Receiving high praise from seminal art-and-media thinkers like Douglas Coupland and formalising the critical dialogue around contemporary culture’s most penetrating technological medium, You Are Here: Art After the Internet is a book of collected essays and art projects about the influence of the internet on art since the Nineties. Omar Kholeif edited the publication and contributed a text that discusses his own practice of curating in a post-digital context. Here he speaks with Selections Art Paper about his thought-provoking compilation.
By dint of his Egyptian origin and in-depth knowledge on film from his birthplace, Omar Kholeif has become an influential voice on art and film from the Arab region. In his role as senior editor at Ibraaz, the leading platform on contemporary visual culture from North Africa and the Middle East, and as Founding Director of the UK’s Arab Film Festival, he is shaping how art from here is perceived and contextualised. His first love, however, is media and technology, and the majority of his work is dedicated to thinking about how these things intersect with art. Currently Curator at The Whitechapel Gallery, London, as well as Cornerhouse and HOME, Manchester, he was previously Curator at FACT, Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, Liverpool, and Head of Art & Technology at SPACE at The White Building, London.
The subject of You Are Here: Art After the Internet is geographically non-specific, and locates itself globally or, more appropriately, in reference to digital timespace. “I would say generally speaking no there is no difference in how the internet has influenced art across different geographies,” muses Kholeif, “Even if you are in Beirut where connections can often feel like dial up, the notion of the internet as a ubiquitous force or field is undeniable. We are all subsumed by it and likewise, artists, the world over, are influenced by it.”
Kholeif’s expertise may lie at the intersection of technology and art, but it is framed within the art world: “I am not so interested in how art has affected the web as I am not an internet historian but a film and art historian.” For this publication he draws together 22 artists, writers and curators – including video artist Jennifer Chan, Brad Troemel from online group the Jogging Collective, ‘Famous New Media Artist’ Jeremy Bailey, pioneering tech artist and writer James Bridle who coined the term New Aesthetic, and internet artist Constant Dullaart. Each writes quite subjectively on either the internet as a whole, or more often on how aspects of its use are re-shaping the way that art is made, distributed and understood. This form echoes how the internet’s polyphony uses a series of distinct but connected deep dives in to different subjects to build up a general impression that is always shape-shifting and evolving. The book may be complete but the subjects it opens up feel like the start of the debate, to be consolidated by subsequent theorists and practitioners who take up from here. Although the World Wide Web – our tool for accessing the network of networks we call the internet – is 25 years old this year, the discourse around how it is changing us remains wide open. As Douglas Coupland, fan of the book and subsequently a collaborator of Kholeif’s in forums on related subjects, put it in Art Forum in June, “There’s a whistling in the dark thing going on right now.” In the tradition of the most accurate critical writing, and the most engaging artworks, these texts open up more questions than they resolve. The book is self-consciously a jumping off point – an initiative critical foray into a canon that is, as Kholeif says, “a nascent one.”
As this collection of essays, projects and images makes clear however, some things can be pinned down as artists and critics try to define the internet-shaped imprint that is now embedded in the art world. “The internet is a field – a space – that moves, constantly,” asserts Kholeif, locating a specific descriptor that can be applied to the subject, as well as the reason why there is hesitance around theorising it. Alongside the preference its constant movement gives to moving images over stills or other art forms, Kholeif believes that enhanced distribution is the biggest influence the internet has had on art thus far. “Anyone anywhere in the world can now have access to art (in its various forms and manifestations). This has created a democratisation and has eroded hierarchies. For me, personally, this is the most exciting thing. That an artist in Azerbaijan can start to have the same frames of reference as an artist in Peru or Portugal, say.” The same might be said, however, for almost any aspect of culture, not just art. Being more specific, Kholeif explains that the internet has changed art practice, “so that it is less modular or segmented, becoming something much more commonly located amidst the annals of a broader culture.”
As a term that has become widely used to refer to art after the internet, several texts in the book discuss what ‘post-internet’ really means. In Kholeif’s experience, “The most common misconception is that post-internet means art that doesn’t engage with the internet or looks at the internet negatively. Rather, it means art that is Internet Aware. Internet Aware Art is fully conscious of how all art now can no longer exist in isolation from the effects of the internet – its forms, its aesthetics, etc. (whether we are discussing sculpture, painting or work made specifically for online).” One of the collection’s sparkiest writers, internet artist Jesse Darling, puts it best in her essay Post-Whatever #usermilitia when she insists, “let’s get one thing straight: every artist working today is a post-internet artist.”
A version of this article appeared in print in the Art Paper, issue #04, on page 04.