No Fun

Tina Rivers Ryan on Net art in the age of COVID-19

View of Eva & Franco Mattes’s  No Fun, 2010, Fotomuseum Winterthur, Switzerland. Photo: Angela Baumgartner.

10 AM ON THURSDAY, March 5, 2020: That was when I was supposed to have a coffee in Tribeca with the artists who use the pseudonyms Eva and Franco Mattes. I would be in town for the art fairs, and scheduling this meeting with the Italian duo, who are based in New York, was my consolation for missing “What Has Been Seen,” their survey at the Phi Foundation for Contemporary Art in Montreal. Before Facebook transformed the internet into a place where we use our real (or “real”) names, Eva and Franco began making Net art under the moniker, focusing on how identities and information are shaped by their digital circulation. Notoriously, their contribution to the 2001 Venice Biennale was to unleash the virus, in collaboration with a group of hackers named Epidemic. Although the virus was relatively benign—its only purpose was to remain hidden and replicate—the resulting uproar exposed the mechanics of publicity that sustain both the art world and the computer security industry.

Since the 1990s, Eva and Franco’s work has been raising ethical questions about how we behave online. Their project No Fun, 2010, now exists as video documentation of a troubling performance on Chatroulette, a website that randomly pairs strangers to chat via webcam. They used the platform to show thousands of unwitting participants a live feed of Franco’s apparently lifeless body, hanging from a noose in their studio. Given that the viewers had no way of knowing whether the scene was staged, their responses were as problematic as the performance itself—only one person called the authorities. When I included the work in a show on truth that I guest-curated for The Current, a fledgling nonprofit devoted to digital art, I followed the precedent of installing the video on a laptop on a bed. Uncomfortable intimacy is a feature here, not a bug: When we use the internet to mediate social relations, it can produce emotional closeness, but also distance, enabling toxic virtual interactions.

“Well Now WTF” gif by haydiroket.

10:40 AM on Monday, March 2: I receive an email from Eva. Unfortunately, we won’t be in NYC this week. We are traveling and Delta canceled our flights due to the Coronavirus. Perhaps we could Skype at some point? I can’t believe the poetry of it: My IRL meeting with got canceled because of a virus.

9 AM on Monday, March 16: Eva, Franco, and I begin Skyping between their temporary home in Milan, where the pandemic has stranded them, and my home office in Buffalo, where it has stranded me, after the museum where I work closed our offices. They were the perfect artists to talk to about the role the internet is playing in this crisis, which has been shaped as much by the circulation of information (or lack thereof) as by the circulation of the disease itself. Thanks to quarantine, we’re all becoming “extremely online:” Some of us are spending our days performing an anxious version of “Netflix and chill,” while others are making an abrupt transition to distance learning and remote working. Inevitably, this the first major pandemic to which our society has responded with memes (like viruses, another topic of Eva and Franco’s work).

Given these developments, it seems this novel coronavirus is forcing us to reevaluate our relationship with the internet—and quickly. In recent years, social media in particular has started to seem like it may have been a horrible mistake: The propagation of disinformation and manipulation of public opinion through platforms like Facebook and Twitter have enabled the spread of fascism and destabilized democracies, for starters. But in the past weeks, we’ve turned earnestly to our social networks to compensate for social distancing; we’re #workingfromhome, partying at #clubquarantine, and #coronabaking together. Those of us in the arts are hoping that our networks can keep us limping along while society grinds to a halt, giving rise to #CongressSaveCulture and mutual aid projects like an Instagram account publicizing canceled student shows.

Meme by mytherapistsays.

As many have now noted, this brave new world of #MuseumFromHome and online-only exhibitions is perfectly suited for net-based art. (Virtual life moves fast: On April 4, you can surf over to the opening of the appropriately named “Well Now WTF?,” a survey of over sixty born-digital works curated by Faith Holland, Lorna Mills, and Wade Wallerstein.) During our Skype conversation, Eva wondered whether the pandemic could even intensify interest in the early Net art of the 1990s, when the web’s potential as a medium for globally networked art and activism was first imagined. While things didn’t work out quite as planned (thanks in part to global capitalism), this history may help us rethink distance in the age of contagion, from both utopian and dystopian perspectives. Of course, artists have always been concerned with distance, especially throughout the twentieth century; but artists working with the internet have had more to say than most about its possibilities and limitations. As Eva and Franco’s work suggests, looking to Net art, past and present, can teach us about the advantages and disadvantages—emotional, political, economic, and environmental—of coming together in physical space versus cyberspace. Now legendary for its prescience, Eva and Franco’s Life Sharing, 2000–2003, put the entire contents of their computers online, proving that access doesn’t always translate into closeness; to make the work BEFNOED, 2014–, they used obscure social networks from all over the world to hire strangers to perform absurd tasks (like holding a fish in their mouths), complicating the happy picture of connectivity that is promoted by the gig economy.

Eva & Franco Mattes, Life Sharing, 2000-03, website screenshot.

In the coming weeks and months, we’ll have to reimagine how we practice social proximity, in our local communities but also on the internet. We should proceed with caution: As Net artists have helped reveal, the internet is the biggest surveillance tool ever devised; its algorithms are oppressive; and its apparent immateriality elides the exploitation of labor on which it depends. (Some are already voicing concerns about how this pandemic may be used to further erode our right to privacy, whether through the widespread adoption of attention-monitoring platforms like Zoom, or the suggestion that companies like Clearview AI could geotrack the sick). The time we spend communing online is having more immediate costs, too: like the Chatroulette users in No Fun, we’re becoming uncomfortably intimate with loss, and even death, through our screens—but this time, it’s real. Sitting alone, together, we’re suffering our own misfortunes while also bearing remote witness to interrupted relationships, stalled careers, ruined finances, and the demise of thousands of people, from distant loved ones to total strangers. After this is all over, those of us left will have to recalibrate the ratio of our online and offline lives, which will require rethinking the meaning and value of the closeness—and the distance—afforded by modern technologies.

Tina Rivers Ryan is assistant curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York.