Review by Gaia Tedone
‘Free’ takes as its point of departure the access to resources and communication modes that the web has made available to artistic production over recent years. Inspired by Seth Price’s essay ‘Dispersion’, which traces a history of the dissemination of cultural forms from conceptual art to the digital age, the curator has chosen not to focus exclusively on the Internet as subject matter; rather, the show is a reflection upon expanded notions of public space and the status of the image versus the art object today. Walking into the exhibition, various audio-visual inputs immediately set the rhythm of the show: dense, fast, multi-tasking. As in a browsing session, the different sounds that pervade the rooms distract from a linear experience, encouraging instead open associations between artworks, ideas and texts.
Produced by twenty-two international artists working in different formats and media, the works on display range from printed-out conversations to computer-animated images, videos and sculptural objects. This framework mimics the online experience, where fluid identity allows any kind of question to be posed. ‘How do you occupy space’’ ‘Is wireless everywhere’’ ‘How does it feel to be in love’’ ‘How possible is it to convince people that you are an artist’’ These are some of the preoccupations Joel Holmburg has shared on an online forum generated by Yahoo users. ‘Legendary Account’ consists of the best responses printed and pinned to the wall near the entrance to the exhibition. By pursuing his quasi-existential inquiries within the context of the digital social forum, investing in its potential to generate ideas collectively, he is able to demystify the idea of the artist as a separate and elevated figure. If Holmberg claims the internet as a new vessel for producing shared experience, Aleksandra Domanovic inscribes it in the broader context of mass media history by looking back at the impact of broadcasting in the former Yugoslavia. In ‘19:30’ - a double projection showing Yugoslav nightly news broadcasts from the 1980s next to footage of techno dance parties from the late 90s - Domanovic juxtaposes symptomatic images of two historical moments, each of which contributed to a sense of community, before and after the disintegration of the Socialist Federal Republic, within and across national borders. The artist traveled around the region searching for ‘idents’ - the station identification sequences that precede news broadcasts - which she collected and then gave to DJs, asking them to sample the music and use it in their sets, a way to bridge past and present. Martin Hendriks likewise examines the way historical experience is produced today by examining the impact of online forums on the perception of politics and current events. In his ‘Untitled Black Video’ he has appropriated comments taken from various chat rooms in response to a cell phone video of Saddam Hussein’s execution. The artist blacks out the footage, putting the emphasis on viewers’ reactions, which appear as text on the screen, and allows us to reflect on the ambiguous ethical and social implications of the online diffusion of images. His work is an investigation of current conditions of representation, and poses the question of how we are to create images that respond to and challenge the flow and excess generated by the web.
Lisa Oppenheim and Jon Rafman both respond to this challenge in their photographic works, which propose diverse strategies of appropriation and infringement. In ‘The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else’, Oppenheim collects pictures of sunsets taken by Iraqi and Afghan soldiers she found on the Internet and re-photographed them against the background of a Manhattan sunset. Two horizons of experience so distant in reality interconnect easily as visual data. Presented as a slideshow, the work invites us to reflect on the relationship between war and tourism. Rafman takes a similarly mediated view, looking at the world through the window of Google Street in his series ‘9 Eyes of Google Street View’. The artist captures and appropriates images that carry a specific symbolic weight, such as a group of teenagers in Northern Ireland giving the finger to the Google camera, their faces blurred by the site’s editors. Twisting the legacy of street photography, Rafman provides a critical commentary on the ways in which Google has similarly twisted our notions of public and private space, dispersing imagery and putting it at the service of artistic production.
If the Internet has raised questions about the representative function of images, where does this leave the art object’ Increasingly disposable, suggests Hanne Mugaas with her piece ‘Secondary Market’. This shelf displaying popular objects auctioned on eBay mimics an art market that reduces art works to commodities. Alexandre Singh, meanwhile, seems to want to recuperate a critical stance. In ‘The School for Objects Criticized’, common objects are turned into opinionated intellectuals commenting on the current status of art. Singh’s work acts as the stage for an unusual comedy of manners after Molière. The main actors are Despina, the toaster, a vociferous feminist, and Sergei, the bleach bottle, a neo-post-Marxist. The installation, both aesthetically and technologically incisive, is enhanced by the compelling tone of the discussion it frames, which moves from a celebration of YouTube to a reflection on markets and labels, finally turning into a poignant analysis of the contemporary art world. ‘A work of art should be able to embarrass itself,’ says Sergei towards the end of the discussion, perhaps alluding to a certain indolence and aversion to risk-taking among younger artists.
Singh’s installation shifts the rhythm of the exhibition, reversing the role of observer and observed in an irreverent and sophisticated self-critique of art production. By carefully orchestrating elements of high and low culture, ‘The School for Objects Criticized’ tangentially touches upon some of the exhibition’s wider themes, providing an entry point into its discursive space as well as an exit out of it. In a time when images are self-generated and commodities have their own opinions, artists are faced with the task of producing works that are not only able to grasp the viewer’s attention effectively, but must also interrupt and challenge the frantic rhythm of visual and material consumption to which we are subjected. The works in this exhibition offer some interesting ways to engage with these pressing questions and to re-evaluate the notion of artistic production as a site of enquiry in constant flux.