And the images circulate endlessly: The New Museum Triennial explores contemporary digital life

Young, radical, and open to new media and strategies—this is the way the New Museum Triennial presents itself. This year's edition is all about the "Internet Generation." But are trend agencies and avant-garde DJs really art's future? Jessica Loudis investigates.
If the medium is the message, then what to make of things in 2015, when technology, so enmeshed in daily life, has in many ways exceeded our capacity to control or gain distance from it? Versions of this question have been around for decades, but in the age of Snowden and Instagram, of Speculative Realism and Post-Internet art, when targeted online advertising and mass surveillance are met less with shock than gentle resignation (at least in the US), it’s safe to say that we’ve passed the point of resistance. Despite what Silicon Valley techno-utopians claim, crowdfunding and social media won’t solve the world’s problems, but neither will the Internet forever condemn its natives to unpaid work or render them incapable of communicating IRL. Things are more complicated than that. We live in public, and our visual vocabularies, private routines, and social codes are adapting in turn. This is not news to millennials, nor to the fifty-one artists participating in Surround Audience, the third iteration of the New Museum triennial. The challenge, rather, is in deciphering new answers to old questions.

Curated by artist Ryan Trecartin and the New Museum’s Lauren Cornell, Curator 2015 Triennial, Digital Projects, and Museum as Hub, the show advances its inquiry into our digital contemporary and positions itself as a barometer of the cultural zeitgeist. (Per the press release, “the Triennial’s predictive, rather than retrospective, model… explor[es] the future of culture through the art of today.”) The show focuses exclusively on international early-career artists—previous triennials were provocatively titled Younger than Jesus and The Ungovernables—which is perhaps why it has always felt more radical, more receptive to new forms and contexts than group shows at other major museums. This year’s line-up, in addition to featuring artists whose work might ostensibly hang on a wall, includes an avant-garde DJ, a “trend forecasting” collective, a number of artists who work with installation and performance, the creator of a web series, and a “digital media platform” that moonlights as a magazine.

While modes and materials vary, the cluster of questions that triennial artists zero in on is fairly concentrated, focusing in part on issues of representation and agency. How, the curators wonder, is it possible to convey and process meaning when we’re all drifting in a sea of open content and endless circulation? One response to the curatorial concern of the ways in which “representations of the body and persona have evolved in an image-laden culture” comes with the inclusion of Ed Atkins, whose discomfiting high-definition human avatars and grotesque dialogues were featured last year in a group show at the Fridericianum in Kassel. That show, Speculations on Anonymous Materials, sought to locate the individual in the economy of digital imagery and included a number of other artists also participating in the triennial, such as Oliver Laric, an Austrian artist whose work challenges “image hierarchies” by playing with notions of originality and reception, and Ryan Trecartin, whose cheerfully dystopian YouTube-ready videos helped set the tone over the last decade for what’s broadly called Post-Internet art. (And, in turn, set the tone for this show—Cornell cited Trecartin’s work as one of the main inspirations for the triennial.) Another shared artist, Josh Kline, deftly addressed some of these issues last summer with Skittles, a sculpture that satirized the conflation of wellness culture and lifestyle marketing by presenting a deli-style refrigerator full of smoothies whose ingredients (such as “designer,” made with toothpaste, vitamin water, toner, Listerine, magazine, and sneaker) each reflected a different New York archetype.  Perhaps to counteract the disembodied nature of individuality in contemporary culture, Cornell noted that many of the new commissions for the show involved concrete and “surprisingly similar materials: water and cement.” She chalked this up to a looming fear of environmental change and the fact that liquidity “also feels like a useful metaphor for a culture in which form—image, object, word—is so mutable.”

While the 2012 triennial came in the wake of Occupy Wall Street, in the ensuing years, the sense of the political seems to have dispersed. Questions about economic justice and redistribution have been supplanted by ones of privacy and identity. A famous New Yorker cartoon once joked, “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog,” but an update of that might be, “on the Internet, nobody can tell if it’s branded content.” And fewer and fewer people seem to care if it is. As marketing and personal identity are increasingly entwined, sixties-era debates about Pop and commercial assimilation are enjoying a resurgence around collectives like DIS and K-Hole, groups that ignore the opposition between artistic autonomy and selling out (a concept in any case unfamiliar to most millennials) and simply inhabit the space of capitalism with an unnerving jouissance. DIS is a fashion-magazine-cum-art-organization that collapses the distinctions between high fashion and low culture through various editorial and non-editorial endeavors—such as starting a stock photography agency and holding a Kim Kardashian lookalike contest at Miami Basel—and in 2016 the group will curate the ninth Berlin Biennial. On the same spectrum is K-Hole, the brand consulting agency responsible for coining the term “normcore.” Their triennial contribution, in conversation with the question of whether it’s possible to “opt out of or reframe the pressures of increasingly corporatized and invasive spaces,” takes the form of an ad campaign called Extended Release. Also borrowing from the vernacular of advertising is Antoine Catala’s Distant Feel, a GIF comprised of two inward-facing Es intended to serve as a universal sign for empathy.

Yet there are artists who still engage directly with political and historical legacies. A number work in more traditional formats—South Korean Onejoon Che spent his military service as the official photographer for the Seoul Police and Luanda-based Kiluanji Kia Henda documents traces of colonialism, mostly through images, in independent Angola. Basim Magdy's work encompasses drawing, painting, and slide projection. At the Triennial the Egyptian artist (who is one of the four artists who have been interviewed for the exhibition catalogue) is represented with The Dent. The film tells the story of a small anonymous city that dreams of hosting the Olympic Games—a tale of failure that is both funny and melancholic. For The Dent, the artist used a medium on the verge of extinction—16-mm film, whose grainy texture lends the images a unique aesthetic. Additionally he pickled rolls of film in vinegar to produce a different colour on screen. This gives The Dent an almost dream-like quality. Magdy shares his preference for the surreal with Eva Kotátková, who is represented in the Deutsche Bank Collection. Her installations and works on paper address mechanisms of social control.

On the other hand, the works of Exterritory Project are more academically oriented. The Israeli artists’ collective is dedicated to dealing with questions of extraterritoriality in the Middle East through events and symposia. Others address urgent social issues in more experimental modes. Martine Syms, a Los Angeles-based “conceptual entrepreneur,” explores the boundaries between identity (particularly black identity) and late capitalism through projects like Reading Trayvon Martin, an online bibliography tracking everything Syms read about race and justice after the fatal shooting of the teenager in 2012. Nadim Abbas, a Hong Hong-based installation artist, works at the intersection of social phenomena, image economies, and psychology—for his 2012 show I Would Prefer Not To, he framed images of action figures and Rorschach ink-blots in the context of Hong Kong’s claustrophobic architecture and Otaku culture of male withdrawal.   

As part of the build-up to the triennial, the curators hosted a series of residencies over the past two years for seven artists who work with research and performance. Among these are dancer and choreographer niv Acosta, whose most recent piece i shot denzel explored representations of black masculinity; and Juliana Huxtable, the DJ, party host, and performer who became the poster child for a new queer rap scene. At Frieze 2014, she worked on a project by Nick Mauss and the Sonic Youth singer Kim Gordon. In the self-portrait Huxable made during her time at the New Museum, the artist resembles a futurist Renaissance beauty with her body painted an Avatar-ish green and dreadlock braids dyed yellow. The motif provided the signature image for the Triennial’s press materials.

The Triennial opens to the public at the end of February, and will no doubt raise the questions that always crop up upon the launch of a major group show—whether it’s possible to make a coherent statement about art or contemporary culture in such a fragmented format, what the preponderance of certain genres (performance, digital works) say about the market today, and which of the artists will go on to have fruitful careers. These issues are both new and familiar. “Many of the works on view look at the lonelier or more disorienting effects of a digitally-influenced world,” Cornell noted. But then, “many also celebrate new possibilities for self-expression afforded to them.” It’s difficult if not impossible to glean answers at the time of the show—the paradox of biennials is that they make most sense once historicized—but at a moment when the materials of the contemporary are perhaps developing faster than they ever have, reflecting on them feels especially necessary.

2015 Triennial
Surround Audience

02.25.15 – 05.24.15
New Museum, New York