Replacing Walls with Mirrors: First They Came For Your Porn, Then They Came For Your Art

Michael Guidetti, Untitled (2009).

There’s this site called Rhizome I like to look at on rainy days. It’s an online gallery of sorts. One of the works is a Michael Guidetti from 2009, a watercolour on canvas with animated digital projection. Guidetti places icons of the computer age, its default palate, over a watercolour of a conventional gallery. These images are digitalised; the Rabbit and Dragon of gaming images, and the ‘Utah Teapot’ (a 3D computer model so ubiquitous on the internet that Wikipedia calls it an ‘in-joke’ for programmers. Whatever tickles your fancy I suppose). The piece amounts to a simple animation of light crossing the floor of the gallery. These images, and this room, become an analogy for the internet; each new sight/site is a new particle of light falling on one of the internet’s key tropes.

The sharing of an image on the internet is a process of continual reflection and refraction; each time an image is repeated in a new context its meaning is refracted through the web host, the designer of the image, those viewing it, how they view it, the ads suited to you (which may cause heavy eye rolling to distract from the viewing experience). Though this is similar to staging an art piece in a gallery, it removes the image from the conventional standardised and sterilised white cube experience. Now we can interact with the image, screen shot it, change it; far more than we can do with a Tracy Emin drawing (if only we could rip that off the wall and start doodling on it).

                                                                    Tracey Emin, Ripped Up (1995).

The computer (or mobile phone, tablet, Google glasses, whatever) based image is open to more dimensions of refraction than art as object, as virtual objects occupy, supposedly limitless space.

It’s this freedom that opens up ideas that the art world furrow their brows over, to a whole range of people; having coffee on their lunch break; keeping watch overnight at an Arctic research centre; procrastinating during job hunting at your local library. Those shut out by this assumed level of decorum, the prior knowledge of ritual imbued in a typical gallery visit, can freely view, interpret, reblog, reinterpret, screen shot, an image from anywhere. Or contribute their own image. While a block of marble is still fairly pricey, the growth of affordable computers, and a camera on most phones, has increased individual’s image making, and consuming, power across economic divides.

With increased controls on the internet, such as those ushered in by David Cameron’s porn (/Childline/opinions-he-don’t-like) blocking bill, is the freedom that allows these dimensions already diminishing?

Van Gogh selfie.

Art on the internet straddles the private and public. It can be intimately shared in a message, or admired alone from your bed. Often internet art is personal, for the benefit of creation itself and individual symbolism. Since personal, primitive art, cave painting, or ice age jewellery (which faced the wearer), the arts evolved to be imbued with status symbols and materials, as we developed into the self-aware cultures we are part of today. Internet sharing and art is increasingly at risk of this process of deserting the personal; partly as it evolves so rapidly, partly due to imposed restrictions.

However, art is also public: it’s used in blogs to present images, Picasso becomes advertising and a sexy name for a car, while Basquiat becomes a Facebook cover photo. This opens up possibilities of digital art as public political statements, as shown in Augmented Reality Graffiti, where an individual’s coded image is used to imprint virtual and geographical space, to mock or question that space.

Augmented Reality Grafitti.

Internet art is a product of, and the creator of, its own environment. This interactive growth is unlike the high art world, which has gone through a process of increasing separation. The price involved in studying and creating it, and the elite rituals of how one consumes, displays and interacts with art, are barriers. Art as object can become lifted out of the publics reach, and become anchored to a social group, culture, or geography. The internet hosts all these images, but the viewer can choose how and where to see them – in new contexts, Photoshopped, using galaxy effect apps, or coded multi dimensional objects. Write on it, unshackle art from its contexts and make it new again.

Without the hierarchy attached to art as object, we can take that Tracy Emin off the wall, rip of the corner we like best, and stick it on a jacket, or slip it in a strangers notebook on the Tube.

Unfortunately, a good thing rarely lasts.

The Last Pepperspray.

Increasing focus on internet copyrights, and the Metropolitan Police’s recent statement stating a crack down on internet crimes, bring a new dimension of accountability to the previously unrestrained freedom the internet provides. ‘Subversive’ images could be banned (and defining that is a Pandora’s box on it’s own); certain (government friendly…?) forums may be claimed to be more legitimate than others; people could be/are being tracked due to an interest in any type of art their government finds unsettling. There is a movement in Parliament right now pushing for broader ‘paywalls’, which would allow only the rich fast internet and access to certain sites. China has already shown how possible a censored internet is. The NSA scandal has shown this same desire to control the internet laying not-so-dormant in British and American governments, as has Cameron’s, disturbingly vaguely worded, internet reform bill.

As Edward Snowden pointed out last month (from a computer screen, being hosted at a TED talk, to be shared by thousands of people in thousands of settings): ‘there are absolutely more revelations to come’. He used the example of buying a copy of 1984 from Amazon – though it could as easily have been someone googling ‘Balthus’ – being monitored and stored for use by governments, and corporations, across the world. ‘Thought crime’ is no longer an Orwellian concept; you can get a year long imprisonment under the new IPNA for ‘intent to annoy’ (from what I gather, this is the main occupation of the majority of the internet) and other, equally vague, claims related to thinking, or googling, the wrong thing.

I don’t claim to know a solution to this. I can’t help but worry that Tim Berners-Lee’s statement that we need a Magna Carta for the internet has come along too late. Given the trajectory of governmental desire, it would be optimistic to claim we can prevent the sterilisation of the internet, and with it the transformation of free internet art into the stratified and homogenised experience the ‘high’ art world is increasingly becoming. Okay, we’re not arresting artists for portraits of a cross-dressing Putin, as in Russia recently. In fact, I’m sure tranny portraits of David Cameron would go down a treat. The freedom to subvert, share, digest and create internet art in a free space, however, with no rent controls or unnecessary security guys, is already ending.

Will artists have to migrate to the dark net to get away with a jot of the controversial? Is the darknet even safe, given the shutdown and arrests related to its biggest market place ‘Silk Road’?

While it’s still here, devour all you can. Before you know it, it’ll be 2020 and that screenshot you shared of a ‘Miliband in Miniskirts’ blog, placed on a background of some smarmy campaign poster, will be being used as evidence of your ‘intent to annoy’. Suddenly you’re under house arrest. With no internet porn. And you won’t even be able to take to Twitter to bitch about it.

This article was first published by The International New Media Gallery here:


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