Has Relational Aesthetics Migrated Online? How the Internet's New Social Spaces Empower Creative Audiences

Has Relational Aesthetics Migrated Online? How the Internet's New Social Spaces Empower Creative Audiences
USPEC, one of seven image new file formats created by Kim Asendorf
(Courtesy of extrafile.org)

If you haven't heard of Internet start-up Turntable.fm, chances are you've thought of its big idea before. The Web site lets users join a "Turntable room," an Internet clubhouse where friends and strangers alike can DJ sets of music that get beamed to an international crowd of online listeners, creating a virtual public space for the sharing of aesthetic experience. That space closely resembles a physical venue — the site's well-executed design sets users in the middle of a cartoony basement club, complete with a spot-lit floor, DJ stand at the front, and two speaker stacks vibrating in time to the music. Avatars are even equipped with their own tiny laptops (mostly Macs, as one might expect from the user base).  

Over the past few weeks, I have listened to music with coworkers in my office and friends flung across the continent at the same time. Artists, writers, curators, and musicians have stopped by our Turntable room, spinning whatever inspired them at the moment while we communicated by means of our sprite — i.e. pixel-based — avatars and a chat box at the bottom right of the screen. Knowing that other people are receiving the same auditory stimulus at the same time is a startlingly physical and intimate experience, even when separated miles of fiber-optic cable — more like watching a movie in a packed theater than flipping through an iPod. The emotional reaction I had to the site was unexpectedly rich.

By hosting a platform for users to share a creative process and aesthetic experience in real time (DJing and listening to music, in this case), Web sites like Turntable are fulfilling a similar role to artists working in the medium of relational aesthetics. Instead of involving gallery visitors in a communal project or an artist-hosted discussion or workshop, though, these sites enable users to become the active creators and curators of their own experience while the platform itself recedes in a way that most relational aesthetics artists entirely fail to.  

When Rikrit Tiravanija cooks up pad thai for hungry gallery-goers, he is inviting his audience to partake in an aestheticized form of exchange with him. When Carsten Höller invited patrons to sleep in a hotel room installed in the middle of the Guggenheim, he created a platform that allowed viewers (users) to take part in a scenario that would not have been possible without the artist's help. With online social spaces, there is no single "author" of the experience, yet the spaces they provide function in much the same way as the situations created by relational aesthetics artists. It's relational aesthetics without the pretension of a single creator.

While Turntable.fm allows users to share music, another Internet start-up, Canv.as, enables its audience to create, share, and remix images in real time. Similar to a Japanese Oekaki board, Canv.as is an in-browser image suite with capabilities similar to Photoshop. An image is posted, rated in the form of smiley-face stickers by other users, and remixed into an Internet meme mash-up all in a matter of minutes. Social network Tumblr foregrounds curation as a creative act, rewarding users for compiling perfect collections of images, video, and writing in a space where popularity is determined by strength of aesthetic vision. Farmville is popular because it enables creativity, allowing users to create their own space and share it as a tiny virtual home that becomes a representation of personal taste and personal quirks.

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If one of the goals of relational aesthetics art is to make its participants more aware of their own creative capacity, to form an instant, dynamic community of users and creators, how are these online platforms any different?

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INTERNET ART STARZ: Art Fag City editor Paddy Johnson takes critical aim at the world of Internet art with her incisive L Magazine cover feature "Inside the Internet Art Bubble." Tracing the twinned paths of young art-world darlings Cory Arcangel and Ryan Trecartin, Johnson sees that neither artist really represents the new media and technology community that they are said to champion — for her, Arcangel's recent movement away from of the Internet scene that provided an early haven for his work is a "negative" turn, while the success of Trecartin's branded style exceeds the accomplishment of his art. Johnson deems the current hype surrounding the two artists and their recent exhibitions (Arcangel at the Whitney, Trecartin at MoMA PS1) as a clear case of "The Emperor Has No Clothes syndrome." The article's critical depth and Johnson's ability to cut through the bullshit is something we could all use more of.

MEME GENERATION: In this short documentary, PBS's Off Book zooms in on Internet creativity, speaking to academics, artists, and trend-researchers on both the culture of making things online and the technical side of meme-making. The thesis is that creation has been decentralized as collaboration and communication have become infinitely easier. The video isn't notable for its originality; it's just a good primer on Internet basics and an introduction to some of the people doing research on the creative 'net. Be sure to watch out for Internet artist Ryder Ripps's epic sunglasses.

FILE UNDER FILES: As part of his graduate research, Kim Asendorf has created a series of custom file formats — think .JPEG, .GIF, or .TIFF, but much more interesting — for GLI.TC/H, an upcoming new media conference and festival. The unique formats each come with their own pixel densities, color formats, and compression sizes, with their distinct visual impacts demonstrated on a standardized image set. ".4BC," or 4 Bit Components, gives a "vintage digital" feel to the pic, with blocky distortion and lo-fi neon color shifts. ".MCF," or Monochrome Collector File ("the most valuable format in the world"), has a more pixellated look and turns images into soft grayscale. A fascinating peek into the history of file formats can be found on Rosa Menkman's blog, an artist who has used the file formats to create work.  

Net Work is a weekly column exploring the state of contemporary new media art and its practitioners by ARTINFO Assistant Editor Kyle Chayka. Follow Kyle on Twitter at @chaykakor email him at kchayka@artinfo.com.