The past decade has not been short on what Brian Droitcour, writing in Art in America, once derisively labeled “internet shows”—exhibitions about how the internet has reshaped art, moving from early experiments with the technology on to net art, then post-internet art, and so on. Droitcour lamented the fact that he often came out of these shows with only “some hazy notion of the internet’s importance.”
Now, with the hope of cutting through that haze, comes Omar Kholeif’s Internet_Art: From the Birth of the Web to the Rise of NFTs, a new book that doubles as a survey of such art, as well as a memoir. Kholeif is themselves the organizer of several “internet shows,” including most recently 2020’s “Art in the Age of Anxiety,” staged at the Sharjah Art Foundation, where they are director of collections and senior curator. But the book is not a conventional survey in any sense.
It zips between Roy Ascott’s computer-based art of the early ’80s and the recent NFT craze of the past two years, stopping at various points in between to consider works by Lynn Hershman Leeson, Nam June Paik, Cory Arcangel, Lawrence Abu Hamdan, Kevin McCoy, Haroon Mirza, Jacolby Satterwhite, JODI, and many other giants of the trajectory. Along the way, Kholeif also addresses other shows they’ve organized, such as “Electronic Superhighway (2016–1966)” (Whitechapel Gallery, 2016), as well as their 2013 book You Are Here: Art After the Internet.
Ahead of Internet_Art’s release, ARTnews spoke with Kholeif about the book via Zoom. Midway through, the Zoom connection broke down when I lost his power; Kholeif responded to the final question by email. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
ARTnews: This material could’ve been organized into a more conventional history, but what you’ve done with it is something more like a memoir. What made you take that approach?
Omar Kholeif: Oh, I think it is very much a memoir. I started by thinking about how I began writing about the internet—literally writing on the internet, starting out as a music writer and using blogs. This was around 2002, 2003. That’s one thing that I’ve been asking myself: is journalism dead? Can we go back to blogging? The immediacy, that sense of reading something that might even have typos in it, because it is coming to you live from a war zone or an exhibition—that liveness is something that seems to be so situated in that image culture of Instagram and memes, right? Particularly meme culture. So I wanted to engage with that forum, which I feel is so specific to the internet and to how I came to writing and engaging with art and culture.
I used the first person as a very conscious effort for numerous reasons. One was that I was trying to embody my experience. But secondly, it was to think about the fact that I’m a mixed-race person, someone who’s diasporic and of the world, who has often been told that to fit into the mold of canonical art history, you must speak in the third person to kind of erase yourself from the narrative. Also, I feel that for readers, especially ones that might not know about these artworks actually, this offers a truer sense of what these works are.
I’ve attempted my coffee table book before, and I don’t look at it with pride, actually. There is a shelf here of all my books and the coffee table book is not there—not out of any conscious desire to eliminate it. So, I think it really had to do with also thinking about the reader and how to give them something different than what they might get in another volume or title. I wanted to create a book that was primarily text. We have to disrupt this idea that people only want to have giant coffee table books with pictures and standardized blurbs, which are basically press releases, in a sense.
You don’t shy away from exploring the dark side of the internet, though.
I also wanted there to be the proposition of a new kind of visuality, one that is twofold. That’s why I speak to Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd. It’s an incredible example of what it means for a teenager [Darnella Frazier] to put something online as opposed to giving it to the police, where it could have been held and not shown. I lived in Chicago when the Laquan McDonald incident happened. That footage was held until Rahm Emanuel’s reelection campaign. But here’s someone who chose to work against that and put herself in a position of vulnerability. Later, after she was given the special mention by the Pulitzer Foundation, her uncle was murdered by the police. And there’s no talk of that, you know.
Thinking back on histories of internet art that I read as I was coming up as a writer during the early 2010s, it was all very impersonal and “objective.” A lot of the artists were white, a lot of the artists were American or from Western Europe. Was it your intention to push against that narrative, or to offer an alternative to it?
Absolutely. In the book, I say that I was constantly roaming to find my people because I didn’t fit in quite anywhere. My father is Black, but I don’t present as Black. My first language is English, but people assume that it’s not. I am asked to speak about artists regularly, but I suffer from Tourette’s syndrome. I try to weave through those experiences, meeting, for example, artists who are transitioning not just in their practice, but also in their gender, artists who are queer and Black American, but also from the South, someone like Jacolby Satterwhite. But I also try and create and craft the world around them, because there’s this endless hustle that is required to be seen.
But it’s like, do we have to continue to wait for people to die to be discovered? When I was writing this book, Lynn Hershman Leeson turned 80. I wrote her happy birthday, and she’s like, I’m so happy, I finally have my first-ever museum show in New York [at the New Museum in 2021]. But it’s nothing, because there’s so much of her work that we haven’t seen, partly because there’s no money to sustain it and partly because of the technology that is required to update it. Or for example, there’s Shu Lea Cheang, who’s a queer artist of color who now lives primarily in Paris. Her work [Brandon, from 1998] was the first browser-based work commissioned by the Guggenheim. I remember that the work was constantly going offline, because no one was tending to it. I tried to highlight those facts.
The book’s cover is gold and looks quite unlike those of similar tomes.
I wanted people to touch it as though it were a bar of gold. That is a critique of the speculation around the field of the practice, particularly as I was writing it. We did the London launch at the Gagosian store, and it’s like all these bars of gold at the biggest gallery in the world. People are trading bars and gold, brilliant. But it’s also about learning that the internet is a physical thing.
I was chairing a meeting with the board members of the Sharjah Art Foundation team. We were convening on a Zoom call in the third or fourth week of lockdown with a museum in Australia. They began it with this kind of land acknowledgement. I said, ‘Well, I hope we also will also acknowledge the land we aren’t aware of through which the fiberoptic cables run that allow this meeting to take place’. The data centers are on lands that will store this meeting in perpetuity as it gets backed up. It was meant to be a joke, but it fell flat because they didn’t get it, and I was reminded: Oh, people don’t really get this.
The internet is a physical thing. A lot of people tell me, “Oh, digital art is so great because you don’t have to do shipping. It’s so good for the environment.” Meanwhile, other artists will say, “I don’t do NFTs because it’s bad for the environment.” I say, “Would you mind telling me why it’s bad for the environment?” They won’t be able to tell you. There’s this huge sense of people claiming spaces and positions without truly investigating them. I’m trying to speak to this idea that art isn’t just art, but also the culture in which it’s situated. It’s completely changed because of this mass medium.
How did you decide which works to discuss in the book?
I went into my archive, which is mostly physical. I knew that I wanted to tackle certain aspects of things, but I have to say that when I decided to sit down, I would write each chapter as a chapter of a memoir. And then I would completely rewrite it again, ensuring that that my experience enter the artwork somehow.
And what about the structure of the book? Since the book is not a history, it doesn’t move cleanly from 1989 to the present.
It was always clear to me that I wanted to start with 1989. Because of the kinds of the cataclysmic social and political shifts, I wanted to ask questions about the speculative notions that technology would destroy. I thought about the pioneers from an anarchic perspective. I then wanted to parse out the idea of digital versus internet, new media versus media arts, and to kind of, in a way, separate them out, but also pull them together in that kind of big, sweeping hug, and say, Let’s not create more factions, but consolidate our experiences into the field of art.
I wanted to claim spaces that were once traumatic, like the mall in the Gulf, with the giant screens. The reason I wanted to do the book was I was like, “Okay, Blade Runner has happened—it was supposedly set in 2019. It’s happened already. Now, I have to write this book. And I want to stay in that hotel [in Los Angeles that appears in certain scenes].” I stayed there in . . . let’s call it still high pandemic time. There was a power failure in that building. I started to think of the whole idea of it as an engine that had failed.
It’s really about the meeting of all these different stories. And I kind of imagine that each chapter could be an episode of a TV series.
The book almost has this hyperlinked quality, like each piece of text in it is directing you out to somewhere else.
Exactly. I was trying to give people the hyperlinks from my mind, and then give them the tools to kind of invent their own hyperlinks, which is why originally, I didn’t want to have any endnotes or footnotes.
As a curator, have you noticed a change over the years in how people receive the art you mention in this book? The Museum of Modern Art, in its 2019 rehang, for example, placed works by JODI and Eduardo Kac in its permanent collection galleries, which suggests that there’s been a shift.
I think a lot of that is down to the fact that MoMA has an incredible chief curator of media and performance art, Stuart Comer. And I think if he were not the chief curator in that department, that that wouldn’t necessarily be the case. When has the Guggenheim last exhibited Shu Lea Cheang’s Brandon? I staged it in Whitechapel [for the 2016 exhibition “Electronic Superhighway (2016-1966)”], but that wasn’t the place that even commissioned it. This is quite a polemical history.
The book’s title pretty prominently teases the fact that you’re going to address NFTs, which may just be the most polemical part of this history right now. How did you go about addressing them?
The year 1993 was when the public was truly given the internet as a tool, so it’s the 30th anniversary of the browser. I was curious to see the manifestation of that moment’s utopia. The majority of people are just curious about the assets, and how they’ll hold their value. And that, for me, is concerning, because what I’ve seen very, very clearly happen is that all these individuals have had absolutely no interest in any of this. They’re not actually engaging with the work, they’re engaging with the business development side. With NFTs, it’s really just an obsession with cryptocurrency, even if the obsession is pivoted around ideas of decentralization and the utopia the worldwide web should have been.
Rhizome had teased its Net Art Anthology with the fact that it was a “book about art on the internet,” which was intended to be ironic, given that anyone could theoretically log on and access most of the works cited instead of reading a book. A similar thing could be said of Internet_Art. Why did you write a book about art on the internet?
It was interesting that this was your last question and that as I was answering it, the power went out in your building and I could not in fact communicate with you any longer. A book is now dubbed an “analog technology,” which is constituted through language, which as artist Lawrence Abu Hamdan argues is the most complex, mutable, and negotiable of technologies. The book occupies a different spatial and temporal order than writing and other forms of content that are hosted on a browser-based interface, for instance. It is not always contingent on electricity, nor is it relying on servers to host it, or on developers to maintain its existence, not in the same way, anyway.
As I alluded to in our conversation, I began writing about the internet online. I must have written hundreds of articles in the early millennium for websites which no longer exist. They are gone; I have no contact with any of those editors, publishers or media conglomerates. They are not archived or indexed, nor can I find them online. The external hard drive where they were stored is lost, and the few that I had saved on my computer were lost in an epic fail on my part when I was first learning to use iCloud. The same goes for any internet-based form of art. It needs to be hosted. It is hosted on a server that you pay a fee to maintain. But what happens if that institution loses its funding and cannot afford to pay for its server or other attendant hosting costs?
As I mentioned in the book, and indeed in our conversation, Shu Lea Cheang’s Brandon was a work that constantly went offline, as there were no resources to maintain it. And yet, we continue to have these peaks and troughs of constant speculation about the field of art as it intersects with the internet. I authored the book as a protest against the amnesia that I felt had emerged due to this speculative impulse, creating a new shallows of and for the digital sphere. I was eager to consolidate my life and work from 1989 to the present, in a manner that would allow it to live and exist as a self-contained capsule of time for multiple generations. To do that online would demand a very different set of storytelling skills, and a lot more money/resources, those of which I do not have. I am grateful to have been able to put this work out in the world and to everyone who cares and continues to read these forms of culturally situated history.