“Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today” at the ICA

“Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today” at the ICA

Written By Catherine Titcomb

In February, Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, unveiled their new exhibit, “Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today.” It examines the internet’s influence on art since its creation.

Each room of the exhibit, which features 60 artists, has a different theme. At the entrance, flashing screens with jumbled audio contrast the rest of the ICA’s bright and calm aura. With the TVs being no exception, the art in this exhibit is different and a period of adjustment is required to learn how to look at it.

“I have mixed feelings,” said Sasha Didkovsky, a School of the Museum of Fine Arts student visiting for an ephemeral objects class. “It’s subjective.”

He also noted how the three-dimensional nature of most of the art disrupts preconceived notions about the definition of art and how to view it. People are used to spending a minute or two viewing a painting from a respectable distance before moving to the next one. However, the art in this exhibit must be viewed from both up close and far away, and from different angles, because most do not fall into neat categories such as painting or sculpture.

An example of this is one particular Paul Pfeiffer piece — a video on a tiny TV that isolates the ball in televised basketball games and cuts them together.  “It’s brilliant … [It] jumped out,” Didkovsky said.

The piece’s meaning seems obscure until reading the description, which speaks to the nature of the entire exhibit. Pieces seem random or unnecessary, but in reality speak volumes about the internet and address almost every issue current to society, from politics to race to body image.

The Pfeiffer piece sits in the “Networks and Circulation” room. The art sharing the space explores our power through the internet to exchange, upload, and download information infinitely and in mass amounts, creating an unprecedented level of interconnectedness. Another feature of this room is Gretchen Bender’s “American Flag,” a digital image of an American flag dissolving off the screen during a broadcasted sporting event. The flag mid-dissolve seems more like a rebel symbol than a proud national icon, creating a sense of discomfort. “I like that it takes this curious nationalistic symbol and destabilizes it,” Bender said about the description of the piece, addressing this sentiment. The quote and flag are especially powerful coming from 1989, a year of citizens rebelling against their governments, both in Germany with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Tiananmen Square protests in China.

The next room, “Hybrid Bodies,” questions how digitization and biotechnology change the definition of human. Mariko Mori’s work “Subway” pictures her dressed as a cyborg in the Tokyo underground. She found inspiration in Japanese manga and science fiction. The cyborg she portrays is hard to define as human or robot, as it exists somewhere between the two. The photograph addresses the controversy around merging humans with technology, and how much technology would no longer make someone human. These questions will surely become more prevalent in the coming decades as the separation between humans and technology lessens, and humanity becomes more and more integrated with technology.

“Virtual Worlds” displays artwork exploring the relationship between virtually created fantasy worlds and real life. A threatening automated voice provides the soundtrack for this room by reading out a Samsung refrigerator manual. Albert Oehlen’s oil painting seems like a refuge from the ominous fridge and other disturbances from the previous rooms. His untitled work from 2008 intends to reverse the typical view of human-computer relationships. Oehlen paints computer generated pixel images onto canvas by hand. By doing this, he picks up where the computer can no longer continue, rather than the usual notion that computers’ capabilities go beyond humans’.

In contrast to the other rooms which largely laud the internet’s democracy, “States of Surveillance” reminds us of its “misinformation and control.” The room comes with a purposefully ironic warning that all viewers are on camera and being live-streamed to the ICA’s website. This warning along with a TV playing collected security camera footage and two dolls holding screens playing a live video of the room creates a disturbing and tense atmosphere that serves to remind us that the democratic ideals of the internet are only half of the story. Blurry blown-up photos of Syrian gunmen aiming at the viewer in Rabih Mroué’s work “The Fall of a Hair: Blow Ups (2012) are even more unsettling.

Photo by Catherine Titcomb

The pastel room that follows, “Performing the Self,” focuses on social media and contrasts the heaviness of the previous space. The artwork focuses on the public’s need to be visible and active online. This need is not always self absorbed or unhealthy, rather, online networking has allowed information to accumulate, creating communities and increased visibility for minorities and the marginalized. A giant Cindy Sherman photo, “Untitled #463,” depicts a familiar scene, women having fun at a party and flouting their wealth and happiness. The giant smiles and cakey makeup give the women a ghastly, tragic look, making the scene seem off. Sherman’s message is that there is often pain beneath the surface of social media posts.

The last feature of the exhibit are interactive virtual reality glasses, an expansion of the “Virtual Worlds” installation. “Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today” is jarring and at some points disturbing, but it is expertly laid out and features many profound pieces which require visitors to become more engaged with the art’s message. The exhibit is on display at the ICA until May 20.

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