Postinternet Art: New Media Narratives and The New Aesthetic
In the twentieth-century, modernism, was the emerging artistic trend that was in large part defined by the relationship between craft and the emergent technologies of manufacturing, mass media, and photographic imagery that were becoming prominent in culture at the time. It was a time of a rejection of the status quo and of realism, propelled by the industrial revolution and the horrors of WWII. The era would go on to become one of the most pivotal movements in the history of modern art.
Analogously, in the present day we see a movement not unlike Modernism that has been surfacing in contemporary culture since the advent of the internet. Postinternet is a movement that is consciously created in a context which assumes the centrality of the internet as a network. All things internet are used as its source material, including aesthetics and social implications (or ramifications) are fair game. The post internet engages in and comments on the changing nature and saturation of the image, the circulation of cultural objects, the politics of participation, the new understandings of materiality and of the self, the idea of a hyperreality and the obsolescence of the physical.
Take postinternet artist Ryan Trecartin for example. Best known for his frenetic visuals that combine layers of sound, narrative, and digital effects into an information-saturated world of online era banality. His multifaceted works focus on the way technology is changing our perceptions of ourselves as “people simultaneously negotiate divergent presentations of themselves for a variety of contexts.” Such concepts are played out onscreen in the language of millennial teen culture, as self-aware actors play to the camera, reflecting a generation shaped by media over-stimulation and hyper-capitalist consumption. His recent film featuring Gigi Hadid and Kendall Jenner for W Magazine is a testament to this meta self parodical brand of postinternet social commentary.
The film makes an analogy between the relationship between humans and pets and humans and social media. The dynamic between people and animals in this context is seen as a parallel with our relationship to technology, in the way that we’ve been trained to adapt our behavior and language to it. In the same way that we speak and act differently to our pets, and are in a sense trained to compete for their affection, social media in Trecartin’s eyes does the very same thing. In a way Gigi and Kendall in the film are the highly stylized extreme digital representations of the social media “personas” we have been trained to adopt. We created social media, but in turn it has “created” a new “us” right back.
Or take postinternet artist Jon Rafman, whose work centers around the emotional, social and existential impact of technology on contemporary life. Rafman does not limit himself to one medium, instead he works in all sorts of media that interact with and coexist in the digital realm. His book The Nine Eyes of Google Street View (2008), employs a new approach to the strategy of artistic appropriation, extracting screenshots from Google Street View’s endless online archive to create a singular body of work from selected photographs. A digital take on the Dadaist ready made, the images in this volume bring to light in multiple ways our relationship with images and brings forth questions of ownership and craft in an age of the endless consumption of imagery and information.
Rafmans more recent work points to an even more contemporary and poignant commentary on life in the digital age. His films are a representation of the pathological mutations of selves brought about through digital networks. All found footage, they are strung together to create a deeply intricate amalgamation of audio and visuals which in their haphazard combinations, create narratives and critique, completely devoid of the source contents original context.
His 2015 film Erysichthon follows a vein that Rafman treads in his videography, which is that of how the marginal aspects of digital culture point to the objective state of culture at large. Erysichthon is a commentary on the endless devourment of information and the insatiety that comes with it, Rafman in an interview with Artforum regarded the work as a sort of meta commentary on the lack of “viable or compelling avenues for effecting change and emancipating consciousness.” Instead he believes the digital age engenders a “general sense of entrapment and isolation felt by many as social and political life become increasingly abstracted and experience dematerialized.” Rafman goes on to say “There is no viable or compelling avenue for effecting change or emancipating consciousness, so the energy that once motivated revolution or critique gets redirected into strange and sometimes disturbing expressions;” ironically his films are a direct manifestation and result of this.
Postinternet is a broad category, as evidenced by the plethora of forms it can manifest as. However, these works are all connected in one way or another by a thread of consciousness which acknowledges and/or references the network and the digital realm through which the very work has been created and will be disseminated. Another umbrella term which seeks to compartmentalize the strictly visual aspect of the movement has been coined as the new aesthetic. Matthew Battles of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society explains the new aesthetic as a “collaborative attempt to draw a circle around several species of aesthetic activity including but not limited to drone photography, ubiquitous surveillance, glitch imagery, street view photography, 8-bit net nostalgia. Central to the new aesthetic according to Battles is a sense that we’re learning to “wave at machines”—and that perhaps in their glitchy, buzzy, algorithmic ways, they’re beginning to wave back in earnest.”
A popular instance of the new aesthetic permeating popular culture right now is the prominence of, and fascination with, three-dimensional digital art. Artists such as Randy Cano are creating alternate three-dimensional digital realities in the uncanny valley that elicit a visceral response when viewed. These glossy high-definition visuals alter the physics and conventions of the real world through the visual lens of an almost likeness creating an experience that borders on the absurd. Three dimensional digital art offers an escapism that allows its audience to transcend the present world and for a moment exist in a boundless space devoid of rules or meaning.
The success of new aesthetic and of postinternet art can be attested to in the sheer numbers of those who actively interact with it on a daily basis. Randy Cano currently boasts over 250 000 followers on Instagram. Similarly, a collaborative animation project entitled Cool 3D World by Brian Tessler and Jon Baken that posts 3D animations with similar intense distortions and grotesque imagery is followed by over 350’000 people and has close to a million likes on Facebook.
Art Historian David Joselit prefers the term ‘after art’ as opposed to postinternet stating in his book After Art “The work’s power lies in its staging of a performative mode of looking, through which the single image and the network are visible at the same time […] What results in the ‘era after art’ is a new kind of power that art assembles through its heterogeneous formats. Art links social elites, sophisticated philosophy, a spectrum of practical skills, a mass public, a discourse of attributing meaning to images, financial speculation and assertion of national and ethnic identity.” In this sense “Post-Internet” art transcends traditional understandings of art in that this new era of art is a process rather than a product, it is performative in that we actively participate in a reciprocal relationship with it. The product is one half, our experiences with the digital realm, the references we recognize, the very act of experiencing the art at the digital sites through which we engage with it are the integral other half.
Cody Rooney is a Glossi Mag contributor.
He is a photography aficionado, theatre school alumni, fashion enthusiast, avid Ariana Grande fan and lover of all things aesthetically pleasing.