Writing in the New Yorker, Kenneth Goldsmith is one of many voices currently championing the Internet and Postinternet movements in art and literature. Goldsmith’s increasingly regular articles discuss the development of this latest art form and argue passionately for its significance and centrality in our digital culture. And he is right. Online arts have today visibly progressed from a niche to a mainstream interest, gaining media attention, exhibition spaces and serious academic scrutiny. The most recent New Left Review, for example, includes a review of Astra Taylor’s The People’s Platform, a critical study of culture in the digital age. Just this week, even, the poet Rupi Kaur’s banned Instagram post brought online art into the limelight as the story, and the artist’s powerful response, circulated on social media via the Huffington Post. Postinternet art now seems to be an established presence, but what exactly do we mean by ‘Internet’ and ‘Postinternet’ art, and where is this movement taking art and literature?
Internet art, as a useful starting point, is art that is (usually) digitally made and shared using the internet, making particular use of the interactive and communicative possibilities of the web to create an Internet-reliant aesthetic experience. Internet artist Jess Mac, as a perfect example, makes art from emojis and Google Images, and and shares them on her tumblr, which has the tagline, “What happens on the internet, stays on the internet.” The postinternet movement, then, clearly follows on from this, but evidently doesn’t refer to a break from the Internet – culture is ‘post-Internet’ in the same sense as it is post-Freud or post-Marx. Art and literature considered postinternet engages with the web and with society after the invention of the web: it breaks the online confines of internet art, entering into physical gallery spaces and printed books. As a movement too has its own distinct aesthetic characteristics, which are largely brought forward from internet art: garish graphics, the love of objet trouvé and an unrelenting use of pastiche and parody.
“What happens on the internet, stays on the internet.”
American poet Steve Roggenbuck’s YouTube videos are seminal works of Internet poetry, collages of pop-culture references, offbeat snippets of invented dialogue and Whitman-esque carpe diem sentiments, set over slowed-down trance songs and frenetic, stirring post-rock tracks. Roggenbuck’s most recent video there is no morning sky anywhere (2015) is a mosaic of recordings of conversations and poetry readings (by himself and other poets), only beginning the poem-proper in the last minute and a half, which is accompanied by overlapping video clips and crummy graphics. The video treads the line between online and real life, between internet and postinternet, knowingly translating a physical, pre-internet art form (poetry readings) into digital media, only to parody itself with an ostentatious display of its internet-ness in the lo-fi filter and early-internet-style graphics at the end of the video.
The website Rhizome is currently host to an online exhibition of poetry, called ‘Poetry as Practice’, which publishes a new poetry work every Monday for 6 weeks. Penny Goring’s contribution DELETIA is a sprawling epic of sound clips, gifs, images and YouTube clips, with Goring’s face crudely edited into images throughout. It looks much as though she dragged a net through a Tumblr dashboard and emptied the contents into a Powerpoint – the result is disarmingly poignant, if at times esoteric. The piece relies on the audience’s interaction to scroll through the pages and play videos, exploiting its particular medium for its aesthetic ends: Internet poetry is notably indebted to McLuhan’s “medium is the message”.
What is central both to Goring’s and Roggenbuck’s poetry is its multi-modality, the use of images, video and audio alongside and even as the ‘text’ of the poem; it is even multimodal in the sense that they both distribute their work online and in print version. It is this multimodality which makes postinternet art and poetry so easy to talk about in conjunction – textual and visual elements merge in the familiarly readable manner of the meme. Postinternet culture offers little distinction between art forms, favouring the play between different media: in music, for example, its aesthetic clearly informed the artwork for Vektroid’s album Floral Shoppe as well as the early music videos and lyrics of rappers Yung Lean and Allan Kingdom.
Artwork for Floral Shoppe by Vektroid
Another notable feature of Internet art is its chaotic blending of styles and periods, its garish juxtaposition of emojis and Renaissance painting, Walt Whitman and Yolo, combined with its ironic sense of nostalgia, where it celebrates the aesthetics of early computer graphics – it harks back parodically to a paragon of the virtual, lampooning a conventional artistic nostalgia for some notion of realism and art that can be founded on the natural or material world. The Tate Britain’s ‘1840s GIF Party’ picked up on this by inviting contemporary artists to make GIFs out of paintings from the gallery’s 1840s room. British artist Joe Webb responded playfully by giving Roussel’s The Reading Girl an iPad to play with and had Watts’s The Minotaur talking a selfie with an unfortunate amount of redeye. Webb is most famous for his prolific collage work, the method of which is key to the Internet art and literature movements, which recycles cultural materials – images and phrases, for example – into new artworks, enacting quite literally the postmodern parody of form in a way only possible in the information-saturated digital age.
What is most interesting about the move from internet to postinternet culture is how it parallels the liquidation of the boundaries between cyberspace and the real world; the synthesis of the material art predating the internet and the virtual reality of early internet art. The internet is dragged into art galleries and poetry books, while Walt Whitman and the 1840s are rehashed and remoulded in cyberspace. As Bickerton notes in her piece for the New Left Review mentioned earlier, this merger of online and real life is more than a cultural creation, but the product of a pressing reality today with which we are all familiar: Google’s 3D profiling merges information from our search queries, social media and physical whereabouts – our ‘knowledge,’ ‘social’ and ‘embodied’ persons – for its targeted advertising.
The individual of late capitalism lives in this dual reality: online and offline are not separate worlds. Postinternet art and literature reflects how the spaces we inhabit and communicate through have changed and are changing, and as such has an importance in broader interpretive and perceptive contexts, but also brings with it a new set of questions of production and reception for the creative industries – will internet poetry be to publishing houses and poets what Spotify is to record labels and artists? Meanwhile, art and literature plumbing the depths of postinternet culture is some of the freshest, interesting work being put out today, that is also perhaps the most accessible and relevant. There is, undoubtedly, a certain tongue-in-cheeked poignance in Roggenbuck’s mock-aphorism, that real life “is just the manure of our online life”.