Surfing the Flotsam: Free at the New Museum
Free at the New Museum
October 20, 2010 – January 23, 2010
235 Bowery, between Rivington and Stanton streets
New York City, (212) 219-1222
Surfing through Free is analogous to spending hours at the computer, reviewing this bit and that byte until cross-eyed and overloaded. Interesting ideas fight to remain present in the midst of all the other flotsam accumulated along the way.
First and foremost, Free explores the following aspects of the internet: how artists engage with the public space it provides; how artists negotiate the pros and cons of the immediate availability and broad circulation it allows; and how it serves as a contentious territory that individuals, governments, corporations, etc. use as a tool to both control and elicit change.
But wait, there’s more: The essay “Dispersion” by Seth Price serves as a touchstone for the exhibition. Price’s thesis meanders around several topics: First he explains how Conceptualism managed to sabotage itself by being too esoteric instead of emphasizing its accessibility. From there, Price explores the disparity between the archive of high culture (museum, galleries, art historical texts, etc.) and the archive of popular culture (in this case, the internet). His view is that to be a part of the former, art must still be discussed and contextualized before it is archived, while at the same time, it must evolve and exist via modern media to have a foothold in the latter. Dispersion (2008) is presented in the exhibition as a printed document, reproduced in large format with ropes tied in knots embedded in each page. The knots seem arbitrarily thrown at the page, but upon closer inspection it’s obvious that they are placed near or on top of key points made in the text.
Curator Lauren Cornell, Executive Director of Rhizome (an online art forum dedicated to artistic practices that engage technology) and Adjunct Curator of the New Museum, in her essay “Walking Free,” looks at three themes that bind the works on display. The first is how identifying where your ideas end and another’s begin is infinitely harder in a space where everything is shared and reproduced ad nauseam—remarking also that this open-source medium calls into question what one can justifiably appropriate. The second theme is exploring—and here Cornell uses the rambling phraseology of Donald Rumsfeld—“unknown unknowns.” What is hidden, what is repressed, what are people more likely to say or admit under the cloak of anonymity the internet provides? The third theme, in the vein of other works that acknowledge the expansion of public space provided by the internet, is Free’s recognition of the “free culture” movement, which argues that the access to information made possible by the internet—through its commitment to openness—should be embraced as an opportunity for greater sharing rather than as a threat to our privacy or way of thinking.
The ideas behind Free are captivating, but with 22 artists attempting to illustrate them, the exhibition is exhausting. In some cases the art objects themselves do very little to engage. Amanda Ross-Ho’s You and Me Findings (Rotated 90° CW) (2009), is comprised of earrings found on eBay through searches for “earrings.” Interspersed across a black canvas, they take on a constellation effect through which they are supposed to lose their function as jewelry and instead become abstractions. For The Skies The Limit (Leave Me Alone) (1998–2009) she uses a previous work (in this case an enormous t-shirt with the words “Leave Me Alone” in large type) to be a symbol of a lengthy process of metamorphosis and reuse. The t-shirt was used in an exhibition in 1998, and a photograph of it was later merged via Photoshop with an image of a tie-dyed T-shirt. For Free, she tie-dyed the original shirt and mounted it on a canvas, as a way of printing or making tactile her experiments in Photoshop, therefore making prominent the potentially endless process of versioning and redefinition allowed by technological means. All well and good, but as objects these are not very interesting to look at.
Other works included in this category are Pangea (2010), a boudoir installation piece by Lizzie Fitch that intends to blur the line between public and private spaces, and riverthe.net (2010), a video projection of the website of the same name by Ryan Trecartin and David Karp that comes off as a kind of chat roulette in a museum setting.
In contrast Kristin Lucas’s Refresh (2006-7) documents her petition to legally change her name; the catch is that the name she wants is the same name she already has. The intent, she tells the judge, is to refresh herself as if she were a web page. The idea that the intangible soul can be versioned is absurd for sure, but Lucas pleads her case politely and concisely to the point where it’s a convincing argument. The transcript includes the judge’s patient but perplexed agreement to grant the name change (“The court is not in the business of humor”), along with the signed approval form and crudely-rendered drawings of the court proceedings by Joel McKay. In a play on the “publicness” of technology, Lucas provides the court transcript as a public document, free to be inspected by anyone who cares, while the drawings emulate the colored pencil and wash depictions of high-profile courtroom cases where photography is not allowed. As documentation, these vestiges prove the event occurred, but did anything really happen? It is a question echoed every time a page is refreshed with no visible changes.
In Legendary Account (2006-7), Joel Holmberg turns Yahoo! Answers on its head. Holmberg used the online forum, typically visited for such arcane questions as, “How do I remove a splinter?” to instead ask existential questions such as, “How does it feel to be in love?” and “How do I best convince someone I am an artist?” and “How do I occupy space? The funny part is that people actually answer. The work exists both online, in a series of answers on Holmberg’s Yahoo! Answers account, and in the museum space where printouts of the questions are installed as scrolls against a background that matches the background of the Yahoo! Answers site. The piece aptly questions our sources in the search for answers these days—is it enough to “Google” something to find a suitable answer?
Other works that function well here are C-print photographs by Trevor Paglen that illuminate the locations, sources, and characters that inhabit and study the “black world” of secret military operations; Alexandre Singh’s multimedia installation The School for Objects Criticized (2010), which imbues personality into objects, gives them voices (literally, voice recordings are played as if the objects were actors in a play), and allows them to analyze the strange criteria humans use to criticize art; and Martijn Hendrik’s Untitled Black Video (2008), which recreates the leaked cell phone video of the execution of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In his video, the screen is black, and the typed comments of various chat forum participants who watched the video online are shown in white text, their subtitles providing anonymous commentary and an alternative documentation of a historical event.
There is more to say, certainly, with at least ten other artists included. To that end several visits are required (taking the time to hear the entire dialogue of The School for Objects Criticized is highly recommended). One last boon: the benefit of this exhibition’s connection to Rhizome is the free online catalogue. You may find that the essays outshine the art, but at least you can surf the show from anywhere and avoid the flotsam with just a click.