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-.