words by Carson Chan

Oliver Laric, Icon (Utrecht), details, 2009
Courtesy of the artist and Seventeen, London

While movable type, radio, television, and telephones have successively changed the way we communicate, it was only when Tim Berners-Lee wrote the code for the World Wide Web on Christmas Day 20 years ago that the linearity of thought that has characterized Western culture was challenged by the world view of the Internet. Today, the web accounts for almost half of our waking attention. We search through its data, click on its hyperlinks, skim its texts, download, upload, email, and Tweet. In The Shallows (2010), technology writer Nicholas Carr argues that Internet use is eclipsing our ability to think deeply and creatively. “The Net seizes our attention only to scatter it,” he warns, adding that the environment of distraction cultivated online inhibits learning. “We become mindless consumers of data.” Given this trajectory, Carr implies, we may one day do away with long narrative structures that string and weave ideas inefficiently for the near instantaneous apprehension afforded by RSS feeds and text-messages.

Much of Carr’s reasoning is supported by solid research published by science and medical journals; objectively, it appears, his is an incontrovertible claim. But we would be amiss to leave it at that. The world of facts, as is often the case, is only able to describe a reduced picture of the creative mind. To analyze creativity one synapse at a time, as scientists have done, is to harden a human function whose beauty and value lies precisely in its potential for unexpected flights, moments of self-reflection, and whimsy. For many working in the arts, the suggestion that developments in technology limit rather than expand the imagination is specious, if not completely misguided. For those who grew up in the 1980s, when both home computing and mobile telephony arrived on the market, life is naturally one that is interconnected. This generation of artists is maturing in a world mediated by the Net; the digitized world is the condition in which they experience the world. What is true is that the Internet has changed some very fundamental operations in daily living, and there is no question that, for those engaged with the world of ample information and instant correspondence—where we learn not in long, uninterrupted stretches of concentration, but in abbreviations and fragments of video and text, and where private life is laid bare by online social networking—we’re not less creative; we’re creative differently than before.

Internet art, a loose genre powered by a growing number of artists who may or may not use the Internet in their work, has been gaining recognition as we increasingly see aspects of the world and ourselves refract and proliferate online. Internet art is art made with an Internet state of mind. It communicates the non-linear reality we find ourselves in, and it reflects on the disparity between on- and offline values, original and represented moments—however nebulous these distinctions may be at times.

Oliver Laric, Touch My Body (Green Screen Version), video still, 2008
Courtesy of the artist and Seventeen, London

Like Guy Debord before him, Oliver Laric firmly believes that everything directly lived has moved into representation. In Laric’s Versions (2010), a video piece viewable on the artist’s website, we’re told by a narrator of his inclination for “the represented subject over the real one.” The defect of the real is its “lack of representation.” One might also add that representations offer variation and richness that come from a necessary dismantling of some of the original’s meaning. Ancient Copies (2010), which Laric presented with Seventeen gallery at Frieze Art Fair this year, is a stack of copies of Margarete Bieber’s 1977 book of the same name on Roman copies of Greek sculptures. Out of print and difficult to obtain, the book, which some critics found problematic in terms of its overall accuracy and for its misleading emphasis on draping, was on its way to oblivion. The books from the sculpture were bought from Lulu, a publish-ondemand website that will reprint the book from a PDF file that, incidentally, Laric uploaded. Laric appropriated the book for its interest in antique statues, a type that, in the artist’s words, “doesn’t belong to a single author and can be performed over and over again, like a photoshopped image.” In Laric’s sculpture, Bieber’s book is given new significance that depended not on the accuracy of its words, but on its own digital metamorphosis. Object and subject are elided here to unexpectedly pleasant effect: for a middling book about ancient reproductions, its existence today is predicated on its newfound reproducibility afforded by its rebirth in cyberspace. Where for Carr, the demise of the book and the long linear narrative is a lamentable effect of digital culture, Laric points towards the digital condition as a source of renewal and mutability, a space of un-mined meaning and unarticulated aesthetics that is a consequence of the way we have chosen to evolve. Sitting in the art fair, browsed, perused, it is as if the real becoming of Bieber’s little known book happened through Laric’s representation.

Mutability and evolution is familiar to Oliver Laric’s practice. Born in 1981 in Innsbruck, Laric grew up in Munich and studied in Vienna at the University of Applied Arts. His earliest output was mainly in the form of graffiti—tagging and bombing. In 2003, together with Christoph Priglinger and Georg Schnitzer, Laric started Mi, a so-called “magazine within a magazine” that lasted a few issues. Magazines are expensive to produce, so the conceit was to intersperse a single page of Mi into other magazines, parasitically benefiting from the staff, layout, print, and distribution networks of participating publications, which included Bidoun, Parnass, Numéro, idN, and Site. To judge by the range and caliber of the artists they involved, the project was well regarded. Jonathan Monk, David Shrigley, Piero Golia, and Gelitin all lent their time and thoughts. The idea of mass expression and widespread engagement for free was stimulating for Laric, Priglinger, and Schnitzer, and in 2006, together with artist Aleksandra Domanovic, they started—an image (and sometimes video) blog that features other people’s artwork. The format is simple and intuitively navigable; each entry comprises an image of an artwork captioned by its title, year, and author. The site is visited by about 15,000 people each day. Independent curator Joseph del Pesco wrote on his SFMoMA blog that the site has become not only the one he “most frequently recommends and regularly visits; it has become a familiar resource, a routine stop for informal research.” “Vvork is closer to a train of thought,” he continues. “One image leads to the next in an associative flow.” Perforating the formal and disciplinary lines that protect art from invading pressures, vvork appears to illustrate the contentious conclusion to Boris Groys’s 2002 essay, “Art in the Age of Biopolitics.” Groys claims that in the order of post-capitalism, the distinction between the artwork and its documentation is fast becoming obsolete.

Oliver Laric, 50 50, video still, 2007
Courtesy of the artist and Seventeen, London

Art has entered into a time in which the economy of the infinite is fast overcoming one that is bounded. Hierarchies are flattened—think Google—and it would seem that the old shackles of class, privilege, and wealth will fall away, allowing art and its institutions to move into a networked system of mass exposure and access. By his own admission, Laric originally made a website for his artwork to cut out the middleman and expose his work easily and directly to interested parties online. While performance offers a direct line of communication between artists and their audience, the intimacy of Internet art is different from its traditional counterparts in every other way. Online the work exists—outside of space and time—the moment it is accessed. “My website is not a space of representation but of primary experiences,” Laric said in an interview with Domenico Quaranta, “You are viewing the real thing. And when the work travels to other sites, it is still the real thing.” This freedom of access inscribes a new aesthetic for both the artwork and its viewing. As cultural categories that once operated within social and spatial limits, the Internet has all but eliminated such borders. “I really enjoy putting up work for free and not asking for anybody to pay to see it,” Laric said on “It’s less elitist… You don’t have to be in one of the art capitals to go to one of the galleries… you can just get the information from wherever you are and participate.”

The web’s store of raw material and its open access are clear boons for any young artist. As a medium, it grants and amplifies most artists’ desire to show their work. More than just the web’s conveniences, it is the online state of mind along with all its epiphenomenal effects that lies at the heart of Laric’s work. Webchat with Andy (2007) channels the Internet’s inexplicable uncanny. Commissioned by Blend Magazine, Webchat is a video capture of an online video-interview between the artist and a medium who is channeling Andy Warhol. Mediated contact has become the status quo, the piece seems to say, and by communing with Warhol’s ghost via a medium via video-chat, Laric reveals the distances between mouth and ear that broach nature and reason, which when presented as an online experience appear routine to our web-enabled lives. Like speaking to ghosts, the current mechanics of video chat—its jumpy frames, inevitable lag, the unsynchronized delivery of sound and motion—separate the person from the voice, and have the effect of disembodying the communication it enables. The piece begins with a technical problem: Laric’s microphone doesn’t seem to be picking up sound, so he must type out his questions. With the web-cam trained on his face—and his keyboard out of view—Laric’s questions manifest on screen as ghostly as Warhol’s replies.

Oliver Laric, Versions, video still, 2010
Courtesy of the artist and Seventeen, London

Versions (2009) and Versions (2010) are alike in the way step-siblings are: they have physical resemblances, but these only play up the deep-rooted differences. Both are video essays about disembodied agency, parallel worlds, Net-born avatars, and other memes that have been generated online. Doubling is an organizing process in these videos—through the split-screen presentation of comparisons between studio-released DVD movies and leaked versions of the same film posted online by people who filmed it at a movie theater; between snippets of different hand-drawn animated movies that share the same preliminary drawings, before features are added, to cut costs; and between original and “celebrity-fake” versions of porn movies, where celebrity faces are grafted onto the body’s of porn actors. If filmic processes double, the Internet gives rise to a multiplicity of realities. Versions (2009) opens with the following observations:

An image published by the media arm of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard in 2008 shows four missiles. The above illustration [in which portions of the image are highlighted] suggests that the second missile from the right is the sum of two other missiles in the image. The contours of the billowing smoke near the ground, and in the immediate wake of the missile, match perfectly. Three days after the initial doctored image was published, an alternate version was released, showing only three missiles. This exposed enhancement was followed by a public continuation of image manipulation. Anonymous authors, all over the world, played through numerous possibilities of missile potency. Variations spread with online forums, news blogs and image boards acting as platforms for the communal call and response. When Googling this missile incident, different versions of the image appear. The initial four missile version coexists with the forty missile version. Authenticity is decided on by the viewer. The more often an image is viewed, the more likely it makes the top of search results. An image viewed often enough becomes part of collective memory.

Oliver Laric, Versions, video still, 2010
Courtesy of the artist and Seventeen, London

Online, it continues, “logical reality is almost always omitted.” Versions also exists in many versions, due to the fact that Laric re-edits the film every time it is exhibited. However, even as different narrators are used, what remains constant is the soullessness of their tone. Like the prerecorded voices often heard over airport PAs—inhumanly articulating each word in a mechanical cadence, kind-sounding but insouciant—the tone is the same comfortless lull that Kubrick gave HAL, the computer in 2001 programmed with artificial intelligence and a logic that would ultimately lead to its user’s demise.

Touch My Body (Green Screen Version) (2008) is an edited version of the music video to Mariah Carey’s song of the same name. Having downloaded the video from YouTube, Laric stripped each video-frame of its background, leaving Carey to writhe in front of a green screen. The simple operation casts Carey into a space without context or location, the green background signifying a limitless number of replaceable settings. However, when Laric uploaded the video on YouTube, users of the website took the video, unprompted, and replaced the green background with other videos. Carey now sings in front of a surreal mix of backdrops: an endoscopic video of a larynx, a billiard table, a surgically opened eye, snow-capped mountains, and so on. If verity is now up for a communal vote and no longer a universal fact, as the quote from Versions (2009) suggests, then the question of the original is rendered irrelevant, unhinged from its pertinence by the fickle shifts of popular consensus. To date, more than fifty new versions of the Carey video coexist as a result of Laric’s version. The video demands only a few short minutes of attention.

Nicholas Carr may be right that our state of distraction online undermines long, reflective reveries, but contemplation on this state of thoughtlessness through art may be a way to consolidate the discrepant fragments of our new, digital way of life. Online, what we lose in foregoing singular experiences, we gain in unprecedented levels of reciprocity in what some call the feedback loop. An attempt to map out the interpenetrating frames of reference between author, subject, object, and technology in Touch My Body (Green Screen Version) suggests the degree to which these categories have become unbound. The lyrics to Carey’s song, in a way, are about the transference of physical interaction (“Touch my body, put me on the floor”) into online values. In the chorus, we hear Carey warn her lover of the unhappy consequence if he should try to secretly film them making love. (“If there’s a camera up in here, then I’d best not catch this flick on YouTube, YouTube. ‘Cause if you run your mouth and brag about this secret rendezvous, I will hunt you down.”) It is as if Laric takes on the role of her lover, the admonishment about revealing the secret rendezvous is the secret rendezvous (in the video, Carey is seen in negligee), and the subsequent viral transformations of said rendez-vous represents the consequences. Through this piece, YouTube—at once Carey’s narrative referent, the technology Laric employed for its download and re-upload, and the means for the video’s ensuing incarnations—is shown to be a self referencing machine that is form, function, context, and content, or that is, in short, everything.

Western culture has always found circularity of expression beautiful. In lectures, architecture theorist Val Warke has explained these meta-exegetic moments similarly through song. According to Homer’s Odyssey, the most beautiful song in the world, Warke recalls, is the Song of the Sirens. Its music is so powerful that sailors, entranced, run their ships into cliff-sides. The Song of the Sirens is a song about singing.

Bring in your ship so that you might hear our voices.

Never has a black ship rounded this cape

Without listening to the honey-dipped airs which drip from our lips.

In 1959, Ella Fitzgerald performed “Mack the Knife” in Berlin to appeal to an audience she knew would know the melody from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera. Though under rehearsed, Fitzgerald added it to the end of her set. The crowd roared as they recognized the tune, but halfway through, Fitzgerald forgot the words. True to form, she improvised the rest, and the words she made-up on the spot to Weill’s melody were about the song being sung. The song was about itself: She sang about how she was making up the words, and how she was making a wreck of it. She sang about Bobby Darin and Louis Armstrong who, separately, had previously made the song popular as pop and jazz hits. For a few bars, she scatted in Armstrong’s trademark growl. She sang about the performers on stage with her, describing them before embarking on an impersonation of Armstrong imitating a trombone—a reference of a reference of a reference. It seemed that many thought this was the most beautiful song in the world, at least in 1960, when she won two Grammy awards for the live recording of this concert. For decades after that night in Berlin, Fitzgerald would continue to sing made-up lyrics every time she performed “Mack the Knife.” New versions came into being with each show, and with each subsequent recording, another version would henceforth coexist with all the others. As if by magic, like a clown car from which emerges an endless succession of clowns, it would expand and reshape our expectations of the known world.