According to the computer science guru David Gelertner, the increasing migration of digital information from personal hardware to data clouds necessitates a shift in the picture one refers to when visualizing the Internet. The Web—as in a relatively static network of data nodes—is out; the lifestream—as in continuously mutating network of data clouds—is in. He writes:
The Internet’s future is not Web 2.0 or 200.0 but the post-Web, where time instead of space is the organizing principle — instead of many stained-glass windows, instead of information laid out in space, like vegetables at a market — the Net will be many streams of information flowing through time. The Cybersphere as a whole equals every stream in the Internet blended together: the whole world telling its own story.
For some artists working on the Web, this principal applies as well. Creativity is–again, for some–not evaluated on the basis of an individual work of art, but rather on the basis of the artist’s ongoing, performed net presence. For better or for worse, a week ago an artist may have created a masterpiece work of art which in previous epochs would have been discussed for decades or even centuries; in the age of the CVS Pharmacy Twitter feed, though, the artist’s masterpiece will be quickly forgotten, at best sentimentally recalled or academically cited, but no longer felt. What will be felt, though, is the artist’s ongoing engagement with time—the molding of the NOW.
It should be said, though, that Gelertner is ambiguous about this obsession with flow and the NOW. He writes, “The effect of nowness resembles the effect of light pollution in large cities, which makes it impossible to see the stars. A flood of information about the present shuts out the past.” Furthermore, focusing on an endless NOW, can be oppressive for an artist’s creative expression. Part of what it means to be working in the tradition of the history of art is to work against the demands of one’s own time; or at least working in relation to it from a skewed angle, keeping everyone on their toes. The Puck-ish delight the artist has in convoluting expectations is frustrated in this grinding system which demands one to endlessly perform, endlessly produce ever newer novelties if one is to remain relevant as an artist. Nothing becomes shocking when there’s a new revolution every week and, thus, any avant-garde action becomes neither here nor there—it’s like whatever.
In what follows, I’ll discuss this performative approach to art making and look at the artist Seth Price’s response to some of the anxieties which it brings up.
First, here is an example of how an artist may come to think of their work as performative on the Internet:
An artist has a website. At first, this website is, depending on the artist, either a handy novelty or a frustrating necessity of the digital age. Either way, it’s not that super-important. One makes a work—be it digitally-created or handmade—and one, then, uploads a photograph or some other form of representation of this work to their website to serve as a second-hand reference for curators, collectors, critics, and the general contemporary art audience.
An artist maintains this website. Gradually the artist comes to realize just how handy and how necessary this tool is for the dissemination of their work. As newspapers, mainstream culture, an exploding amateur culture, communication with friends, banking, and a host of other day-to-day activities are increasingly conducted via the Internet, the artist realizes that not only do people greatly prefer, and even expect, the ease of viewing the work through this website, but the once-obvious line between the actual work and the representation of the work is becoming oddly blurry. For many members of the artist’s audience, including curators, critics, and other arts professionals, the image of the work on the website is good enough. This is exacerbated by the increasingly global nature of contemporary art, perhaps best represented by Biennial culture.
All of the sudden, the way the artist thinks about their work is at least as much dictated by how a .jpeg of the piece looks in the context of their website as they are by how it would look in the physical art space. This is what the artist Guthrie Lonergan calls “post Internet” art—the art after the Internet changed the way that art reaches an audience.
For many younger artists who, by historical accident, came of age without ever really experiencing the “pre-Internet” relationship between artist and audience, this is not a novelty, but an obvious fact that almost goes without saying. Even if one works in traditional media, art is primarily experienced on the Internet.
The art/curatorial collective VVORK curated a show called “The Real Thing” which was based on the idea that, as members of mediatized cultures, most of their own knowledge of art was not accrued through the original, but through art history books, lectures, conversations, and, of course, the Internet. In other words, through “versions.” In their statement for the show, which was held at MU in Eindhoven, they write:
Some of our favourite works have only been described to us, unsurprisingly as the majority of our art experiences have been mediated in one form or other. The majority of works presented in this show have been selected through written commentaries, verbal descriptions and jpegs found online. In fact most of the works presented at MU are the type of manifestations mentioned above: stories, descriptions, translations and interpretations, all understood as primary experiences.
One of VVORK’s cited inspirations for the show is the following Seth Price quote from Dispersion:
Does one have an obligation to view the work first-hand? What happens when a more intimate, thoughtful, and enduring understanding comes from mediated discussions of an exhibition, rather than from a direct experience of the work? Is it incumbent upon the consumer to bear witness, or can one’s art experience derive from magazines, the Internet, books, and conversation?
Now, when the primary experience of art is legitimately conceived in this way–as an endless series of versions–there are going to be effects. For example, the glut of information through which media consumers are presented nudges the consumer to surf through this media, including contemporary art, rather than engaging deeply with any one particular unit. The artist Chris Coy recently described this phenomenon in terms of the way the computer urges its users to view images in sequences, as in, for example, thumbnails. In an e-mail interview conducted for the SFMOMA website, he claims:
A computer screen is very much a sequential image-viewing device. Which is significantly reshaping the function of the Image in my life. I have become a very adept surface skimmer – gliding my way across glossy roll over buttons, tumblr blogs and Google image searches and stock photo sites… which means hundreds, if not thousands of images pass before me on any given day. Imagery is being totally integrated into our vocabulary – I mean you can shoot, edit and upload video from an iPhone now. Even the core function of the phone is changing as technology facilitates this hypermediated kind of ubiquitous computing thing.
This understanding of the computer as a “sequential image-viewing device” necessitates a decrease, then, in the preciousness around a single instance of artwork.
This is not the end of the story, though. What one sees happening in some corners of the Internet is a new type of temporal activation—a “net presence” in which the artist’s work is viewed as one on-going performance in which the audience follows the artist as he or she performs the act of creating individual works. This performance, unlike the individual works of art made during the course of the performance, is where audiences are nudged to qualitatively sort out and find meaning in artistic experience on the Internet.
There is, though, a dangerously romantic appeal to this idea. It seems to advocate for a “survival of the fittest” scenario in which the future is an endless, regularly-scheduled assembly line of novelty and only those art workers who keep up with the administered pace of production get a gold star. Performance here sounds like “engine performance.” This is obviously not the sort of situation which would be in the artist’s favor. It’s not exciting for an artist (or an art theorist, for that matter) to follow a theoretically pre-prescribed pattern which was dictated by the pressures of the market, the audience, or the curatorial/critical apparatus around the work’s reception. Furthermore, in an endless rush for new change and novelty, it becomes increasingly unclear as to what the point is or where all this performing is headed.
In many of Seth Price’s works, for example, 8-4 9-5 10-6 11-7, For a Friend, and Poems, the anxiety surrounding endless performance and novelty is considered.
8-4 9-5 10-6 11-7, for example, is a downloadable, eight-hour electronic dance music mix. It was created in the downtime from Price’s work over the course of several years. As one begins to stream the mix, there’s something polished about its fun—it feels really open and cool and one appreciates the labor of the mix’s flowas much as the individual tracks themselves. As the stream continues, though, an anxiety arises: What’s all of this polished labor flowing for? An hour has passed—it’s still going—endlessly, relentlessly upbeat. Two hours have passed—it’s still going. Three hours—still going. Now, one might grow tired and leave the work’s mix mid-stream or one might keep up with it as the editorial power and taste level of the mixing itself continues unabated. But––still—in either case, one may wonder, where is this “going” going? Will it ever change or is it just endless tasteful funkiness? A hint is provided by the work’s title–8-4 9-5-10-6 11-7. These numbers can be decoded as the eight hours of the daily work day: 8:00-4:00; 9:00-5:00; 10:00-6:00; 11:00-7:00. The eight hours of music is at once both powerfully upbeat and nightmarishly endless. The same could be said of creative labor itself, of the eight-hour work day which blurs into the twenty-four hour work day, the intermingling of “on the clock” and “off the clock”–an endless streaming of data into an already well-clogged database with seemingly no justification other than to produce more endlessly fun content.
Similarly, in For a Friend, a pair of friends engage in a seemingly endless conversation filled with reasonably interesting observations, but, ultimately, never progressing forward. The conversation begins with an amateur philosophical discussion concerning a journalistic trope in which a writer begins an article with a mention of the date in which the events described in the body of the article take place. However, meaningful as the content of their question may be (and there is something interesting about it), this meaning is neutralized in the text by, first, the factual inaccuracies and misspellings embedded into the examples of the trope raised by the friends, as well as, second, the illogic of the discussion which follows. The friends go from the trope of dating the events described in the beginning of a journalistic article to the rise of personal computing and network usage, hacking, personal consumption choices, obsolescence, personal charisma, looking at everything versus seeing structure, puberty, Zen, anarchy, revolution, mythology, architecture, bare life, progress, and, finally, “self-annihilating question(s).” Each development of the discussion raises a true-ism regarding structure, but each true-ism is itself situated in a wildly flimsy structure. The result is that, the text becomes its own “self-annihilating question,” picturing its own limitations–its own endless series of true-isms never getting anywhere real.
And in Poems, Price presents a series of fragments scribbled in notebooks. Snippets of pseudo-intellectual conversation networking into nowhere; analyses of philosophical thought without clear points; calls to political action lacking in direction; lists that only make sense if one rationalizes them. Occasionally, phrases seem to summarize what the poems are about. One that got me was titled “Fantasy of History.” We see a post-it note attached to a piece of paper, reading, “The idea of trying to remember something and getting it wrong–But embarking successfully on a quest from wrong information.” Unfortunately, though, one remains unsure of whether or not this, too, is just another dumb idea in a notebook full of dumb ideas. One of Price’s most powerful effects is his ability to draw one deeper and deeper into thinking they have a handle on something—anything—and then—bam—pulling the rug out from under one’s feet. What one is left with is an image of something that seems like it might be about this or that theme, but whose meaning will be endlessly deferred.
Through his career, though, Price has developed strategies which resist these anxieties. Two of those strategies are delay and re-versioning.
In Price’s text Dispersion, he discusses “delay.” He writes:
Slowness works against all of our prevailing urges and requirements: it is a resistance to the contemporary mandate of speed. Moving with the times places you in a blind spot: if you’re part of the general tenor, it’s difficult to add a dissonant note. But the way in which media culture feeds on its own leavings indicates the paradoxical slowness of archived media, which, like a sleeper cell, will always rear its head at a later date. The rear-guard often has the upper hand, and sometimes delay, to use Duchamp’s term, will return the investment with massive interest.
His work with the Continuous Project collective, for example, is dedicated to public readings and illegal publishing of historical art (and occasional non-art) texts. By distributing these archival works as contemporary works, they are given a new lease and sense of relevance.
Similarly, in 2009, Price exhibited for the first time a set of calendars that he originally produced in 2004. In the press release for this exhibition, he writes, “Sometimes it’s good to go forward and then double back, and circle around again. To those who turned their feet around so that their tracks would confuse their pursuers: why not walk backward?” The calendars’ content is composed of a collision between pre-AbEx American painting and graphic design tropes dating from the early 1990s which read as “futuristic.” WPA-era painters like Thomas Hart Benton, for instance, are–for better or for worse– best known, not for their own work, but rather for paving the way for an artist like Jackson Pollock, who was a pupil of Benton’s. The “hot” cursive fonts and gradiated neon backdrops read the same way: they are—for better or for worse–all but forgotten—depreciated–not unlike an out-of-date wall calendar.
I don’t believe that in either the case of Continuous Project or the calendar pieces, Price is dedicated to the idea that the delayed effect of a given work re-introduced into the art system will ever necessarily solve anything or become all that meaningful. Perhaps what they each do accomplish, though, is to create meaning through a sort of quietism, serving as memento mori—a reminder of one’s own finitude and the inevitable obsolescence of any new novelty in art and visual culture.
The other strategy Price employs is to re-version his own work. For example, Dispersion is a text which, for Price, is a mutable document, continuously open to change and alteration. And his artist lecture, Redistribution, is likewise open to further revision. By re-versioning an older work, it is re-inserted into the cultural system and given a new opportunity to create an effect.
These strategies keep the past alive by erasing it, introducing false memories, and avoiding a static personal archive of work. As mutable digital code, the artist’s archive is just as open to continuous revision as anything else displayed on the Internet.
The art critic Tim Griffin argues that as Price disappears through a continuous re-tracing of his own personal archive, he is able to successfully elude calcification at the hands of the art world, but at a significant cost: the evacuation of any memory or stable sense of meaning of this personal archive. In Griffin’s words: “He behaves as a kind of filter, continually reintroducing a sense of this loss in his work, this emptying of memory, in order to mine the effects and affects of such depletion.”
There’s something sacrificial about Price’s work, then–killing it in order to preserve it. However, at some future date, Seth Price will himself die and will no longer be able to go back and confuse his pursuers by introducing false memories and histories, and a reading of his work will become crystallized and the galleries and museums will sum it all up and show something that stands in for it the whole thing.
Perhaps, though, one can think of Price’s project not as an endgame, but as a sort of therapy for the knots one gets into when conceiving of art as endgame. It’s a method for future artists to keep going.