The Immediated Now: Network Culture and the Poetics of Reality

originally published in Networked: a Networked

Originally published in Networked: A Networked Book about Networked Art, a project of, July 2009. I am grateful to Helen Thorington and Jo-Anne Green, who ran Turbulence for the opportunity to do this. 

Back in the day (see the full post here), I wrote:

In this chapter, I suggest that network culture is not limited to digital technology or to the Internet but rather is a broad sociocultural shift. Much more than under postmodernism, which was still transitional, in network culture both art and everyday life take mediation as a given. The result is that life becomes performance. We live in a culture of exposure, seeking affirmation from the net. My chapter explores the resulting poetics of the real from YouTube to the art gallery. To be clear, the new poetics of reality is different from established models of realism, replacing earlier codes with immediacy, self-exposure, performance, and remix.

Throughout the 1990s, digital computing and network technologies were largely employed in office work, their cultural implications confined to niche realms for enthusiasts. If that decade’s new media art formed a vital artistic subculture, it was mainly isolated and self-referential, in part due to the artists’ fascination with hacking the medium, in part due to its position as the last in a long line of Greenbergian interrogations of the medium, and in part due to its marginalization by established art institutions. Artists like Vuk Cosic, Jodi, Alexei Shulgin, and Heath Bunting replayed early twentieth-century avant-garde strategies while emulating the graphic and programming demos of 1980s hacker culture before computers left the realm of user groups and became broadly useful in society.[1]

Today, in contrast, digital technology is an unmistakable presence in everyday life and is increasingly inextricable from mainstream social needs and conventions. Network culture is a broad sociocultural shift much like postmodernity, not limited to technological developments or to “new media.”[2]Precisely because maturing digital and networking technologies are inseparable from contemporary culture — even more than the spectacle of the television was from postmodernity — they must be read within a larger context. All art, today, is to one extent or another, networked art.

This investigation can’t be limited to online venues, but it also can’t be limited to “art.” Postmodernism called high and low into question (think of Warhol as the quintessential early postmodern artist, or later Barbara Kruger, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Koons, and Richard Prince) by bringing in products of the culture industry into art, but network culture levels that distinction utterly. Art under network culture dismisses the populist projection of the audience’s desires into art for the incorporation of the audience’s desires into art and the blurring of boundaries between media and public.[3] With the spread of knowledge work, attitude and a quick wit for fashion have become more important than knowledge of historical depth so, as Alan Liu suggests, whether a cultural artifact is cool or not matters more than its status in high and low (indeed, unless the object is first cool, styling it as high ensures that it will be seen as kitsch today).[4] Still, as a chapter in a book on networked art instead of, say, on networked cultural production, our focus here is on art. Nevertheless, we will also roam afield to a broader survey of cultural products, high and low, online and not (if it is possible to say that there is anything not online today in some form). Thus, this essay examines not only what is on but also what is on television, on YouTube, or in the gallery.

Specifically, this chapter looks at how networked cultural production draws on reality, from reality television to blogs to MySpace to YouTube to the art gallery. Reality art leaves behind formal structure and deeper meaning for a heightened sense of immediacy. This immediacy, however, is not so much authentic and present as mediated and dispersed. To speak of this work as “reality” media is not to imply it is not coded. On the contrary, the fascination with the real in “reality” media, be it reality TV, amateur-generated content, or professional “art” is constructed around specific tactics: self-exposureinformation visualizationthe documentarian turnremix, and participation. Nor should we expect these transactions to be one way for if the distinction between high and low is tenuous at best, then it stands to reason that the discourse formerly known as art will also influence what was formerly considered non-art. After laying out a context for immediated reality, this essay will examine these five registers in a preliminary survey of the field. In looking at such art practices, it’s important to understand both how they fit into broader aspects of network culture and how they work within the discipline.

Network culture is not a rejection of postmodernism but rather a shift or mutation that builds on it. Take aggregative works, for example, which elaborate upon curatorial art practices of the early 1990s or participatory art which draws on the “relational aesthetics” emerging at the end of that decade. Nevertheless, there is also a break and this break is not only with postmodernism but also with a long modernity: the new poetics of the real is distinct from existing models of realism, both the classical realism that first emerged in the eighteenth century, accompanying the bourgeoisie’s rise to power to mature during the nineteenth century, and the postmodernist realism of trauma, fragment, and ironic quotation.

In its subject matter, classical realism embraced everyday — as opposed to courtly or idealized — life. This matter-of-factness challenged the aristocracy’s dominance of the aesthetic realm, inverting the old order’s aesthetic of high themes and established commonplaces.[5] But more than that, classical realism was produced by an epistemological break. Until the eighteenth century, cultural producers saw invention as a matter of elaborating on convention and conforming to decorum, thereafter however, they would rely on internal capacities of their subjectivity, e.g. insight and original thought. In this, novelists like Henry Fielding or Samuel Richardson and genre painters like Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin or, a century later, Gustav Courbet paralleled the investigations of philosophers like René Descartes, for whom truth was a matter of individual observation, and understanding the product of an individual comprehending the world through his or her senses. In taking the everyday and turning it into a work of art, realists demonstrated the transformative potential of the human imagination.

When compared to earlier forms of literature and art, realist works appeared formless, eschewing strict traditional structures.[6] This very absence of predefined structure underscored the primacy of experience over tradition. Still, realism relied on conventions to reinforce the notion that beyond everyday life lay universal truths. Take plot in the novel: if the novelist presented his text as a slice of everyday life, that slice took the form of a narrative arc that demonstrated, by example, the coherence and deeper meaning of everyday life. Or take the private nature of the novel’s narrative: by depicting the inner struggles of the individual in the world, novelists described the totality of life, not just its public face, thereby stressing the importance of the private over the public and giving new value to individual action and personal morality. Thus when Georg Lukacs lauded realist works expressing the totality of socioeconomic life, he articulated the basic principle behind realism (if in Marxist form).[7] Realism accompanied the rise of the bourgeoisie, so if signs now point to a new class structure emerging as, in developed countries at least, the dominant form of labor shifts from factory work to immaterial production and knowledge work, then we should not be surprised to see a new way of understanding the world emerge.[8]

Figure 2Richard Estes, Oenophilia, 1983

Figure 3Peter Halley, Prison Cell with Smokestack & Conduit, 1985

Postmodernism, in turn, was a key transitional moment exploring the schizophrenic fragmentation of the real (together with the sign and the subject) under the pressures of mass media.[9] Superrealist artists such as Richard Estes induced a schizophrenic perception of surfaces and signs, a hallucinogenic reality exceeding the capacity of either the photograph or the eye, a condition that Hal Foster describes as “overwhelmed by appearance.” Appropriation artists like Richard Prince*, Sherri Levine, and (the early) Cindy Sherman critiqued how reality is constructed in media representation while questioning ideas of authorship and property. Simulationist artists like Allan McCollum and Peter Halley extended the idea of appropriation to create neutral works claiming to be void of emotion, originality or authorship, embracing instead the market and reproducibility in media. In the latter days of postmodernism, abject artists like Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Kiki Smith, Andreas Serrano, and (the later) Cindy Sherman hunted for signs of reality in the traumatic, exploring the violated and the defiled by simulating bodily excretions, wounded bodies, or damaged objects from childhood, but as Foster observes, they also worked in an artistic milieu from which emotion had been drained. For postmodernists, appealing to trauma discourse was a matter of simultaneously playing out the critique of the subject while calling for an identity politics.[10] Throughout, then, postmodern art was concerned with articulating the schizophrenic fragmentation of both sign and subject.[11]

The Immediated Real

Each era, Jules Michelet observed, dreams the following. Postmodernism’s dream was of network culture.[12] For to declare the death of master narratives, postmodernist theory forged a new master narrative around networks of multinational capitalism.[13] Still, the role of networks was only nascent in postmodern culture — most obviously, the Internet was not yet privatized or significantly colonized by capital and mobile technology was still new — and the complicated nature of network culture — for example, the growth of open source, the rise of knowledge workers, the widespread piracy of informational commodities, the importance of bottom-up production, and the rapid decline of traditional informational industries such as newspapers — was as yet unforeseen. So just as postmodernity emerged after the process of modernization was complete, in turn network culture could only come after postmodernity had run its course. Today the fragmentation of the sign, the end of the subject, and the dissolution of any sense of authenticity in media are fait accompli. If postmodernism celebrated the shattering of the subject, network culture takes that shattering as a given.

Today’s self emerges from the network, not so much a whole individual as a composite entity constituted out of the links it forms with others, a mix of known and unknown others it links to via the Net.[14] As its ground, instead of immediate, lived experience, the contemporary subject relies on the immediatedreal, a condition in which mediation is a given and life becomes a form of performance, constantly lived in a culture of exposure in exchange for self-affirming feedback.[15]

Where modernity legitimated itself on the basis of an historical narrative and postmodernity used theory to critique that legitimation and to reflect on its own state in the world, network culture undoes any sense of history or theory.[16] In its stead is left only an immediated reality that eschews either legitimation or critique but just is. The critique of industrial society’s homogeneity that was common in art under modernism and postmodernism is now absorbed into management theory, the alienated factory worker replaced by the knowledge worker with the “freedom” of job flexibility (which also means no benefits or job security) and the privilege of self-expression as a member of the creative class.[17]

As management theory has absorbed critique, the market informs art more than ever. What use is the symbolic capital of theoretical resistance when real capital could be earned? Since the mid-1990s, artists have increasingly entered a new post-critical framework, concerning themselves with the cool or a return to the beautiful.[18] The art of network culture, then, operates within a culture that is rarely Utopian or oppositional but rather more concerned with its own position within the vast game of the network.[19]


The importance of the immediated real to network culture manifests itself most clearly in the reality television show and the webcam. In the 1990s and early 2000s, shows such as MTV’s The Real World promised unmediated glimpses into everyday life. But, broadcast on a medium with long-established conventions, these swiftly degenerated into scripted productions like Big Brotherand Survivor or in the case of shows like Fear Factor or American Idol became little more than rewritten game shows, incorporating cash prizes or the promise of media stardom to their contestants.[20] Still, reality television is now firmly incorporated in television culture, for example in the comedy The Office — which is framed as a reality television show — characters frequently address the television camera directly as if on such a show and maintain blogs on the show’s Web site. In 2005, in a crossover between art and reality TV, Marisa Olson auditioned for American Idol and maintained a blog about the process at

Reality culture is at its purest not on television but on webcam sites. In Jennicam, Jennifer Ringley offered an uncensored, constant glimpse into her personal life to the three to four million daily visitors. Like other webcam or, for that matter, the more recent lifestreaming sites, Jennicam manifested key aspects of reality culture: no narrative arc or any suggestion of a deeper meaning, but instead a glimpse into the private life of an individual hoping to expose himself or herself. This glimpse was not one-way; Ringley frequently reached out to her audience through e-mail and chat, a process that she made visible on Jennicam.

The second webcam to transmit around the clock is Anacam, this time by an artist, Ana Voog. Broadcasting since 1997, like JennicamAnacam is a glimpse into Voog’s life, even if her project, unlike Jennicam, includes performance art, pointing to a breakdown between performance and life under the constant scrutiny of the unseen audience as connoisseurs and voyeurs. Voog, who engaged in sexual activity in front of the camera would get cosmetic breast implants in 1998.[21]

Beyond the webcam, immediated reality abounds throughout Internet culture. Blogs, social networking sites, and Twitter all offer platforms for self-exposure. Web sites such as eBaum’s World or YouTube do as well, in large part being made up of videos that claim to be true, such as scenes of people doing funny, stupid, or dangerous things or direct addresses to the audience, all done with the intent of appealing to an audience who would view them online. Viral marketers and media producers (e.g. Lonelygirl15 or Little Loca) have embraced this appeal to reality as well, utilizing the direct address to the audience and the amateur production values of net video.[22] Even pornography has recently lost its sense of fiction, narrative arc, and profit — an ironic note given that in the 1990s era pornography was considered the one reliably profitable Internet enterprise. Instead it is increasingly being produced by amateurs and uploaded for display on sites like XTube or 4chan.

One of the more famous examples of self exposure in recent art is Untitled(2003), in which Andrea Fraser filmed herself having sex with a patron who paid $20,000 for the privilege, then displayed a video of the act in a gallery where editions of the video were subsequently sold. The work implicitly raised the question of whether the patron paid for sex with Fraser or to expose the act in the gallery. Contrasting this to Tracey Enim’s My Bed (1998) reveals the difference between the postmodern and immediated reality. Enim’s sexual exploits are recorded in her unmade bed, which in its studied dishevelment, is meant to align her work with abject art. Enim’s bed is framed by a purported nervous breakdown, pointing to a confused narrative in which the artist alternately boasts of and is disturbed by her promiscuous sexuality. The bed is key to the project, an index of Enim’s (sexual) performance and a device that serves to validate the project through its appeal to authenticity and presence. In contrast Fraser’s work is much more matter of fact, a calculated act of self-exposure to be reproduced in media.

Artist and theorist Jordan Crandall writes “In many ways this culture would seem to be less a representational than a presentational one, where we are compelled to solicit the attention of others, act for unseen eyes, and develop new forms of connective intensity — as if this were somehow the very condition of our continued existence, the marker of our worth.” Crandall also points to another aspect of showing, the desire to submit in the face of technologies of tracking and surveillance.[23] Under the rubric of “surveillance art,” a contemporary counterpart to Foucault’s reading of the panopticon, a number of artists — such as Crandall himself, Diller and Scofidio, the Institute for Applied Autonomy, and the Bureau of Inverse Technology explore this drive to submit as an object of critique.[24]

Surveillance art often ascribes the role of the watcher to a mysterious, unknown power. The Eyes of Laura (2005) by artist Janet Cardiff is an exception. For this work, Cardiff constructed the character of Laura, a security guard who had become obsessed with watching a thief she nicknames “Rabbit.” As presented, the project gave no clue that it was a work of art, even allowing visitors to control a security camera at the sponsoring Vancouver Art Gallery (the Gallery’s sponsorship or location was not identified on the site). If the project may have ultimately been too contrived to maintain the viewer’s suspension of disbelief, it nevertheless examined both surveillance and exposure (Laura’s desire to talk about her life and activities) under immediated reality while toying with our definition of what is real.[25]

Figure 6Burak Arikan, MyPocket, 2007

Like Cardiff’s The Eyes of Laura, Burak Arikan’s MyPocket (a 2007 Turbulence Commission) mixes surveillance and self-exposure, disclosing three years of his financial records to the world and employing software to predict his future spending habits. MyPocket questions the finance industry’s insistence on the transparency and management of our finances even as the industry insists on its opacity to us. Moreover, in introducing the capacity to predict his own future spending through software, not only does Arikan mimic the acts of such corporations, he demonstrates how our choices are constituted within a network of information, in this case financial.[26]


MyPocket brings us to information visualization (infoviz). Just as the functional software of the 1990s replaced the programming demos of the 1980s, so works consisting of dynamic visualizations of quantified data replace the self-referential new media art of the 1990s.

To some extent, infoviz is the most directly imbricated of all the registers of immediated reality in computation. Artists operating in the other registers of immediated reality take digital technology and networks as a given, generally relying upon it much as “prosumers” might, as a set of technologies to build works out of without necessarily getting deep under the surface. In contrast, infoviz generally demands that artists get involved in programming, turning to coding environments such as the programming language Processing or to complex, professional environments such as GIS mapping software.[27]

Infoviz has received much attention recently — most notably in the 2009 MoMA show Design and the Elastic Mind — and thus warrants less discussion here than other aspects of immediated reality. Jonathan Harris and Sep Kamvar’s I Want You to Want to Me (2008) is an example of this sort of work, building on acts of self-exposure by others. Captivated by how members of online dating sites describe not only themselves but the traits they desire in their mates with brief phrases, Harris and Kampvar present this data on high-resolution touch screens.[28] Yunchul Kim’s (void)traffic (2004) is another example of infoviz, utilizing ASCII characters to represent data traffic, thereby evoking the idea of a “black-and-white digital organism” or the “surface of the sun.”[29]

Figure 7Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen, Movable Type, 2007

But infoviz’s downfall is its spectacularization of data and faith in technology. For if infoviz is the clearest inheritor of modernism, its origins are not the disruptive, avant-garde modernism of the 1920s but the modernism of the 1950s and 1960s. Aiming for a reconciliation of thinking and feeling under the bureaucratic technologizing of the senses, postwar modernism was the visual representation of the Fordist corporation. In turn, infoviz corresponds to the “efficient market hypothesis” prevalent in the last decade in which the purported wealth of information easily available to us over networks allows the market to operate efficiently and rationally. Take, for example, Ben Rubin and Mark Hansen’s Movable Type, (2007) a grid of 560 vacuum-fluorescent display panels mounted in the lobby of the New York Times building. Each panel displays information mined from the day’s stories, the paper’s archive, and the activities of the visitors to the web site.[30] Far more than any late modern painting, this work advertises the company’s ability to control and efficiently extract information, turning it into an object of wonder. Claiming the ability to create new user interfaces, infoviz is often the purview of design firms or programmers and can be sponsored by venture capital. It can be hard to tell the latest art project from the latest startup.

Figure 8Josh On, They Rule (2004)

Tactical media activists have created politically progressive uses of infoviz. Spurred by Mark Lombardi’s elegant pencil drawings of networks of scandals in the late 1990s, they set out to reveal hidden power networks and critique in “counter-geographic” projects such as Bureau d’Etudes’ The World Government(2003) or Josh On’s They Rule (2004). Such works aim to unpack the complex weave of network power, nevertheless, if intriguing, such projects can be hampered by reducing network power to mere relationships.[31] Agency and intentionality may remain unclear while the work remains an object of fascination.

Figure 9Scott Hug, Consumer Mood, 2009

Figure 10Scott Hug, U. S. Life Evaluation, 2009

Scott Hug critiques both infoviz and network culture’s pervasive obsession with data today in Personal Finance, State of the Nation, Consumer Mood, U.S. Perception on the Morality of Homosexual Relations, and Death Penalty (2009), a series of pie charts that he paints on wood or superimposes over images lifted from old issues of National Geographic, using colors from forecasts of pallets in upcoming fashions. Taking data from Gallop polls out of its context and stuffing it into the banal form of the pie chart, Hug parodies how infoviz makes data an object of rapt aesthetic fascination while also critiquing network culture’s overall obsession with data as form.

The Documentarian Turn

Where infoviz aestheticizes quantified data to represent a vision of reality, documentarian art presents reality as a narrative. Of all the registers of the immediated real, only the documentary maintains narrative and coherence as its hallmark. But in order to maintain that coherence, documentarian art treats reality as something to script and manipulate, not just to take as given. In this, the documentarian turn is the inheritor of fiction today. For example, in the writing of David Foster Wallace, the lines between fiction and non-fiction are difficult to discern, especially since both are annotated with copious footnotes, as important to the text as the main narrative. But documentary’s rise is easiest to see in film where, during the last decade, it has become popular with critics, audiences, and filmmakers. Films such as Grizzly Man, Supersize Me, March of the Penguins, An Inconvenient Truth, and Fahrenheit 911 form a growing strain in cinema. More and more it is also a field for the auteur for whom the material serves as a canvas for a highly scripted interpretation of reality. Werner Herzog, to take one well-known documentary filmmaker, uses it as the basis for a “poetic, ecstatic truth.”[32] As the Internet makes information sharing about documentaries easy, their scripting is rapidly exposed, as for example in William Jirsa’s review of a documentary he appeared in, Werner Herzog’s At the End of the World (2009), or in the numerous responses to Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me (2004) and Michael Moore’s Bowling for Columbine (2002).

One of the dominant forms of art under network culture has been photography reproduced at large scale, especially that of Thomas Demand, Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Axel Hutte, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth, all of whom studied in Düsseldorf with Bernd and Hilla Becher in the mid-1970s. The works of these photographers, along with those of a number of other photographers such as Jeff Wall or Hiroshi Sugimoto not only rival nineteenth century salon painting in size but also in their depiction of a constructed reality. Producing works so vivid and sharp requires effort and manipulation on the scale of Herzog’s “ecstatic truth” and many of these photographers take liberties to produce the vision of the world they want to create even if it needs to be constructed in post-processing. Demand, the youngest of the Düsseldorf school members, constructs sets, generally out of paper, that appear almost indistinguishable from the reality they aim to represent (the almost is key), thus questioning the constructed nature of the documentarian turn.

But such photography, produced for the gallery and the coffee table art book is transitional, its self-proclaimed status as the successor to painting as the pinnacle of visual art problematic. With the breakdown of traditional structures, “feral institutions” particularly rich in Los Angeles where The Center for Land Use Interpretation investigates ignored industrial, military, and touristic uses of the landscape, The Institute For Figuring explores mathematical figures, the Velaslavasay Panorama displays panaromas, the Los Angeles Urban Rangers appropriate the figure of the park ranger to lead counter-tours of the city, and AUDC (originally in Los Angeles but now in New York) explores contemporary culture through seemingly unreal but true situations interpreted through theory and through architectural drawings, models, and photographs.[33]

Figure 11Museum of Jurassic Technology, The Sonnabend Model of Obliscence

If some feral institutions (The Center for Land Use Interpretation, AUDC) engage in research, however non-traditional, others create fictional (or partly-fictional) realities, often so elaborately constructed as to break down the bounds between art and reality, artist, curator, the real, and the constructed. Such work draws on both documentarian and postconceptual art practices. Beginning in the late 1980s artists like Ilya Khabakov and Mark Dion moved away from the uncomplicated models of appropriation and simplistic ideas of institutional critique practiced by postmodern artists toward more complicated relationships. Generally, the departure point for this generation, epitizomed by the Museum of Jurassic Technology, would be the sixteenth and seventeenth century cabinet of curiosities or wunderkammer, the prototype for the museum, in which natural and man-made wonders would be juxtaposed in an idiosyncratic system, valued for their capacity to stimulate the senses. If the cabinet of curiosities parallels the post-critical obsession with beauty, it does so as a studied anachronism, displacing beauty and wonder from the present to another time when they were not yet commodified. In returning to the origins of autonomous art and the museum, such work recalls a time before the modern concept of art, when art was still integrated with life and not divorced into its own sphere, even as it anticipates the dissolution of art under network culture. Still, if the original cabinet of curiosities was an instrument of propaganda, conveying the assembler’s ability to control the world, the new cabinet of curiosities is conceived as flawed, its knowledge fragmentary, incomplete and even outright false. Thus if these new cabinets of curiosities aim to inspire wonder, it not so much the unmediated wonder that the original wunderkammer created or even a wonder at the boundaries of art dissolving but rather a perceptual challenge forcing us to question the nature of immediated reality.[34]

Figure 12The Chadwicks, The Genretron (2008)

To take another example, the Chadwicks (Lytle Shaw and Jimbo Blakely) collaborate as descendants of a (fake) family of “eminent connoisseurs, sea captains, naval engineers and amateur historians,” tracing its origins to the era of Dutch expansion. In a bad faith effort to convince the public of their rights to various claims, the Chadwicks produce somewhat damaged or even outright deranged historical reconstructions that call into question the nature of the immediated real. To confuse matters, in a recent publication, The Chawick Family Papers: A Brief Public Glimpse, Sina Najafi, the editor of Cabinet magazine,launches a mock attack on the project as a way of discussing their work.

 Tactical media also engages in such fiction, for example, the Yes Men (one of whom, Igor Vamos, has also been involved with the Center for Land Use Interpretation) have produced fake Web sites and falsely posed as spokesmen for government entities and corporations to deliver their biting critiques. Examples include a parody Web site for the World Trade Organization (, a Web site on a fake Exxon product that would convert the bodies of billions of climate-change victims into oil (, shut down by the ISP) and a fake printed issue of the New York Times (and accompanying Web Site, with the headline “Iraq War Ends.” Beyond delivering their messages in a subversive and humorous way, such work leads its audience to question how easily media can construct meanings for the purposes of dominant power.

The Artist as Aggregator

Immediated reality overloads us with information. Instead of interpretation, however, in network culture, aggregation becomes the prime strategy for dealing with information. Thus, mass media such as newspapers and television networks have ceded their position of cultural power to software-based aggregators like Google News (which brags that “The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program”), Amazon, Netflix, and iTunes. These software engines automatically select and deliver results based on visitors’ interests, giving access to vast, unprecedented quantities of information.[35] But aggregation also has a DIY-side. Not only do sites such as Amazon, Kaboodle, Youtube,, Imagefap, Rhizome, and Flickr encourage users to curate and make public lists of their selections, profile pages on social networking sites are all but constituted by ones social connections, cultural interests, and professional affiliations. The result is the most common manifestation of “networked publics.” More than any testimonial or self-confession, aggregation becomes a means of describing the connected self in immediated reality. Blogs, too, highlight the change in authorship that aggregation creates. If bloggers use blogs for self-exposure, they also frequently fill them with reblogged items from other blogs or comments on other blogs, Web sites, technological products, articles, books, and so on. This is exacerbated in social bookmarking sites like Delicious, FFFFOUND! or Tumblr, the latter designed for short-form blog entries generally based on reblogged photographs, quotes, links, audio, or video. Often the only comment is the context in which the work is curated. Artists — particularly “pro surfers” (more on these later) — also make such lists. Take for example Guthrie Lonergan’s Myspace Intro Playlist, a curated collection of short video clips by individuals introducing themselves to their MySpace audience (hence an aggregated collection of self-exposing videos).

Under network culture the artist as aggregator increasingly replaces the earlier artist as producer. In this register of networked art, artists draw both on earlier curatorial art practices but also on the DIY forms of aggregation common to network culture. Such art practices generally address consumption in a more positive way than under postmodernism when artists tended to see consumption as an activity for uncultured individuals, lacking in reflection and easily accepting of media messages. Postmodern artists such as Richard Prince and Jeff Koons depicted consumption as an ecstatic activity undertaken by cultural dupes. Such work was always somewhat cynical as it marketed critical distance as a luxury product (notoriously, one of Richard Prince’s works was the first photograph to sell for over a million dollars), drawing on the tradition of art as non-alienated.[36] But in the late 1980s and early 1990s, art became subject to a Bourdouvian sociological critique just as the art market reached new heights to become one of the most delirious forms of consumption. At the same time, artists began to engage in curatorial practices, as for example, Damien Hirst did in his Freezeshow of 1988, in which he curated the works of fellow students.

Today, curatorial works are an accepted part of art practice and artists understand consumption as a back-and-forth phenomenon and see the market not as a place for capital but rather for human interaction, an art version of the peer-to-peer forms of production and trade at Internet sites like eBay and Etsy. In this model, both producer and consumer now have agency and the ability to shape their lives positively.[37]

Figure 13

High Desert Test Sites, Noah Purifoy Site, photo by Guy Lombardo

Take High Desert Test Sites, for example, where artists Andrea Zittel and Lisa Anne Auerbach work with dealers Shaun Regen, John Connelly, and collector Andy Stillpass to create a weekend-long event in the Mojave desert composed of experimental art sites but also barbeques, swap meets, and local activism.[38] Or another work by Scott Hug, the annual zine K48 (and the related blog,, in which he shows not only his own work but also works by other artists — including CDs of music — that he finds interesting. If K48 affirms self-expression, that expression is as much made up of the content he aggregates as it is by the art he produces. One more example might be Random Rules: A Channel of Artists’ Selections from YouTube(2009) in which Marina Fokidis assembled a group of artists — Andreas Angelidakis, Aids 3D (Daniel Keller and Nick Kosmas), assume vivid astro focus, Pablo Leon de la Barra, Eric Beltran, Keren Cytter, Jeremy Deller, Cerith Wyn Evans, Dominique Gonzalez Foerster, Dora Garcia, Rodney Graham, Annika Larsson, Matthieu Laurette, Ingo Niermann, Miltos Manetas, Ahmet Ögüt, Angelo Plessas, Lisi Raskin, and Linda Wallace — to put together playlists of work that they like from YouTube.[39]

Other artists are “pro surfers,” as Marisa Olson calls them, seeking out banal, badly-designed elements of the Web vernacular under a seeming suspension of aesthetic sensibility. The “surfing club” at emerged as the epicenter of this movement in 2006 (in itself it is not that distinguishable from sites like or for that matter) and has more recently been joined by

Figure 14Oliver Payne and Nick Relph, Ash’s Stash, 2007

But like self-exposure, infoviz, and the artist as documentarian, intents may vary. The role of the artist as aggregator can also be cynical, reveling in the market. Take Nick Relph and Oliver Payne’s Ash’s Stash (2007), in which the artists presented a collection of ephemera from gallerist Ash Lange’s collections displayed in an installation aping a Prada Store at Art Basel Miami Beach. Critical distance was not so much hard to find as absent altogether.


Building on the artist as aggregator is artist as remixer. In the contemporary milieu of networked publics, the traditional relationship of consumer and producer is undone. Amateur-generated content — often based on remixing content from more traditional media sources — has proliferated on the Internet, particularly in the video sharing site YouTube and photo sharing sites like Flickr or deviantArt as well as on blogs. Such work is avidly consumed by other amateurs who, in turn may remix it to produce second-order remix projects.

If remix thrives on using appropriated work, unlike postmodernism, it takes appropriation as given. In postmodern appropriation art, reuse was ironic, undertaken with a high degree of Oedipal self-consciousness. As Sherri Levine reappropriated earlier photographs by Walker Evans or Richard Prince blew up magazine advertisements to display in museums, they hoped to critique the authorial status of past masters. But appropriation artists, most notably Duchamp, still worked within an established tradition of art, drawing on avant-garde models of appropriation and framing. In their method originality was still critical, both as an institution to critique and as a crutch — for Duchamp, after all, the urinal is nothing until it is signed. Thus, if Levine’s work questioned Enlightenment notions of the author and originality, those notions are long ago obsolete.[40] For when pasting images from the Internet into PowerPoint or reblogging a favorite image on Tumblr is an everyday occurrence, appropriation becomes casual. Such postmodern works, then, were transitional. Relying on authorship and originality as departure points is no longer productive.[41]

Nicolas Bourriaud suggests that this lack of regard for originality is precisely what makes art based on remix (his word for it is postproduction) appropriate to network culture. In contrast to postmodern artists, Bourriaud explains, artists like Pierre Huyghe and Douglas Gordon no longer question originality but rather instinctively understand artworks as objects constituted within networks, their meaning given by their position in relation to others and their use.[42] Like the DJ or the programmer, such artists don’t so much create as reorganize.[43] Crucially, remix takes place at a moment when globalization and the spread of historical information is pervasive due to the spread of the Net. “The artistic question is no longer,” Bourriaud concludes, “”what can we make that is new?” but “how can we make do with what we have?” In other words, how can we produce singularity and meaning from this chaotic mass of objects, names, and references that constitutes our daily life?”[44]

Mark Leckey, who operates in the gallery and the museum, but also has a MySpace page, is a veteran of remix, producing a seminal video in 1999 entitled Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore out of found footage of British dancers in the 1970s and 1980s, in which he uncovered the ritualistic aspects of dance culture. More recently his performances have consisted of lectures on theories of networked culture (such as Wired Magazine editor Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail) that traverse a litany of references from high art to pop culture. Leckey’s goal, as he proclaims in the statement he filmed for his Tate prize nomination, describes the poetics of network culture in a nutshell: “to transform my world and make it more so, make it more of what it is.” In Made in ‘Eaven (2004), Leckey reproduces Jeff Koons’ mirrored Rabbit sculpture; as the vantage point zooms in on the sculpture, Leckey’s own studio is revealed in a computer-rendered three-dimensional model.

Remix can take many forms, not only in audio or video. In Diary of a Star(2004-2007) Eduardo Navas sampled The Andy Warhol Diaries on a blog as a means of reflecting on the role of celebrity and privacy on the Web. Concluding that in projects like The Last Supper, where Warhol’s brilliance shone as he mimicked the mimickers, Warhol would have made the “the perfect Web flâneur.”[45] Navas links to the sites that Andy would have explored if he had been able to browse the Web based on the entries in the Diaries.

It’s worth noting that there is no particular injunction against the use of material from any era but the elements artists choose to remix tend to be relatively contemporary.[46] The nostalgia culture so endemic to postmodernism has been undone, the world still in the throes of modernization is long gone. Unable to periodize, network culture disregards both modern and premodern equally.[47]

Besides just aggregating it, pro surfers also remix the web vernacular. Scarlet Electric’s, John Michael Boling’s and Guthrie Lonergran’s The Age of Mammals are all examples of pro surfer creations.

Oliver Laric is one of the most adept artists working in remix today, elaborating on the genre as it emerges on Internet sites, most notably YouTube. Laric, who generally presents his own work online treats amateur videos as found media loops. In 50 50 2008 (2008), he remixes YouTube clips of amateurs riffing on hips by 50 Cent to form one continuous song, itself a remix of an earlier work he did. In 787 ClipArts (2006), he assembles 787 clip art images into a one minute five second loop, forming a continuous video-loop that brings together all races and activities in one fluid mix, demonstrating not only his ability but also hinting that everything that can already be done has been. In Stevie Wonder Duets (2007), he juxtaposes videos he finds on YouTube of Stevie Wonder songs, one instrumental, one vocal, allowing us to recognize the slippage of time between the renditions only to release them back onto YouTube. As Marisa Olson suggests though, it seems that Laric aims to send his work back into the Net, where it came from.[48] Finally, in Versions (2009), Laric produces a narrative that seems a bit like Leckey’s performances, a theoretical work at times reasonable, at times perhaps a bit preposterous, ranging across doctored photographs of Iraqi missiles, illicitly videotaped and pirated movies, celebrity heads grafted onto porn stars and so on. Remix, Laric points out to us, allows an infinity of parallel worlds to proliferate. Nevertheless, what remix amounts to besides delirious production, be it in the vernacular Web production celebrated by the pro surfers or the carefully orchestrated work Laric does, is as yet unclear.


First formulated by Bourriaud as “relational aesthetics” at the turn of the century, participatory art is open-ended, the author left to the task of programming by determining the code for the viewers’ actions. Take one of the foremost practitioners of participatory art, Rikrit Tiravanija, who fills galleries with stacks of cardboard boxes containing soup or pudding for visitors to cook and eat and constructs remixes of famous architectural structures (e.g. the Schindler House made out of mirror glass, the Maison Dom-Ino made out of wood) in which he encourages audiences to participate, create, and engage in events.[49]

Relational aesthetics, which began in the early 1990s, anticipates the development of networked publics and Open Source culture a decade later. Encountering user-generated content on sites like Flickr and deviantART as well as commons-based peer produced software such as the Apache Web server, Linux operating system or Drupal content management system is no longer unusual but rather is part of everyday life. Coupled with a sustained underground pirate movement that disregards and fights against copyright ownership, “Internet free culture” points toward a future in which information loses its status as a commodity and, by extension, capitalism withers away. Conversely, the present lack of open, public alternatives to sites like Flickr or deviartART hints that free culture may never arrive and that unpaid peer production may become yet another vehicle with which capital colonizes everyday life, marshaling our free time into work. Just as disquietingly, participation can become a vehicle for conformism, as the phenomenon of flash mobs, created by Harper’s Magazineeditor Bill Wasik, as a means of testing the gullibility of hipsters, proves.[50]

Participatory art at its best embodies the Utopian ambitions of Internet free culture and its invitation to anyone to participate. Thus, to take one example, even if it is an institution for Internet art, is also a club that anyone can join, operating, in intent at least, as a free forum. At Telic Arts Exchange, a non-profit networked art initiative in Los Angeles, the “Public School” is a “school without a curriculum,” in which individuals propose classes that others can take.

Figure 15Aaron Koblin, Sheep Market, 2006

Other artists work with more directed forms of audience participation, some of which explore the relationship between participation and the market. For example, at, Perry Bard invited people worldwide to participate in recreating clips of Dziga Vertov’s 1929 Man with a Movie Camera. In the Sheep Market (2006), Aaron Koblin paid 10,000 workers (“mechanical turks”) on $0.02 to “draw a sheep facing the left” to produce a massive landscape of sheep. In collaboration with Takashi Kowashiba, Kolblin also produced Ten Thousand Cents a representation of a hundred dollar bill composed of 10,000 images, each drawn by one of Amazon’s mechanical turks for a penny.

Networked, But For What?

The goal of this chapter is neither to laud nor condemn network culture and the art of immediated reality but rather to take stock of it, drawing on both historical and theoretical understanding, even if that goes against the grain of network culture.

Under modernism, too much of what started out as oppositional wound up being employed as the latest visual technology for capital. Think of Moholy-Nagy’s trajectory from Constructivism to teaching how to design advertisements and products at a school of design or Gropius’ journey from Communism to corporatism. Worse yet, the oppositional stance of postmodernist art was often cynical, calculated for an art market that valued “resistant” art. It is still unclear what networked art’s broader historical role will be. Sometimes Utopian or critical it, too, is little more than a cheerleader for the technology sector or for the rise of knowledge work. A coherent vision of a socially progressive networked art — or even a socially progressive understanding of network culture — is still lacking. If we are to avoid networked art becoming just so much bling, turning into endless stimuli for our rapt fascination, be it on the Web or in the museum, a new critical perspective on this work is still urgently needed.

The author wanted to include Richard Prince, Untitled (Cowboy), 1987 but Richard Prince’s studio turned down our request for reproduction.


[1] Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2001).

[2] If, following Fredric Jameson, the colonization of all parts of life by capital drove the postmodern turn, the colonization of all parts of life by telecommunications, digital technology, and globalization drives the emergence of network culture. Fredric Jameson, “Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Capitalism,” New Left Review 146, (1984): 59-92. On the importance of the network today see and Manuel Castells, The Rise of the Network Society, 2nd ed. (Oxford ; Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2000) and Kazys Varnelis, “Introduction,” The Meaning of Network Culture. A History of the Contemporary,

[3] Kazys Varnelis, “Conclusion. The Meaning of Network Culture” in Varnelis, ed. Networked Publics (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2008), 150.

[4] Alan Liu, The Laws of Cool: Knowledge Work and the Culture of Information, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004).

[5] Ian P. Watt, The Rise of the Novel: Studies in Defoe, Richardson and Fielding, (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001), 9-34.

¶ 87 [6] In this, modernism can be seen as a subspecies of realism, representing individual interpretation of universal truths more thoroughly than could be done within the strictures of mimesis.

[7] Georg Lukacs, “Realism in the Balance,” in Ronald Taylor, Aesthetics and Politics: Debates Between Bloch, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno (New York: Verso, 1980), 28-59.

[8] Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 289-294. Liu, The Laws of Cool, 14-76.

[9] Generally speaking, where modernism, like realism, still holds out of the promise of a unified subject and a whole sign, postmodernism abandons that.

[10] See Foster, “The Return of the Real” in The Return of the Real(Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1996), 127-170 and Whitney Museum of American Art, Abject Art: Repulsion and Desire in American Art, Selections from the Permanent Collection, June 23-August 29, 1993, (New York: The Whitney Museum of American Art, 1993).

[11] Jameson, 71-73 as well as Hal Foster, “(Post)Modern Polemics”, Recodings (Seattle: The Bay Press, 1985), 121-138.

[12] Michelet writes “Chaque époque rêve la suivante in Avenir! Avenir!, Europe 19 no 73 (January 15, 1929), 6 quoted in Walter Benjamin, “Paris, the Capital of the Nineteenth Century,” The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008), 97.

[13] Leo Marx “Live History? The Dilemma of Technological Determinism (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994), 256.

[14] Varnelis, 154. See also Kenneth J. Gergen, The Saturated Self: Dilemmas of Identity in Contemporary Life, (New York: Basic Books, 2000) and Brian Holmes, “The Flexible Personality. For A New Cultural Critique,”

[15] This idea relies on Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the simulation, but in its very language, the simulation still holds out a premise that it is produced by the media industry for us to occupy indirectly. Immediated reality is produced by everyone, constantly, and the media industry’s influences fades in it, or rather is transformed.

[16] Margriet Schavemaker, Mischa Rakier, eds. Right About Now: Art & Theory since the 1990s, (Amsterdam: Valiz, 2007), 9-10.

[17] Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2005).

[18] A foundational text for theories of beauty in art is Dave Hickey, The Invisible Dragon. Four Essays on Beauty in Art (Los Angeles: Art Issues Press, 1993). It is important to note that to avoid accusations of his definition of beauty being kitsch, Hickey makes it cool by framing it within a discussion of Robert Mappelthorpe’s photography. With Harvey’s guidance (along with that of the likes of Peter Schjeldahl and Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe), abject art — from Mappelthorpe to Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ to Damien Hirst’s sharks — was reconstructed as beautiful, leaving behind postmodernism for the cool art of the post-critical era. See also Bill Beckley and David Shapiro, eds. Uncontrollable Beauty: Towards a New Aesthetics. (New York: Allworth Press, 1998). The same is true of decon in architecture. When Bilbao was completed, instead of being seen as decon, it was received as a project to be understood solely in terms of its beauty and the transformational potential of that beauty on cities.

[19] Nicolas Bourriaud, Altermodern, (London: Tate Publishing, 2009).

[20] Mark Andrejevic, Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched, (Lanham, MD: Rowman Littlefield Publishers, 2003).

[21] Denise Grady, “Cosmetic Breast Enlargements Are Making a Comeback,” the New York Times, July 21, 1998,

[22] Adrienne Russell, Mimi Ito, Todd Richmond, and Marc Tuters, “Culture: Media Convergence and Networked Participation,” in Varnelis, Networked Publics, 62-66.

[23] Jordan Crandall, “Showing,”

[24] On surveillance art, see Thomas Y. Levin, Ursula Frohine, and Peter Weibel, CTRL [SPACE]: Rhetorics of Surveillance from Bentham to Big Brother(Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2002).

[25] Sarah Boxer, “When Seeing is Not Always Believing,”

[26] Greg J. Smith, “Burak Arikan Interview” Serial Consign. Digital Culture & Information Design,

[27] There are, to be fair, other artists working with code, most notably those, such as Natalie Jeremijenko, who explore it in a critical way, creating a critical version of maker culture. It is a blindness of this essay to not include that sort of work and the original author hopes that an astute reader/editor will add a section on this.

[28] See also Nell Boeschenstein, “I Want You to Want Me,” for an essay embedding the work into the convoluted condition of immediated reality, including her own self-exposure and discomfort with it.

[29] Yunchul Kim, (void) traffic,



[32] Werner Herzog, “Minnesota Declaration: Truth and Fact in Documentary Cinema,”

[33] Jeremy Rosenberg, “Postcard from L. A.,” Exhibitionist,

[34] For the Museum of Jurassic Technology and its deployment of wonder see Ralph Rugoff, Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder (New York: Verso, 1995).

[35] Nicholas G. Carr, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, (New York: W. W. Norton Co., 2008).

[36] Nicolas Bourriaud, Postproduction (New York: Lukas & Sternberg, 2002), 87.

[37] Bourriaud, Postproduction, 39-40.


[39] Marina Fokidis, “Random Rules — Artists’ Selections from YouTube,” posted on Networked_Performance, by Jo-Anne Green (March 26, 2009),

[40] See Rosalind Krauss, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1985).

[41] On remix see Edouardo Navas, “Remix Defined,” and William Gibson, “God’s Little Toys,” Wired13.07 (2005),

[42] Bourriaud, Postproduction. For Bourriaud, “Postproduction apprehends the forms of knowledge generated by the appearance of the Net.”

[43] Bourriaud, “Public Relations,” interview by Bennett Simpson, ArtForum, (April 2001), 47.

[44] Bourriaud, Postproduction, 17.

[45] Eduardo Navas,”Andy: Meta-dandy,”

[46] By this I mean they tend to be done recently but can be taken from as far back as the early 1960s, when it had become clear that modernization, in its first phase at least, was complete and the idea of “the contemporary” began to emerge. Among the first cultural institutions to recognize this, the Museum of Contemporary Art, was founded in Chicago in 1967. On “the contemporary,” see, for a start, Arthur Danto, After the End of Art: Contemporary Art and the Pale of History (Washington DC: National Gallery of Art, 1997), 10-11.

[47] On nostalgia in postmodernism, see Jameson, “Postmodernism,” 67. On allegory see Craig Owens, “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” parts 1 and 2, Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 52-87. On periodization and network culture see Kazys Varnelis, “Network Culture and Periodization,”

[48] Marisa Olson, “Putting the You in YouTube,”,

[49] Nicholas Bourriaud, Relational Aesthetics (New York: Lukas and Sternberg, 2002). See also Claire Bishop, ed. Participation (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2006).

¶ 131 [50] Bill Wasik, “My Crowd, Or Phase 5: A Report from the Inventor of the Flash Mob,” Harper’s Magazine (March 2006), 56-66.