“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.
While the subcultures represented may have seemed obscure in the early 2010s, digital collagists have had a good nose for pointing to those that would later enter the broader consciousness. The videos co-authored by Ryan Trecartin and Lizzie Fitch were among the first artworks to showcase the cultural expressions of non-binary individuals, which first flourished online, but now form a recognizable part of mainstream youth culture. On a darker note, the new masculinities portrayed by Chan and Rafman when they were still mostly unknown, are today at the foreground of discussing the phenomena of the American campus shootings, several of which have been explicitly claimed as part of the “beta male uprising” (or the “incel uprising”). Elliot Rodger, in 2014, was the first campus shooter to openly identify with this ideology; several copycat killers followed.
Today’s digital collagists are therefore engaged in a project similar to that of earlier avant-garde movements, capturing the unspoken parts of life in the artistic medium. In the 1860s, Édouard Manet did so by painting a courtesan in Olympia (1863) or a naked picnic in Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (1863); each of these caused a scandal and the latter provided Zola with a basis for the fictional Claude Lantier’s first controversial painting in The Masterpiece.
The participants in the online subcultures the collagists portray are analogous to the bohemians and absinthe drinkers of the 1860s—they are our own unacknowledged everyday.
And like previous avant-garde movements, the digital collage has also tried to unravel the aesthetic fabric of its time. Édouard Manet’s “unfinished,” rough brushstroke of the 1860s dismantled saccharine academic painting of the Second Empire, which presented everything from vegetables to female bodies as delectable consumables. Berlin Dadaists of the interwar years, like Hannah Höch and John Heartfield, copied the style of Weimar Republic newspapers, unmasking their jingoism in their collages. Andy Warhol’s Pop Art of the Sixties—his colorized pictures of Marilyn, Jackie, Mao, Campbell’s Soup cans, car crashes—colluded with the visual language of mass media. In like fashion, the style of digital collagists attempts to mirror contemporary visual phenomena. Their simple special effects and garish color filters are reminiscent of amateur YouTube videos. The text overlay, overuse of logos, and pixelization are redolent of slow loading times and websites overpopulated with content. Especially popular is the picture-in-picture (PiP) video overlay—consistently used by Rafman, Chan, and Trecartin—whereby a smaller screen appears within a bigger one. PiP again recalls the amateur YouTuber aesthetic, but also suggests the possibility of cramming various kinds of information into a single frame. This is the discombobulated informational overload of scrolling through Facebook, swiping on Tinder, or rapidly clicking through the twenty tabs on your browser, simultaneously feeding you news, emails and pornography.
Digital collage reflects the broader digital culture and stands at some distance from it. But how “critical” is this act of willful mirroring intended to be, and how critical is it in fact? We can detect a few different positions among the digital collagists. Some, like Jennifer Chan or Hito Steyerl have explicitly positioned themselves as critics of digital cultures, be it on feminist (Chan) or anti-capitalist (Steyerl) lines. But others refused the label of “a critic.” Jon Rafman’s public stance is that of a bemused chronicler of both fabulous and unbearable aspects of online lives: he is, as he once said, but a “very amateur anthropologist.” Cutting an even more ambiguous line, Ryan Trecartin and the DIS collective specialize in enacting the vapid and consumerist attitudes of the internet, in a gesture of mock-complicity pioneered by Andy Warhol.
In her essay “Digital Debris: Spam and Scam,” the artist Hito Steyerl wrote: “To become spam—that is, to fully identify with its unrealized promise—means to spark an improbable element of commonality between different forms of existence, to become a public thing, a cheerful incarnation of databased wreckage.” A digital avant-garde, she suggests, aims to both identify with spam and destroy or overcome it; it must, in other words, embrace destruction as a creative principle. Expanding on Steyerl’s point, I suggest that we should attend to the parallel between contemporary digital collage and earlier historical uses of collage and photomontage, especially the pioneering use of these techniques by the Berlin Dadaists. In her famous collage Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, Hannah Höch was likewise cutting-and-pasting, even if her tools were glue and scissors rather than Photoshop and Final Cut Pro. Höch mocked the decaying Weimar Republic by literally cutting up its imagery. The same cruel treatment, we might say, is unleashed onto our online culture by the style of the digital collagists—new “Data Dadaists” of sorts, as my colleagues Sarah Hegenbart and Mara-Johanna Kölmel put it at a recent conference on the topic.
This, I think, is what explains the excitement I felt during my first encounter with digital collage. Here was an art form that reflected the experience specific to my time. In its exuberant, specifically destructive mode, this art displayed the new forms of life, embraced them, exploded them and therefore suggested the possibility of their overcoming. And that—an avant-garde in the making—is an exciting proposition for any initiate.
Eight years on, however, the critical potential of digital collaging seems less certain. The challenges facing the would-be Data Dadaists, it turns out, may be rather different from those that faced the historical avant-gardes. In the 1910s and 1920s, when the Dada avant-gardists created acerbic nonsense, a nationalistic Europe flattered itself with delusions of coherence and grand narratives of imperialist expansion. By contrast, the political forces that seem most threatening today operate precisely within the incoherence of our online lives. Our online lives are already, if not quite Dada, then certainly gaga.
Artists are not the only content producers to harness the mind-scrambling power of digital collage. In 2015, a video called “With Open Gates: The forced collective suicide of European nations” appeared on YouTube. It was quickly removed for copyright infringement (it used an unlicensed soundtrack), but not before receiving half a million views and the endorsement of Breitbart. Reposted on other platforms, and spurred by the panic following the November 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, “With Open Gates” went viral.
The harrowing video is a collage of public unrest with a racist voiceover describing an “invasion” of Europe by non-Europeans. Relying heavily on irrelevant footage and false data, it concludes by suggesting that the refugee crisis was a Jewish conspiracy. Indeed, writers at Vice and on Reddit forums have traced each clip to debunk the video. The video shows, for instance, footage of Islamists chanting on a train in Paris in 2010, and an altercation between ISIS supporters and Kurds in Hamburg in 2014. It then misleadingly associates such clips with the 2015 migrant crisis. As important as such efforts are, however, attempts to disprove racist propaganda also show that truth in such neo-fascist digital collages ultimately does not matter. The video is a rallying cry, not a documentary.
The unimportance of facticity is even more evident in another genre of neo-fascist digital collage, the alt-right meme. Pepe the Frog is a typical example. This cartoon character initially appeared in a comic created by Matt Furie, before it was appropriated by various meme users. By 2014, it was perhaps the best-known online meme, almost akin to an emoji that could express that jokey randomness, so typical of online communication. However, it soon became increasingly used to assert political allegiance, ranging from support of American President Donald Trump to brutal endorsements of KKK and the Holocaust. The cornerstone of this rhetoric was ironic ambiguity. Is the anonymous maker who decorates Pepe with a swastika really supporting murderous racism, or are they joking, playing it for lulz? One cannot argue with a joke on the toilet wall. As Angela Nagle contends in her survey of online culture wars, Kill All Normies, the alt-right have learned to use subversive humor, previously the prerogative of the art on the left.
Aesthetically, too, there is much that the anonymous author of a video like “With Open Gates,” or the makers of Pepe memes, share with digital artists like Trecartin, Chan or Rafman. These anonymous makers likewise exult in the profusion of obscure images, gathered from around the web. They also set up emotional rollercoasters of glee, derision and indignation. They, too, play fast and loose with truthfulness of what is shown. They, just as the artists, exult in the “mindfuck” of an informational overload. To use that quotation from Hito Steyerl again, it is not just artists, but also the neo-fascist trolls who become the “cheerful incarnation of databased wreckage.” While I might have felt digital collagists summed up my online experience in 2010, half-ironic fascist memes were probably doing the same for somebody else when they began to proliferate only a few years later. While the art world dreamed its avant-garde dreams, another, evil twin to Data Dada formed in the internet’s underbelly. Using strangely similar tools, this other avant-garde has been working on a different kind of revolution.
The alt right is a fast-changing beast. On the one hand, it continues to use the trolling tactics to secure inclusion in mainstream media space; on the other, it seems to be pulling its activity away from mainstream sites and supplementing the nonsense aesthetic with more hard-hitting propaganda. Digital collage, in the meantime, has been mostly producing more of the same. Ryan Trecartin’s recent videos seem to be mere variations on a theme, even if he has graduated from using invented characters to doing photoshoots for Gigi Hadid. Jon Rafman’s recent work seems mostly bent on keeping up with technological developments, and has recently included immersive installations on Oculus Rift, Google’s virtual reality headset. Others, like Camille Henrot, Helen Marten and the DIS collective make videos and installations that are as glitzy as they are nonsensical. If this kind of digital collage today appears sterile, it is not simply because it has been overdone. It is also because it now fails to capture what the so-called post-internet experience is actually like. Our online lives are no longer just polygons of superficiality and stupidity, but, above all, battlegrounds for political control.
Where does this leave new digital art? Some digital collagists have tried to incorporate political developments into their work and speak directly to the question of what role art, if any, could have in our attempt to resist them. For example, Hito Steyerl’s much-lauded Factory of the Sun (2015) imagines a totalitarian future, which includes references to everything from MMORPGs to drones to statues of Stalin, and in which the only way to resist is through dance. Andrew Norman Wilson’s video Ode to Seekers 2012 (2016) shows a corporate dystopia through the unstable vision of a drug addict: images of syringes turned into cyborg-mosquitos that drill for oil in the desert; in the accompanying installation Mosquito Computer (2015-17), the artist created a computer powered by mosquitos feeding on Wilson’s own blood. Such new works are imaginative and clever, but the very form of collaging together diverse references means they often function only on the level of science fiction and metaphor. The worry is that even politically committed digital collage can only ever stage fantasies of oppression and resistance, rather than show, let alone be, the real thing.
Since I began with a moment of enthusiasm at a biennial, let me also conclude with one. This one had less to do with hopes for an aesthetic revolution (perhaps one has to be under 25 to think that a digitally rendered carrot will change the world). It happened at documenta 14 (2017). The collective Forensic Architecture showed a video, which investigated the racist murder of the 21-year-old Halit Yozgat, committed by neo-Nazis in Kassel in 2006. Forensic Architecture is a collective of researchers who painstakingly reconstruct war crimes, human rights abuses or racially motivated murders to achieve a more factual picture. Their videos are arresting but visually sparse. They contain no references to the broader digital culture. They present digitally reconstructed scenes of violence and, in doing so, find new evidence that often reveals broader social or state complicity. When I left the exhibition hall, I realized that Forensic Architecture held my attention through 45 minutes of patiently ruminating on facts.
It’s hard to say that Forensic Architecture make “art” rather than conducting research, but their inclusion in art biennials suggests a different approach for a would-be digital avant-garde. While originally digital collagists co-opted the destructive, spam-like quality of online experience, we are here presented with unspectacular, dry, truth-directed skepticism. This might just be the most countercultural position that one can occupy in the digital world today.
Art credits: 1) Ryan Trecartin, P.opular s.ky (section ish), 2) Jon Rafman, Still life (betamale), 3) Hannah Höch, Cut with the Dada Kitchen Knife through the Last Weimar Beer-Belly Cultural Epoch in Germany, 4) Pepe / Dat boi / Kermit sipping tea meme, 5) Hito Steyerl, Liquidity, Inc.