Race, representation and art on the internet today

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Internet_Art: From the Birth of the Web to the Rise of NFTs
Omar Kholeif
Phaidon, $59.95

The internet has transformed the public sphere in the most intimate ways. In the 1990s artists used it to connect to a broader, unprecedented global world of communication. Thirty years later the internet uses us, with platforms training algorithms on our data whether we consider ourselves content creators or not.

CybeRoberta by Lynn Hershman Leeson is the prescient doll with webcams for eyes staring into a mirror that could be an icon for our times.Credit: courtesy BridgetDonahue Gallery, New York City, and Claudia Altman-Siegel Gallery, SanFrancisco.

The discussions about “internet art” in the 1990s asked whether artists could use this clunky prototype of online public space for artistic purposes. Today, the dominant social platforms are as seamless and generic as a white cube gallery. The time of wondering whether internet content can capture our attention, rather than being only information or data, has long passed. Rather than asking whether the internet can be specifically artistic today, the question is more how artists can live with it, on it or off it.

Most books about the internet, including this one, begin with the disclaimer that it will soon be out of date. Internet_Art: From the Birth of the Web to the Rise of NFTs aims to take a longer arc. Omar Kohleif is well placed to survey the broad historical sweep, having curated net.art in the 2000s with the legendary FACT in Liverpool, and with an immensely prolific resume of publications and curated shows related to electronic art.

The major hits of internet and new media art are compiled in the book, including some that had slipped my mind such as Lynn Hershman Leeson’s CyberRoberta (1994), the prescient doll with webcams for eyes staring into a mirror that could be an icon for our times. It is well worth flipping through this book to remember how diverse the field has been.


There is also, in Phaidon’s usual style, a broad selection of quality images, although in internet art images only tell a small part of the story in book format, with much needing to be described, and here Kholeif leaves much of the work under-explored as they write “the story of how a contemporary culture was formed through the lens of the author”.

Whether you enjoy the book will depend on whether Kholeif’s first-person curatorial narrative resonates. I was moved by episodes such as Kholeif’s ironic reminiscences on their family’s pre-internet media consumption habits in Egypt. But these more unique inquiries are quickly overwhelmed by professional name-dropping.

Most sections begin with how a significant artworld figure has graced Kholeif’s presence, and after a while, the book takes the tone of a now corporate punk-rocker’s memoir: you probably had to be there to appreciate what it means for the author.

The deft summaries of artists and works sometimes only manage a sentence or two, fading into the background of Kholeif’s personal journey of professional networking. Kholeif demonstrates no shame that their narrative might overwrite the artists’: having moved from shy outsider to Director of Collections at the Sharjah Art Foundation, the overall tone is of the poacher turned gamekeeper.

It is hard to stay too mad, for as a queer person of colour Kholeif has far better reasons to experience impostor syndrome than white guys like myself who dominated the 1990s tech scene. The liveliest parts of the book are less about internet art in the canonical sense and more about contemporary questions of race and representation in contemporary art, where Kholeif leaves their multiple browser tabs of distraction and writes with focus and urgency.

When they wax lyrical on Arthur Jafa’s devastating 2016 film Love is The Message, The Message is Death, one gets the feeling that a book on this type of work is the one they wanted to write more than the net.art survey the title promises. Kholeif viscerally recognises that the internet has shaped a global understanding of the politics of race in a colonial world, but doesn’t build the connections with other writing and scholarship to join a collaborative intellectual effort.

Despite using their doctoral title, Kholeif dismisses academic practice for its supposed authority, eschewing citation of their peers in favour of the curatorial voice that affects a direct connection with the work. This is unfortunate as artists such as Jafa, for example, have attracted astute critical engagement from university-based critics such as Tina Campt and Andrew Brooks, and one wonders whether there was a missed opportunity to bring this community together.

Legacy Russell’s bracing 2020 manifesto Glitch Feminism gets a couple of approving paragraphs, but one never gets the sense it has shaped the author’s thinking, as like all the other critical work it is described as an inspiration, then the concepts never reappear in analysis the rest of the way.

This stance is ironic as one of the early stated goals of internet art was to undo contemporary art’s ideology of individual authorship and star power, but this aspiration seems quaint in the dominance of the social networks based on Californian ideologies where profiles are either individuals or corporations.

Kholeif wants “a social history of the internet through art that would also be a social history of art told through the internet”, but the episodic nature of the book seems more designed for these social platforms where content is liked, shared, and measured for engagement, rather than as an insight into a social world.

Understandable, as there is enough evidence that the pandemic has made long-form reading more difficult for us all. The reading experience reminded me of clicking on a social profile and reading chronologically: an uncanny sense of how our desire to connect only has a few different formats, and that what gives a post significance is the timing of its appearance. Thirty years all at once is a lot to process.

Danny Butt lectures at Victorian College of the Arts and is author of Artistic Research in the Future Academy (Intellect/ University of Chicago Press).

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