Before the internet. Believe it or not, there are married people carting around children in minivans that never experienced a time without it. They wouldn’t, in fact, even know what it was like to be able to go to the kitchen and make yourself a sandwich before one image loaded on a website, or to get in arguments about getting off the phone so you could dial in. It’s unimaginable, and the internet has changed the way everyone lives, no matter how much they insist on staying off it, using “dumb” phones or swear they don’t understand it. The internet has introduced us to the world in a new way, no holds barred—from the joy of communicating instantly with people all the way across it to the horrors of its grotesque and dark sides. I Was Raised on the Internet at the Museum of Contemporary Art is an exhibit that aims to examine the internet and its place in our lives via art—some traditional, some extreme, some grotesque—and it’s an immensely interesting trip.
I Was Raised on the Internet is challenging—it’s full of oddities, it gets weird and personal, and it defies logic. In this way, it perfectly reflects the thing on which it is reflecting. Oil and acrylic portraits now have toolbars and ads. Physical sculptures suspended from the ceiling are the literal pieces of the artist’s website flowing in and out of each other, including commentaries, both negative and positive, on his work.
Rather than a literal nude, at the outset of the exhibition you’ll find a piece by artist Evan Roth entitled Self Portrait: November 1, 2017, which is a printout of everything that one anonymous user saw on the internet that day. It’s a successful commentary on the nature of intimacy. Just as you are exposed and vulnerable when nude, so you are when everything you consume in the relative privacy of your personal internet time is suddenly laid bare on display. Even a story told only in images lays this person pretty bare before their viewers.
I Was Raised On The Internet touches on so many topics—the nature of identity, the social aspect of the internet and the harm it does to constantly try to achieve that Instagram-worthy moment or perfect life on Facebook, the alternate realities that can provide escape and allow you to express yourself where you otherwise don’t feel you can.
One particularly interesting piece is by Bogosi Sekhukhuni, a South African artist who did not know his biological father until he was 18. Bogosi finds him through Facebook, and has a few conversations that feature in the piece. Unfortunately, the reunion doesn’t stick, and after he loses all contact with him again six years later when his father blocks him on Facebook, the artist creates Consciousness Engine 2: absentblackfatherbot—a heartbreaking piece featuring computer-generated faces and robotic voices that converse with each other awkwardly forever, recalling the encounters he had in real life.
A 30-some-minute video called It’s What’s Inside That Counts by artist Rachel Maclean begins with an almost kids show aesthetic that takes truly ghastly turns in translating the mental toll of the pursuit of a personal brand or image, and trying to achieve picture-perfect beauty and happiness and convey it to your followers, in this case grotesque little rat-people literally suckling away your life force, as well as a few other violent and disturbing analogies for the toll social media and expectations can have on you.
Transdimensional Serpent by Jon Rafman seats you on a great white orobourus while you take a very strange, sometimes scary, journey via Oculus Rift VR technology, in which you’ll soar above forests, be confronted in dark alleys, and perhaps be freaked out by the people on the journey with you, one constantly bouncing, mouth agape mid-scream and another, more childlike apparition who simply makes unblinking eye contact with you whenever you look over.
In case you wondered if it was truly representing the internet, yes, there are cats. Drei Klavierstucke op. 11 is composed of nothing but cat videos from the internet, in which artist Cory Arcangel has stitched hundreds of YouTube videos of cats walking on pianos to have them perform an early 20th century piece of music by Arnold Schoenberg. There’s also a literal interpretation of the classic Epic Fail meme with a taxidermied cat trapped inside a bird cage and the bird happily uneaten on the outside, simply titled Catt, by Eva and Franco Mattes.
There are pieces that comment on race and politics, sometimes both. When you first arrive at I Was Raised on the Internet you’ll find Blackness for Sale, a sort of online performance piece by Mendi and Keith Obadike that featured a real Ebay listing (later removed) detailing where the artist’s blackness is “good to use,” what benefits and what disadvantages/warnings for use come with it.
If you peruse the online portion of the exhibit, you’ll find pieces both local and far-flung that touch on these issues too, including Brandon by Shu Lea Cheang, an interactive look at the life and tragic death of transgender youth Brandon (Teena Rae Brandon) through an archaic form of point-and-click adventure riddle that tells the story of their trials and eventual tragic death.
If this all sounds odd and perhaps not cohesive, it’s not, but in this case, that’s fitting. The internet is a big, undefinable place and it seems this most accurately represents it. The internet has no limits. It’s a place where odd is normal, and where we’re changeable and anonymous and sometimes freer, for better or worse. But it’s also scary and unknowable, invasive, depraved. I Was Raised on the Internet examines all of it, how it impacts our life and how it translates in various media, and is definitely worth a walk or two through.
I Was Raised on the Internet will run through October 14 at MCA Chicago, 220 E. Chicago Ave. Hours are 10am-5pm Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday and until 9pm on Tuesday and Friday. The museum is closed on Mondays. Admission is free for members and those under 18; and $15 for adults, $8 for students, teachers and seniors. You can find out more about the exhibition and view its online portion here.
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