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Art in the Age of the Internet

by Martha Merrow

Photography courtesy of Institute of Contemporary Art Boston

Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today​ is complicated: through a variety of mediums, themes and artists, the exhibit examines the expanding role of the internet in both visual art and daily lives.

Organized by Eva Respini, Barbara Lee Chief Curator, the exhibit opened February 7 and will be featured at the Institute of Contemporary Art until May 20. It features more than 70 works by 60 artists with pieces distributed in five divisions that explore various questions related to identity, the line between reality and virtual worlds, surveillance and resistance and the performance of social media.

Each room of the exhibit is in stark contrast to the next, but each include works ranging between video, sculpture, photography, painting and even virtual reality. There’s something here for everyone to question, examine or frankly, to get lost in.

Art in the Age of the Internet​ is also a history—the earliest piece dating from 1989—of the year the internet was invented. The exhibit has a lot to teach those who visit. It attempts to demonstrate the growth of cyberspace, and offers everyone a space to consider the ways in which the internet has presented itself in the past and present. Along the way, many works seem to make a prediction or interpretation of media usage in the future.

Fittingly, Argentinian artist Amalia Ulman, 29, was born in the first year of the internet. Her piece, ​Excellences & Perfections​, is both a photograph (a “selfie”) and a performance. As part of a series of works, Ulman transformed her own life and reality for sake of her art: she transformed into a new persona, changing her appearance and behaviors, even going so far as having plastic surgery.

Ulman’s new identity attracted nearly 90,000 followers on social media. With this fame also came abusive comments, and after four months of experimenting Ulman revealed to the public that it was a performance.

“The idea was to experiment with fiction online using the language of the internet,” Ulman wrote of her work in the piece’s description.

Ulman’s ​Excellences & Perfections ​seems to encourage the consideration of our own performance both online and in our daily lives. She forces us to ask: How do these two spaces overlap? How much is truth and how much is fiction?

Like many other artists included in the exhibit, Ulman takes a dedicated route to explore the internet’s role in identity as shown in the complexity and significance of her piece.

Another young artist, 30-year-old Juliana Huxtable, found that through experimenting with an image file of her body she was able to discover a new identity. “My adulthood was liberated by social media. I feel like I am always living as a hybrid of my online presence and my IRL presence,” Huxtable said to the Boston Globe. Her piece is a self-portrait, a photo titled Untitled in the Rage.

Huxtable’s work escapes reality, delving into a creative experimentation of her embodiment as an avatar-esque, green alien. It serves to show visitors of the exhibit that through the wide theme of internet and media, artists can manipulate the presentation of their bodies in compelling ways.

What seems to make ​Art in the Age of the Internet ​so provocative is the overarching theme and question of the exhibit itself. The internet as it is today, and how it has grown from its invention, is a never-ending bread basket for both artist and audience. It lends opportunity for both appreciation and critique; disgust and awe. Any artist, and any visitor, can take what they will from each piece and interpret its message to their own daily consumption of media.

To many, the internet is a shallow waste of time. But to some it is a medium for immense personal and societal examination. ​Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today ​has much to offer audiences searching for a deeper understanding of the lives and roles that exist inside their phones and laptops.

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