Mass Effect: Art and the Internet in the Twenty-First Century
by Lauren Cornell and Ed Halter, Editors
The MIT Press, Cambridge MA, 2015
528 pp., illus. 32 col., 99 b/w. Trade, $45.95
Reviewed by Gabriela Galati, Ph.D.
Mass Effect is a state-of-the-art compilation on the on-going debates on the relationships between art and the internet. The publication commissioned new scholarship and also re-published other previous relevant articles on these debates.
As the editors make clear on the first page of their Introduction, this intention emerged as the response to the evident fact that the internet is no longer a new media for artists, but has already become a mass media in its own right. In this sense, the work aims at providing a historical background for a moment like the present: one in which the use and abuse of expressions like "post-internet art" proliferate. In this regard, most of the authors agree about the fact that talking about "post-internet" is somehow imprecise. The book is addressed mainly to artists and scholars who are already familiar not only with the topics addressed but also with the terminology, because as a collection of short articles it may not provide enough context and technical or academic definitions for newcomers.
The book features 38 articles, five of which are transcriptions of round tables, interviews and discussions, an artist's work commissioned for the volume (Paul Chan, p. 223) and a selection of images from DIS Magazine (p. 393). Perspectives are varied: Some articles implement a more art historical approach (Paul Slocum, p. 123; Ceci Moss, p.147; Mark Leckey, p. 199; Alex Kitnick, p. 213); some analyse artists' works (Tina Kukielski on Cory Arcangel, p.29; Alice Ming Wai Jim on Cao Fei, p. 90; Rebecca Solnit on Trevor Paglen, p. 243; David Joselit on Seth Price, p.268; Michael Wang on Ryan Trecartin, p. 401; Morgan Quaintance on Lotte Rose Kjaer Skau, p. 419; Domenico Quaranta on Eva and Franco Mattes, p. 425); some are artists talking about their own work and interests (Guthrie Lonergan, p. 167); some present on-going or updated theoretical discussions (Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied, p.1; Marisa Olson, p. 159: Ed Halter, p.231; J. Maier-Rothe, D. Kafafi and A. Feizabadi, p. 289; Claire Bishop, P. 337, 353; Borys Groys, p. 359; Martine Syms, 369; Hito Steyerl, p. 439; Karen Archey, p. 451); some are re-printed articles of earlier date (Seth Price, p.51; Alexander R. Galloway, p. 69; Raqs Media Collective, p. 79; Gene McHugh, p. 185; Alix Rule and David Levine, p. 303); and in several, more than one of these approaches overlap. In this sense, the publication can be considered as a polyphonic book, which is undoubtedly part of its relevance and interest. However, as it is easy to imagine, the level of the articles is sometimes uneven: Most of them pose many key questions, respond to others, and are pertinent and compelling; just a few cases are not.
Lialina and Espenschied's article "Do you believe in users? / Turing complete user" begins by confuting the conception of the personal computer and the internet 'as mere extensions of pre-computer culture' (p. 1). According to the authors, the whole effort of the industry in making the medium invisible or transparent in fact aims at hiding 'computer culture', that is to say, what actually happens inside the computer world. Computer culture then is hidden to foreground 'computer technology', namely, computers understood as mere instruments for doing something else faster, more efficiently, better.
In response to this state of affairs, the authors elaborate the concept of 'Digital Folklore', which they define as 'the customs, traditions, and elements of visual, textual, and audio culture that emerged from users' engagement with personal computer applications during the last decade of the twentieth century and the first decade of the twenty-first century' (p. 2). The concept and time frame are grounded on the intention of opposing it to Home Computer Culture, which 'ceased to exist by the end of the 1990'. Thus the article delineates the passage from a computer culture that considered users as those who were 'self-taught experts' who 'created their own culture', who created the programs and used them, to a conception of 'users' as 'Real Users' or 'Naïve Users' who used the computer as a tool but were not actually interested in it, or in its systems (p. 2,3). Lialina and Espenschied thus recognise and search to highlight the emergence of Digital Folklore together with the emergence of the Naïve User underpinning the interest of understanding a pervasive culture that, as they point out, 'despite their low social status and technical limitations' at this point happened to exceed the output of hacker culture (p. 3).
Instead, Cory Arcangel dedicates his article to retrace the work of the art group Paper Rad, which was active approximately between 2000 and 2008 (p. 15). With a nostalgic and involving tone, Arcangel retraces the origins and works of the collective recalling how the oblivion to which it was subject was partly due to 'the fine art industry - the dominant mechanism for the archiving of creative culture - [which] has a limited amount of patience for practices that color outside the lines of its own dialogue'; consequently 'Paper Rad's dispersion led to their work slipping out of the art historical discussion' (p. 17). Apart of bringing back Paper Rad to this context, the author also succeeds in transmitting the enthusiasm and euphoria felt by all of those who, like himself, took part of the second generation of internet artists.
Although it doesn't exhaust all the topics addressed, as it is easy to expect from an email interview, Caitlin Jones' conversation with Aleksandra Domanović and Oliver Laric (p. 107) brings interesting insights on several issues, the first of which being that of 'primary experience'. Laric states that although he considers the work on his website as 'the real thing' (p. 107), both, the work online and that in the gallery space can be considered for him as primary experiences. Coherent with this statement was also their website vvork.org developed together with together with Christoph Priglinger and Georg Schnitzer. The project worked for seven years as an online exhibition space (p. 108) on which the four artists accumulated posts exclusively of images of artworks they chose, with their corresponding captions. Asked about how VVORK influenced their own practices, Domanović is illuminating as she states that at a certain point she simply stopped caring if what they posted on VVORK was documentation of "real" artworks or not: she realised that for her it was just one thing, and that one enriched the experienced of the other.
Ceci Moss' article "Internet Explorers" focuses on the works of a network of artists who between 2005 and 2010 started using mainstream user-generated content as the primary subject matter of their artistic practices, in a somehow pop turn following the pervasive spread of social media (p. 147). With an art historical approach, Moss gives an overview of the most relevant exhibitions, artists and projects which arose at the time, concluding that the label "post-internet" art, or "internet-aware" art, whichever one might prefer, does not apply any longer to artist working online, but more broadly, refer to artists and artworks which are constantly intertwined and traversed by information culture.
In 1969, Harold Rosenberg  argued that Modern Art had never allowed for a direct access to the experience of the work - for a purely phenomenological relationship between artwork and viewer - because it always needed some kind of textual support that completed, or better, allowed to access to the whole sense of the work. Ed Halter picks up on Rosenberg's article to analyse the works in "Free", an exhibition on post-conceptual and post-internet art (p.231-233), making clear the continuity between Conceptual Art, Minimalism, Land Art and other artistic practices that fall under the category "Modern Art", and that of the kind of works that can be found in "Free", and evidently not exclusive to them: all the featured works, according to Halter, needed some kind of additional information, that is to say, of an explanation to 'achieve full significance' (p. 233).
Halter highlights the continuity between conceptual practices and that of art that 'responds to the internet' (p. 233), which is without doubt a great part of the relevance of the article. However, he puts the accent on the fact that the internet has thoroughly changed our relationship with ideas through the internet leaving aside that is that also, or may be even in a greater measure, changed our relationship with objects, precisely, the phenomenological relationship between artworks and viewers (or users). In this sense, he poses the right question (or one of the questions of interest) when he asks if an internet art piece (Legendary Account by Joel Holmberg) should be exhibited only online, or if exhibiting its documentation (printouts of the website) should be accepted - thus the question is about what kind of phenomenological relationship with the object should be proposed, and eventually accepted. What needs further reflection is the answer, Halter states: 'The answer depends on whether Legendary Account is seen from a medium-specific point of view - Legendary Account as work of internet art - or a Post-Conceptual one' (p. 234). So, can the considerations about an artwork, about how it should exhibit change depending on the label one applies to it? Halter's answer seems to be affirmative, if one says the piece is Post-Conceptual it would be right to exhibit the documentation, if not, it wouldn't (p. 234). Possibly the problem lies in that the article very acutely traces the continuities between conceptual practices as described by Rosenberg and post-internet practices, but misses the fractures: the difference doesn't lie in the novelty of the combination of material and immaterial in Rosenberg's time - one only needs think of the works of Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, Naum Gabo and Marcel Duchamp, just to name a few - , but in how the viewer (and curators) understands and relates to it. The problem is being still modernist (to think in terms of medium-specificity), or post-modernist (to think in terms of post-conceptualism) to consider works and artists that have already overcome both paradigms.
Precisely in this regard, it seems necessary to also comment on the somehow harsh discussion that took place on the pages of Artforum between September 2012 and January 2013 between Claire Bishop, Lauren Cornell and Brian Droitcour about Bishop's article "Digital Divide: Contemporary Art and New Media", which has been included in this volume (p. 337) along with her response "Sweeping, dumb, and aggressively ignorant! Revisiting 'Digital Divide'" (p.354). The discussion is possibly "famous" by now, but briefly, for those who may be not familiar with it, it focused on Bishop's assertion at the time that mainstream art was not acknowledging in its productions the real influence of new media and the digital in its practices; but on the contrary, the author maintained that most of the artists (at least those quoted by Bishop) were retreating, so to speak, to modern and analogue media, such as film, archival forms, and the like. In their co-authored response, Cornell and Droitcour argued that 'the divide [Bishop] describes is actively being bridged and, because of a critical blind spot she is forcing it back open' (2). In fact, the critical blind spot is actually there, but possibly on both sides: each of them defended their position from the point of view of mainstream art, in Bishop's case, and from the point of view of digital art, in Cornell's and Droitcour's case, but without being able to bring both points of view together, that is to say, without considering the artistic field as one. As in Halter's case, what seems to be missing is the possibility of considering current artistic practices, whether "mainstream" or "new media based" as intertwined, and as part of a new paradigm, which, I dare say, is that of the posthuman, one of the great absents of the book. Possibly, the presence of just one article that addressed some of these topics in terms of conformation of (new) subjectivities could have cast light on discussions like the one quoted above, and offered a broader perspective on several others.
It is however understandable that any book proposes a certain view according to which many issues and topics need to be left aside. It is also the case in this review: many more articles and discussions would be worth mentioning, however a selection needs to be made because of constrictions of space and time.
Mass Effect is undoubtedly a comprehensive survey; it brings forth an exhaustive view not only on theoretical issues, but also on current concrete artistic practices and artworks. In fact, some of the most compelling views and critiques come from artists themselves, on their own works and on those of others. Cornell and Halter provide a required reading for anyone wishing to keep up with the accelerated pace of the theoretical and practical developments in the field.