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Picking apart the Internet: An exhibition that addresses the elephant in the room

Installation view, "Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today," Institute of Contemporary Art/Boston. (Caitlin Cunningham)

BOSTON — I’ve been looking at the first page ever made public on the World Wide Web. It’s awe-inspiring — like looking at ultrasound images of a baby in utero. It has no idea of what it will become. It has no image of itself. In fact, the page has no images at all: It’s just text, with hyperlinks. And spelling errors.

What’s most amazing is that at this point — 1991 — the World Wide Web thinks it’s just a research tool. Clicking through the hyperlinks is like eavesdropping on a seminar of librarians. It couldn’t feel less relevant to your life.

Twenty-six years on, the Internet is indispensable. Protean and all-pervasive, it has transformed life, leisure, commerce, civics, sex, education, intimacy and truth as we know it.

“Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today,” at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art, examines how artists have responded to this zeitgeist-defining phenomenon. Planned over three years by ICA chief curator Eva Respini, with Jeffrey De Blois, the exhibition shows that artists have been at the vanguard of questioning and critiquing — but also embracing and advancing — the Internet. It suggests that the Web’s technical possibilities and reality-altering nature have seeped into every aspect of creativity, affecting even traditional media such as painting and sculpture.

It’s a huge subject to tackle. So it comes as no surprise that in many places, the exhibition is hard-going. There are paintings, photographs and sculptures by the likes of Laura Owens, Cindy Sherman, Cory Arcangel and Albert Oehlen. But, unsurprisingly, much of the art most urgently engaged with the Internet isn’t suited to traditional display.

So the show is garlanded with multimedia installations, a virtual reality offering (by Jon Rafman), a smattering of interactive websites and a glut of videos. Many are great (look out for pieces by Frances Stark and Camille Henrot), but too many are of punishing duration.

Almost all the art embraces, as an aesthetic principle, the arbitrariness of the Internet — the sense of being randomly led from breaking news to Kardashian shenanigans to YouTube kittens via pop-up ads for Prozac. Thus, in work after work, elaborate conceptual underpinnings collide with Byzantine process and a finished look of cultivated chaos. The wall labels, inevitably, are Proustian — in length if not in spirit.

Despite all this (consider it fair warning), the show bulges with bright art and is almost harrowingly on-topic.

To enter it, you run the gantlet between two banks of flashing television monitors. One, titled “Internet Dream,” is a work made in 1994 by video art pioneer Nam June Paik.

Paik, who died in 2006, is credited with the earliest use — in 1974 — of the term “electronic super highway” (later adapted to “information superhighway” by the Clinton administration). The images on “Internet Dream’s” 52 screens appear randomly generated, but they cohere at the center into patterned abstract imagery, like a repeatedly shaken kaleidoscope.

Paik’s optimism about the Internet and its promise of connecting disparate people wasn’t off-base. The net’s ability to amuse, enchant, console, inform, educate, save lives and clear away obstacles is nothing short of miraculous.

Still, Paik’s vision has to confront others, equally real. The facing bank of monitors is a more recent work, titled “,” by a collective of artists, writers, musicians, historians and activists called HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? The screens show algorithmically generated snippets of cable news and amateur footage relating to police violence against African Americans. Much of it has been culled from social media platforms using relevant hashtags, such as #ferguson.

The footage evokes strife and systemic violence and doesn’t cohere in the way Paik’s does. So it can’t help but conjure the “widening gyre,” the Internet’s — or is it our society’s? — tendency toward chaos.

But the work is ultimately more interested to show how, from the beginning, African Americans engaged with social media in their own, distinct ways. In so doing, they forged alternative narratives — of resistance; of memory (the collective’s name is a play on the Wayback Machine, an early digital archive of the World Wide Web); and ultimately, of truth-telling.

This idea of alternative narratives — vital, enhancing alternatives that enhance our sense of truth; but also “alternative facts” that traduce truth — has to be at the heart of any thinking about the Internet.

When is an alternative narrative a thing to be cheered, paraded on palanquins and embroidered into the fabric of civilization? When is it nuts? And when might it look nuts but be just what everyone secretly needed? (A category great art often occupies.)

It is the fashion to say that the Internet has “changed” our lives, even “altered” our minds. It’s harder — because we are all implicated — to admit that online existence distorts our sense of truth and compromises our autonomy. At its simplest, the bloated hours we spend in the Internet’s grip pull us away from an awareness of being physically in the world, in space that we share with other people, plants, animals, air, sound and smells, and of all the precious mental movements keyed to physical proximity.

One basic truth about the Internet we overlook is that it is itself a physical thing. We’re more used to thinking of it as immaterial, a “virtual” realm. That’s what makes Trevor Paglen’s photographs of NSA-tapped cables on the floor of the ocean and of a signals intelligence satellite in the night sky so arresting. The Internet is stuff, they remind us. Expensive, energy-consuming and vulnerable stuff.

But it’s also a forum for fantasy and playacting, for upended social mores, grotesquerie, and unfettered hilarity. The social relations the Internet promotes subject identity to an incessant pressure to perform that feels ambient, like water, rather than causal.

No artists over the past decade have skewered this better than Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin. Their 21-minute video, “Permission Streak,” filmed with handheld cameras, GoPros and drones, is screened in a carpeted mini-theater strewn with gym mats, a “custom diving bunk,” message boards and ambient sound (the installation as a whole is called “Safety Pass”).

Like all their films, “Permission Streak” is full of lurching discontinuities and a prevailing sense of hectic, dread-infused euphoria. Fitch and Trecartin combine on-set high jinks with disjointed modes of behavior borrowed from reality TV and social media. They treat those modes as artifacts — masks to be tried on, discarded as trash, then recycled, almost as found objects.

They don’t so much shred the old idea of a soul or inner life as arrive at it pre-shredded, like tired lettuce in a salad bar longing to be partnered with zestier offerings.

Anyone who interacts with the Internet leaves behind what the artist Lynn Hershman Leeson calls (with the infamous Trump dossier in mind) kompromat, “a collection of compromising materials.” Most of us daily consent to the trade-off, but with one eye shut and with the feeling that we don’t know its true terms.

“As we use technology,” notes Leeson, “it also uses and surveys us.” Her baby dolls in vitrines with surveillance cameras behind their eyes, which can be directed by viewers accessing a website on their own devices, illustrate her point. Her dolls create, as she puts it, a “double bind of voyeurism and surveillance.”

In a 1992 essay called “The Resource Discovery Problem,” Berners-Lee — still in giddy librarian mode — saw that, as the mass of information on the Web became larger and more deeply connected, there would be “some really exciting work to be done on automatic algorithms to make multilevel searches.”

Today, our lives are at once eased and terrifyingly over-determined by algorithms. Algorithms promise to distill order from informational chaos. It’s a necessary project, and one they share, to some extent, with art.

But unlike art, algorithms don’t care about truth. They care about probabilities. There’s a very big difference. And that difference is one reason, in the Internet age, we need art more than ever.

Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today Through May 20 at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston. 617-478-3100.


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