Belgian-born, New York-based Tom Galle is the epitome of the contemporary web artist. His work is saturated with the very essence of hyper-digital nowness. He has created an online persona that is at once supremely infatuated with and deeply questioning of the profound impact that the internet has had on all of our bodies and brains.
Galle creates art that operates on two distinct levels: it is philosophical and political but also instant and accessible, effortlessly walking the line between academic art and internet meme cultures. In this way, his dark humor-laced practice can be seen as a telling indicator of the nature of successful art in the internet (and post-internet) age.
Christian Petersen: Were you a rebellious kid?
Tom Galle: Funny question, I indeed wasn’t the easiest kid. I was very uninterested in school—everything seemed so boring and I turned to trolling teachers (not in an aggressive way) to find a source of excitement. As a result I was kicked out of a few schools, and ended up in private school by the time I was 16. Through a sort of alternative educational system I ended up getting my high school diploma at 18 and went off to art school. I've always felt a bit complex compared to other people since I never had the “basic” education, but recently I feel like I actually learned trolling back in those days, which I’m using often in my work—so I'm very thankful to all those teachers that made things very boring and never believed in me.
CP: When did you first become aware of the existence of the Internet?
TG: Probably when my parents installed it at home : ) I was still very young but I remember a huge amount of excitement and anticipation around the idea that people now suddenly have access to “anything”—all we had to do was search for it. At that time it felt like no one could really grasp the complete idea of it and where it was going. The excitement only grew with chat apps, gaming, and early social media platforms.
CP: What did you imagine it to be before you used it?
TG: I literally had no idea, but the idea of it being such a new, free landscape of opportunities, connections, and obscurities—it felt overwhelming and exciting at the same time. Like whole a new free world, it had an anarchistic side to it. There were no rules. Obviously that was an entirely different time. We’re surfing in a corporate landscape these days.
CP: What early experiences of the internet are most memorable to you?
TG: rotten.com. Connecting with strangers on chat platforms or games. I loved Worms, Command & Conquer, Counterstrike, etc. Connecting to random people for chatting and gaming was one of the first things that blew me away—things we take for granted now. That general feeling of anything is possible here was very exciting.
CP: When did you start re-appropriating the common language and aesthetics of the internet into your work?
TG: I started my career in the creative agency/advertising world and was lucky to end up in a forward-thinking agency. That was around 2008, and advertising seemed pretty boring and conservative in my eyes—a lot of TV ads and stuff. As a counter-reaction I started making internet-focused work. The work was very much focused on speaking the language people speak on the internet to get them engaged. Work that takes part in the culture on the internet. I made a couple of brand projects that worked really well in that regard, and at the same time I was very attracted to the internet art world. I started making side projects such as Graffiti Loop, the $1000000 app for iPhone, and these simple one-off websites, things I’m still very proud off. I think both practices enforced each other; they’re both very conceptual and had a similar approach in taking part in online culture, which is what I still do today.
CP: Do you think the internet has lived up to its initial promise?
TG: I don’t think there was any promise. It was just a plain new playground full of opportunity and without many rules. You could say that the way the internet was envisioned by its creators didn’t live up to its promise. They envisioned it to stay free—without state interference or corporate powers overtaking it. That obviously didn’t happen, as we all know. I think that’s just the world we live in unfortunately. As if state and corporate powers would leave the internet and all its opportunities untouched, lol—they're mostly doing with the internet what they do in real life.
CP: What does “trolling” mean to you?
TG: Trolling has a very negative connotation on the internet. “Real” internet trolls are pretty hardcore bullies that get off on hurting people on online platforms. In my work I try to approach it very differently—it’s much more about finding a precise tone of voice that tries to poke fun at touchy subjects without going too far. It challenges people to be somewhat self-deprecating. Goodbye Unfollower is a good example. People got unsolicited tweets about touchy subject like unfollowing; because it is a loaded subject taken out of context, that’s what makes it funny.
CP: How would you describe your sense of humor?
TG: Dry humor? Satire? Irony? I love to find the humor in the sad things on the internet. Unfollowers, Tweets that don’t get attention, negative comments. It’s sort of a depressing, self-deprecating tone of voice I guess. A lot of it is also based on meme-humor. Things like Tinder VR or the crucified Fidget Spinner try to capture that language and take part in that cycle.
CP: You work shows a love/hate relationship (fascination and fear) with the rise of digital culture. Do you think the internet is ultimately a positive influence on humanity?
TG: That fascination and repulsion is exactly how I feel about it. There are a lot of positive aspects to the internet, but at the same time we’re accepting weird behavior we never thought we would years ago. Think of an idea like Tinder where you’re simply swiping through people in a way to find a potential lover. We accepted all these behaviors at an amazingly fast pace.
I love creating surreal scenes that express my feeling about these behaviors and poke fun at them, in an effort to confront people with it and make them feel uncomfortable, intrigued, or even repulsed. It’s not unusual for people to get angry about my work. All I want to say to them then is, “You’re angry at (your) internet behavior. I’m just the messenger.” None of my work tends to judge or make bold statements about things. It’s just a reflection on what we are doing and the way we are consuming the internet.
CP: Is the internet’s pressure on creative people to constantly produce content healthy?
TG: I think it’s a very exciting time for creatives on the internet. We get a constant stream of inspiration and can create and release an idea in a couple of hours and get immediate feedback. It can have a very positive effect. The excitement turns into more ideas and before you know it you’re on a streak. I think my work comes to life in that sort of cycle—which is bordering on the edge of healthy excitement and addictive, obsessive behavior. I remember very overwhelming moments when things go viral and I got carried away by unhealthy behavior, but over time I learned the importance of taking breaks and distancing myself from the internet to keep the work genuine and not purely audience-guided.
CP: You describe yourself as a “meme-artist.” When did you first become aware of the term “meme” and its meaning?
TG: It was actually a friend of mine who coined this term for me. At a dinner I struggled to introduce myself to a group of people and my friend just jumped in and said “He’s a Meme-Artist.”
I liked how that sounded; it felt broad enough and I like to roughly define it as “work that speaks the language of the internet.” Meme language is the commonly spoken language of the internet, transcending culture and language. Not only in imagery but also in the way people talk and behave online. It’s incredible how it is completely integrated in almost all aspects of the internet. My work tries to interpret aspects of meme culture and its language, and integrate/transform it into ideas that themselves become memetic and take part in that cycle.
CP: What do you think the art “establishment” thinks of internet art? Have you had any interest from that side of things?
TG: I can start feeling an interest from the art world now, but it’s very recent. I think the art world always had difficulties with internet art in a gallery context but they had their love story with internet/media art a couple of years ago with Cory Archangel, Petra Cortright, Jon Rafman, and co. Some really interesting artists found their way in and became established artists now, and it seems like their practice is somewhat adjusted to that audience.
With the rise of social media and this whole new generation of artists doing such interesting things, it feels like we’re way underrepresented in the art world. The art world is probably somewhat scared, and it’s not unjustified. Platforms offer a voice to everyone and similar meme-language gets spoken by all users so it all blends into one melting pot.
It’s probably time to redefine what an “artist” is these days. It seems like the art world can’t find an appropriate way to deal with this generation, and the artists are having too much fun on the internet to even bother.
CP: When did you first become aware of the concept of corporate culture and its negative effects?
TG: When I moved to the US : ) Europe is somewhat moderate since the government sets some limits to what corporations can do. Here the culture feels so focused around corporate money and power, sold to people under the idea of the American dream. I found it very confrontational and it made me feel isolated and scared. I started thinking of how free we really are, where our opinions come from and how we live in a society of mass compliance to a system that seems doomed to fail, probably not in a good way. It felt like something I wanted to address and my friends and I started thinking and talking about those subjects.
CP: What inspired your new series of corporate logos recreated as weapons?
TG: Corporate culture became a common subject amongst me and my friends, and my friend and frequent collaborator Moises Sanabria and I came up with the idea of creating weapons that somewhat represent or visualize the oppressive/aggressive aspects of corporate institutions. The objects at the same time could be symbols for revolt against them, which gave them an interesting tension. We loved the idea and worked with Alyssa Davis from @crucible.nyc and Brian Yudin. We designed the weapons and Alyssa and Brian made them in a specialized metal studio. We like to see “Corp Gear” as a concept that could keep evolving into different things that translate a similar idea, and our friend Devon Halfnight Leflufy was brought into the conversation to also make some sort of fashion line around it. So we’re planning on more releases under this umbrella :)
CP: Your work can be very political but also works as easily digested meme art. How do you create that balance?
TG: I’m just not into straightforward art that presses specific messages upon you. I think the best art is work that leaves things open for interpretation and doesn’t tell you what to think—at that point you’re making communication/advertising work. I think that’s what makes it easy to digest. It sets a tone of voice and probably triggers some people, but it doesn’t tell you exactly what to think or how to feel. They can fill that in themselves. Another reason could be that my work speaks a language that people are familiar with on the internet.
CP: What else do you have coming up?
TG: My friend Moises and I have our first solo show on December 6 in Upfor Gallery in Portland. That’s our main focus for now :)
We run an online magazine, so of course, we're interested in what's happening with art on the web. We invited online gallerist, founder, and curator of Digital Sweat Gallery, Christian Petersen, to write a bi-monthly column for us. Every other Wednesday he selects a Web Artist of the Week.