Boston

Sondra Perry, Graft and Ash for a Three-Monitor Workstation, 2016, bicycle workstation, video, color, sound, 9 minutes 5 seconds. From “Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today.” Photo: Caitlin Cunningham.

Sondra Perry, Graft and Ash for a Three-Monitor Workstation, 2016, bicycle workstation, video, color, sound, 9 minutes 5 seconds. From “Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today.” Photo: Caitlin Cunningham.

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

ICA - Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston

Sondra Perry, Graft and Ash for a Three-Monitor Workstation, 2016, bicycle workstation, video, color, sound, 9 minutes 5 seconds. From “Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today.” Photo: Caitlin Cunningham.

“Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today” is a major survey of the impact of the internet on contemporary art, articulated into inevitably nebulous themes such as virtuality and surveillance. Comprising more than seventy works, the show includes almost as many artists, from Rafael Lozano-Hemmer and Hito Steyerl to relative newcomer Sondra Perry. As curator Eva Respini readily admits in the preface to the catalogue, this is not the first exhibition on this topic: Looking beyond the horizons of mainstream contemporary art to the field of new-media art that emerged in the 1990s, one finds precursors ranging from “net_condition” at ZKM | Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, in 1999 to “Art Post-Internet” at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing in 2014.

That said, few of these shows have aimed to present as much physical material from as many years to so general an audience. Although it includes a couple of early examples of online projects, such as Olia Lialina’s hypertext narrative My Boyfriend Came Back from the War, 1996, the installation ultimately emphasizes works made during the explosive growth of the web over the past decade or so, leading to the trend of “post-internet” or “internet-aware” art. Thus, the picture that emerges here is not of the first generation of artists to use the internet as a medium, but rather of the first to contend with the internet as a ubiquitous mass medium. In this regard, the show is indebted to the indispensable 2015 anthology Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century, edited by Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter.

Tellingly, both projects eschew identifying their topic as “internet art.” As the diversity of media in the exhibition suggests, art made in response to the internet is not necessarily made on the internet—and besides, to continue to insist on a discrete field of internet art seems a glaring anachronism, conjuring the outmoded medium-specificity of high modernism and of predigital storage formats, and a distant time when art and artists lived mostly offline. Yet the internet remains a distinct platform bound to social, historical, and political forces, and the challenge of “Art in the Age of the Internet” is to acknowledge this while presenting a larger “postmedia” ecology of aesthetic objects responding to our technological episteme.

Of the works in the show that walk the line between dialoguing with “pre-internet art” (to deploy Oliver Laric’s cheeky inversion of “post-internet art”) and critically engaging with the internet, the slickest of is Trevor Paglen’s Autonomy Cube, 2014, a Plexiglas-encased router that allows museum visitors (and remote users) to connect to the Tor network for anonymous surfing. Formally, the sculpture is a high-tech update of Hans Haacke’s Condensation Cube, 1963–65, which itself updated the Minimalist cube with a cybernetic “systems aesthetic” that opened the work of art to the local environment. As indicated by the title, what is at stake here is the notion of autonomy: If art after modernism challenged the autonomy of both art and the human subject, what does autonomy mean today, and how might it be achieved in a networked society? Paglen answers by rendering transparent the technologies that surveil and regulate most aspects of our lives, while also helping camouflage subjects embedded within them.

Almost escaping notice itself, Paglen’s Autonomy Cube sits on a pedestal in the Institute of Contemporary Art’s glass-walled balcony, in view of the glass towers of Boston’s Innovation District. This strategic placement creates a visual connection between the protocols of the internet and those of corporate and governmental power, prompting a consideration of how and why new technologies are being integrated into the space of the museum. Notably, Paglen’s stated vision is to install one of his cubes in every museum and library in America, ostensibly to preserve the autonomy that undergirds our noblest democratic institutions. Like the exhibition as a whole, Autonomy Cube rejects both the techno-utopian and technophobic rhetorics that haunt the history of art and technology: It refuses to use aesthetics to normalize the dystopian corruption of the public sphere, even as it also presumes that the internet is now an inextricable part of aesthetic experience.

Tina Rivers Ryan