Inside the Internet Art Bubble

Posted: August 18, 2011 in Uncategorized

The internet finally seems to have made a dint in New York’s institutional art world. Cory Arcangel, an artist who began his career manipulating old computer technologies and critiquing web culture, has an entire floor to himself at The Whitney. At the age of 33, his show Pro Tools makes him the youngest artist to receive a solo show at the institution since Bruce Nauman in 1973. Meanwhile, over at MoMA PS1, 30-year-old art star Ryan Trecartin is gathering steam with his four hour-plus video exhibiton of fucked-up child-adults on Blackberries, titled Any Ever. The show at PS1, chock full of internet jargon, is just one stop on a world tour that includes the Istanbul Modern Museum and the Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris.

Given the ridiculous level of buzz now surrounding these shows, one has to wonder just what we’re expecting from the art. Although local critics have mostly panned Arcangel’s exhibition, initial press included profiles in The New Yorker, New York Magazine, and the New York Times—a barometer of significant pre-show hype. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t want to proffer an opinion about that show, even if they haven’t seen the exhibition or don’t know anything about the art, a sure sign of The Emperor Has No Clothes syndrome. While Ryan Trecartin’s pre-press was a little more subdued, once the show opened critics basically queued up to laud it. The Times‘s Roberta Smith described the show as a “game-changer,” praise topped only by The New Yorker‘s Peter Schjeldahl, who described Trecartin as “the most consequential artist to emerge since the mid-eighties.” Apparently, he’s our Jeff Koons.

Two questions come to mind: First, is it really the art that’s prompting this clamor? And second, how did Arcangel and Trecartin end up garnering such a focus in the first place? The answer to the first question is obvious: virtually no media frenzy bears a one-to-one relationship with its subject, and the internet/tech hype might be the most powerful gimmick yet in the buzz-thirsty NYC museum world. (Just look at MoMA’s Talk To Me, a design show on communication technology sure to bring in foot traffic, with little to no relation to art.)

The answer to the second question, though, is a little more complicated. Producing strong work does some obvious good for a career, but doesn’t necessarily result in shows and reviews. Rather, for a myriad of the most sudden art stars, it’s more about producing the right work at the right time, and getting that work to the right people. Trecartin and Arcangel benefited from exceptional timing and exceptional support, and in the case of both artists, it’s useful to look at the roles of narrative, collaboration, and technology as a means of tracking their success. It’s less useful to buy into the kind of thinking that tells us anything we do with our phones and computers is somehow inherently interesting and worthy of artistic exploration.

Let’s begin with Cory Arcangel, who by most accounts saw his career take off after his inclusion in the 2004 Whitney Biennial. Nearly every critic mentioned the artist’s hacked Super Mario Bros. video game, a projection that removed all the landscape elements from the game, but for the clouds. The response was mixed, but the attention made visible a groundswell of interest in his work that had been percolating for several years.


If no single event or artwork brought Arcangel to this early marker of stardom, what exactly were people responding to? It’s hard to say, but part of it had to be the exuberant sense of purpose Arcangel and his crowd brought to digital technology. At the time, many people didn’t even know what a browser was, let alone that art could exist on it, but there was a sense that this was changing. A cadre of like-minded artists and curators scattered across the world—Paper Rad, Marcin Ramocki and Lauren Cornell to name a few—were making that shift happen. Part of the allure of Arcangel’s video games was that an understanding of cultural context was necessary for people to get the art.

Of course, his early lectures and collaborations also created a lot of word-of-mouth hype. Arcangel’s 8-Bit Construction Set, a DJ battle record filled with tracks made with the Atari 800 XL on one side, and the Commodore 64 on the other, made with BEIGE [programming ensemble] (Paul B. Davis, Joe Beuckman, and Joe Bonn), was a clear hit, garnering a large amount of press (and “dopes” from DJ Spooky). So, too, was The Infinite Fill Show at Foxy Production, a brilliantly conceived exhibition inspired by MS Paint software that culled patterned works in black and white. The exhibition included over 80 artists and was curated by Arcangel along with his sister Jamie Arcangel.

Given the strength of the work and number of people Arcangel worked with, it’s not surprising his career took off. Indeed, Times critic Holland Cotter, noting this and other collaborative efforts, declared “artist collectives” hot in 2002. Whether or not that was actually the case is debatable—art practice is so diverse I sometimes think any notion of trends is ludicrous—but it did, at least, make people a little more responsive to the fad in question.

In any event, Arcangel was labeled early on as “a talented artist who works with technology.” He’s since become disconnected from the internet community that once inspired him (the reasons for this shift are unclear—the most anyone can say is that this change began roughly after he joined Team Gallery in 2005), an unfortunate turn of events as this, in combination with his recurring struggles with thyroid cancer, has negatively affected his work. His career opportunities, however, remain intact. Part of this, I suspect, has to do with museums that now see artists working with the internet and social media as an easy way to bring in foot traffic. As an established name, Arcangel might appear, from the outside at least, an easy sell to museums wishing to capitalize on the ubiquity of internet culture.


So who’s going to replace Arcangel as the art world’s most prophetic voice engaging youth culture and the net? At present, it looks like Ryan Trecartin has received this title, though the relationship his long-form videos have to the internet is much less about technical fluency—Arcangel’s strength—than it is about creating a dystopic vision of the present. Put simply, Trecartin doesn’t code.

Trecartin’s career took off almost immediately after he graduated from RISD, though Peter Schjeldahl cites the New Museum’s 2009 Younger Than Jesus show as his tipping point. That juncture seems as good a breakout point as any for an artist whose whole career has basically been one giant tipping point. As told by ArtForum‘s Dennis Cooper, he was “discovered” when a student at the Cleveland Institute of Art showed a clip of Trecartin’s movie “A Family Finds Entertainment” to visiting artist Sue De Beer. He’d found it on Friendster. De Beer then told writer, art advisor, and former New Museum curator Rachel Greene; one thing led to another, and later that year he had a solo show at the Los Angeles’s Gallery QED.

Interestingly, unlike with Arcangel, who leans toward a much more populist kind of art making, many find Trecartin’s videos nearly impossible to watch for any great length of time. The actors all talk in squeaky, child-like voices, suffer from rotting teeth, and only occasionally make sense. The plot—when it exists—is very hard to follow.

In a way, it’s a miracle this work took off at all given these attributes, but “A Family Finds Entertainment” and “I-Be Area” were more narrative than his later films, and that likely helped ease an audience into some of the more difficult work. Also, Trecartin’s herd of collaborators helped spread the word. If Warhol’s Factory could be reborn, one has the impression that Trecartin’s collaborative groups (located in cities across the country from New Orleans to Miami) would be the form it took today.


Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Trecartin has produced a remarkably consistent body of work over the last seven years. His aesthetic—or “branding,” as the art world is so reluctant to describe it—is so distinct that no viewer can forget the work. Arguably, the earlier work can be more off-the-cuff than the new videos—often the actors were untrained, and everyone was encouraged to ad-lib—but the artist’s dexterity with words remains unchanged. “Why aren’t you documenting me?,” “I party alone!” and personal favorites like, “I hate this piece of wood!” are just a few choice quotes to come out of the early films.

The storylines themselves are bleak: in “A Family Finds Entertainment,” a boy named Skippy gets kicked out of his parent’s house after revealing his sexual preference, attempts suicide, is run over by a car, and is then saved by a group of flamboyant kids. “I-Be Area” offers a little more optimism with its malfunctioning characters stuck inside a blog space/internet-community/bedroom—eventually they find ways to be creative, so it seems worth the wait.

By the time Trecartin gets to Any Ever, though, it’s hard to endure more than thirty minutes at a time (despite an array of comfy seating options for each film ranging from office chairs to beds). “This place is full of rich identity tourists,” complains one worker in “K-CoreaINC.K (section a),” a video featuring characters whose jobs seem to be defined by spewing out mutant corporate speak infused with internet jargon. In another video, “Sibling Topics (section a),” Trecartin plays four siblings, one of whom complains, “I’m sick of my outfits coming from default closet.” Here, as in many other places, the individual scenes feel more like discrete channels in a larger network.


Perhaps a more Web 2.0 way of looking at the seven-film exhibition is to say that its structure resembles the results of a Google search. There’s some linear coherence to the narratives, in the same way one might find structure in a query. It’s dominated, however, by style: over-repetition and buzz words (spoken and written) permeate the movies. Add to this broken bed frames, flammable liquids, scissors, cell phones, shattered glass, mirrors and fucked-up makeup and you’ve got merely the backbone of Trecartin’s baroque visual vocabulary. Any Ever thus becomes an ornate version of this search query.

In that sense Trecartin’s show may at least reflect the hype that surrounds it: frantic and warped. It does not, however, live up to it. That’s not because the movies aren’t very good, or don’t engage the net, but rather that somewhere along the line, Trecartin’s message got lost. It’s as if he’s contacting his audience to tell them their phonelines are broken and can’t be fixed, and we’ve responded by celebrating the progress communication has brought.

(Images courtesy Cory Arcangel and Team Gallery; Ryan Trecartin and Elizabeth Dee Gallery)


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