File as Form: Artie Vierkant's Image Objects Cross Media Boundaries and Undermine Online Art Networks
Artie Vierkant, a 25-year-old emerging artist based in Brooklyn, would “never use” the term “new media” to talk about his own work, he noted emphatically in a recent conversation with ARTINFO. But through his artistic practice and his theoretical writing, Vierkant is doing much to drive critical conversation about how the Internet has already changed art making and consumption, crossing the boundary between physical and digital. The artist’s work, in particular his Image Object series of diaphanous Photoshop abstractions printed on fiberboard, have become a common touchstone of recent critical discussion and are featured in the current “Image Object” exhibition at Foxy Production, which is named after the artist’s ideas. In the past year, Vierkant’s work has also been shown at Reference gallery’s Dependent Art Fair room and at Madison Avenue’s Higher Pictures gallery, where Vierkant will have a solo show in September.
But it’s more difficult than one might think to get a sense of the artist’s work. His installation shots, as posted on his Web site, are distorted by random blurs, lens flares, and watermarks that look like the work of an overenthusiastic elementary school student let loose on Photoshop for the first time. These are marks that Vierkant actually adds himself, and in fact form part of the critique that underlies all of his work. By defacing the photos that depict his objects, Vierkant is questioning the separation between an art object and its representation, and examining the routes and networks by which visual art is spread online.
In a 2010 essay called “The Image Object Post Internet,” Vierkant analyzed the impact of the Internet on art. “Post-Internet,” a term defined by writer Gene McHugh in his blog of the same name as the current period in which the Web is “less a novelty and more a banality,” a time in which, Vierkant wrote, “the infinite reproducibility and mutability of digital materials.” “Nothing is in a fixed state,” he continues. “Culture Post-Internet is made up of reader-authors who… regard cultural output as an idea or work in progress able to be taken up and continued by any of its viewers.”
Vierkant’s art school experience, first at the University of Pennsylvania and then the University of California San Diego’s MFA program, “hammered in the fact that the documentation is as important as the work itself,” he said. This led to the conceptualizing of cultural artifacts, from visual art to feature films and YouTube videos, not as medium-specific objects but as “files” or data sets that can be translated in different ways, existing in all media simultaneously — the definition of Post-Internet. Vierkant’s early floor sculptures test this proposal by reducing different kinds of video files, from thrillers to found clips, into pure data points, mapping them, and then carving the resulting waveforms out of Styrofoam by hand. The end piece has been translated twice from its original format (including a transformation from digital to physical, which writer and media inventor Robin Sloan has memorably deemed a “flip-flop”), but remains somehow the same file. The work is “video rendered as sculpture,” the artist described.
His Image Objects also exist as files to be interpreted, used, and spread in different ways. The physical object is translated by the artist into the digital image; they form two instances, in different media, of the same file. It was the online art world that originally inspired the series. Vierkant began to notice the predominance of Contemporary Art Daily, a blog featuring contemporary art installation documentation photographs from around the world founded in 2008 that employs a particular aesthetic of blank spaces, unobtrusive camera work, and minimalist-oriented art. The blog formed a primary venue for the dissemination of images through the art world, and was, according to the artist, “an empire that deserved to be disrupted.” Vierkant’s Image Objects and their vandalized installation shots (a mutation of the Contemporary Art Daily style) travel the same online paths as the blog’s photos, but subvert their presumed objectivity. His wall pieces are “blank images,” the artist described, objects that can “signify nothing other than a feeling, style, or community.” They critique the network even as they progress through it.
Rather than making the discrete object and its final presentation in an image the point of the piece, as it would be in a more traditional practice, in Vierkant’s thinking, the work becomes about “what happens to” the image, and “how it circulates,” underlining the echo chamber of art circulation online and the insularity of its aesthetic mores and social network. The Image Object itself means nothing, and its context means everything. How the piece moves and where it arrives is the artwork. It’s an acknowledgement and reiteration of the fact that on the Internet, cultural artifacts are “continually resolving,” the artist said. Nothing can ever be called complete or finite when each viewer is also a user and creator, free to reimagine the object in question in any way they choose. This is a fact that Vierkant embraces.
Online-only projects, like Brad Troemel and Jonathan Vingiano’s “Blind Mist” and the collaborative “The Jogging” blog (which Vierkant contributes to) have also played around with the distribution networks of images on the Internet, but few combine critical insight with elegant physical and visual execution as Vierkant does in his recent personal work. "In Post," an exhibition that Vierkant curated at Stadium gallery shows a group of other artists using techniques similar to Vierkant's own to examine the relationship between the physical object and the digital image.
Among them, Andrea Longacre-White stands out for her alternately physically and digitally altered photographs. Her process is a series of flip-flops, to use Sloan's term: a photograph is printed, the print torn, the torn print scanned and digitally altered, then printed again, and so on. The result is a dizzying visual and conceptual echo. Justin Kemp’s absurdist “Adding to the Internet” sculptures attempt to fill holes in the Web by creating objects that hitherto had no Google Image search results. The Foxy Production “Image Object” show also memorably highlights Travess Smalley, whose psychedelic digital paintings have appeared everywhere from 319 Scholes and JF & Son’s menswear to Hong Kong’s Saamlung gallery. He contributes three photo prints made by scanning colorful clay that has been mushed onto the bed of a scanner. The tactile surface of the clay is tantalizingly close but never reachable; it has already been translated.
“Today it is impossible… to experience any image or object that will no longer change over time,” Vierkant writes in his introduction to “In Post.” That art might be kept static has long been a cherished belief of galleries, museums, and institutions. With the Internet, we now have the ability, and should have the wherewithal, to recognize that as untrue. As digital-native artists like Vierkant continue to make work that brings an active critical lens to art's presence and production online, we as viewers can begin to understand how the Internet shapes our aesthetic experience.
Click on the slide show for photos of Foxy Production's "Image Object" exhibition.