Although operating entirely online has been novel for some during the COVID-19 pandemic, for others it has long been the preferred way of being. This is the case for Silicon Valet, a virtual gallery that has fostered a space for digital art and expanded practices since 2018. The gallery’s latest online exhibition, Well Now WTF? (WNWTF) opened in April to an art world keen to experience the possibilities of online platforms. Curated by Faith Holland (New York), Lorna Mills (Toronto), and Wade Wallerstein (San Francisco), the exhibition features GIFs and video art by over a hundred contributors—an eclectic roster composed of established and emerging artists including net art pioneers and students. Loosely organized into twelve “rooms” with juvenile but timely names such as “Stay Home and Masturbate,” “Wash Your Fucking Hands,” and “Zoom Link Plz,” the project is a response to the circumstances imposed by the pandemic. Wallerstein makes explicit in his exhibition essay, however, that neither the show nor the majority of the work on display offers solutions to what is happening outside of the screen. Rather than jump on the “net art revival bandwagon,” he proposes that the show is a “net art reclamation.” He sees WNWTF as an online gathering space to reconnect “the communities that got separated by time, distance, and filter bubbles.”1
WNWTF celebrates net art by showcasing one of its earliest forms, the looping GIF. A return to Internet basics, GIFs were the first colour images to be put online.2 What made the format revolutionary was an algorithm that identified and simplified repeating patterns, allowing for file compression without any data loss. This was seminal for the web because it allowed webmasters to host images on their own servers, avoiding slow-loading browsers. Much like the infrastructure of the Internet, the GIF lends itself to sharing and contributes to a larger cultural conversation. In “A Brief History of the GIF (so far)” (2014), digital media curator Jason Eppink explains “even though individuals process the pixels, communities make the GIFs.”3 Characterized by its accessibility and visual communication power, the GIF is a means of online community-building.
Although GIFs have been ubiquitous in Internet conversations and media, the way we consume them has changed significantly since the Internet’s inception thirty years ago. They are floating signifiers that absorb purpose. Like most Internet content, they are now subjected to information gatekeeping algorithms developed by dominant tech companies. These algorithms have cultivated what Internet activist Eli Pariser calls “the filter bubble,” a condition in which people encounter only information that conforms to their search history, reinforcing their own beliefs and opinions. As a result, people become effectively isolated in their own cultural and ideological bubbles.
In the WNWTF room “Deep Dark Germ Corner,” New York artist Ziyang Wu’s excerpt of A Woman with the Technology Part 4 (2019) offers a glimpse into the inner workings of the filter bubble. The video work is a two-minute animated montage that depicts a future dystopia. It opens to a scene with chrome android-like figures wearing virtual reality headsets branded with “Huawi” logos, swiping through news content on hovering screens. Another scene depicts a room occupied by a corridor, edged by shiny red transport trucks, that leads to a picture of Vladimir Putin donning Kim Jong-un’s hair. The imagery is accompanied by incoherent English and Chinese subtitles that read, for instance, “Huawei saw truck drivers create a humorous image as a communist prince here.” Wu explains in his description of the video that the work was developed based on an artificial intelligence–generated script produced by an AI chatbot trained on an archive of keywords drawn from his daily social media activity. Wu’s work reveals how distorted reality can become when it’s being regulated by algorithms.
WNWTF persists as an homage to net art, showcasing the breadth of current digital art practices, and highlights the overlooked potential of online platforms to serve contemporary art.
In the room “Kiss Me I’m Asymptomatic” is the work of artist Maya Ben David (Toronto), who is interested in the anthropomorphization of inanimate objects, materials, and ideas. Although her practice is not about filter bubbles, she often shares artwork on social media platforms. In her video The Air Conditioner Monologues (2016), Ben David cosplays the Air Conditioner character from the animated movie The Brave Little Toaster (1987). Her Air Conditioner is simultaneously sexualized, grotesque, and campy. Because of its explicit popular cultural references, Ben David’s work tends to be included in a multitude of disparate search results. In the comments section are confused posts such as “I found this by typing in planes” and “this channel makes me worry,” suggesting that users have been led to Ben David’s work by YouTube’s algorithms. Although Ben David has publicly expressed her frustration with having to explain her practice to people who have landed on her videos by accident, we can also observe productive dialogue between artist and viewer.
Jeremy Bailey (Toronto) is another artist featured in the “Deep Dark Germ Corner” room whose work is often encountered on social media. DeepBeing.zip (2018) is a video performance in which Bailey demonstrates his newly written software that can turn any selfie into an augmented reality landscape. Having produced a private island with his likeness, Bailey brags that the software allows him to meditate and spend more time with himself. His tongue-in-cheek performance is reminiscent of social media influencers disguising the promotion of products as lifestyle tips. The DeepBeing experience includes cliché mantras from the wellness industry, such as “just believe” and “breathe.” In his work, Bailey is critical of contemporary technology, which often makes meaning from trivial experiences. He also highlights how social media influencers create a false sense of community that cultivates a culture of toxic superficiality.
The Internet was founded on principles of resource sharing, collaboration, networking, and communication.4 Wallerstein talks about re-creating a space for communities to gather, one that resists filter bubbles. While this is a valiant and worthy effort, WNWTF does not exist in a vacuum. The project is maintained and supported through a myriad of third parties, including Twitch, which is owned by Amazon; YouTube, which is a Google subsidiary; and Giphy, which was acquired by Facebook in May 2020. These companies manufacture the lens through which we engage with content online, consequently distorting our reality. Nevertheless, WNWTF persists as an homage to net art, showcasing the breadth of current digital art practices, and highlights the overlooked potential of online platforms to serve contemporary art.
(1) Wade Wallerstein, “WELL NOW WTF?,” exhibition essay, Silicon Valet, April 4, 2020
(2) Lorraine Boissoneault, “A Brief History of the GIF: From Early Internet Innovation to Ubiquitous Relic,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 2, 2017
(3) Jason Eppink, “A Brief History of the GIF (so Far),” Journal of Visual Culture 13, no. 3 (2014): 298–306.
(4) John Naughton, “The Evolution of the Internet: From Military Experiment to General Purpose Technology,” Journal of Cyber Policy 1, no. 1 (February 2016): 5–28.