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We’re All Post-Internet: How Digital Culture Entered the Art World Mainstream

The proliferation of “post-” as a prefix for contemporary art terms (e.g. Post-Impressionism, Postmodernism, Postminimalism, Post-painterly Abstraction) has now spread to the digital realm, with derivatives including “post-analog,” “postdigital,” and “post-internet.” Artists who deal with these neologisms—like Cory Arcangel, Addie Wagenknecht, Petra Cortright, duo AIDS 3D, or Ryan Trecartin—tend to get pigeonholed into ostensible movements (New Aesthetics, post-internet art, etc.). But the emphasis on new technology misses the point: we have been digital for decades, and what is most interesting about this group of artists is not their novelty—their digital fluency or technological savviness—but rather the legacies of art they draw on.

One such legacy is The Pictures Generation, a loosely-knit group of New York-based artists that included Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, and Sherrie Levine, who, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, navigated the radical changes in consumer culture by “stealing” pre-existing imagery from art history and mass media alike. Is it any surprise, then, that some of this older generation have also engaged with digital culture?

Famous for pushing the boundaries of appropriation, first through rephotography and later through painting, Prince created a generic, composite portrait in 2013 consisting of all 57 of Jerry Seinfeld’s fictional girlfriends from the show’s decade-long run. The digital print, called Jerry’s Girl, resembles a hazy stock-photo, toeing the line between the uncanny valley and sitcom wet dream. The artist has has recently been stirring up controversy over copyright infringement and fair use laws, first with his 2008 Canal Zone series, which resulted in a landmark case that Prince won on appeal, and more recently with his Instagram paintings, which critic Jerry Saltz lauded as an act of “genius trolling.”

Emerging media artist Addie Wagenknecht also uses appropriation as an amalgamation device in Celebrity (2014), from the ongoing series The Law of Averages. Wagenknecht’s technological facility is evident in the generative process of the series: each print is algorithmically rendered using a custom-coded analysis of pixels returned from image search results. The computed face in Celebrity is far more fragmented than Prince’s Jerry’s Girl, but both mutated portraits explore idealized representations of the American woman in mass media.

Mark Flood is of the same commercial-conscious pedigree as his contemporaries in The Pictures Generation. Marked by a particular brand of ribald appropriation, consumer commentary, and institutional critique, Flood’s logo paintings degrade advertising imagery like a low-res compression job. Nintendo blood slide picture 99 (2014) has been awkwardly pixelated to the point of perverting reality, ultimately disrupting the viewer’s usual symbol-sign exchange.

Continuing with the theme of Nintendo-nostalgic iconography, Cory Arcangel emulates his famous Super Mario Clouds (2002)—a video work displaying the iconic 1980s game, re-programmed to show only the sky and passing clouds—for smartphones in QuickOffice (2015), alongside earlier 8-bit electronic landscape works. Arcangel is already an established figure in the art world and frequently uses appropriation as a tool for exploring the boundaries between digital culture and IRL. Despite the generational gap between Flood and Arcangel, and their different media, both works creatively subvert a popular icon of 80s video gaming culture to comment on planned obsolescence and consumer waste in Western society.

Placing disproportionate focus on the digital proficiency of certain contemporary artists obscures the fact that networks and webs can be found in art made before the Internet, and manipulating imagery is possible with or without Photoshop. In other words, we are all post-internet now, regardless of generational demographics or personal levels of technological proficiency. This postdigital declaration leaves us with enough critical distance to consider why artists still appropriate, particularly when the practice has become so ubiquitous in the arts. One response is its effectiveness as tool for communication.  In our globalized, post-Snowden web 2.0 culture, data aggregation, hacktivism, image scraping, and cut/copy/paste commands are not only efficient methods of artistic appropriation, but also powerful modes of participation in popular culture.  

—Rachel Egan 


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