In 1972, game manufacturer Atari released one of the world's first video games. Pong, an electronic ping pong game, attempted to take a physical, 'IRL' (in real life) game, and make it playable on a computer. Pong eventually established the need for every Western middle-class home to possess a gaming console. With the movement of computers, and later, the internet, into people's homes, new forms of instant communication became possible: bulletin board systems, e-mail, instant messaging, discussion forums, blogs and social networks. By the mid-1990s, people were regularly shifting between two worlds - the real and the virtual, creating usernames for message boards, profiles for discussion forums, and avatars for massively multiplayer online role-playing games. The internet's structure was (perhaps satisfyingly) labyrinthine. Getting email was exciting, and when we weren't sure what to do online, we just hung out in digital spaces - a space before e-commerce, various regulatory bodies and mass usership turned into another place to do business. The ping pong between two spaces for communication - URL and IRL - has resulted in a major shift in how we conceive of our identities in online, digital space and the offline, physical world.
URL:IRL considers self-fashioning in the digital age, with the selected artists using or referencing digital media and digital space as their subject and theme, often creating places to critique culture. Some artists explore the impact of digital on photography and moving image, delving into the history of digital aesthetics and the visual culture of the 'errors' one encounters in cyberspace. Some works reference art history, and how the internet has altered traditional ways of understanding culture, ideas and their dissemination. Most of the works consider the gaps between IRL experiences involving the living body and the disembodied digital experience, and how this process of detachment makes people (including corporations) behave differently in online spaces.
On the internet, subjects are turned into objects - objects often subjected to a disinhibited critique that would never be thrust upon them IRL. This antisocial behavior is made possible due to the absence of restraint one might feel moving through the internet thanks to the options of false identity or anonymity. A dedicated cosplayer and self-professed nerd, Toronto artist Maya Ben David's works play with identity to address the misogyny of online fan communities - user groups who have used the internet to 'find their people' and accuse women users as being dabblers or "fake nerds," often subjecting them to hateful, lewd comments and inappropriately sexualizing them and their creations. Ben David throws it back to the haters, calling them out on social media and in wickedly funny videos and live performances. Although her best-known creation is an anthropomorphic plane 'Air Canada Gal', Ben David often cosplays unlikely inanimate objects, like a stucco popcorn ceiling. She gives her characters rich backstories, personalities, and agency, a feminist act that implores us to consider how everyday objects are anthropomorphized and even eroticized, while women are conversely objectified.
Other artists in URL:IRL who consider the treatment of women in society and online, and how social norms can play out problematically in digital space are Angela Washko and Endam Nihan. In her video series Free Will Mode, New York artist and writer Angela Washko documents scenarios she has created using the video game The Sims. Capturing her Sims fumbling through controlled architectures she has created, guided by the game's 'free will mode', the Sims eat, sleep, pee, yell, cry and eventually die, seemingly unable to free themselves from their predicament. Metaphorically, their inability to control their environment by seeking to change it parallels with the ways we all accept, to varying extents, traditional power structures and gender roles, even at our peril. Turkish-born, USA-based artist Endam Nihan's three-channel video/sound installation Hold It presents a female directed by a male voice to hold a series of positions designed to sell a product, persuading her to adopt a conventional feminine presentation. In perfect 365, one selfie cycles 108 times through an augmented reality beauty smartphone app that uses face detection technology to add layers of makeup filters. Eventually, the facial features become lost and the application fails to recognize the face. perfect 365 touches on many ideas connected to digital life - the strangeness of facial detection software and the dangers of how the software could cause users to develop unrealistic beauty expectations or lose the ability to truthfully see themselves IRL. Works by Ben David, Washko, and Nihan could be interpreted as challenging the utopic myth that cyberspace is liberating; where you can leave your body and gender behind.
Like Ben David, some artists in URL:IRL use digital media to create and claim spaces that might not otherwise exist to political, cultural, and often poetic, effect. Montreal-based artist Scott Benesiinaabandan's (Obishikokaang Anishinabe First Nation) VR world of Monumentalisms is comprised of over 600 photographs of two monument locations (The Jacque Cartier monument in St.Henri and the Chomedey-Maisonneuve monument) in Old Montreal. In Monumentalisms, monuments are no longer designed to conjure up the past, but to create a way into a future, using VR as a medium for colonialist critique. Anishinaabeg artist Barry Ace fuses traditional and contemporary materials and forms, articulating the ways that Indigenous people have always adapted to cultural and technological changes by incorporating and using new forms, materials and mediums in culturally-specific ways that counter and resist dominant hegemonies. The bandolier bags made by Ace included in URL:IRL honour individuals and communities, much like the traditional Anishinaabeg bandolier bags given in ceremony as gifts of friendship and honour, respectfully acknowledging the work that he is doing exists within a historical lineage. The works also call to mind the important role that the internet has played in facilitating and broadcasting the work of Indigenous-led resistance movements like Idle No More and Families of Sisters in Spirit.
Other examples of world-building for poetic and conceptual (if less politically charged) effect presented in URL:IRL include Amanda Low's web art projects and Sarah Rothberg's Touching a Cactus. Low's ORIGINOFTHE.NET poetically considers how the internet, conceptually, came to be, and ETERNALLYMOVING.COM, considers the phenomenon of "link rot" (slang for lost links and domains), challenging the idea that the web is a place for endless storage by reminding us that it is also a vulnerable space capable of losing and forgetting. In Touching a Cactus, your interactions with a virtual cactus lead to various scenes where time is slowed down, or sped up, until your own body is made virtual amidst an audio track of various lines of poetry. To an extent, the works by Low and Rothberg, and as well as Jeremy Bailey and Kristen D. Schaffer's Preturna underscore the existential qualities of our visits to digital worlds.
Preturna is a pregnancy simulator where the user dons a VR headset to become endowed with a pregnant female belly that mimics an imaginary version of Schaffer's own body. Too perfect to be real, the experience, placed in a pharmaceutical ad-like landscape setting - the kind that the formerly allergic, impotent, or depressed find themselves frolicking through in television commercials - is narrated by the artists debating whether to have kids. The familiar IRL conversation does much more to simulate understanding and empathy in the user than the embodied digital experience of pregnancy they have created.
One becomes aware of the physical, lived experience of their IRL body through URL:IRL's installations by Dominque Pétrin and Megan Smith. For the project Riding Through Walls Megan Smith connected the movements of a vintage stationary bike to Google Street View, using a networked computer to traverse the Canadian landscape from coast-to-coast in real-time, projected onscreen in front of her. Sharing moments of her journey on Instagram - moments that capture human connections, mundanities, as well as technical glitches and errors - Smith seeks to humanize the experience of Google Street View in a unique way, and her words, to "pierce the internet."1 The screen printed, collaged installations of Dominique Pétrin create the bodily sensation of walking through digital noise into a moving, IRL .GIF. Although Pétrin's work is incredibly instagrammable (search #dominiquepetrin for some examples), the proprioceptive affect generated by seeing her work IRL connects to many discourses around art and the internet today: How well one can understand an art work without seeing it in the flesh? Can virtual encounters truly displace and replace the real encounter? Can you 'get it' from just a .jpg?
The act of placing oneself in digital space has never had a bigger cultural moment than the 'selfie'. While selfies have a bad rap in some circles, tagged as narcissism driven by an economy of attention, selfies can be a critical part of self-representation, destabilizing the self-portrait genre which, for hundreds of years, has been largely controlled in Western countries by the white male 'gaze'. After thousands of years of being represented rather than self-presenting, selfies are a way of reclaiming agency over one's body, particularly for marginalized groups by providing the opportunity to present oneself exactly as one might wish to, affirming one's existence. In URL:IRL, many artists appear as themselves in their work, often to comedic and intellectual effect. For The Selfie Drawings, Brooklyn-based artist Carla Gannis created 52 self-portraits over a period of 52 weeks. The digital drawings depict Gannis in historical and contemporary contexts, referencing art history, popular culture, the media, semiotics, and technology. But to add another digital layer, viewers can hover over each image with their smartphone using the app Blippar to activate each image, creating an augmented reality (AR) experience that causes imagery to leap off the still surface of the work. Although the work cannot be fully experienced without employing a digital tool, her works still grapple with the traditional, historical, persistent question of the self-portrait genre: "Who am I?" In the performative video arrangement of Nail Art Museum, Famous New Media Artist Jeremy Bailey (as he coins himself) uses digital animation to transform his fingernails into museum plinths, displaying a dizzying array of contemporary artworks and "other stuff" like palm trees or corporate logos. In transforming his hand into a mini-museum, Bailey assumes the role of the artist as content aggregator and curator in a post-Postproduction landscape, harnessing institutional power and associated fame for himself by taking on "the task of selecting cultural objects and inserting them into new contexts." His frenetic lecture on the radical potential of technology, using augmented reality to decorate, accessorize, and adorn his face and body with 3D objects and appendages - includes some patently dumb ideas, but the enthusiastic conviction from which he sells them could be read as a satirizing of the iconic tech-geek who fervently believes that technology will save us all. In Sarah Rothberg's The New News, the VR user steps into a strange room in which an avatar of the artist reads, like a journalist behind a news desk, items from Rothberg's Facebook News Feed. During a fraught time where the ethics of Facebook's algorithms are being contested, Rothberg's The New News, created prior to such controversy, conversely reminds us that sometimes the internet is very mundane and perhaps everything will be OK. But will it be OK? If we are being honest with ourselves, we have always understood that internet was a space where corporations were probably stealing our information. Studies indicating negative effects for social media usage are increasingly outweighing research that suggests any benefit.
Social media blocks out what we do not wish to see, creating an echo chamber effect, thanks to programmed algorithms. These algorithms, as Hito Steryl notes in her e-flux article 'Proxy Politics' "represent a mix of juridical, moral, aesthetic, technological, commercial, and bluntly hidden parameters and effects" and how computational photography, like other technological forms is "programmed with conflicting goals and by many entities" which makes "politics...a matter of defining how to separate its noise from its information."2 Through object recognition and machine learning, computational photography is poised to 'guess' what you might want to see based on scans of other pictures stored on your phone or in your social media networks. Clearly, our understanding of the photographic medium has been completely transformed by computational photography, as well as the logic of Google's Image Search function, which is eroding the traditional ways images were once circulated, making every image on the internet, inherently, about its own dissemination. Generating 'pixels' over found and manipulated historical photographs, Nandan Ghiya takes 'real' images and aesthetically and materially turns them 'digital'. The Pet Pixel Unveiling of Our Ancestors (2014) and Eleven Perspectives (2014) share the aesthetic of a corrupted or still-downloading image - picture frame and all. Mixing the visual culture of internet errors with archival images, Ghiya's manipulation of his images could be interpreted as a violent kind of gesture - how the material object may be suffering to support the existence of the scanned digital immaterial. This potential interpretation is doubly troubling given that Ghiya's works tend to use historical photographs of Indian families or objects, placed in groups with a logic shared with a Google Image Search Engine, as though one searched a word, and these were the corresponding images which turned up.
The politics that drive what one sees in a Google Search bar is tied to one of the critical myths of the internet: that it has been, or continues to be, a democratic space. Although the cost of speech on the web can be low, it has always been easier for the rich to speak and be heard - and digital space is no exception. Our present capitalist market, driving the questionably compensated, precarious labour of the contracted 'gig' economy, has undoubtably been influenced by the rise of new communications technologies and artificial intelligence. As such, the spectre of capitalism looms across several works in URL:IRL. While many of Toronto artist Kaley Flowers' sculptures in URL:IRL range from playful (featuring squishy, genderless figures propped up by their laptops and covered with colourful decals) to functional (some have embedded USB keys), several of the works function as digital wallets. Sculpted to look like storage containers for little girls, they hold QR codes containing public keys for small amounts of cryptocurrency, stored online. The private keys, also needed to access the contents of the digital wallets, are etched inside the hollowed out and sealed shut ceramic boxes. A treatise on their own value as artworks, the sculptures would have to be destroyed to cash in the funds in their associated wallets. Given that bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are subject to highly volatile market fluctuations, the temptation to smash them may rise and fall alongside the market. Desearch Repartment's works combine the visual culture of branding in the age of the internet with the hypocrisy of the commercial self-help industry (because marketing works best when it makes potential buyers feel bad and desire a kind of improvement that is generally only remedied in feeling through purchases). Madelyne Beckles video Theory of a Young Girl takes inspiration from the French collective Tiqqun's 1999 text Preliminary materials for a theory of the young-girl, which outlines how capitalism fashions young women and other marginalized groups into ideal consumers by conflating freedom, commercialism, and desire. Beckles' pithy delivery of Tiqqun's text is intercut with soft-focus scenes of her using baby pink cosmetics and personal care products - the tools of culturally-prescribed and consumer-driven femininity - reminding the viewer, as in the work of Ednam Niham, the role commercial digital platforms play in making women and girls, susceptible to insecurities that are intended to be remedied by capitalist consumption.
Digital space, more than print, is now the primary location for people to share their opinions and values. Some of these values become manifest in the visual culture of the digital. The early years of digital computing built a recognizable, shared aesthetic that was part dystopic, part neon. By comparison, the Y2K aesthetic of the late 1990s demonstrated considerably more confusion, particularly about what was supposed to go into an online space (like web counters and blinking .GIFs). Eventually, this gave way to a more confident vision - utopic scenes made using digital graphics, featuring curves and gradients and pastel shades, with surfaces shiny or dripping, like liquid mercury. Artists in URL:IRL whose work references the visual culture and contemporary values of the web include Carrie Gates and Lorna Mills. Yorkton-born, Toronto-based artist Lorna Mills' video installation Colour Fields situates eight monitors, each playing a .GIF animation sourced from user-directed forums like Reddit, and set within backgrounds of hyperbolic colour. The selected .GIFs - pixeled, glitchy, uncontextualized, and in random conversation with one other - take a candid look at the underbelly of the Internet, it's bawdy foibles and our attractions to the maudlin, dirty, glitchy, slap-stick, and sybaritic, mirroring the experience of slithering through the wonders and perversity of the wild, wild Web. Saskatoon-based artist Carrie Gates' strategy for creating .GIFs, like Mills, starts with sourcing web imagery and animating their repetitions. But Gates' compositional approach is one of layering, resulting in time-based collages that make one feel as though they are being pulled into, or pushed out of, the digital worlds she creates. Like other artists in URL:IRL, like Nandan Ghiya, Gates also references the visual culture of the internet by referencing 'glitches' in her art, using the aesthetics of digital errors to create jarring, hypnotic visual experiences.
URL:IRL is not a survey of works about how technology has changed the way we make and think about art. The internet has undeniably changed how we receive all forms of written, verbal and visual communications (although it is important to note that presently only 40% of the world's population has a stable internet connection, and in many nations, the ability to move around in digital space is limited, often by governing bodies.). Ultimately, digital space and the internet have become a social construct - a space that has bred in us a set of habits and social practices that have changed how we fashion ourselves and think about reality.
Digital space is no longer a place of imaginary fantasy, but real life.
1Megan Smith. Project Anywhere. Riding Through Walls. http://www.projectanywhere.net/riding-through-walls-megan-smith/. Accessed April 24, 2018.
2http://www.e-flux.com/journal/60/61045/proxy-politics-signal-and-noise/, accessed April 28, 2018