The term “post-internet” is a slippery one. Depending on where you turn, you’ll find that it’s been variously justified, adopted, embraced, vilified and laughed at. It’s a term that can be very useful when talking about a body of work and artistic practice, but it’s also somehow opaque and its meaning certainly isn’t immediately obvious.
A lot of people argue that there’s no single definition of “post-internet art”, and that’s definitely true to an extent. But art terms are never meant to be cut-and-dried, and post-internet practices vary in their manifestation and mindset just as post-modernist practices do, for example.
What does become clear, however, when you spend some time looking at post-internet art in depth, is that part of the reason that the meaning of the term is unfixed is that, like any art movement, it has evolved and changed over the years. This evolution is relatively easy to trace through the writing and practice of various artists, critics and curators.
This article doesn’t set out to define post-internet art, but to examine the nature of post-internet. It’s a movement that’s confusing because it’s moving so quickly, along with the technology that drives it. Part of the nature of the internet is that it changes very quickly; new developments are made constantly, websites are updated and old web pages disappear. Consequently, art that relates to the internet has evolved at a similarly fast pace, as has the conversation surrounding it. It’s important to note initially that although the movement is called “post-internet”, that is not to say that anyone thinks the internet is over. On the contrary, it looks like the internet is only just beginning.
History of the internet
The internet as we know it was invented in the 1960s as a way of connecting computers at separate universities in the US. Tim Berners-Lee invented the world wide web in 1989 and it was made available to the public in 1991, offering a browser-based interface which allowed people to engage with the internet without having to be tech experts. The internet and internet-based companies grew exponentially during the 90s, before the dot com crash of 2000. It was also during the 90s that the first pieces of internet art, or net.art, were produced.
The term “post-internet” was first used by Marisa Olson in 2008, which, although not long ago on an art historical scale, is ancient history in terms of the evolution of the internet. In retrospect, she was speaking when Web 2.0 was only in its incipient stages. If you don’t know, Web 2.0 is a name for a major turning point for the internet, which introduced interactive websites, where users could be active participants as well as passive viewers.
Olson later expanded on her definition of the term in 2011 in her essay “Postinternet: Art After the Internet”. She explained that what she had meant was in some ways quite literal: she would surf the internet, and then afterwards make art inspired by what she had seen. She also suggested that “both my offline and online work was after the internet in the sense that ‘after’ can mean both ‘in the style of’ and ‘following.’” In other words, her definition of post-internet referred to “art after the internet” in both a temporal and inspirational sense.
A very early work by Olson which could be considered post-internet is her 2006 project, Abe and Mo sing the blogs. In this work she collaborated with artist Abe Linkoln, and the pair of them produced an album of songs they composed, taking the lyrics from their favourite blogs. The songs are available to download as Mp3s on their website, which also provides links to the original blogs.
What separates this work from some of the net art being made at this time is the fact that Olson and Linkoln aren’t simply using the internet as a medium for their work. They are deliberately referencing internet-based means of production and distribution, and both parodying and celebrating them in their own work. Abe and Mo sing the blogs offers a complex comment on the inherently performative nature of blogs and the creation of identity on the internet, whilst simultaneously engaging with those aspects of the internet in the creation of their own blog-based work.
This idea of making reference to the internet and internet culture in and of itself, rather than treating the internet merely as a medium, is key to Olson’s definition of post-internet art and was also fundamental to the wider understanding of the post-internet art movement as it grew.
In a recent interview, Olson further clarified what she meant by her original definition of post-internet art, and it’s a useful basis for imagining later post-internet artists and writers building on it: “I meant to refer to art that a) couldn’t / wouldn’t exist before the internet (technologically, phenomenologically, existentially) and b) was in the “style” of or “under the influence” of the internet in some way.”
One of the interesting things about the term post-internet is that it was invented, defined and written about extensively by artists, rather than art historians. In fact, in post-internet practices, there’s often a very blurred line between making art and publishing written criticism on the internet.
For example, between December 2009 and September 2010, Gene McHugh wrote a blog entitled “Post-internet”. It was both an extensive piece of art criticism and a performative artwork in its own right. He would often post several times a day, pondering the term post-internet and post-internet practices; through this, the definition of the term evolved.
He references Olson’s definition heavily, explaining: “’Post Internet’ is a term I heard Marisa Olson talk about somewhere between 2007 and 2009. The Internet, of course, was not over. That wasn’t the point. Rather, let’s say this: what we mean when we say “internet” changed and “post internet” served as shorthand for this change.”
McHugh particularly built upon ideas of the performativity of art on the internet and art after the internet, as well as on the idea that post-internet art created a dialogue with what he describes as “art world art” by entering the gallery system and commenting on the tropes of the art world and of the internet, thus drawing the two closer together. Traditionally, the art world doesn’t like the internet, although that is beginning to change.
Later definitions and current post-internet practice
The internet has changed, and so has the discourse surrounding it. Marisa Olson’s original definition of “art after the internet” sees a distinction between “online” and “offline”. However, there is increasingly very little distinction between those states.
Omar Kholeif, curator of the recent Electronic Superhighway exhibition at the Whitechapel, puts it like this: the internet “has evolved from passive browsers on large desktop computers, into much more holistic connective interfaces that span numerous personal devices, wired into every aspect of human life and experience.”
In 2015, when asked about the future of the internet, Google’s CEO said simply that “the internet will disappear”. What he meant by this was not that the internet will fail but that the internet will become so ubiquitous that we fail to notice it. As he put it, the internet “will become part of your presence.”
Many post-internet artists today are interested in making the internet visible again, by exposing those places where the internet has infiltrated our use of language (with words such as “buffering”, “tweet” and the use of “friend” as a verb becoming common parlance), our social interaction, and our new-found ability to field hundreds of conflicting images and pieces of information at a time.
Curators Robin Peckham and Karen Archey referred in 2014 to an updated understanding of post-internet that “refers not to a time “after” the internet, but rather to an internet state of mind – to think in the fashion of the network.” This is very useful for thinking about post-internet artwork today; it is work that is embedded in, but also self-consciously aware of, the networked culture in which we live our lives in an internet-saturated world.
Much like the definition of the term itself, the field of post-internet art has opened up considerably since Marisa Olson’s first use of the term in 2008. In the 2000s, Olson was working as part of a network of artists, who discussed their art and collaborated online, often without ever actually meeting. However, since then this network has expanded to include many different artists working in a range of formats, who connect with each other by following each others’ work online through websites and social media.
One of the key characteristics of much post-internet art is its use of appropriation. Appropriation has a long art historical tradition, from Duchamp’s found objects to Richard Prince’s Cowboy series. In the age of the internet, however, there is a ubiquitous culture of appropriation. So much of the internet is focussed on sharing, from images, words and memes to videos and music. Often this also includes changing the original content in some way, with Instagram filters, the addition of a sarcastic comment, or with Photoshop.
Artist and critic Artie Vierkant’s 2010 PDF essay “The Image Object Post-Internet” talks of “the infinite reproducibility and mutability of digital materials.” He points to how post-internet practices are aware of the reception and reproduction of physical art-objects on the internet. In other words, the life of a post-internet artwork doesn’t stop when it reaches the gallery. Instead, in a culture where everyone is both a consumer and a producer, viewers will appropriate images of artworks for themselves, edit them and publish them online, creating an unprecedented cyclical dialogue between artist and viewer.
Oliver Laric is one artist interested in this online culture of appropriation. For several years, he has been working on an extended series of works entitled Versions. One example is based around an image released by Iran of four nuclear missiles being launched in 2008. The photograph circulated major news outlets before it was pointed out that it was actually an edited photo of one missile launch made to look like there were several missiles. The internet community quickly responded, creating their own humorous versions of the missile launch. Laric re-appropriated these appropriations, and had the images carefully airbrushed onto aluminium panels.
By bringing these online images into a gallery setting, Laric points to the ubiquity of appropriation and asks questions about what changes when other people’s work is appropriated for artistic reasons. By creating physical objects, he also implies that online actions can have real-world consequences, or, more specifically, that online actions and real-world consequences are inextricably linked in contemporary networked culture.
Richard Prince has been using appropriation in his artistic practice since the 1970s. He has recently started working with online appropriation. For example, in his series New Portraits, he took screenshots of photos uploaded to Instagram by other users (often young men and women trying to make it in the art, film or modelling worlds). His only transformation is adding enigmatic comments filled with emojis. These screenshots were then printed at a large scale onto canvas and sold for $100,000 each. This inevitably caused controversy amongst the people whose photographs he had used.
Art made using Instagram is probably one of the most likely forms of post-internet art to attract that “is it really art” question. Certainly, when working with social media, the line between the artist’s life and the artist’s art can become blurred to the point of dissolving. The new complaint is not “my five year old could have done that”, but “my fifteen year old could have done that”.
Amalia Ulman’s work Excellences and Perfections is a case in point. In this Instagram performance, Ulman created an identity and set about crafting a narrative told through Instagram posts, where a hopeful young actress moves to LA and takes the decision to have plastic surgery. Ulman’s work is a comment on how we construct the self in contemporary society, and how the self can be validated by “likes” and comments on social media platforms.
Here, life and art run closely together. Most of Ulman’s photographs are selfies, often posed wearing the artist’s own clothes and in places where the artist happened to be. While Ulman didn’t really undergo cosmetic surgery, she did really take the pole-dancing classes she documents. The character constructed for Instagram is only partly different from Ulman herself, much in the same way that our social media accounts present a version of ourself that is not the same as our in-person self, but can’t necessarily be fully separated from it.
The Search for a Definition
The “post-internet” takes many forms, uses many media, and has also evolved significantly over the last decade. The widely-used trope of appropriation makes a particularly useful example for looking at how the issues which affect post-internet art can be manifested and considered.
Widely speaking, of course, based on these theories, much of the art work produced today could be considered post-internet: no artist works in a vacuum and none could fail to be aware of, and affected by, the existence of the internet. Nevertheless, there are a group of artists who either self-define or have been defined by others as “post-internet”; time will tell whether this “movement” will achieve longevity.