Why I Hate Post-Internet Art

I really don’t like “post-internet art.” I don’t like the term and I don’t like the art that’s presented under its banner. Lots of people tell me that they don’t like it, either.

Whether people like it, or hate it, or feel indifferent, it seems like they all know what “post-internet” means but they can’t articulate it. The vagueness of post-internet, paired with the assumption that everyone knows what it means, is one of the most aggravating things about it. “I know it when I see it”—like porn, right? And it’s not a bad analogy, because post-internet art does to art what porn does to sex.

But let’s try to define it anyway.

I first came across “post-internet” when it was the title of the blog that Gene McHugh kept in 2009 and 2010. The use of “post-internet” as a label wasn’t common then—no one besides Marisa Olson really used it—and I misunderstood Gene’s choice of a blog name as a pun about blogging (a blog entry is a post, it’s on the internet). But he really did use “post-internet” as a term and he tried at length to describe what it means.

When the internet stopped being the domain of amateurs, programmers, and hackers—when it became an inseparable part of everyday life for people with no special interest in or knowledge about computers—it changed. That’s why Gene thought it was worth saying “post-internet.” He wrote: “What we mean when we say ‘Internet’ became not a thing in the world to escape into, but rather the world one sought escape from… sigh… It became the place where business was conducted, and bills were paid. It became the place where people tracked you down.”

I’m sympathetic to Gene’s approach to developing a historical framework. It seems similar to an attempt to think about how radio or television changed how people live and how art is made, or how newspapers changed things when printing and reproducing images became cheap and easy. Cultural shifts like these are impossible to quantify but they become visible in art and historians have used art to describe them.

The kneejerk negative reaction to “post-internet”—“How can we be post-internet when internet is still here? Shouldn’t it be during-internet”—doesn’t seem to hold up under scrutiny. Gene covered a response already. And yet, I have a problem with Gene’s response—with his “sigh” at what the internet has become.

Think about it through analogy to post-modernism. Post-modernism doesn’t mean modernism doesn’t exist anymore. Modernism penetrates all aspects of life: any big new building in any city owes a debt to modernist architects. Modernism infiltrates domestic life via Ikea. Everybody loves abstract painting now—it decorates the walls of banks and hotels. Modernism’s infancy was the period when it had the most potential, but that ended and now it’s living a dull adult life. Post-modernism doesn’t mean that modernism is gone. It means that modernism is familiar. It’s complete. It’s still alive but its features are recognizable, and that’s precisely why it can be repeated and reused. Scholars may continue to argue about the particulars of modernism, about the facts of its infancy, but they can do so because they have a handle on its general contours, which are out in the world in plain sight.

Post-internet says the same thing about the internet that post-modernism says about modernism. But isn’t that a little presumptuous? “What about what we mean when we say ‘Internet’ changed so drastically that we can speak of ‘post Internet’ with a straight face?” asked Gene on his blog. I’d agree that it changed drastically but I’d also ask: Why assume that it can’t change again? The internet is always changing. The internet of five years ago was so unlike what it is now, to say nothing of the internet before social media, or the internet of twenty years ago, or the internet before the World Wide Web. Why insist that the changes are over?

Artists who begin with the proposition that the phenomena of their world are boring and banal, who begin with an exasperated sigh, are going to produce art that is boring and banal, art that produces exasperated sighs. That was the case with a lot of conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s, when artists explored the aesthetics of administration, producing charts and diagrams and photocopy texts that presented viewers with the particulars of bureaucracy. Sigh.

What’s the new equivalent of the aesthetics of administration?

The post-internet art object looks good in the online installation view, photographed under bright lights in the purifying white space of the gallery (which doubles the white field of the browser window supporting the documentation), filtered for high contrast and colors that pop. The post-internet art object looks good online in the way that laundry detergent looks good in a commercial. Detergent doesn’t look as stunning at a laundromat, and neither does post-internet art at a gallery. It’s boring to be around. It’s not really sculpture. It doesn’t activate space. It’s frontal, designed to preen for the camera’s lens. It’s an assemblage of some sort, and there’s little excitement in the way objects are placed together, and nothing is well made except for the mass-market products in it. It’s the art of a cargo cult, made in awe at the way brands thrive and proliferate images in networks, awe at the way networks are ruled by brands. It’s like a new form of landscape painting, a view of the world as it is, and that’s why its visual vocabulary is hard to distinguish from that of advertising and product displays. An artist’s choice to make art that way—as a plain reflection of reality and the power systems that manage it—shows a lack of imagination, when there are so many other ways of making art available. Post-internet artists know what the internet is for, and it’s for promoting their work. Post-internet art flaunts a cheap savvy of image distribution and the role of documentation in the making of an art career. Post-internet art seems like art about the idea of art world success—the art one would make to become a well-known artist if one doesn’t care about anything else.

Should I name names? What’s the point of an angry rant if I don’t even call anyone out? I don’t want to do that, mainly because discussing the body of work of a particular artist or critiquing certain pieces would require a level of research, attention, and thought that I’m not willing to spend on post-internet art. It also seems futile because post-internet isn’t necessarily a permanent identity for any given artist; an artist can make post-internet art sometimes and another kind of art, for better or worse, at another time. Post-internet is an outfit that can be worn and discarded. So it’s better to call it out as a trend, or to call out the scenes and social groupings that do the most to popularize the trend. The Jogging—the people closely associated with it and the people who want to be closely associated with it—abuse post-internet most egregiously. The scenes that have been cultivated around Berlin galleries Kraupa-Tuskany and Societe are bad, too. If it’s at Higher Pictures gallery in New York I probably won’t like it. If it’s in a group show curated by Agatha Wara I’m sure I’ll hate it. If it’s on a cool Tumblr I can’t be bothered.

So post-internet is bad. But if we’re not post-, then where are we, when are we? What prefix can people who love labels use to situate themselves in history? Recently I’ve become enamored with Mikhail Epstein’s writing on proto-, which supposes that the modern age of humanity is over, and that sweeping changes to nature and technology herald the onset of a new, still nebulous era. Epstein writes:

“The period we are entering is no longer a period after something: postcommunist, postmodernist, ‘postthis,’ or ‘postthat.’ The present era is ‘proto,’ but a preface to what, we do not know. Proto- is noncoercive, nonpredictive, and unaccountable: a mode of maybe. The future is a language without grammar, an unconscious without dreams, pure nothing. Inescapably the future becomes everything so as again and again to remain nothing.”

Post- presupposes finitude, closure, knowing retrospection. Proto- points to multiplicity and possibility. An art that is proto- would approach the internet’s ubiquity not as a boring given but as a phenomenon ripe with transformative potential for the mediation of people and art (or people and people), for the creation of new genres from the microforms of texts or tweets, or from game design, from karaoke and fan art, and so on. Proto- is okay with not knowing or not working. As Epstein says, we don’t what proto- is a preface to, and so there’s no way to append it to a root and complete a buzzword. Proto- sucks for promo. But as a starting point for an artist, as a disposition for art, proto- is a lot better than post-.

26 Comments

  1. andy j
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 4:15 pm | Permalink | Reply

    are the Gene McHugh posts still available to read online?

  2. Posted March 31, 2014 at 5:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I want to re-read this a few times, and will surely cite it in my forthcoming Rhizome article, “Postinternet is Dead, Long Live Postinternet,” :) but for now I am emailing you three essays in which I explicitly define and explicate Postinternet –at least from the perspective in which I coined the term. Tbh, I keep getting goosebumps every time I see someone say, “postinternet has never been defined” –which seems like the M.O. for all the articles and panels on PI… (Could it be a common fantasy that it be/remain undefined? Or is this just a visualization of the ways & woes of art historiography–the same stories being retold in nearly the same words, leaving other voices out or failing to open eyes to them?) I defined ‘Postinternet’ in 2006 and continued to define it in numerous widely-republished & translated articles, and Gene went above & beyond defining it, as you point out. Sigh… ;)

    • culturetwo
      Posted March 31, 2014 at 8:20 pm | Permalink | Reply

      True, it has been defined. But I feel like the way people use it has drifted from the ways that you and Gene defined it, and it’s used more to market emerging art than as a historical term, and I think for that purpose it does require the mystique of non-definition. Thanks for helping me clarify this

      • Posted March 31, 2014 at 8:24 pm | Permalink

        Yep, we’re definitely on the same page. To quote myself, “Postinternet is Dead, Long Live Postinternet!” Honestly, I still think it applies to art but I’d really like to see it expanded to broader social & political aspects of life in network culture. Whereas I used to say “postinternet: art ‘after’ the internet,” I know say, “postinternet: the symptoms of network culture.” Stay tuned. (But for now, a random note: I setup a google alert for ‘postinternet’ a few months ago and have been getting the wildest variety of uses… Recently… ugg… Kanye West said he wanted to be “The Postinternet Disney”!!! I know, I’m fanning the flames….)

    • Posted March 31, 2014 at 9:22 pm | Permalink | Reply

      I’d be interested in hearing what you two have to say about this essay I wrote sometime last year http://www.sterlingcrispin.com/wading.html ,

      I’m going to take the liberty of pasting in the most relevant points below:

      “The societal expectation for an artist in the post-internet era often lies in a constant stream fragmented gestures, constructed to be quickly digested and ‘shareable’. One is no longer expected to maintain a sustained, deep focused attention toward a single purpose nor “help the world by revealing mystic truths” (Nauman) as truth itself has been deemed subjective and abandoned. The ubiquity of an online audience within the multiplicity of a post-internet art practice breeds over-communication and heavily documented minute gestures, creating a hyper-scrutiny of the ephemeral. Yet this scrutiny can only occupy a narrow region of time as defined by the collective attention span of society, which exponentially dwindles in direct correlation to the increasing speed and ease of communication. Such an artist in the post-internet era is a product, by and for themselves and their audience. This sentiment is embodied in many art practices existing primarily as online presence and persona-as-product.”

      “(the ironic) makes fun of its own format, and attempts to lure its target market to laugh at and with it. It preemptively acknowledges its own failure to accomplish anything meaningful. No attack can be set against it, as it has already conquered itself. The ironic frame functions as a shield against criticism….Irony is the most self-defensive mode, as it allows a person to dodge responsibility for his or her choices, which means etymologically to “secretly flee” (subter + fuge). Somehow, directness has become unbearable to us.” (L)”

      “This kind of activity is machine-based (or aided/informed) production, but it’s the production of alienation, it’s a product of the spectacle not of the real. Perhaps it’s an attempt to create the real through the inversion of mere representation into the real, but this practice immediately, willingly, and happily sacrifices this real back into the Spectacle. This model of working is a continual abandonment of truth. It generates and embraces alienation itself as a product, rather than producing an investigation into the understanding of ones own existence. Of course one could define ones existence by and through the Spectacle, but to completely deny the real and fail to see that which is outside of the Spectacle is truly the negation of life.”

      • culturetwo
        Posted April 5, 2014 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

        I don’t have a problem with fragments and streams, which I think can both do a lot to reveal mystic truths. My problem with the art known as post-internet is that it tends to eschew truth and apply the fragments and streams it’s dealing with toward success in markets that are made of lies.

        So it seems like we’re in agreement.

  3. kimberly
    Posted March 31, 2014 at 7:35 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Well said but please drop names!

    DROP THE NAMES OF THESE eager-dollar marxists, ass licking art-world opportunists.

    BURN THIS UGLY ART AND IT WILL BE MUCH BETTER.

    (sorry for the caps)

  4. Posted April 1, 2014 at 1:38 am | Permalink | Reply

    I’m waffling on how I feel about Jogging. On one hand it turns me off: it’s really advertising focused and seems to be leaning towards its submissions being catchy (money incentives for submitters, based on how popular they can make Jogging). I don’t see any sort of mission statement by Jogging. Why are they curating these images and paying people money.

    Using your nice landscape painting comparison, I think that Jogging (or post-internet art in general as banal observations on present-day life) could be beneficial because we associate particular thoughts with particular sorts of advertisements, in the way that a landscape painting can be inspiring when we want to express something in a different medium: it gives us a view of the world as is, but of a particular part of it, and is immediately accessible (I want to see a volcano: look up painting of volcano, or I want to see a butter ad – look at some post-internet thing about butter, idk.)

    Using your nice landscape painting comparison: what landscape paintings can do are serve as nice reference material for remembering how we feel when experiencing something familiar. In the case of landscape, say this is some generic painting of a meadow. It’s generic and not that interesting, but can still serve a function for an artist of remembering what that landscape of a meadow is like, and the artist can then use those memories/feelings in conjunction with other ideas. As an example, you could use landscape-ish paintings/photos as one tool in exploring an idea through the creation of an area in a video game, through music/game mechanics/art.

    Presumably, the same could be done with using the landscape-ness/familiarity you talk about with post-internet art. And I think that plays nicely into your comment on “proto-” and the possibilities that mindset has. I think I agree the intention by the artists maybe isn’t great, but there seems like there is something salvageable, at least.

  5. Posted April 1, 2014 at 5:41 am | Permalink | Reply

    I was almost at the end, but I stopped at “…would require a level of research, attention, and thought that I’m not willing to spend on post-internet art.” Because it made me feel like I was spending to much attention and thought on a post about “post-internet art” without understanding what it was yet, and without hope of finding out. No big deal really, but I thought I might share the personal stumbling block. The author here does seem to care up until that point. Maybe it would be worth putting in the extra effort to throw out a few examples.

    • culturetwo
      Posted April 5, 2014 at 4:27 pm | Permalink | Reply

      The thing about examples is that I’d end up picking on a few particular people and then everyone else who this could apply to is off the hook. And post-internet as a phenomenon is too big and unwieldy to be summed up in a few works or names. Do you know what a subtweet is? When you tweet about someone without naming them? and then other people read it and wonder, “is this about me?” That’s the effect I was going for. Artists who I’ve never even heard of, such as Aureliano Segundo, think it’s referring to their work and feel bad about it.

      A lengthy, rigorous analytical essay criticizing post-internet art with lots of specific examples would be useful, but that’s not what I set out to do. I wanted to write something more like a manifesto, and this and other comments wanting more detail are just not sensitive to genre.

      • rachel
        Posted May 7, 2014 at 7:55 pm | Permalink

        I realize I am late to the discussion. I respect the ethos behind not finger pointing, but surely you could provide a few examples of so-called post-internet work that you consider successful (or at least partially successful) despite perhaps getting lumped under the unfortunate umbrella of this “big and unwieldy” scene? What would be the harm in throwing a few thumbs up? Does it all leave a bad taste?

  6. aureliano segundo
    Posted April 1, 2014 at 6:41 am | Permalink | Reply

    i basically think this is bullshit…

    feels like you dont really have a reason to bail on post-net stuff. other than that maybe you didnt like some show you saw. or you just think now is as good a time as any to jump ship.

    like, did you write this post based on your klout score because it feels super calculated.

    as a critic who is extremely “post-internet” both by association and by action you are probably the last person who can get away with distancing yourself from the term.

    i actually think that you have kind of a civic duty to wrestle and sort out the contradictions inherent to some of these artists and their work. you are uniquely positioned to help people glean meaning from this kind of contemporary art. and the fact that you would condescend to shrug off this responsibility is as insulting to me as it is convenient to you.

    • culturetwo
      Posted April 5, 2014 at 4:37 pm | Permalink | Reply

      I have never been a post-internet critic. I’ve never published an essay (excluding this one) that even uses the term, let alone a post- oriented outlook. if you want to talk about duties and responsibilities, why don’t you try reading my writing before making these assumptions about who I am and what my “duties” are.

      • Vincenzo Marksie
        Posted April 6, 2014 at 4:44 am | Permalink

        #rekt

        I always thought I was stupid for not liking post-internet art, normcore, vaporwave. I’m glad I read this.

      • aureliano segundo
        Posted April 8, 2014 at 1:24 am | Permalink

        nah

  7. Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:30 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on Mediakult and commented:
    Very interesting post about ‘post’ internet art by Brian Droitcour

  8. Posted April 1, 2014 at 12:37 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I am sure this was a long thread on Rhizome in 2006-2007, but this zeros in on the banality and lack of lustre. We talked then of the “easiness” of it all and how ubiquity wasn’t a good thing. It is directly related to Virillio and the idea that the internet is the speed of everything, everywhere, unfiltered and all inclusive, immediate and unimportant. All this is hard to swallow but still true.

  9. Posted April 2, 2014 at 1:46 pm | Permalink | Reply

    This thing is a thousand words too long.

  10. Posted April 3, 2014 at 4:50 am | Permalink | Reply

    Brian asked if I’d leave my initial reaction-comment on facebook here, not sure if it is any use to anyone (was late) but here it is with minor edits where it was totally off-course:

    “Wouldn’t endorse the conclusion [proto] but the critique is sharp. I think a lot of “post-” conversations could learn from the discussions around the postcolonial. I used to think of the post- in postcolonial in the same way as the post- in postmodern, as not precisely drawing a break but just saying that we are all downstream of an event that is now unable to be thought as contemporary (e.g the inauguration of modernism, colonialism, etc). So I wasn’t quite able to fully hear the critique from indigenous perspectives in English-speaking countries that the term was bullshit. Spivak’s elaboration of why we should give the term postcolonial a much more restricted history changed my understanding: the postcolonial nations (mostly in Asia and Africa) were formally evacuated by the Europeans but left the European nation-form intact, whereas for nations like Aus/NZ/US/Canada etc the colonisers never left, so they were not really postcolonial even though we liked to use the term postcolonial for ‘cultural analysis’, but tellingly, never political analysis. (This is not about better or worse for indigenous peoples, but a clear difference in forms or genres of power in different states that needs to not be collapsed). (South Africa a uniquely genre-mixing case, perhaps.) (Also, in Spivak’s argument as I understand it, the period of the postcolonial difference is gone since the early 1970s – the end of the gold standard, the post-Bretton Woods agreements and the instantiation of global electronic capitalism – it is a historical legacy).

    The term “post-internet” to me looks like a way of using a pre-internet critical language to clear out a space for contemporary work’s operationality in the legacy pre-internet art system. But if the internet teaches us anything it is nothing to do with the future, but an enhanced awareness that nothing in the archives past is actually gone, a friend request from the past is always in your notifications tomorrow. It is precisely this inability to be “post” the past that is how the Internet messes with the temporality of culture, and nothing we escape that easily.”

    I don’t really think you needs to like the work discussed or have any responsibility to it Brian, but I do agree with aureliano segundo that you’re well placed as a critic to extend the dialogue around the circulation of this work which could use a lot more elaboration…

    Thanks for the stimulating discussion!

  11. Posted April 4, 2014 at 1:24 am | Permalink | Reply

    cool story bro, you don’t have to like something for it to be something – go read Hito Steyerl’s Too Much World

  12. Napo B
    Posted April 4, 2014 at 9:26 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Reblogged this on Napo B "Live" and commented:
    a very compelling argument, the only time post should be used is when posting a comment or when your at the races. What ever happened to the post renaissance, I blame post impressionism for all this name calling, we are still in the internet and making proto-internet art.

  13. Posted April 5, 2014 at 2:19 am | Permalink | Reply

    I think it’s time to sit down and write “Why I hate where Media Art Discourse has gone in the last 10 years”, We are drowning in post-s, “mostly factually correct” Panels (Conner), and propositional “movements” (NA) which are later disvowed in part or in whole. It gives me a chill of sheer surface or positionality in discourse that deals with the moment but nothing that really matters (except social practice), and it’s very much the theoretical version of what I wrote about as “Snack Culture” (don’t worry, we’ll make (up) more). And in talking with Keith Obadike last night about all this, I agreed with him that while these ephemeral tropes are important, they may not reflect what matters in the world (last part my words, not his). Maybe I want rigor, or perhaps some steak with my Cheetos, and I feel like I haven’t gotten it since about 2002. No, animated GIFs are NOT a shattering of the Brechtian 4th wall; at best they are performative, not performance. (That assertion, IMO was a conceptual performance which probably came closer to the statement than the pieces in the exhibition). For some odd reason, it feels like something derailed a while ago, and this is not Conner’s “Generational conversation”. It’s just solid, well-researched criticism, and we are spotty in how solid it is and in what is and is not being said, and the rest is positional/propositional. So I agree with Brian wholeheartedly, but I feel we should not stop there; I feel we should set about dismantling a good chunk of the 2000’s as well at the notion of post-internet.

    It is why I am post-postist, and anti-“Newist”; I want something descriptive rather than differential. That sort of taxonomy could be much more meaningful, and perhaps Media Art discourse could being to push the plough deeper in the cultural soil than talking about rainbow ponies.

  14. Posted April 8, 2014 at 8:05 pm | Permalink | Reply

    I’ve just discovered your blog through my friend (not the Facebook variety, but a fellow blogger and artist I actually know as a living person), Napo B. This is a great post. I thoroughly agree with your statement, “The post-internet art object looks good in the online installation view.” My blog is covering some of the same territory, and regardless of how obnoxious and un-famous as it makes me, I want to stick to the high ground like Ad Reinhardt. A sample is here:

    http://wegway.wordpress.com/2014/01/09/self-expression-and-conceptual-painting/

  15. terrence
    Posted April 29, 2014 at 9:43 am | Permalink | Reply

    As far as dropping names, Brad must really be getting under your skin these days.

  16. Posted April 30, 2014 at 2:09 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Marisa Olson used the term post-internet differently than Gene McHugh did, as you summarized McHugh’s definition here. He said the “post-” referred to a historical moment when the internet changed from geeky/amateur to everyday/professional. Olson used it to describe her own art practice, consisting of performances in real space or on video that referenced internet-specific content, such as “Abe and Mo Sing the Blogs.” Her definition is closer to the type of art you are criticizing here, for example, objects presented by The Jogging for gallery consumption that refer to internet content (and also reflect back by being “internet ready” in terms of lighting, camera angles, etc.). The way art galleries are using the term “post-internet” now is exactly the way Olson used it and you are right to critique it. What may work for her as an individual artist is a poor statement of general principal.
    You make a good point that it’s all still changing. Net neutrality may end; every country has its own rules for permissible traffic. The big internet companies are constantly working to gather users into “silos.” We’ll be truly post-internet when you hear sentences such as “Was that on Facebook or the internet?” Or “which internet — the public one or the fast lane one?”
    (McHugh’s blog is still available on the Internet Archive, by the way, at http://web.archive.org/web/20120422161041/http://122909a.com/ )

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