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Opinion | The Unexpected Joy of Internet Art

I’ve tried experimenting with all the ways museums have attempted to bridge the gap between us and the art in their cordoned off exhibitions: trawling through their digital collections, taking virtual tours of museum interiors, following their Instagrams as they post pictures of objects. None of this really does it for me.

There’s already a glut of image-based content online, which leads to a kind of aesthetic collapse: A photo of a Cézanne still-life appears alongside an ad for Everlane jeans and a news article featuring a stock photo of a hospital. It is hard to look closely or deeply at a painting flattened like this. And there’s a certain awkwardness in clicking through uploaded images on the walls of a gallery, or trying to imagine a photographed object into three dimensions.

So I’ve been turning to net art. I’ve hopped around some of the new exhibitions that have cropped up during lockdown, including “Well Now WTF?, featuring more than 100 artists’ digital-born works that make artsy, funny and sometimes dark use of GIFs. I’ve also spent hours scrolling and clicking through the Net Art Anthology, a collection of net art curated by Rhizome, featuring 100 pieces made between the 1980s and the 2010s.

One of my favorite works is called “Life Sharing.” “Now you’re in my computer,” a pop-up windows tell you when you open the piece. The artists Eva and Franco Mattes live-shared the contents of their home computer on the internet from 2000to 2003. Bank accounts, email, trash and projects in progress were all made public in what was at once a banal act of sharing and surveillance.

It isn’t just that digital-born art is proximate to our online experience, but that it’s part of it. What’s most moving and refreshing about net art is that we have direct access to it. Right now, much of living is simulated: Work is remote, of course, but we also drink beers with our friends on Zoom to mimic going to a bar; we watch plays on YouTube and make believe we’re in a theater; we go to church via livestream instead of sitting in pews.

This virtualized mode of living has led to some serendipity. But I am tired of simulation and approximation. The beauty of net art is that we can see it the way it was meant to be seen. And it’s composed of the digital matter that has become primary material of our lives.

Sophie Haigney writes about visual art, books and technology.

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