ART SUGAR NET MAGIC by Keith J. Varadi
“Take me to the place I love / Take me all the way” – Anthony Kiedis
Red Hot Chili Peppers, “Under The Bridge,” 1992
It’s 2013, going on 2014. Every artist, critic, or curator seems to have something to say about the endless ways in which the Internet and social media are affecting how artists, especially young artists, are now making art, seeing art, thinking about art, and disseminating art. Often, when reading a new article or essay, or going to a lecture or panel discussion directly or indirectly about or related to “Internet Art,” “Post-Internet Art,” or even the way in which abstract painting looks different on an Apple product than in a gallery, it is near impossible not to get bored or annoyed. Any critically engaged member of society understands the effect the Internet has had on the world; therefore, any critically engaged artist, curator, critic, dealer, or collector surely must understand the effect the Internet has had on the art world. Yet despite the consensus that the art world is shifting because of it, few have written or spoken about the matter in a very concise, direct, and expository manner.
In the Summer 2013 issue of Artforum, Michael Sanchez made an attempt to do so, and of course, some parties were disgruntled. In his article, “2011,” he explicitly details a handful of the consequences derived from handheld devices such as the iPhone or aggregating web platforms such as Contemporary Art Daily (which Sanchez argues is “optimized for the interfaces of smartphones and tablets”) have had on the production and distribution, as well as the installation, viewing, and purchasing of artworks. Sanchez claims “art is no longer discovered in biennials and fairs and magazines, but on the phone.”
Furthermore, Sanchez makes the controversial, yet astute point that, in fact, many physical galleries that started around the turn of the decade seem to exist primarily for the Internet. The idealist’s position: “I can start a gallery anywhere and now have an audience.” The cynic’s position: “If it looks good online, does it matter how it looks in person?” The realist’s position: “I can start a gallery anywhere and now have an audience, but it’s better if my gallery is located somewhere like New York, London, or Berlin, so that it’s an easily accessible audience. If it looks good in person, it will look even better online.” Sanchez’ position: “Yes.”
But really, what Sanchez articulates very clearly is the fact that galleries that have given attention to their physical space, documentation of works, and general web presence have been able to exponentially expand their network. If art is now being discovered on the phone, it is reversely being inserted into biennials and fairs and magazines, thus legitimizing the galleries who are able to stay a few steps ahead. In this contemporary art culture, where most galleries mount approximately one exhibition per month and participate in half a dozen international art fairs per year, dealers no longer have time to personally court curators, critics, and collectors like they used to do. Now, much like bachelors on the prowl IRL, they are able to solicit folks through a variety of cyber-channels. Sanchez wisely doesn’t go the expected route of championing or castigating this new model, but instead seems to accept it as a matter of fact, open to the possibilities it has to offer, but is nonetheless justly critical of the homogeneity spawned from it; for examples of this alleged homogeneity, see the aggregator Who Wore It Better (http://whoworeitbetter.info/).
Some other artists and art professionals have been more aggressive than others regarding their stance on the current trends and points of crossover between art, technology, and culture. For instance, some of the progenitors of tech-savvy art, such as Mark Tribe, founder of the influential online resource Rhizome, talk about “the kids today” in the same awkward manner that baby boomers who grew up adoring Bob Dylan or Neil Young talked about Fugazi or Sonic Youth when they first came to prominence, somehow not realizing that it’s the always the same problems, just new attempts at solving them.
Contemporary culture at large is now at a moment where Kanye West is not only possibly the most important musician of monumental stature, but perhaps also the most important artist, period. He’s got the narrative musings of Springsteen, the word play of Malkmus, the flash and style of Byrne, and the self-aggrandizement and self-reflexivity of all three. Furthermore, he seemingly has both the wisdom and wackiness to affiliate himself with the endlessly perplexing George Condo as opposed to the endlessly nauseating Marina Abramović.
But then again, what was up with him and Vanessa Beecroft this year in Miami?
But then again, what other artist would be so audacious to say: “I am Warhol. I am the number one most impactful artist of our generation. I am Shakespeare in the flesh. Walt Disney. Nike. Google. Now, who’s going to be the Medici family and stand up and let me create more? Or do you want to marginalize me?” on national radio?
Kanye West (with portrait by Elizabeth Peyton)
Ultimately, the point attempted to be made here: as is the case with any situation, many members of the Rearguard wouldn’t even want to hear these analogies. They don’t want to take part of this conversation. They want to continue to control the conversation like “proper Yankees,” like Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, or Ted Kennedy.
By this point, certain successors to Tribe’s original, puritanical declarations on “New Media Art” have become highly acclaimed international figures in both the commercial and institutional sectors of the art world. Many of these artists, such as some of the obvious examples—Cory Arcangel, Tauba Auerbach, and Wade Guyton—have targeted the influence of technology and culture in a witty, Warholian manner, alluding to the recycled ideas of the commodification and ubiquity of art, but with fresh, new takes. Arcangel used Adobe Photoshop’s gradient tool to create large-scale phlegmatic color field paintings. Auerbach recently began methodically weaving canvas on stretchers into compositions reminiscent of screensavers. Guyton has essentially always used scanners and Epson Sylus Pro inkjet printers to create stuttering yet stunning formalist cancellations.
Cory Arcangel, Photoshop CS, Unique C-Print, 84” x 66”, 2009 (300 DPI, RGB, square pixels, default gradient “Spectrum,” mouse down: y=8,900, x=15,6000, mouse up: y=13,800 x=0)
Tauba Auerbach, Shadow Weave – Façade Split Wave II, Woven Canvas on Wooden Stretcher, 60” x 45”, 2013
Wade Guyton, Untitled, Epson UltraChrome Inkjet on Linen, 2006
These approaches seem to be the most logical trajectory if one wants to have one’s cake and eat it too. However, this desire to have it both ways is what infuriates the Rearguard. The question they routinely ask: How can one be critical of commodification through the literal process of commodification? Translation (into the question they are really asking): How dare you hijack New Media and make beautiful paintings created in order to be hung in beautiful galleries and museums in order to eventually be hung in beautiful homes? To the Rearguard, this is an oxymoron that stymies the way things ought to progress, but as the Rearguard must realize, each succeeding generation cares less and less about the former’s idea of progress.
Ego is almost always the artist’s foremost concern, which means preserving and propelling his or her name and reputation. This is why, in every instance, the Rearguard continues to put up such a fight and why each new guard continues to civilly disobey. As art historians tell us, artists have felt a pressure to find a distinct “voice” since Modernism. This activity once manifested itself as the artist’s “signature style”: Pollock’s drips, Weiner’s words, Antoni’s body.
Now, artists seem to be concurrently embracing and exploiting the consumerist culture of capitalist America with far less confusion or reticence than ever before, shifting this “style” into a “brand.” Instead of signing oneself up to produce giant action paintings, poetic vinyl texts, or identity art forever, the way a subsidiary would, artists are now thinking like major corporations, if only to mock major corporations (the same corporations from whom they routinely purchase products). Case in point—think about how many feet are now sporting Nike Flex or Nike Free shoes at an opening; now, think about how many feet were sporting similar such shoes five, ten years ago.
Artist #1: I like your painting.
Artist #2: I like yours.
Artist #1: Thanks. I like your shoes.
Artist #2: Thanks. I like yours.
Artist #1: Where’d you get them?
Artist #2: Zappos. You?
Artist #1: Cool. I don’t know. My mom got them for me for my birthday.
When discussing individualism in “2011,” Sanchez points out media historian Bernhard Siegert’s assertion that “the individual subject is a dependent variable in the development of communications infrastructure, contingent on delays in transmission.” Sanchez argues “without such delays, or lags, there can be no subject” and then refers to Giorgio Agamben, writing that “contemporary capitalism does not produce subjects so much as non-subjects, through what [Agamben] calls the ‘desubjectifying’ effects of apparatuses.” Sanchez is focused on art when discussing the loss of the subjective, but what about the loss of the subjective, period? It would seem artists desire a state of complicity, in which slight nuances (Nike Flex vs. Nike Free) and gratuitous acceptance, reverence, and reassurance abound.
This is absolutely true, except the Nu Guard suggests that this has always been the case; to the Nu Guard, there is barely a difference between how Morris Louis or Kenneth Noland (the ancient Rearguard) painted or dressed, so there’s no point in trying to make any of today’s stains “more original” than the next. When Louis and Noland stained unprimed canvas with paint, they both believed that they were advancing the avant-garde by subverting conventional understanding of painting. Both were revered for their contributions to art history and are now canonized. Post-modernism sought to stamp out these sorts of activities and abolish the canon, but the Nu Guard posits, “It’s all good.”
The Nu Guard is more concerned with what it means when the notion of “subverting conventions” becomes the convention. When Josh Kline or Timur Si-Qin smear or squeeze Axe body products on canvas or gallery walls, they aren’t mocking painting or the Axe corporation; rather, they are pointing out the obvious connections between art world conventions and consumer product conventions. They are implying that they are not only equal, but essentially go hand-in-hand, and are mining the depths of this implication. Everything about this implication is antithetical to the Rearguard’s Marxist-influenced objectives. At this point though, appropriation and parody have become second nature tools for communication for the Nu Guard. Abstract Expressionism is cool as long as it doesn’t take a long time to make the painting. Deodorant is chill as long as it’s aluminum-free. But I mean, really, “It’s all good.”
Today, we could think of the Rearguard as corresponding to a figure like Dan Rather. Now, think about the New Guard as Jon Stewart. And now, imagine a Nu Guard. This Nu Guard is like Stephen Colbert, if Stephen Colbert had a web show instead of a contract with Comedy Central.
Ironically, this Nu Guard has transcended the former New Guard’s influence in many ways and has done so primarily by replacing the former New Guard’s Warholian complacency and complicity with Warholian irony and proliferation. Many of these artists “play it both ways” to such an extreme that the Rearguard likely doesn’t even know what to do with them or their work. Take, for example, the case of Brooklyn-based artist, Brad Troemel, who in a recent project entitled TSA no fly list, placed Bitcoins atop several books from the fashionably radical “Interventions” series released by Semiotext(e) and vacuum-sealed them shut. Troemel’s objects seem to share similar formal values with some of the above-referenced former New Guard work, yet there is a fragile contradiction at work in these pieces. They are totally readable at first glance. However, they are obscure enough, plus timely enough to not be didactic. They function as satisfying objects with sexed-up packaging, feeling fashionable, while managing to use this way of functioning to undercut themselves through the inclusion/appropriation of the politics espoused by the books.
Brad Troemel, TSA No Fly List (2/5), Vacuum-Sealed Christian Marazzi “The Violence of Financial Capitalism” with 100 Bitcoin gold plated bar, 2013
The average art viewer, or even artist, may not be familiar with Bitcoins or Semiotext(e). However, by pairing the sub-cultural aspects of the recently shuttered black market of the Internet—a website called The Silk Road—which used Bitcoins as currency, with the pro-revolutionary essays of Marazzi, viewers are left with a double negative of counter-culture capitalism. Furthermore, the amount the Bitcoin in the package is “worth” determines how much the piece is worth. In contemporary society, these wry gestures paired with a “conceptualist slant,” which requires only quick research (Wikipedia), makes these objects both more appealing to artists, critics, and curators, and accessible to collectors and the public.
Back to the Internet—if one were to enter ‘Brad Troemel’ into any search engine, one would immediately be directed to the now prominent and widely-publicized blog, The Jogging, which he created in 2009, along with New York-based curator Lauren Christiansen, while both were living in Chicago. The Jogging is currently up to ten members who regularly contribute, but the blog maintains an open submission policy, posting a variety of jpegs daily. It has become a virtual cache of relentlessly cycled images— an archive of anti-advertising and permanent documentation of temporary gestures—producing a strikingly surreal feed, clearly obsessed with ADD, ADHD, 21st Century marketing strategies, and the bizarre way the Internet summarizes the real world for most people these days.
Weekend at MoMA, performance, November 11th, 7:49 pm, 2013
All Day I Dream About Stripes, Rug, Adidas Slides, November 10th, 2:32 pm, 2013
Josh Smith is an older Bobby Hill version I, Mug Shots, November 9th, 7:49 pm, 2013
For these reasons, The Jogging has understandably been compared to BuzzFeed, 4chan, and The Onion. But it’s important to understand the precedence for this practice. These wise guys impressively know their audience, but also know their art history. Fischli and Weiss, Piero Manzoni, Charles Ray, Pipilotti Rist, Cindy Sherman, Roman Signer, William Wegman, Erwin Wurm—any one of these artists could easily be potential Jogging contributors had she or he been born in 1989 instead of in the prior one to three decades. The Jogging have since taken the blog into galleries, making physical objects that truly do make the viewer wonder what, say, Cindy Sherman’s or Roman Signer’s works would look like had they actually been born in 1989 or after. Jogging members are all about the poetics of absurdity and the absurdity of art. Members of The Jogging’s audience are all about their simultaneously profound and asinine visual tweets.
Charles Ray, Plank Piece, Body and Plank, 1973
Erwin Wurm, Confessional, Mixed Media Sculpture, Instruction drawing, Realized by the Public, 2003
Roman Signer, Ladder with Balloons, 1994
The blog has managed to catch the attention of art world insiders, but also general web-trollers, Time magazine, and rapper Gucci Mane. This widespread permeation is precisely the goal of the Nu Guard. The Nu Guard wants upward and outward expansion, desiring total immersion. They dream of a world where perhaps Hal Foster earnestly loves Drake’s newest album, ironically wears Live Strong bracelets when he exercises, routinely eats Nathan’s Hot Dogs on his drives home from work, emotionally watches Louie re-runs on Netflix, and continues to teach at Princeton and write critically on Pop Art. Because after all, aren’t Drake or Louis C.K. some of the closest things we have to Pop Art these days?
Hal Foster, The First Pop Age: Painting and Subjectivity in the Art of Hamilton, Lichtenstein, Richter, and Ruscha, Princeton University Press, 2011
This is the shared sentiment of many young artists today. But some members of The Nu Guard play by similar but markedly different rules, and take ideas and desires of The Nu Guard to further, darker extremes. Some artists aren’t so heavy-handed with their modes and are less straightforward with their motivations. Some artists slightly skew the model of the Nu Guard, understanding the necessity of these cravings, but making equally necessary alterations or substitutions. They imagine a world where James Franco earnestly loves Skrillex’s new album, ironically wears Live Strong bracelets when writing his memoirs, routinely eats Nathan’s Hot Dogs with chopsticks while his driver drives him home from work, emotionally watches My Cat From Hell re-runs on Netflix, and now teaches at Princeton and writes critically on “Post-Internet Art.”
Marina Abramović gold-leafing James Franco
Two such examples are the artists Edward Marshall Shenk and Ross Moreno, who have each taken on complicated caricatures of themselves, either online and in print (in the case of Shenk), or in person (in the case of Moreno). As is the case with The Jogging, humor is a significant mechanism in the works of these two artists, but whereas The Jogging feels somewhere between Aziz Ansari’s enthusiasm for ‘stuff’ and Bill Hicks’ disdain for ‘stuff,’ Shenk and Moreno channel the slippery schizophrenia of Tom Green, Tim Heidecker, Andy Kaufman, Johnny Knoxville, or Bill Murray.
Both of these artists fully exemplify the aforementioned notions of total immersion and widespread permeation. But instead of immersing themselves into the culture at large or permeating throughout the established, multi-tiered system of the art world, their work instead immerses them into very particular subcultures of broader culture (as their characters) and then permeate throughout those particular subcultures as wide and far as possible (through highly calibrated and meticulously tweaked details within the roles), thus negating the upward mobility that pertains to much of The Nu Guard. Their characters slide past the meta-irony that saturates the Nu Guard. And unlike some “art as life” forebears, such as the well-known examples of Allan Kaprow or Joseph Beuys, these two artists intentionally play both inside and outside the confines of the art world. They become so involved with the characters they play and the subcultures involved in their depictions of these characters, weaving art and life so precariously that they shrewdly illustrate what potentially happens when art (or any product) becomes so involved with itself that it loses sight of itself. They mutate character and caricature into a beguiling singular vision, a static state, to unpredictable and sometimes unsettling results.
In February of 2013, Shenk created a project entitled Edward’s Kitchen, a food blog which obstinately patronizes a current trend—the proliferation of food blogs and of “foodie” culture, in general. The layout of the blog has the aesthetic of the standard back-end format of every Tumblr, creating momentary confusion as to whether one is actually viewing Shenk’s blog or one’s own blog. There is a thumbnail image of a profile picture, in which the viewer can see a logo for Edward’s Kitchen, yet it is cropped to the point where one can only see “Edwar” (in a font that is somewhere between that which was used for the film and subsequent video game, GoldenEye, and that used for John Edwards’ presidential campaign) and (ironically) “KitcCH” (in a font similar to that which was used for MTV after-school programming in the early-mid 2000’s, when Shenk happened to be in high school). Every post has at least one image, which is usually quite blurry—a magnification of the often unsteady photos added to Yelp, Urbanspoon, or other sites created in order to rate establishments. This is in stark contrast to the typically stylized images presented on amateur food blogs, generally managed by self-important cosmopolitan types.
Edward’s Kitchen, Screenshot
Shenk tends to post approximately one to two times per month—interestingly, the same rate as someone who is genuinely interested in having an amateur food blog might. But like the design details, if one takes a closer look at the written details, one can be further clued into Shenk’s objective. Take, for example, the soundtrack captions for the initial images of each post. Shenk does not include actual audio as accompaniment for any of his posts, but rather simply attaches surprising choices for song titles by assorted musicians. These specific, eccentric selections include the infamous Norwegian black metal musician, Burzum (the recording name for Varg Vikernes), who was arrested in 1994 for the murder of fellow musician, Euronymous, and the burnings of several churches throughout his homeland. The demonic sounds of this Scandinavian Anti-Capitalist Neo-Nazi bitterly season the breakfast platter “Wide-Eyed Surprise” (ingredients of this dish include “2 eggs, rice (pre-cooked), Western Beef taco cheese, whole mushrooms, Cajun Alligator Pepper Sauce, A1 Sauce, and Pam”).
Shenk makes sly parallels between the fringe oppressive political views of this intense European and the various Americanized ethnic ingredients. Vikernes, like many who become oppressive, claims to have once felt oppressed. For Vikernes, he specifically claims to have been oppressed by the Capitalist Americanization of his nation and the overwhelming influence of Christianity on its population, cultivating a spurned nationalism and an overwrought sense of atheism (as disclosed in the 2009 feature-length documentary, Until The Light Takes Us). The pairing of this man’s music with a dish that includes a New York City grocery chain’s generic “taco cheese” and a Mid-Atlantic corporation’s bottled version of New Orleans cuisine is an uncomfortable, snarky, and satirical rebuttal against the flawed mechanisms inherent in global markets; it is a rebuttal presented by Shenk under the guise of outright submission to these mechanisms, in the contradictory and convoluted forum that is a foodie blog post.
Shenk’s relentless adherence to this format, and to the character of the food blog’s author, is unrelenting. He doesn’t write aloof recipes like most of those one sees on the Internet, nor does he write bipolar reviews like what clutters the aforementioned web services Yelp and Urbanspoon. The cultural references and connotations are often so abstruse, they’re likely difficult for most to discern unless they’re willing to dig a little, yet the tone is so earnest that after reading a post, the reader may feel a certain sense of empathy, leaving him or her to want to read on. On one hand, Shenk’s populism has the potential to connect with a wide range of readers; on the other hand, his lack of compromise certainly keeps him in the crevices of the World Wide Web. This is entirely counterintuitive to the nature of the Nu Guard’s hip-hop style hype, but perhaps this is what connects Shenk to a different lineage—that of artists like John Armleder, Joan Jonas, Martin Kippenberger, Sturtevant, and Al Taylor. They too were absurd poets (or poetic absurdists). But they were not afraid to alienate or delineate.
As David Zwirner informed many people in the fall of 2010, Al Taylor made a body of sculptures titled “Rim Jobs,” which could have been far more rampant in their making or presentation, but then would they have articulated what they did? The subtle tension in these works is what activated them and pervasively taunted viewers. This particular type of tension is what Shenk is after. And this particular type of tension is exactly what Ross Moreno is inflating and bursting.
Al Taylor, Rim Job, Aluminum and Steel Bicycle Wheel, Plastic-Coated Wire, Stainless Steel Ceiling Mount, 62.5” x 78” x 6.75”, 1995
Moreno has gradually built a curious career, primarily through various acts in which he, like Shenk, performs in character. By intertwining comedy, ventriloquism, magic, and music, supplemented with afflicted autobiographical information and uncanny sculptural elements, he has developed idiosyncratic routines that often leave audience members bewildered. These characters include the tormented clown “Firebush,” the bumbling magician “Ross Ta-Da,” and the demure disc jockey, “DJ Carl.”
In the case of DJ Carl, Moreno exasperates the poeticism of the isolated performer by having his dejected karaoke host play by his own rules, denying requests by attendees, giving his interpretations of popular favorites, and essentially bringing all the joy of this beloved drunken activity back to himself. In the case of Firebush and the case of Ross Ta-Da, fellow artist, Justin Cooper, who has become a regular co-collaborator, joins Moreno. In both of these latter cases, Cooper provides a foil for Moreno; with Firebush, he plays the character “Yeti,” and with Ross Ta-Da, he plays the character “Prickly Peary.” Yeti is a combination of camp counselor and deadbeat distant relative. Prickly Peary most closely resembles a sardonic host of a public access children’s show.
Firebush and Yeti
Ross Ta-Da and Prickly Peary
The two constantly manipulate the conventions of the ‘double act,’ consistently confusing the identities of the straight man and the funny man. Both performers tell jokes throughout each act, providing an off-kilter “call and response” rapport, with Moreno leaning more towards self-deprecating anecdotes and Cooper offering fantastical observational humor. Moreno intersperses the routines with intense tricks with around a 70% success rate, demanding the crowd’s approval when he succeeds and begging for their sympathy when he fails. Cooper’s role is to attempt to keep the routine moving along regardless, yet he often distracts himself with contemplative posturing or sidetracks both with excessive “wardrobe malfunctions.”
As the performances have evolved, the identities of Ross Ta-Da and Firebush have at times become more or less interchangeable, as have the identities of Yeti and Prickly Peary, adding to the instability of the act and thus the anxiety of the audience. What generally persists though is Moreno’s affable demeanor despite his regular meltdowns, often associated with all of his characters’ failed marriages and failed job prospects, actually based on his real-life experiences. This invariable aspect to the performances gives the character a vulnerability missing in most art, especially today’s which seems to only leave the studio in a bulletproof vest, and Moreno stretches this emotional content until it is totally taut. However, the slapstick nature and the maximal endurance of the performances lighten the mood enough to not alienate anyone entirely.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect to Moreno’s practice is his uncompromising insistence on keeping all of his resources and influences at an equal value, and thereby maintaining an equal policy with venues. He has no hierarchy when it comes to when and where he performs. He has performed at such art institutions as SculptureCenter and Socrates Sculpture Park, both in Queens, NY, the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, PA, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, IL, galleries such as Galerie Zürcher and Salon 94, both in New York, NY, and academic institutions such as Ohio State University or Cornell University, as well as various DIY spaces, bars, vaudeville and burlesque shows, and comedy nights throughout the country, and he treats every billing with the same enthralling energy and enthusiasm.
This prevailing populism, along with his relentless affiliation with activities outside the realms of the art world certainly keeps him in line with the Nu Guard. But like Shenk, he diverges, slightly. His devotion to pivotal art historical figures’ methodologies, particularly the beauty manifested in the extension of oneself through the failures of persona and performance, and the schlockiness of shock value, vis-à-vis Bas Jan Ader, Mike Kelley, Bruce Nauman, David Robbins, and Michael Smith, is a necessary contribution to the necessary ironies embedded in contemporary culture and reflected in the complex productivity of the Nu Guard.
Bruce Nauman, Clown Torture, Color Video, Color Video Projection, Sound, Dimensions Variable, 1987
Michael Smith, Baby Ikki, Ongoing Performance
If one were to summarize the Nu Guard’s approach or attitude with a motto or phrase, it might be the same two words that were screen-printed on the front and back of so many t-shirts populating these artists’ youth: “No Fear.” This is fitting, as it was a brand about not compromising and accepting failure. This is fitting, because it is a brand that was tied to athletics, which as Troemel points out in his aptly titled essay “Athletic Aeshtletics,” published in The New Inquiry in May of this year, has metaphorically informed so many of today’s artists. This is fitting because it was a brand. And again, that is what the Nu Guard is after—branding.