Hyperjunk: Observations on the Proliferation of Online Galleries

February 14, 2012 · Print This Article

Deco Divider by Paul Flannery for Bubblebyte.net

Recently the topic of online galleries and their proliferation in the past year has been on the tips of many tongues. Specifically, the argument involves a musing on how the development of online venues for showing net-based work is providing a fundamental shift in the paradigms of traditional art market systems. Although I support and am interested in these projects, I haven’t been convinced one way another of their effectiveness, or if these new galleries are actively engaging, responding, or directly working against the establish status quo of art exhibition. One such criticism of the overall impact of these spaces comes from the striking similarity of artists shown in these venues. In very few instances do these spaces show artists that haven’t otherwise had some kind of successful online exposure (through something like Rhizome, Art Fag City, or even the artist’s own dynamic social networking presence). The amount of overlap between the artists shown in these online venues is telling to the overall quality of work being made and distributed online. It’s not that I want to argue that these artists are underserving of so much attention, or that their work hasn’t earned wide distribution and exhibition, but I do question the value of having multiple online venues showing such similar kinds of work and artists (especially given the availability of so many creative, insightful, and challenging works being made within/around network culture).

This being said, I came to scrutinize my own suspicion of these so-called alternatives by questioning the fundamental basis of my own judgement: is it the responsibility of these websites and galleries to create an antithesis of the standard model of commercial distribution? Is it is also their responsibility to only show artists that otherwise would never have an opportunity to show in physical space? Following this train of thought, I came to question whether it is even the intent of these spaces and sites to operate as opponents or counters to the art market, and if it is fair of me to critique these spaces underneath these expectations. If not, then what intentions and responsibilities do organizers and curators have in the creation of their forum? To provide more substance for these considerations, I decided to talk directly with those that have been cited as promising examples of this trend in an attempt to uncover how these (mostly artist-run) initiatives consider their own activities within the larger scope of contemporary art exhibition and economics.

For my pool of information I solicited responses and conversations from Art Micro Patronage, BOCA, Bubblebyte, Fach and Asendorf Gallery, Klaus Gallery, and Parallelograms to contribute some thoughts on their role as ambassadors for online artworks. I asked these spaces how their projects saw themselves within the dominant art market system, and how they attempt to incorporate both online audiences interested in the type of work they are showing, as well as audiences that extend beyond what I characterized before as a rather insular group. It might be important to note here that some of these spaces offer their exhibitions without any intention to make money, or without any deliberate sense of “marketing” their work to buyers and sellers. This being said, that stance can be viewed as an act of defiance against the normative system of commercial markets, and in itself can be viewed as a (political) position within that market. Given this, my inquiries of how they effect and respond to normative art showcasing still applies. My decision to consider these questions in light of this variability in itself speaks to the need for flexibility in traditional systems of showing emerging artists and/or work that is difficult to purchase, own, or commercialize.

Project Still by Stephanie Wuertz for Parallelograms

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was provided with an equally variable array of answers to the above posed questions. That being said, I wasn’t surprised that most responders emphasized the creativity of the artists and work exhibited on these sites overrode the significance of needing to reach an audience that might not be aware of online cultural production. Leah Beeferman and Matthew Harvey of Parallelograms stress that their project isn’t directly intending to “dismantle” the traditional art market, but instead is “really a project for artists, and hopefully one that ends up being [more] about ‘creative’ process than anything else.” The accentuation of the work is perhaps the reason why there is so much overlap between galleries and their audiences, since the sampling of work in these venues is often specifically invested in a long term process, as opposed to the more product driven model of commercial galleries. Although the quick turn around between conception of an idea and execution might be sped up by online production, the underlying substance of most of these makers involve a long term exploration of their craft and culture.

The other central benefit that almost all spaces identified with is that by maintaining work online all the physical limitations of spatial and temporal proximity no longer are an issue. As Rhys Coren and Attilia Fattori Franchini from Bubblebyte argue:

Art online gives you a lot of freedom, the possibility of eliminating lots of costs that you would have in a normal gallery setting – equipment, space, exhibition costs, communication costs [are minimized]. It is definitely weird but we are enjoying the challenge, often using limitations as a strength to develop our discourse… we can reach the world for the cost of an Internet connection, and we’re open 24 hours a day.

In terms of considering audience, The Internet is the most accessible place I know to see art. The only requirements are an Internet connection and a way of accessing that. Where you are isn’t a factor. When you look isn’t a factor.

The newfound accessibility and wide distribution that these sites offer patrons and artists appears to be enough to sustain the importance of adapting to contemporary cultural communities. However, there is a dangerous presumption that everyone is looking at the work at the same time, or even in the same way. Not that this is necessarily suggested by these projects, but I’d argue that the vast distribution and decentrality of these works occasionally usurps the actual political, cultural, or aesthetic content. To apply this metric to the successfulness of any one show is a slippery slope, and seems a bit too closely tied to attendance demands that plague physical cultural institutions (although this problem has been partially alleviated by the growing attendance of many major institutions). In order to create “value” out of these works, one needs more criteria than a mere visit counter to judge impact. This being said, that “value” seems to be generated from the growing amount of physical mountings and exhibitions that are directly influenced by these sites (many of the projects above have already specifically forayed into physical shows, or plan on have IRL versions in the near future).

The question of how to create a space of appreciation for the kind of art being distributed through social networks and online galleries has to involve an inquiry into how to cross pollinate audiences online and off. A tricky aspect of this process lies in how one defines – or identifies with – the community they exist within, as well as the audience that they wish to access. This is particularly the case when we observe how a market system is often times attached to a specific physical audience or temporal community. The physical space often reflects the culture around it, and for the Internet, this mimetic process is almost impossible to centrally locate and concretely diagnose. To navigate between a community of makers across the globe and a local constituency can often lead to competing terms and expectations. Most responders argued that because a system of sharing, open distribution, and community discourse was already been established online, that all these projects had to do was put a name to an already familiar face. This name then serves as an external identification for an online community to be in dialog with those that might be unfamiliar – or else those that don’t have the benefit of a local forum (as Coren and Franchini indicated).

Scroll by Arend DeGruyter-Helfer for Klaus Gallery

Duncan Malashock identifies that being able to talk to both a larger international audience and those more local influences how he helps operate Klaus Gallery:

The goal of the project was to introduce Internet-related artists to the audience of Klaus von Nichtssagend, two groups who’d had limited exposure to one another. The work is of course available, but to suggest that the project is “in dialogue” with a “market,” I think is perhaps to put too fine a point on it. Our hope is to introduce the online work of particular artists whose work we find potentially engaging to a particular audience that we’re familiar with.

Similarly, Eleanor Hanson Wise and Oliver Wise of Art Micro Patronage also urge that their intentions come from extending the work of artists primarily working online onto the personal computers of contemporary art appreciators and collectors:

We didn’t design AMP to compete with galleries selling work. We looked more to a museum model, where the community who appreciates the institution supports it. For a collector, we tried to provide an easy way to keep track of and access the work you like… Why don’t museums (for the most part) show or collect “netart”? It seems to us that it’s because they don’t have a good way to show it, curate it, and make it accessible to the public… By offering the general public a way to experience the shows and fund the artists working in this way, artists can reach a different audience, and that audience can give those artists a financial vote of confidence, even if it’s in a small way.

Art Micro Patronage goes on to admit how their unwillingness to participate in direct competition with the commercial gallery system shows that again the important part is to enable artists working online to gain exposure to channels that otherwise might not be readily available.

Often the power of these sites is that they already come prepackaged with an entire community at their backs. The proliferation of online spaces (and the multiplicity at which they continue to crop up) is in no small part due to a net-based community of artists that have been arguing the need for these types of venues. Kim Asendorf of FA-G even goes so far as to say that “Net Art legitimizes online galleries,” as opposed to the other way around as I initially suggest. The overall strength of this network lies in their willingness to support the programming and curation of a underrepresented net art scene. Moreover, it could be argued that this enthusiasm and support will play a major role in tipping the scale in favor of non-commercial gallery distribution, and to create the much needed alternative to the status quo that dominates most art institutionalization.

A foreseeable danger in this is finding a way to make these spaces have long term sustainability, and continued resonance with online makers. A case study to consider in light of the somewhat temporary-ness of online curatorial projects (i.e., jstchillin, The State, etc.) is to look at the transience that also occurs in the apartment gallery scenes of cities like Chicago and San Francisco. Although these projects and experimental spaces crop up frequently with much initial support, artists and organizers of those types of spaces usually move on from them after two or three years. What online galleries have going for them is that they are not as tied down to physical space, finance, and luck as these temporary spaces usually are. However, the rapid audience shifts that often occur in online environments might also serve as a word of caution to these spaces to consider how to sustain a practice over a longer concentrated amount of time (although this might not be important for some).

Selection of Works for BOCA’s Minimize exhibition

Some would dispute that the only way to prevent the potential collapse of an unsustainable and primarily voluntary project is to introduce a financial element into the mix. Often this takes the shape of incorporation of one kind or another – non-for-profit status, a business license or LLC, etc. In this way, Bozeau Ortega Contemporary Arts (or BOCA for short) stands out amongst the participants I polled as a specifically commercially driven platform for the distribution and sale of digital projects and objects (with some visible success according to their website). Of the projects mentioned above, BOCA is distinct in that it attempts to comment on the art market directly by satirically playing into its rhetoric and formula. Their position as a viable commercial entity explicitly investing in digital objects – regardless if the project has fictitious elements and cleverly disguised “backers” – serves as an ironic twist on standard marketplace practices:

The immaterial nature of our product has problematized its commodity status and, as a result, dialogue has become our central function (we see this as an investment in the future of ourselves and our artists)… Unwittingly, our gallery has come to occupy a critical space: our immaterial works of art, and their relatively low market value in spite of their rarity and novelty, occupy a position critical of the value of typical, physically mediated works of art… If commodification and market viability make a body of work legitimate, then yes, BOCA Gallery could be seen to be legitimizing an area of artistic production which formerly expressed no interest in such “legitimization.” However, by doing such a poor job of commodifying these objects for market consumption, our project could actually be fulfilling the opposite role, unwittingly exposing the absurdity of such economics applied to such arbritrarily valuated virtual objects (both physical and digital).

Regardless of the clarity of intention, or the degree at which a project aims to complicate the standard system of art exhibition (or the certainty of authorship and origin in the case of BOCA), the common thread between the responses that I got reflect a similar attitude to what Beeferman and Harvey discussed initially. The priority of showing work that is otherwise underrepresented in traditional gallery scenes dominates the central desires of most of these sites. The trouble I have with this is an implied marginality that occurs when discussing net based artists. This imposition of feeling excluded, or else impatience with the for-profit market system, is more self-imposed then externally dictated. To ride this rhetoric fully seems ignorant of the ways in which digital art is, or more accurately already has infiltrated and become more pronounced in the greater art world dialog. To favor one system over the other, or to underscore the supposed ignorance of major cultural institutions for not having more net based art, can position the artist, work, or community as having ingrained entitlement due to its novelty. As a result, that dueness inherently denigrates the process driven community based discourse that gives net-based art so much life and energy.

Perhaps an underlying question then becomes: why is net-art perceived as such a marginal medium needing specific online galleries to cater to their production and distribution? If an ideal environment of an artists working online lies within the personal computing web-browsing experience, then why the need for relocating these works into another specific website/framing? What is “more accessible” about an online gallery then an artists personal website? Are the tropes from the traditional gallery system still playing too significant a role in the way in which net-art is being presented? Or are these systems only being utilized in order to be exploited, undermined, and (eventually) refashioned from inside out?

3 Responses to “Hyperjunk: Observations on the Proliferation of Online Galleries”

  1. […] appreciate AMP’s inclusion in Nicolas O’Brien‘s “Hyperjunk: Observations on the Proliferation of Online Galleries“, a thoughtful survey and analysis of current online galleries recently posted on Bad At […]

  2. Pick ‘N Mix #49…

    – Columbia University’s Critical and Curatorial Studies’ online journal Interventions has uploaded their second issue: Framing the Internet. – “Once considered the weakest candidates by boards, curators are now getting the top management jobs”. -…

  3. […] differs from the spate of new online galleries like BOCA, Bubbelyte, and Fach Asendorf in that it is not dedicated to Internet-inspired-art, or […]

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