I can lose hours reading online commentary on news articles, blog entries, or YouTube videos. Sometimes I’m looking for information, like travel tips or recipe substitutions. Other times, I’m minding my own business when bham! - some totally unfounded hostile comment I should ignore draws me in. Many readers and commenters are aware of Godwin’s Law, the droll observation that all internet discussions eventually result in someone being compared to Hitler. But comment culture is not as vitriolic as this comedic adage might imply. The internet is also a productive platform for earnest advice, gratitude, and dialogue - and even discussions with trolls can have interesting results.
Versions, an exhibition about comment culture at NIMk celebrates the open internet tradition of feedback and connectivity. Presenting commissioned gallery works by artists who are usually active through the internet, Versions explores web communities and art as they relate to notions of authorship, process, and freedom.
The exhibition consists of curated web projects displayed on computer monitors, video and slide projections, sculptures, a sound piece, and mixed media installations. Along with the commissioned gallery works, the show highlights the often humorous exploits of creative online communities such as F.A.T.Lab and NastyNets.
The initial act of appropriation is taken for granted. The artists in Versions source materials from and work within the public domain. Here concepts rule, and it is the re-contextualization or manipulation of an image or content that becomes important. Theo Watson’s sound piece takes a literal approach to the theme of comment culture, projecting computer-generated voices reading actual internet commentary. Helpful tips about new computer hardware follow outraged speculation about Obama’s health care policies. These comment threads have agency beyond their original referents. As the discussions evolve we wonder what original images, videos, or articles invited such responses.
Martijn Hendriks’s manipulative work considers authorship and the variable meanings of images, seemingly exploring the thin lines between iconoclasm and transformation. In previous work he has “healed” vandalized images of celebrities like Britney Spears and redacted all references to “art” in a copy of Rosalind Krauss’s Sculpture in the Expanded Field. His NIMk contribution is three works with identical concepts. One is a slide show presenting 29 manipulations of the memorable image of Laszlo Toth having vandalized Michelangelo’s Pieta. In another “version” he has partially covered a photograph of Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Zizek with a rock. With his destructive/productive interventions Hendriks asks whether the substance of his publicly sourced images is maintained after transformation.
Similarly mining the internet for imagery, Oliver Laric explores the interactive nature of the web and its facilitation of infinite variations on a theme. His project, also titled Versions, is a conceptual finale of sorts. Dozens of faceless religious figures fill the floor, each alike in form but not color. Three screens play identical but non-synchronous videos related to ideas of adaptation, accessibility, iconoclasm, and image manipulation. These didactic videos consider such varying topics as cam-bootlegs, the vandalized idols reproduced in the gallery, falsified celebrity porn, and altered news images. Three different voice-tracks accompany the videos. One sounds like a scholarly lecture, another like a BBC documentary. In the third, an enervated narrator offers seemingly spontaneous commentary; he claims he created all the comedic video transformations of Zidane’s infamous head-butt and fabricated countless Iranian missile launch images. We doubt his claims, but does that matter? In an environment where modifications are made to modifications, how important are authorship and authenticity? As Laric’s BBC narrator posits, “No particular variation has the monopoly on authenticity.”
While it is a bit strange locating such open artistic practice within a gallery, the works don’t feel bounded by the space. Instead they read like “versions” of projects still taking place in real time - their possibilities have all but been exhausted. I spent as much time looking at these artists’ and their colleagues’ work online once I got home as I did in the gallery. Their processes are not so different, in fact, from those of artists making objects. There is research, development, revision, repetition; it just takes place more quickly involving more participant-authors online. Ironically, it is their presentation in the gallery space at NIMk that might make these artists more accessible to certain demographics of art-viewers. Versions will make believers of the cynics. It demonstrates that discussion forums do not only facilitate indiscriminate political or cultural exegesis; they are diverse spaces for inspiration, collaboration, and artistic evolution.
~Andrea Alessi, writer living in Amsterdam
(Image: Courtesy of the artists and Netherlands Media Art Institute - Montevideo/Time Based Arts)
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