“A day will come when a single carrot, originally painted, will bring about a revolution!” So says the painter Claude Lantier in Émile Zola’s novel The Masterpiece (1885). Today, surely, such a carrot could no longer be painted. It would have to be digitally rendered and virally shared.
That’s what I remember thinking when I first came across “digital collage” in 2010. A graduate student in philosophy, I was just getting interested in contemporary visual art. It was an unlikely combination. Most of the philosophers around me were earnest hair-splitters, who enjoyed calling out vagueness and pretentiousness in the arguments of others. But in contemporary art, these same qualities seemed to be cardinal virtues. For my part, I enjoyed the odd foray into art exhibitions for the chance to socialize with glamorous people and the free canapés—both in scant supply in philosophy seminars—but did not expect to find much more than entertainment. I came to believe that serious art happens in literature, film and popular music, anywhere but the galleries.
Seeing Ryan Trecartin’s video art was among the experiences that made me reconsider. I was in Liverpool for a philosophy conference which happened to coincide with the Liverpool Biennial of Contemporary Art. During a break from the conference, I wandered around the exhibition space on Renshaw Street. Finding myself in a small dark room with videos, I did what I usually did in galleries: what I was supposed to. I sat on an angular red sofa, put on the headphones, looked at the screen and prepared to think about something else.
A pneumatic drill entered my head. It bored into some horrific part of my mind that I only then realised existed, but which—it began to seem clear—would soon be the only part that any of us had left. It hurt, but it hurt good.
The video was P.opular S.ky (section ish) (2009). At first glance, it looks like an excerpt from the YouTube diary of a gaggle of gender-ambiguous party kids. There is no plot, just scenes of these egregiously camp apparitions strutting around the mall, dry-humping each other, fighting, posing for selfies. They deliver their lines with the familiar emotional accents of reality television: catty put-downs, gushy jubilations, mock-confusion, mock-surprise. Their speech, however, is incomprehensible. The entire script is comprised of nonsensical catchphrases. “Go make some new people!” one kid exults. “Your company doesn’t exist anymore,” pouts another. It goes on like this for three quarters of an hour.
It is important to emphasize that the video had no narrative logic whatsoever. Its hypnotic effect on me was due entirely to Trecartin’s remarkable delivery. Scene cuts occur at a lightning speed. Logos, snippets of random text and, inexplicably, computer-generated furniture of the kind you see in the PC game The Sims appear throughout, all copy-pasted from their original contexts. Emotional responses are simple, contrasting, and follow each other in quick succession. The technical term for Trecartin’s aesthetic should probably be “mindfuck.”
When I left the room, dazed and mildly nauseous, I realized that Trecartin had held my attention through 45 minutes of complete nonsense. He had discovered, I felt, something important—the exact pace of perceptual and affective change that keeps contemporary online audience hooked. It was as if Trecartin had reached into me, gotten hold of my nascent digital addictions and narcissisms, and exploded them to monstrous dimensions.
Eight years on, art that splices together various bits of online experience like Trecartin’s has become extremely successful on the international art scene. It is sometimes labeled “post-internet art,” but the name seems inapt as the internet is hardly over. I prefer “digital collage,” a term descriptive of work by artists like Jennifer Chan, Jon Rafman, Hito Steyerl, Cory Arcangel, the DIS collective, Lizzie Fitch (Trecartin’s long-time collaborator), Amalia Ulman, Martine Syms, Andrew Norman Wilson, Helen Marten and others. This is the fêted digital avant-garde of today, producing work that is said to epitomize our new digital lives. But I am less enthusiastic about digital collage today than I was when I first came across it in 2010. It has ultimately failed to fulfill its high promise.
Let me first try to piece together that promise. Most obviously, digital collages offered to shed light on internet subcultures—ways of life that became pervasive, but remained hidden from the cultural mainstream. For example, in her video Boyfriend (2014), Jennifer Chan remixes clips of young, male, Asian American YouTube diarists. A sepia-tinted video of one young man shows him complaining that “some Asian girls with white guys seem whitewashed, they don’t really give Asian guys any time.” The confessional, YouTuber mode allows the listener to flip easily between empathy and derision; Chan revels in both. She makes the boy’s head, enclosed in his little YouTube frame, tumble across the screen. As in Trecartin’s work, the visual field is messy with references. Next to the boy, Chan conjures a blond manga schoolgirl, switching the music to maudlin medleys by K-pop boybands. The boy’s wounded pride explodes in a firework of cartoons, GIFs and pop songs.
Many video collagists, Chan included, harvest their content from no-holds-barred, anonymous forums like 4chan. Jon Rafman is especially uncompromising in the content he selects. His video Still Life (Betamale) (2013) explores the world of antisocial computer-game nerds, self-declared “betamales.” Grubby computer dens—PCs covered in cigarette butts and scraps of junk food—become backdrops for superimposed videos of pornographic fetishes and computer-game violence. A seductive female voiceover narrates this transformation, beginning with: “As you look at the screen, it is possible to believe you are gazing into eternity.” What the video relates is an ideology of timeless digital escapism: as the physical self deteriorates, the virtual one embarks on a journey of unbridled wish fulfillment.