The great wave

On Hito Steyerl, James Bridle and Tumblr

By Mark Sladen

“I am liquidity incorporated… the rainbow… torrent… cloud.” So says a computer-generated voiceover in Hito Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc. (2014). This 30-minute video explores catastrophic fluidity, drawing parallels between financial storms and weather systems. And the presiding image is a dazzling animated GIF of Hokusai’s The Great Wave (c. 1831), flashing on a wall of Tumblr blogs.

Tumblr is a fascinating phenomenon, and the Berlin-based Steyerl is one of many artists to have been attracted to it. It is a microblogging and social-media service, and allows users to create personalised websites via a collage of photos, videos, music files and textual snippets. Tumblr, like other social-media platforms, is predicated on ‘sharing’ and ‘liking’, and is responsible for a vortex of visual memes. Steyerl’s videowork employs imagery that is recognisably a product of this amateur digital culture, including detourned movie clips, corporate graphics and CGI animations. And as Brian Kuan Wood has said, her films employ the digital image as a means of entry to ‘a world in which a politics of dazzle manifests as collective desire’.

If Steyerl’s Liquidity Inc. uses Tumblr as a symbol of the popular culture of digital distraction, other artists have chosen to make projects employing the platform itself. One such is the English artist and writer James Bridle, who established a Tumblr blog as the central element of a research project entitled the New Aesthetic. The blog started out as a place to document a trend that Bridle had noticed: pixels and other visual systems originating in the digital world being employed as motifs in the real one. Gradually it widened its focus to feature such things as visualisations by satellites and surveillance devices; antiscanning camouflage; information graphics; visual glitches and corruptions; and street art employing computer-related imagery.

Although the title of the New Aesthetic is something of a misnomer, as the site does not set out to present a unified aesthetic, it is indeed as a record of visualisations that Bridle’s blog has power. The project was founded in 2011 and achieved a higher profile when it was covered the next year by a number of tech bloggers and media theorists. And while there might be large theoretical holes in the web of material being presented, the project nevertheless has great distinctiveness in its marriage of visual material and platform. As Bridle says, the New Aesthetic ‘is an attempt to “write” critically about the network in the vernacular of the network itself’, in a social-media environment with its language of reblogs, likes and comments.

If both Steyerl and Bridle attempt to establish some critical distance between their projects and the dynamics of social media, the same cannot be said of the Jogging. This art collective – founded in 2009 by the American artists Brad Troemel and Lauren Christiansen – is another project that manifests principally through Tumblr. The first version of their blog was created in 2009, out of a frustration with a conventional artmaking path: make a show; document it; post documentation to social media and watch it disappear. Instead Troemel and Christiansen decided to experiment with images that were ‘born digital’, and the site really started to flourish – and to attract an audience beyond the artworld – when they began to image-dump in quantity.

The Jogging’s Tumblr is used to showcase images drawn from regular participants as well as from open submission: including representations of physical artworks or events; films and photos found online; images that have been digitally manipulated. The subjects of the posts include a mix of Internet obsessions: celebrity, porn and drugs; conspiracy theories; animals doing peculiar things; fast food in its more abject aspects; redrawn corporate logos; references to the web and social media itself; surrealist objects and art jokes. One recent post features a photo of a boy posing as the goat in a remake of Robert Rauschenberg’s Monogram (1955–9); another image shows a gravestone carved with a smiley face (this post received 5,000 ‘notes’ in a month).

According to Troemel and Christiansen, ‘Dematerialization is not an oppressive suffocation of art but a possibility for art to flourish in disparate and progressive discourses. The web offers infinite room for expansion and participation unlimited by the more severe constraints of space and finance.’ While this may sound laudable, one can’t help but ask if much art is left once a project folds itself so successfully into socialmedia culture. Or perhaps we should simply take the Jogging as satire, a hyperbolic response to the new ‘speed’ of information and personal expression, and to the great wave of sharing and liking.

This article originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of ArtReview Asia.