Part the first — History Is the Past
History is something that happens to other people. -Anonymous
WELCOME STUDENTS. I’d like to begin today’s seminar with a pop quiz. (No groaning, people!) Please take out your Bluebooks and answer the following two-part question:
1. Identify the following historical era: In the early years of a century, at the end of a long era of prosperity, there occurred a contentious generational baton-pass between an older, tradition-minded generation (often called the "Civic Generation," but also sometimes the "Greatest Generation"), to a younger generation noted for being insecure, disillusioned, and "lost." That new century’s dreams for continued prosperity and peace had been ended by a brutal war that, while at first very popular, was later deemed the deceitful, wool-pulling act of a reactionary leadership bent on preserving a dying world order. The resulting atmosphere of destruction, death, disappointment, and demoralization defined the history of an entire generation.
2. Identify the movement that was birthed of this era, and describe its location and surrounding circumstances: Out of the era’s despair and dismay, a group of young artists and writers gathered in a place of refuge and began venting their anger at the times in the best way they knew how: through art. Making use of new communications technologies (which often became a subject of the work), the loosely linked group took to questioning the meaning, and subverting the value, of what had been held sacred by the generations previous. The resulting art was often obtuse and insensible, but it also captured the underground anger of an age and shocked an otherwise apathetic public.
Everyone got your answers? Good, let’s check em.
Question 1: This era occurred circa 1916-1923, and is sometimes dubbed the years of the "Lost Generation." The war was World War I — a.k.a., the Great War — and the reactionary leaders were the last, blind rulers of the old Empires of the 19th century.
Question 2: The place of artistic refuge was Zurich, Switzerland; the recent communications breakthrough was the rapid expansion of cheap printing methods on newsprint, and the art movement came to be called dada.
(A little bit of dada from back in the doo-dah…)
Dada, the 20th century’s greatest and perhaps earliest art movement primarily intended to shock the established order, was birthed of war and its aftermath. Dadaist artists and poets, who comprised a wide range of styles and approaches — such that it’s difficult to identify any single dada style — were connected via a sense of protest and discontent and by their use of mild obscenities, scatological humor, obscure visual puns, nonsensical language experiments and imagery, and blasé gestures. (Think Marcel Duchamp’s Mona Lisa moustache, called properly "L.H.O.O.Q." (1919), or his flat-footedly presented urinal called "Fountain"). (Note: The title "L.H.O.O.Q." is a wry and baudy pun in French, because read aloud it makes a sentence, "Elle a chaud au cul," which, translated, means, "She has heat in the arse." )
The group’s primary goal, then, embraced by young artists around the world and across the ages, was to outrage and repel the public (read: the established elders of the time). Today, history suggests the dada movement is key to understanding the sense of meaninglessness of the post-War era.
Part the second — History Is the Present
History is the present. That’s why every generation writes it anew. But what most people think of as history is its end product, myth. -E.L. Doctorow
OF COURSE, AS WITH ALL GOOD HISTORY LESSONS, I suggest there’s also a second, alternate, partial-credit answer possible to today’s pop-quiz.
That is, the advanced students among you might have noticed that another era also fits the historical description above. Just substitute, for instance, in your answer to question 1: the Iraq War for World War I; the Bushies for the great old oligarchs; the malaise of now and the current generation for that of the early 20th century’s "lost generation" — et viola, what’s old is new again! (The only question that remains is with the impending death of older, newsprint-based information systems where can one find a movement of artists seeking a place of refuge from all the turmoil today and a method to express their discontent?)
But you don’t have to take my word alone on this connection between then and now. Other commenters have suggested that the current conditions are similar to what created dada. Tyler Green, for example, reviewed a retrospective of dada at the National Gallery in 2006, and wrote: "[Dada] is a celebration of the power artists have to portray horrors, as well as a celebration of the voice they have in condemning the circumstances that produced those horrors. On view in Washington at a time when our nation is questioning the Bush administration’s conduct before and during war in Iraq, it is a rare — very rare — instance of an exhibition at our National Gallery of Art bumping up against the news of the day."
Certainly, there has been lively activity among political-minded artists in recent years. The 2006 Whitney Biennial was filled with young artists venting a variety of grievances through artistic gesture. (It’s a personal hypothesis of mine that this show’s curators — Philippe Vergne and Chrissy Iles — had hoped to evoke the energy and subversive qualities of dada in their curatorial choices; as to whether they succeeded in any way, well, I’ll discuss that in a moment…) Even well-established artists — such as Mel Chin (in recent sculptural objects suggest makeshift humvee armor, for instance), Jenny Holzer (in recent paintings based on declassified government documents related to the Iraq War), and Siah Armajani (in a recent public monument that conflated Fallujah with Guernica) — have gotten the political bug of late.
As Enrique Chagoya said in a recent issue of Art in America dedicated to political art, "I have noticed many more artists dealing with political content since 9/11. The world changed after that ominous day, and the topics are more urgent and global than ever. Just look at how many issues are making us anxious in our country and in the world: political and economic corruption, global warming and our dependency on fossil fuels, the rise of xenophobia, ethic cleansing wars, discrimination toward women and minorities, etc. — the list could be really long."
(Recent image of the Bush administration by Enique Chagoya)
Still, the current generation’s political art up till now has been greatly lacking in something, some je ne sais quoi, or magic if you will, to capture a wider audience. Mostly it’s been dull and dry and deadpan and rote, lacking spark and inspiration — or the power to spark imagination in others (and thus win them to a cause). In my view, it’s
a great disappointment that in this day and age of so much to protest and rail against, there appears to be no movement among artists that has any of the depth and quality to upset, confuse, question, and subvert like the dada movement of old.
So where, I ask you students of history, is the New Dada?
Part the third — Nothing Is More Delightful Than to Confuse and Upset People
Nothing is more delightful than to confuse and upset people. People one doesn’t like. What’s the use of giving them explanations that are merely food for curiosity? The truth is that people love nothing but themselves and their little possessions, their income, their dog. -Tristan Tzara
SO, THUS BEMUSED AND DISTRACTED by my own ideas and preoccupations about the current times and its art, a few weeks ago I received a cryptic, and unsolicited, email from a sender I did not know — a guy named Alex, who apparently is a regular a reader of some of my more obscure web-based arts writing. The email included only a weblink, and no other explanation; no text, no greeting, nothing at all of an explicatory nature. Of course, being an incurably curious sort — especially when it comes to online offers and links of uncertain provenance — despite my better judgment I clicked through the message to the other side. And what I found was an inscrutably low-tech-looking, clunkily typographed webpage with, again, no explanation beyond another link, this time to a pdf file of a document written by one Alexander Lane — thus solving one mystery (who this "Alex" was), but leading to another (what did this guy want?).
The essay, which, frankly, could have been written by a failing high school sophomore English student (who had never learned how not to use passive voice), was a rundown of a recent panel discussion at the New Museum in New York, "Net Aesthetics 2.0," which examined the phenomenon of something called "Internet art."
Now, I consider myself a fairly open-minded guy, and somewhat youthful and accepting despite my advancing years. But like any busy contributor to the national economy, between you and me, I was getting peeved by all of Alex’s obfuscation and crypticism. Still, against my better nature, I dug in and tried to make sense of this essay, painfully as it was written (and painfully as it was presented), and as a result I learned the following nugget of gold: Apparently, a lot of artists are using the Internet to make art these days.
Also, I learned, many of these artists often participate in something called "surfing clubs." I had never heard of such, but, according to another essay I dug up (via a couple of testy email exchanges with Cryptic Alex), a surfing club, as defined by Marcin Ramocki, is, apparently, a communal blog, usually run by artists, that may have several characteristics. These characteristics include: an internal dialectical and syntactical logic and narrative flow; a disregard for audience expectations in favor of its own infrastructure; a tendency toward semiotic and conceptual "games"; a connection to the act of "surfing" the Internet to find random materials and referents; a self-awareness of certain cultural codes inherent to the internet (among the most common being "Minimalism," "slacker art," "rock music," "youth culture," "programming language," "cute, extremely ugly eighties colors," "beauty for beauty’s sake," "porn,"and "video games"); and a tendency to evolve and change quickly (as per the culture of the Internet).
The art done on these blogs is, I learned, at first glance rather off-putting and inaccessible, perhaps much in the same way Dadaist art and poetry must have been for the older generation of the time. It is raw, blatantly youthful, full of noisy, and seemingly random, disjointed imagery and gestures. The work denies any clear interpretation, and it is often repulsive and off-putting, confusing, upsetting, and resistant to clear explanation — just as Tristan Tzara may have preferred.
In fact, it seems, the extra-credit answer to question 2 could be that the Internet is both the place of artistic refuge and the recent communications breakthrough for artists seeking to vent their frustrated modern spleen. And, it seems possible, that in this Internet Art movement we may well have the perfect analogue to the greatest protest art movement of the last century. That is, this cadre of young, disparate, unaffiliated, and angry online artists, who have found on the Internet a place to voice their underground discontent, may be the earliest wave of the New Dada.
(Sample of art from a "surfing club" weblog based in Minnesota)
The part in which I AM conclusory (or, at best, partially conclusive) — CHoosing Instead to Provide Links (with explanation) to Samples of This Internet Art Phenomenon (both local and national), So You Can Judge for Yourself
WITHOUT FURTHER FUSS, below I present some practitioners of the obscure art of the Internet — from "surfing clubs" both national and local — for you to make your own call (as to whether these measure up to dada, or else seem something altogether different).
National Surfing Clubs/Internet Art Groups
(Art by Tom Moody, from Nasty Nets)
Nasty Nets — Apparently this group began posting in 2006, and is credited with being first to coalesce a growing movement of artists interested in online blog art. The community is relatively small, comprised of artists, curators, and activists/bloggers pushing boundaries (in the manner of Dadaists of old), and in fact questioning whether what they’re doing is art at all.
Loshadka — has existed since May 2007. The first post on the site, extant during that first month, says everything about the site’s aesthetic and m. o.:
billy you’re gay right?
2 Comments »
Comment by billy — June 22, 2007 @ 7:41 am
gives me a pwnr thinkin about it
Comment by prawnstar — June 28, 2007 @ 5:08 am
Spirit Surfers — A much more clean, graphic-designy, and less frenetic site than some of its competitors, Spirit Surfers is no less obscure and obtuse – nor biting and incisive — for all the cleanliness. One of my favorite posts on this site is Tim Skirvin’s documentation of the building and destruction of a scale lego model of a Star Destroyer (from Star Wars). It’s particularly poignant that the Star Destroyer was destroyed by a cat named Tulip.
Double Happiness — Click on this site, and you get a frenetic soundtrack mixture of sounds from 1980s uber-soundtrack of Top Gun, hip hop music, and a 1-800 infomercial. Plus, chocolate chip cookies with bacon
, Google maps to pizza places in Poughkeepsie, and an image of the Hulk having standing sex with Wonder Woman.
(Another sample of Internet Art)
Heck, with Internet Art, you just never know what sort of visions you’ll see — nor how obscure and obtuse they will be.
Minnesota-based Surfing Clubs/Internet Art Groups
Here are some locally-based attempts at Internet Art, though (*please note) it is often difficult to know precisely where such "surfing clubs" are located. This is because the artists often eschew their very identity, including their names, locus, origins, and so on, when they get involved with such sites.
The Shitizens — A mishmash of local artists hip to national Internet Art trends, this site also seems to be one of several efforts by a local artist/blogger named Hollingsworth J. McTubbins. Check out the silly whip fetishism in this fun post.
Hardland/Heartland — A group of artists who seem to do a bit of everything (including old analogue art exhibitions, online stuff, zines, happenings, poetry, manifesta — and everything in between); you probably shouldn’t miss whatever they’ve got hidden up their proverbials.
Hooliganship — These guys really seem to love, for whatever reason, the whole "cute, extremely ugly eighties colors" thing. The organization of the site is a bit tighter, and less fluid, than some of the others of their ilk, but still the artists involved seem just as dedicated to the eccentrically obtuse aesthetic as any of them.
Lords of Apathy — These guys seem particularly sex-deprived, but then what do I know about modern art anyway?
And, well, you get the picture. I’d love to hear if you come across any more of these artistic endeavors — both national and local — or if you have any opinions about this art. Submit any thoughts, comments, suggestions (as long as they’re not cryptic) to the comment section at the end of this post.