Left: Lisa Oppenheim, The Sun Is Always Setting Somewhere Else, 2006, 35-mm slide projection. Right: Takeshi Murata, I, Popeye, 2010, still from a color video, 6 minutes.


Lauren Cornell is executive director of Rhizome.org and adjunct curator at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. Here, she discusses “Free,” her latest curatorial endeavor at the museum. This innovative group show explores the ways in which the Internet has altered our collective notions of information and public space. “Free” opens on October 20.

TODAY, what constitutes the fabric of public space is not only the expanded sociality we’ve come to experience with the Web, but a highly visual, hybrid commons of information. “Free” attempts to illustrate how artists are approaching this radical change in culture to examine its possibilities, limits, and dilemmas. For instance, the works in the show by Trevor Paglen, Lars Laumann, and Jill Magid point to the ways in which ideas and information are repressed; Lisa Oppenheim’s 35-mm slide show The Sun Is Always Setting Somewhere Else uses found images—pictures of the sunset taken by soldiers stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan—to point to larger realities: in this case, war.

Originally, I had titled the show “Free Culture,” after Lawrence Lessig’s book of the same name. As Lessig frames it, free culture acknowledges the kind of sea change the Internet has brought to industries such as music and publishing, and he argues these should be seen as opportunities, not threats. Free Culture––the movement that gained momentum around these ideas––advocates for open sharing and distribution of creative works via the Internet. But after considerable research, I felt that it wouldn’t make sense for an exhibition to simply advocate along these lines, and that a complex premise would be more true to the way artists are working. So I simplified the title, opting for something that could carry the contradiction and irony of the works I was seeing.

Seth Price’s “Dispersion,” an open-ended essay he has tweaked and adjusted since 2002, is another source of inspiration for the show. It is featured in “Free” within his larger sculptural installation Essay with Knots. The voice of “Dispersion” takes many forms, swinging back and forth from authoritative to personal and full of self-doubt. It explores artists’ attempts throughout the twentieth century to circumvent the structures of the art world through conceptual strategies and new forms of media, and thus to reach new audiences or publics. “Dispersion” is freely available on Price’s website, but it is also exhibited as an object. This coordination between the gallery and other spaces is shared by many of the works, from Aleksandra Domanovic’s 1930 to Joel Holmberg’s Legendary Account and Kristin Lucas’s Refresh––the gallery is one stop in a larger network, which includes performances, books, archives, installations, websites, and dance parties.

Many of the works in “Free” address public space, in terms of information, what is available, what is hidden, how it is accessed, circulated, and repurposed. For example, Takeshi Murata’s works often copy, mutate, and personalize public imagery. The character Popeye is the flexible subject of Murata’s I, Popeye, and he is given endless visual treatments in the work; he is copied, broken apart, and resurrected. Like images freely circulating in the public domain, Popeye seems to take on his own life, and yet constantly be altered and imprinted with use.

It was important to me to include a range of contemporary art forms in “Free” to emphasize that the Internet affects artists across disciplines. And yet somehow in the visual arts, it still is marginal or misunderstood. People still think narrowly about the field as “Net art,” which was its pioneering first iteration in the 1990s that explored its more formal properties: code, protocols, and connectivity, among other elements. Over the past decade, the field has exploded. (Rhizome, for instance, now covers works that deal innovatively with the Web as well as those responding to the broader aesthetic and political implications of new tools and media.) I wanted to create a different discourse about the Internet, as something that can be not only a medium but also a tool, a territory, and a catalyst for radical changes in our landscape of information.

— As told to Lauren O’Neill-Butler