Painting is a meme.
What is a meme?
Meme is a term coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to refer to units of cultural data which act like genes–replicating, spreading, and mutating in response to the selective demands of the culture in which they develop. Many things count as memes–political slogans, film dialogue, emergent philosophical perspectives, technological breakthroughs, advertising brands, economic principals, fashion trends, viral YouTube videos, the very idea of a meme itself, the list could go on. What matters is that it is an idea which has the power to replicate itself from one mind to another to another and sustain itself through a stretch of cultural time.
So, if one is to take the history of painting as a meme spreading from mind to mind through its history—from cave paintings to Piero della Francesca to Thomas Gainsborough to Nancy Spero and beyond—each iteration in the history of the meme mutating itself in response to its own context—then what would it mean to extend the painting meme into the context of digital computer networks? That is, assuming that painting did not, in fact, die sometime in the early 1980s, what would it mean to respond to the continually evolving painting meme in the context of ubiquitous computing in 2010? How would the painting meme be translated when a painting is still an object, but an object dispersed through the network as a mutable digital photograph, as well? This is not to say that all relevant painting must take this question of the network into consideration, but that it could be a pressing and fruitful intellectual question for at least some painters.
One way to think through an answer to this question is provided in the art historian David Joselit’s recent October essay “Painting Beside Itself.” In this essay, Joselit suggests that recent painters such as Julia Koether, Stephen Prina, and Wade Guyton have developed practices which allegorize their objects’ own “transitivity” or continuous in-between-ness as they shuttle from one node of the network to another—from object, to photograph of object, to source material for another artist’s appropriation and re-circulation, and back again, in an ongoing circulation. Works of art—here—are never situated in a static context; rather they are situated in continuous state of passage between contexts in a broader network of multiple contexts.
An alternative response to the question of the painting meme’s life in the network is being developed by young artists working on or around the Internet. For these artists:
1. The computer screen is the primary surface on which painting will be viewed and, because of this, a new suite of phenomenological effects occuring between painting and viewer are opened for exploration.
2. The rate of speed at which paintings travel is atrophied when uploaded directly to computer networks and this increase in speed allows one to, then, view the flow of painting in time.
In what follows, I’ll say a few more words about the relationship between painting and the computer, describe a recent trajectory of the painting meme amongst a group of Internet artists, and, then, focus, in particular, on the work of the PAINT FX collective.
It’s possible that an “actual” Abstract Expressionist painting produced in the 1940s and a “fake” Abstract Expressionist painting created through the application of digital effects in a piece of software could be effectively indistinguishable when viewed through the light of the computer screen. With this in mind, some painters have shifted their concerns from those native to the paradigm of the white cube to, instead, those native to the paradigm of the computer screen. This shift has repercussions, though. For example, the phenomenological effects of painting shift from the materiality of paint on canvas to the light spilling from a computer screen. This bias towards the surface of the screen, then, nudges artists towards exploring different types of bodily shock effects. The relationship of the body to the computer screen after all is different than that of the body to the physical painting in space–computers are open circuits in which cybernetic feedback relationships between computer databases and users allow users to actively shape the mediascape they inhabit. These cybernetic relationships create a desire for clicking, scrolling, and following—dynamic motion premised on sifting through an accumulation of data rather than gazing for very long at a single pattern of light. The Internet painter, then, begins to think in terms of multiplicity, the aesthetics of the surfeit, and, crucially, a strong temporal element which transforms painting into a variation on performance art. Furthermore, jpegs, as digital files, are mutable, meaning that they can be radically transformed instantaneously at the level of code. If one wants to merely touch up a single brush stroke or slap a picture of a sea shell on the top layer of the painting, the technology is agnostic in regard to the amount of variation each of these types of alterations suggests. This mutability means that once it is part of the network, other artists and non-artists, as well, are given free reign to appropriate the image and alter it themselves, re-disseminating the mutated image through alleyways of the network which the painting’s original creator could not anticipate. In other words, paintings here are a network of versions; a stream of evolving memes.
The meeting of painting and the computer is not new. MS Paint, for example, has long been mined for painting effects. In the context of the Internet, the artist Tom Moody (a former “actual” painter) has built an important practice at the interface of painting and the computer screen which has evolved into making animated gifs and placing them on his own blog and sites like dump.fm. This is not meant to be an authoritative history, though, so I’ll focus on the life of one strain of the painting meme as I’ve witnessed it over the past two or three years.
I first began to notice artists working on painting at the tail end of the surf club phenomenon. Artists like Will Simpson, Thomas Galloway, and Travess Smalley on the surf club Loshadka, for example, were moving away from appropriated content derived from Internet surfing and towards original content created in painting software programs.
Around this time, the artist Charles Broskoski began increasingly focusing his work away from conceptual art pieces to a painting practice premised on volume, performativity, and innovations in presentation which were native to the computer screen. The artist Harm van den Dorpel was working on a similar project, in which he straddled the borders between a computer model of a work and a work in physical space and allowed that very tension to become illuminated as the work. Along the way, he raised an interesting set of questions regarding artistic deskilling and the borders between hand-made effects and automated effects. In short, the “hand of the artist” was, on the Internet of all places, becoming an interesting area to explore. Soon enough, there seemed to be an internal logic and momentum to this digital painting meme and the Supercentral II surf club and Poster Company by Travess Smalley and Max Pitegoff, pushed it further, actualizing what was in the air. A slightly younger generation of artists working on the tumblr platform and the emergence of a body of critical reflection by artists such as Ry David Bradley on his PAINTED, ETC blog continued to sustain the evolution of the meme, polishing certain presentational elements and building a community of people interested in these ideas. Painting in the network was about fast-paced collective dialogue and mind-bending abstractions. It was also about painting. The imagery of these works are often collisions between digital gestures and painterly gestures, but, generally speaking, the concern is with the tradition of painting–pre-Internet–as opposed to the animated gif scene whose roughly concurrent rise (in the net art context) posed as a nice counterpoint to the painting meme.
If one was watching, one could view the evolution of the meme as it started in a sort of experimental phase, gained some steam, developed a community, and achieved some sort of level of self-consciousness about itself. The meme here takes on its own form of life which one can watch live on the Internet.
Recently, the PAINT FX collective composed of Parker Ito, Jon Rafman, Micah Schippa, Tabor Robak, and John Transue, have developed a new mutation of the painting meme. Looking closely at what had been accomplished in the work mentioned above and also ideas at the intersection of photography, sculpture, and performance which the Jogging collective (Brad Troemel and Lauren Christiansen) was working on, PAINT FX designed an environment to both experiment with performative voices as painters and develop micro-versions of the painting meme in one ongoing stream of paintings.
Although the paintings are not explicitly associated with particular artists (there’s no supplementary text on the site, at all), one can view unique voices develop as each painter builds a vocabulary of specific paint effects he’s working with. One views both the development of these effects and the exploration of their usage through these unique voices. Additionally, one views both the artists engaged dialogue with the other members of Paint FX collective and the flows of specific memes threading in and out of the broader image stream.
There are, to date, just under three hundred paintings posted on the collective’s very lengthy single web page–paintfx.biz. One can experience this body of work in multiple ways. There is this performative element—a fast paced call and response game in which the members of PAINT FX evolve memes. There is also the trace of this performance which exists as a totally different type of effect. The artists chose to not divide their archive up into multiple pages which one would have to click through, but instead as one very long scroll. What this choice nudges the viewer to do is consider the flow of images as an ongoing development—a long poem, say. This effect, though, is open to further versioning in relation to the type of device one uses. So, for instance, scrolling through Paint FX on an iPhone is going to be a different type of effect than scrolling through it on a flat screen computer monitor in the comfort of one’s living room. PAINT FX, though, has created a platform robust enough to be dynamically experienced in a multitude of viewing contexts.
There are also other variations in how the work will be experienced which are dependent on the user’s context. Let’s say that one chooses to let the entire page download and start at the earliest painting, scrolling up to the most recent. One could, on the one hand, just hold the scroll button down and watch the paintings zoom by like objects outside the windows of a moving car. The style of the paintings and their sequencing on the page are instantaneously visible enough to provide an ongoing series of shock effects which increase as one continues to ride out the scroll (which lasts for several minutes bottom to top). By rapidly scrolling through this way, one gets a broad overview of the way the voices of the artists, the various vocabularies of painting effects, and various bursts of smaller memes each develop. On the other hand, though, one could also go through and carefully consider each painting. This, too, can be effective as the paintings are not merely eye candy. They are generally each labored over and carefully considered from multiple points of view before they are uploaded. Also, oftentimes, the phenomenological effect of looking at a static image on the site for a more extended point of time can be powerful. Through the practical experience of simply looking carefully and observing their own reaction to consuming images on computers, these artists have become discriminating in relation to the types of effects possible through the light of the screen. In turn, they have developed unique skills for crafting particularly optically-charged images.
Finally, the project is also a robust space for painting memes to accelerate and disseminate in the most efficient possible modes. On PAINT FX, the viewer watches the lifeform of memes develop in a sort of real time. On the one hand, this is frustrating because one can’t hold out much hope for an individual painting to maintain a level of qualitative power after a few days and weeks as it becomes swallowed up in the flow of the entire project. On the other hand, if one refocuses the way they view the project in terms of following this flow, new categories of aesthetic experience are opened up.
On the Internet, the meme of painting has developed ways in which to increase the efficiency and acceleration of the dispersal of its own versions. Keywords here are “speed” and “immediacy.” A question which the Internet hasn’t effectively explored as of yet, though, is related to the ethics of this acceleration. Now that one can view painting in motion, a question and a way to perhaps further evolve the meme may revolve around where this acceleration is headed and why.