What Art Belongs to the Internet?

Seen and Unseen

Last semester, when I had to write an educational curriculum for an elementary school tutoring program, I picked the topic of color. I bought a prism for the occasion to show the kids that rainbow-wedge Dark-Side-of-the-Moon effect—how a single, pure beam of white light is dispersed into a wide rainbow of color when shown through a triangular prism. I forgot a flashlight, so we tried using the flashlight function on another tutor’s iPhone. But when we shone it through the prism it cast a distressingly truncated rainbow, mostly white with a blue edge. Of course, we should have known: The output spectrum of color is only as good as the input spectrum of the iPhone light.

Computer screens can display even less of the full range of the color spectrum. Our screens’ colors are all the result of combinations of a certain red, a certain blue, and a certain green light—a small triangle on the irregular parabola of visible colors. Computers do a slightly better job with shades on the red end of the spectrum, but there is a deep range of blues and greens that computers cannot display.

This is an issue when it comes to viewing art, movies, and photography on a computer or some other small screen. As filmmaker David Lynch remarked in an interview for the limited edition DVD of his 2006 film, “Inland Empire,” “Now, if you’re playing the movie on a telephone, you will never in a trillion years experience the film. You’ll think you have experienced it, but you’ll be cheated. It’s such a sadness, that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real.” So what is the right kind of art to experience on a phone or on a computer?

I think I have found one answer in a Youtube video called “Hotpoint Washer Tears Itself Apart—Grand Final Day Entertainment,” which displays what poster Aussie50 describes as the “washing machine kill cycle.”  The video shows a nondescript front-loading washing machine sitting in someone’s yard on an overcast day. The clothes chamber starts spinning—Aussie50 appears to have replaced the original motor with a more powerful one—and, based only on the force of the spinning, the washing machine gradually tears itself apart. Pieces start bucking and flying off, then the door, and finally the spinning motor falls down flat.

Another piece of perfect internet art was the gender-guessing quiz of the early 2000s, which is no longer online. The quiz involved a number of questions not at all related to gender, things like, “Which word is worse, ‘used’ or ‘moist’?,” and “Which do you prefer, French fries or onion rings?” At the end, the program guessed your gender, which you then confirmed—and the force of thousands of quiz-takers answering these inane questions pushed the likelihood of a correct guess to close to 100%.

A final example is the music and pop culture blog Hipster Runoff. Written by the self-styled Carles, the blog is a bewildering compendium of text-speak and ceaseless irony, tempered by Carles’ profound—even lovingly excessive—knowledge of his subjects. The blog presents such a dire idea of the modern world that I cannot read it for long—like Madame Bovary’s italics, Carles uses quotation marks around idiomatic, popular expressions, which turn out to be almost everything. Everything is inescapably silly. The most bloggable bits rule the world. But even this ridiculously insincere world has its moments of beauty: “I like ‘looking forward to things,’” writes Carles about an Animal Collective album, “because it is a gimmick that makes my life worth living.”

These three different artworks—artworks in worldview and effect, if not in named intention—reveal what art works on the internet. Lushly visual art and art that works with physical experience is out—imagine trying to take a Google Maps tour through a Richard Serra piece. The best internet art is collective and interactive in a way peculiar to its medium and works with the quiet, personal, and slightly guilty state of its consumers. There is no self-satisfaction to the internet the way there is to a book or a museum.

One of the best things about the internet format, and what links it to street art, is its capacity for surprise. “Hotpoint Washer Tears Itself Apart” begins on the level of all other YouTube videos, and in five minutes distinguishes itself, working entirely within the constraints of its medium. It works because of its content—the surprising pathos and galactic-scale entropy contained in an average washing machine—and also because this act of technological self-destruction can only be experienced with technology. What does it matter if Aussie50 was intending to make art? We should open ourselves to all of it. The internet’s limitlessness makes it a truly exciting stage for art—instead of that one monkey tapping out Shakespeare, we now have more than two billion.

—Columnist Molly E. Dektar can be reached at mdektar@fas.harvard.edu.

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