Selfies and Second Life Place Identity at the Fore of ICA Miami’s Exhibition of Internet Art

In our climate of proliferating technologies and digital selves, the question of identity is, perhaps, the most salient. How do we conceive of ourselves and others? Are we ever more connected or ever more alienated? These are the issues—urgent and often moving—that surface while sorting through the strong selection of web-based works destined for an exhibition at ICA Miami this week. They are the 10 finalists chosen from 270 submissions to the institution’s open call for art whose medium is the internet.

Two decades on from the emergence of , with artists like pioneering new formats of art and driving glitch aesthetics, the show takes stock of today’s web-based output. “We had a great response, it was an incredibly diverse and international selection of participants,” says the institution’s Chief Curator Alex Gartenfeld. “We particularly saw the reinvigoration of traditional media—be it painting or sculpture—through digital technologies. We also saw plenty of quite interactive forms of artwork and certainly that was something we were expecting and something we were delighted by.”
Despite the international pool, the majority of artists in the show hail from New York and Miami. From the latter contingent, —best known for her absurdist viral video I am Your Grandma (2011), though her explorations into the mediated self are nuanced and varied—contributes (2014), made in collaboration with Tyler Madsen and Erik Carter. An endless, real-time stream of aggregated Instagram images tagged #selfie, the site is a simple but perfect (and totally hypnotic) distillation and living document of our obsession with disseminating self-portraits. “We didn’t really want to be offering an opinion on the critical mass of selfies,” says Mayer. “We wanted Selfeed to be this almost ephemeral-feeling wash of identity. Why do people want to be part of this conversation?”

Another artist who channels the masses through a live system, presents America Says Hello (2015), a bespoke software platform that will “spend the next 1,000 years randomly ‘ghost dialing’ every single assigned phone number in the USA, one at a time,” as the artist writes in his statement. Wilson’s website broadcasts the voices of individuals answering the phone (to resounding silence) in real-time as a map on the screen highlights their locations. Their “hello?”s, which sound spare and incredibly intimate, cut through the noise, trolling, and bombast of the internet beautifully. They communicate loneliness but also the possibility of connection—that there might be someone out there on the other end of the line. 
Other contributions explore ideas of fantasy and the narcotic effects of images. ’s My Big Fat Summer As A Skinny Hot Chick in Second Life (2013) comprises documentation of her journey through the virtual online world Second Life as a pink-haired, busty babe. Highlights include a nude, tattooed male avatar gyrating on a stage to Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance” while Gionta’s digital double passively watches. It’s strangely irresistible. & ’s video American Sitcom (2014) takes the monologues that internet users upload to the web as its source material. Pulsating lines of text match voiceovers of individuals talking about relationships, porn addiction, and other deeply personal subjects, while swirling graphics and animated imagery in the background convey the allure both of speaking your experience into the void and passively consuming the experiences of others.
What many of these works have in common is a quality that feels intensely, paradoxically human—all the more so for their presence in a realm that is so saturated with corporate communications and advertising (a subject that UBERMORGAN’s contribution to the show, Ziron (2014), directly addresses). So what can artworks that are native to the public domain gain from display in a museum, aside from providing a more physically immersive encounter? For (who, for full disclosure, also works as an engineer at Artsy), whose poetic work Slow Verb (2015) is a database of over 30,000 lyrics from vocal trance songs scraped from the site, it’s about seeing how the work shifts in this new, institutional context.
For Mayer, it’s about context, but also increased exposure. “I think for many of us working in this medium it’s not about money or limited editions,” she says. “When you’re working on a platform like the web, you’re hoping for more eyes. This project works for me in a museum or in any other cultural sphere. It could also do well in a mall. Since this is a product of us—I want to say ‘us’ since everyone, whether they know it or not, is participating—it should be given as much exposure or platform as possible.”

For Gartenfeld, too, the works (and the strategy of issuing an open call) open up the museum space to larger audiences. “I think it’s an incredibly relatable body of material for people—perhaps less specialized even than some traditional media,” he says. “In terms of what the institution brings, digital art for the last 20 years has primarily existed outside of the institution, although certainly it’s been archived and analyzed through publishing formats like Rhizome. So as media becomes incorporated into institutions certainly a whole slew of really interesting issue of scholarship and conservation arise. Those are issues that museum professionals will be dealing with for decades to come.”

Tess Thackara

Open Call — Web Based Art” is on view at ICA Miami, Aug. 21—Sep. 13, 2015.