Review: Who Run the World?
Rhizome // March, 2016
Review: Who Run the World?
On “Intersections,” an exhibition organized by Girls of the internet museum and Tensquared
A Tumblr page is usually viewed from top to bottom, while an exhibition is usually viewed from beginning to end. I wondered where to start on my first visit to Girls of the ~internet museum (GIM), a Tumblr established by the Lima-based curator Gaby Cepeda, while researching for this review of “Intersections,” an exhibition at the online gallery Tensquared organized in collaboration with GIM. I decided to scroll to the bottom. My dinosaur of a laptop—a seven-year-old Macbook—glitched and hiccupped as hundreds of posts flashed by.
GIM’s header bears the tagline “we’re into ~sincerity” and is bookended by two posts on the topic of emotional earnestness. The first entry, dating back to November 17, 2012, mentions the work of Olia Lialina as sincere net art. The final post, from November 16, 2015, is a screenshot of a tweet from earlier that year by artist and writer Hannah Black: “Trying not to hurt ppl has been rlly intellectually expansive actually.” GIM is richly considered and deserves multiple visits, reflecting an expansion of feminist consciousness over time. Throughout the site, femininity and radical subjectivity remain in the foreground as aesthetic markers that have been undervalued in contemporary art. The visuals on the Tumblr site skew unapologetically girly, from its bubblegum-pink border superimposed with a rainbow molecular pattern to many of the works showcased in the posts. Qualities that might otherwise be considered embarrassing in art—the openly sexy, the amateurish, the sentimental and the youthful—are displayed with insouciance, even defiance. In this way, the project is a continuation of the concerns of third-wave feminist concerns addressed in movements such as riot grrrl.
Some of the earliest GIM posts feature Blingee-inspired .gifs by Helen Adamidou and an effects-laden video by Petra Cortright dancing to Kraftwerk’s “Das Model.” Artists who have a more ambivalent or confrontational attitude toward aggressive trolling and sexual objectification on the internet, like Jennifer Chan, Ann Hirsch, and Faith Holland, are represented throughout with multiple videos. Artworks are interspersed with pull quotes from artists, writers, and philosophers from Jesse Darling and Shia LaBeouf to Rosi Braidotti and Rob Horning.
In its three-year run, GIM reflected the expanding critical dialogue concerning feminist intersectionality. Cepeda, speaking to her experience as a Latin America–based artist and curator, discussed the lack of diversity and absence of internet art production outside first world art capitals in an interview with Art21 last May. GIM’s posts from 2015 sought to redress the imbalance by including more artists of color and non-binary identification. The final entries feature artworks that pointedly address identity and marginalization by artists such as Marilyn Rondón (Latina Seeks Thug, 2014), Hannah Black (My Bodies, 2014), Juliana Huxtable (UNTITLED [FOR STEWART], 2012), Sondra Perry (imakelandartnow.com, 2015), and Martine Syms (Notes on Gesture, 2015). Although these women take various approaches, they all consider how both race and gender are subject to reduction and commodification. Some champion the internet as a safe space for identity exploration, as trans artist Huxtable asserts in her text-based work about identifying with female avatars as a young gamer. Perry’s video, on the other hand, confronts the evident discrimination in movements like Minimalism and Conceptualism. Against a desert background, a screenshot of one of Perry’s Facebook posts floats in midair: “I MAKE LAND ART NOW. PUT ME IN YOUR ALL WHITE MALE + NANCY HOLT LAND ART SHOW NEXT SPRING.”
“Intersections,” an exhibition of black women artists co-curated by GIM on Tensquared Gallery, is positioned as an extension of Cepeda’s project about representation and diversity.
Looking through GIM forced me to examine the blind spots in my own knowledge, to consider prejudices I’ve worked to overcome about certain strands of feminist art. As a white cis woman who came to an understanding of feminism as a late ’90s teenager, I have understood the value of transgressive historical art practices that put the means of sexualized representation in women artists’ hands. I admired artists who, in the 1960s and ’70s, were denigrated by second-wave feminists for using their bodies in art in provocative ways—Carolee Schneemann, Cosey Fanni Tutti, and Hannah Wilke, among many others. But when it came to my generational peers, I frankly felt removed for years from the discussion about objectification on the internet.
I’ve never admitted this publicly—until now—but I took sex positivity for granted as part of the cultural conversation. I support reproductive choice, the rights of sex workers, and all forms of gender presentation. And yet, I felt a twinge of second-wave Marxist feminist skepticism toward contemporary art that seemed to bank on conventional beauty standards of thinness, whiteness, and youth. I had difficulty identifying with what I assumed was a genre of art made by beautiful women on the internet about the male gaze, because I didn’t see myself as a conventional beauty subjected to the same sort of gaze. In fact, I ignored my own privilege, as well as the growing power of the internet to colonize identity.
For most of my teens and twenties, I cultivated a punkish ugly-cool look designed to please myself, not (the majority of) men: short, stylish hair, bare face, quasi-disheveled ironic wardrobe. My life, I assured myself, passed the Bechdel test. I had great friends, mostly women, with whom I primarily discussed art, culture, and the state of the world, not just beauty and relationships. My version of feminism was one where I could ignore my appearance in pursuit of my ideas. (In truth, my cute, quirky style reflected the advantages of youth, whiteness, an elite college education, and my Brooklyn address.)
As I entered my late twenties, the ground started to shift beneath me and within the culture. I moved to Texas, grew my hair out (less maintenance cuts to schedule), and shed a few pounds in the withering heat. I became more conventionally attractive and people started to notice, both online and off. At the same time, social media moved from an adolescent preoccupation to a widespread culture in which everyone participated, from grandparents to corporations. It became widely understood as a data-scraping tool used to surveil and impose self-surveillance. It brought with it a language that was as effusive as it was barbed about appearance. In time, even people like me, who perceived themselves as anything but remarkable in terms of their image, were uncomfortably aware of the power of personal branding, as well as the ease and availability of tools to manipulate one’s image. The nastiest factions of the far right, during the same era, were gaining power and threatening reproductive rights and sexual, gender, and racial equality. The presentation, marketing, and consumption of identities online and off moved from a subcultural conversation to a mainstream cultural debate. I came to realize that the work I once regarded as a fringe practice about the internet was now at the center—if not in terms of its marketability in the commercial art world, then at least in its relatability.
Like the feminists of the ’60s and ’70s, many artists used their beautiful appearances as a tool to create subversive work from inside existing power structures. The internet has a voracious appetite to absorb and package difference. When considering these dynamics from a critical feminist perspective, it is essential to discuss the dialectics of race and class. People of color have long been subject to both a lack of visibility and hypersexualization in patriarchal culture. Feminism, perhaps more than any other discourse, has undergone a series of internal debates and self-revisions to create a critical framework for analyzing the experiences of non-white individuals confronting patriarchal capitalism. As the comments section of any feminist platform can attest, the conversation is still evolving.
GIM is a critical archive that shows how the girls of the internet have adapted their strategies and grown in diversity in response to shifts in technology and the culture surrounding it. It’s an instructive primer, even in its weaknesses—it occasionally embeds dead links, because the internet is an imperfect archive, and exists within a social media site that necessarily determines certain aspects of its presentation. Moreover, its place within Tumblr, which skews toward a subcultural youth user base, lends the self-branded “feminine” project an air of self-reflexivity.
“Intersections,” an exhibition of painting, photography, video, and digital media works by young black women artists co-organized by GIM and Tensquared, is something of an experiment for both platforms. Tensquared (formerly 100% Net Gallery) was founded in 2013 by artist Terrell Davis. Until this show, the online space has only featured digital artwork. While the organizers should be applauded for stepping out of their comfort zones, as well as for the political specificity of the exhibition, the show has deep curatorial flaws that contradict the mission of the gallery to make diversity paramount, as well as “new and exciting work easily accessible.”
From a technical standpoint, the exhibition is anything but easy to access. Visitors must go to the website and download a 308MB application developed on the game design platform Unity. The day the show opened, I downloaded the app and tried to play it with no luck. I frantically messaged my boyfriend (who happens to work in IT) who informed me that my ancient Macbook would never play the file—the glamour of being an art writer! He downloaded it and streamed it via Twitch for me that night, while I directed his movements over the phone. (I almost always go alone to galleries I’m reviewing, so this viewing set-up was a challenge.) The controller mechanism, it turns out, wasn’t very responsive, and the stream was on a delay to boot. Adding to the tech problems, an accompanying mix by artist Mhysa was only available on Soundcloud, throwing yet another site (and bandwidth load) into the mix.
Tensquared’s gallery is set on a tropical deserted island drenched in magic hour light. The tour begins on the tip of the island, where you can turn around to look out onto the surf, or see the show. How romantic for a virtual art date! The gallery architecture is a three-floor post-postmodern Miami fantasy replete with golden marble floors, functionless Grecian-inspired columns, and winding staircases seemingly suspended in midair. The entryway contains a full circle of close-set columns among which no artwork is installed. Through the prison bar–like structures one can glimpse the artworks, installed on virtual scaffolding systems and lit by virtual spotlights, scattered throughout the first floor.
Once inside the gallery proper, the difficulties of seeing the work do not abate. Most of the pieces are installed on the first floor, and, due to their positioning and the clunkiness of the controls, cannot easily be viewed from a direct forward-facing angle. The gallery doesn’t provide a checklist the way physical venues would, so it’s difficult to determine who made what. Artists’ names, indicated by white text superimposed on the art’s surface, only appear on a handful of works. Even if wall labels are too old school for a virtual gallery, the solution of overlaying text on an artwork is inelegant at best.
Upon entering the space, one can view two unattributed works on the left—one a collage of nubile female bodies of various races in states of undress, the other a collaged surface with “C U Angel” imposed on the surface in Gothic script. The sole video on view, by the Congolese Malmö-based artist Sandra Mujinga, is displayed on the right. Mujinga’s Face Time/Facetime – Real Time/Realtime (2013) features a young man of African descent against colorful animated backdrops. As a moving-image work, Mujinga’s video gets visually lost in a sea of static images—it’s a much more pleasant experience to view a clip (with original sound) on her Vimeo page. The most striking work on this level, which once again can’t be viewed straight on, is a collage by recent Yale MFA grad Tschabalala Self that has its roots in Dada via the practices of Romare Bearden and Wangechi Mutu. Two heads with cutouts of outsize lips and eyes rest above bodies that are marked with gradient effects and elements of digital affichage.
Some artists, like Rafia Santana and Nandi Loaf, use the opportunity as a branding exercise, pointing outward to their practices that primarily live online. Loaf, for instance, has included an image that directs viewers to “keep hating and follow @nandi_loaf,” alongside a collaged image of a black-and-white photo of Jean-Michel Basquiat and vibrant New York sports team logos. One of Santana’s contributions is an image on a pink background with her logo—a black cartoon in the style of a Powerpuff Girl.
The rest of the exhibition comprises largely painting-inspired practices, from French artist Moesha Ciel’s pastel girlish compositions of digitally enhanced brushstrokes and seashell imagery to Alake Shilling’s Lisa Frank-meets-kawaii works. Caitlin Cherry, a young New York–based artist who received her first solo show at the Brooklyn Museum in 2013, shows the four-paneled cantilevered painting Diamond Tears, 2014, on the top floor of the gallery. Cherry’s Cubist shattering of space combined with color melt swirls and cartoonish figures (two resembling disco balls come to life) illustrate that she is on par with the generation of young figurative painters who are featured in exhibitions like “Flatlands” at the Whitney Museum.
“Intersections” represents a cross-section of stylistic concerns, from hip-hop aesthetics to appropriation and innovations in figurative and abstract painting, by a variety of artists of color early in their careers. Such a broad reach feels necessary in an era where artists marked as other (racially or otherwise) are still expected to toe the line by taking an explicit, representational approach to the subject of identity. The artists in “Intersections” show that these conversations about identity can unfold contingently to the work, as well, through digital platforms such as GIM.
The exhibition’s staging, however, overwhelms the strength of the works. The opulence of the gallery architecture mimics a music video circa the early aughts, all rose gold light and George W. Bush–era flash and bombast. If the site is intended to critique the influence of Miami’s bloated fair circuit—a lifestyle branding opportunity that art events in other cities increasingly try to emulate—it misses the mark. Rather than celebrating the diversity of the artists’ output and material choices, it instrumentalizes them in favor of a luxury experience, or an ironic approximation thereof. Rather than extending GIM’s affective project of ~sincerity, “Intersections” threatens to override it.