired art has also reflected on these historical ideas, which perhaps means that Groys is on the right track. As I read Groys’s essay on Google, I thought of Jon Rafman’s work, which is about Googling as soul-searching. For his “9 Eyes of Google Street View” series, Rafman combed through Google’s 3-D map functionality for bizarre images—a panther in an empty parking lot, a prostitute waiting for a bus, a nude woman standing by the ocean. Deeply off-putting and strangely beautiful, these images are sublime for the same reason paintings by Caspar David Friedrich are effective. By searching, both in the Web 2.0 sense and in a more esoteric way, Rafman brings viewers in touch with the big questions about life and death. The ideas are as old as the 19th century; the medium is as old as 2007.
Groys calls the Internet a “medium of information” in which “the information is always information about something.” (Groys is fond of sentences like this, ones that use the same word over and over again. He shares a particular problem with many contemporary theorists: unclear writing that distracts from very good ideas.) By this logic, art dissolves into a stream of data—photographs at a European gallery become JPEGs on Contemporary Art Daily, an abstract painting show becomes one of Jerry Saltz’s tweets, and so on and so forth. According to Groys, the only way we can combat this infinite flow of data is to establish an archival place where information about the past lives forever, even if the objects themselves might not. “Archives,” he writes, are not only a “means of preserving the past,” but are also “primarily machines for transporting the present into the future.”
But it’s also not as if Groys’s solution really makes sense. On the Internet, a copied-and-pasted hall of mirrors, images are never stable, which means that, whether saved in an archive or not, art online is unfixed. This leads to what Groys calls a “nonhistoricist approach,” or a situation where art no longer has one context. Pictures of the Venus de Milo can appear in an essay about ancient Greece, or in a post about representations of women throughout art history, or in the hands of an Internet artist. So Groys is right in that respect—we’re in a time where it’s hard to remember the recent past because what’s new is most important online. But how can archives help bring art “into the flow” if their point is to retain a narrative of some kind? As anyone who’s tried to delete their browser history knows, information never completely disappears online—traces of the past always remain present.