Post-internet art reflects a certain undercurrent of violence without being didactic about its source.
In a number of contemporary artists whose works deal with the digital — the so-called post-internet artists — a marked, almost frightening feature is their tendency towards violence. The figure, which had been largely absent from contemporary art for the past few decades, has returned, but only to be pulled apart, dissected or made to disappear — not with any visible bloodshed or abjection, but clinically, echoing in style the unreality associated with the digital. This return to the body as a subject of hostility suggests that the proximity on the internet to representations of extreme violence is a kind of imbrication — an unresolved culpability from those watching toward what’s seen.
In Ian Cheng’s video Thousand Islands Thousand Laws (2013), for example, a video-game gunman patrols the environment, looking left and right for a threat that never materializes. Eventually, he too disappears among the skeletal representations of birds and swamp creatures of the mise-en-scène. In another of Cheng’s works, METIS SUNS (2014), cartoon figures appear as if thrown like dice onto the screen, scramble and twist helplessly, and recede into drawn lines that just as quickly fade from view.
The main characters of Ed Atkins’s digital videos, meanwhile, are cadavers or hard-drinking, tattoo-laced men who clutch glasses of whiskey and cigarettes in desperate need of being ashed. In Ribbons (2014), a head deflates as if perforated by some invisible hand. In Us Dead Talk Love (2012) and Those Warm, Warm, Warm Spring Mouths (2013), the figures ruminate poetically on being dead. The disembodied head of Us Dead Talk Love mourns, specifically, an eyelash stuck in foreskin, while images of statues, hair and eyes go by — a digital dismemberment of the body.
The viral marketing campaigns of ISIS are only the most recent example of how the internet links us to situations of extreme violence, offering us a unique means to become aware of them. This is something that Hito Steyerl, in both her videos and her writings, has repeatedly pressed: the connection between the experience of digital media and the physical violence of the world. Suggesting the culpability between the passive internet user, consumer or spectator and the violence wrought by political and economic inequities, she refuses to bracket off artistic production from the economy and political situations that support it. Her video In Free Fall (2010) in particular demonstrates how sites of apparent digital illusion are tied to the real world. She traces a specific Boeing passenger plane that had been sold to the Israeli air force in the 1970s, where it took part in hostage rescue missions against the PLO, to a junkyard where it was bought by a special effects team. It is, in fact, the plane in Speed that Keanu Reeves blows up. What was left of the plane after the movie’s filming was then sold to China to make DVDs. The spectacular violence of Speed, which viewers can revel in as consequence-free entertainment, proves to be part of a wider material network of real violence and the precarization of labor.
Even apparently placid, disembodied life online always has violence at its margins or, to use a more appropriate metaphor, in its feed. This fuels the slippage between everyday activity and symbolic violence that characters in digital works undergo — one can even see it in the strange tale of a plane that goes from hostage situation to junkyard to movie fame. Paul Chan’s work, which like Cheng’s often uses the aesthetic of video games, likewise sketches a vision of a peaceful world battered both by specific and general violence. The video 7 Lights (2005–07) imagines bodies falling from the Twin Towers, while Now Promise … Now Threat (2005) juxtaposes the Bush-era War on Terror with images of everyday life from the Midwest — cable-access TV shows, images of church ceremonies — all interspersed with YouTube clips of beheadings and fighting in the Middle East.
It is significant to note that Chan and Steyerl are of an older generation than the “post-internet” artists among whom the body has returned with such gusto, and in their work the focus on the “real world” is remarkably more explicit. The haziness of the exact nature of the threat to the body — why Cheng’s patrolman, Atkin’s hard drinker and countless others should be coming up against such violence — has prompted the general assumption that in Internet-related art the violence or death thematized in the work is a cipher for the new experience of an immaterial existence.
In some sense, the argument has legs. The body in the sense of the body — the fleshy substance that we all try to keep in check — is remarkably absent in the new work, in contrast with how the body was pictured in the 1980s and ’90s, when new digital technologies were also perceived as intruding on its domain. Artists such as Mike Kelley, Paul Thek, and Robert Gober turned to the body as a site of abjection, emphasizing effluence, blood, guts, reflecting in part the fear evoked by the AIDS epidemic. Such abjection is absent now. Rather than a sense of the body on the verge of disintegrating, now it is imbued with the slickness of a machine — something undergirded by the fact that, as digital renderings, many of these bodies are machines. But they are sanitized in a way that the work of the 1990s was deliberately not: They are clean violence, or cleaned violence.
Cécile B. Evans’s video THE BRIGHTNESS (2014) shows rows of oversize teeth (they also exist as sculptures), some neatly painted red in parts. Despite the apparent allusion to a body in the midst of bloody dissolution, the effect is the opposite: They look too slick to be in any way disgusting — too much like expensive dental representations of bloody teeth. The bodies here hew too closely to digital anthropomorphism, or to the high production values of design objects, to be seen as anything but images.
A further case could be made for these works presenting a traumatized body, deliberately at a remove from the “real” body, as a response to the immateriality of the digital world. However, this analogy is challenged by the focus these artists place on the viewing experience. We do not actually lose our bodies, even if we watch immaterial representations of them. The on-site experience of watching the videos — in a line of inquiry derived from the 1970s — focuses attention not only on the immaterial projections but on the seated and viewing bums as well. Atkins deliberately makes the experience of watching his videos physically charged, with their aural and visual impact pegged up to full blast. Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch made bespoke viewing stations for their seven-part cycle Any Ever (2009–10) as well as for the four-part installation they showed at the 2013 Venice Biennale, making the viewing body part of the larger work itself.
Moreover, the violence toward the figures on screen seems almost hysterical, over-compensatory, if it is taken as being directed toward what is only a notional idea of the loss of one’s body. Instead, the masochism in the violence suggests our own culpability, which is inherent in our networked awareness and consumption. Atkins, in many of his videos, models the figures on himself, affixing the animation sensors to his own head and symbolically killing himself in his cadaverous renderings. Jesse Darling’s four-channel installation Ground Zero Suite (2013) shows her digitally erasing a stock screensaver on her desktop to reveal a fleshy red substance held between her hands. This is then visually distorted and overlaid onto her crotch, as she laughingly directs a plane towards the digital aperture: an autoerotic 9/11 whose low production values and embarrassed laughter suggest that it is knowingly incommensurate with the actual event.
Darling’s response has historical and art-historical predecessors, as does the juxtaposition of images of violence and of normality. Photo-bulletins sold in Europe in the 1910s displayed images of the First World War alongside advertisements for soap and other household products, placing the businesses of living and dying horrifically side-by-side. It isn’t anything novel now, with Facebook and Twitter feeds full of reports from Syria or Ferguson interspersed with comments on brunch. But imagine seeing this for the first time: the discordancy is shocking. It was fodder for much of the artistic response to the First World War, particularly among the Dadaists. Art historian Hal Foster, in “Dada Mime,” shows how Dada’s signature techniques of montage and disjunction used violence to both signal opposition to the war and to bring its disintegration upon themselves. “A key persona of Dada,” Foster writes, “especially in Zurich and Cologne, is the traumatic mime, and a key strategy of this traumatist is mimetic adaptation, whereby the Dadaist assumes the dire conditions of his time — the armoring of the military body, the fragmenting of the industrial worker, the commodifying of the capitalist subject — and inflates them.” The Dadaists, seeking to react to the violence around them, pictured it and brought it back upon themselves.
The response now is more stylized and slicker, but it is no less concerned with the self as the locus of disintegration. In many ways, the abstraction of the affronts to the body perhaps accounts for the widespread popularity and resonance of post-internet works: They reflect a certain undercurrent of violence without being didactic about its source. It also speaks to the generalized existence of trauma online, of viewing actual deaths and stories about massacres and war in the context collapse of the internet. Violence is general over the world, and navigating the internet as avatars makes it impossible to deny that we are within it.