If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that life actually is hell online

My proposal for this project was originally for paste ups or stickers with QR codes that would lead to a post on this blog, going in depth into an issue of online life. The posts were meant to be a kind of soft academic essay helping people understand the pros and cons of interacting and existing in digital spaces. This would of been super positive and helpful for people I think.

So of course I decided instead to make a site full of faux intellectual sarcastic shitposts designed to confuse and frustrate people.

These two images are what started the website off, both based on some recent tweets of mine. Twitter is a lot of things, but the side I like is full of writers and comedians all trying to make the most acerbic, witty, and compact piece of wordplay they can. It lends itself to making extreme claims with little to back it up, see “Being Cringe is a Revolutionary Action,” I could write a whole essay on the way cringe operates online and in our culture, but the internet isn’t built for nuance.

It was an understanding that the internet doesn’t respond to nuance well that pushed my work into it’s eventual form. In the preceding project I created an image with a QR code leading to the short story “Stop, Thief!”, though this originally was not meant to be a short story. I intended to convey an idea I had been researching, comparing the internets infrastructure to Foucault’s writings on the panopticon in relation to social control. This seemed all good and well in the academic surroundings of RMIT, in my studio listening to other artists talk like artists do, but once I was at home, in front of my computer, facing the incomprehensible mass of the internet, a well worded argument just didn’t feel appropriate. Instead what came out was a story.

With this story I wanted to evoke the feelings of existing under a watchful eye, how we tread the line between the real world and online. This work can also be found on the website.

More than that though, I felt an emotion driven story was actually a better vehicle for conveying meaning. It’s one thing to tell people they’re being watched, and another to empathize with the feeling of being watched.

Um actually Frankenstein was the web master!

So the website!

www.lifeshell.online

Before I got into the setup of the website and that whole process, I guess there is the question of why not use this site? Mostly a desire to recreate a certain aesthetic, that late nineties web 1.0 feel of a janky site covered in ancient gifs and artifact laden jpegs. I wanted the site to feel like a precursor to Myspace, the kind of site you would never open in the modern day for fear of viruses (do viruses still get people? I hear a lot less about them?). Anyway.

Firstly I had to find a name that wasn’t taken, I would love to trot out a huge list of potential names, but they’re all lost to my internet history. It pays not to get too attached to a URL before you know it’s available, as getting exactly what you want can be expensive. Though one of the first names I remember wanting was PFDhell.com, with an idea that I would host PDF articles online as a sort of open press online art journal. I felt this would narrow the scope of what I could do with the site though, so eventually I found http://www.lifeshell.online was available and bought it! Moments after though, having looked at it for a moment more, I realized it could be read as “life’s hell online” but also “life shell online.” While this did spin me out for a moment, I began to understand this as a perfect metaphor for the duality of the internet. Equal parts tool for communication and community, and hate and bigotry, at times a shell to protect, and other times absolute hell.

After securing the URL I started playing around with the included website builder, I personally feel like this was a bit of a misstep and will be something I rectify after this project is assessed. Ideally I would be a building the website on Dreamweaver to allow more flexibility. You could argue though that this tool helps bring that janky quality I’ve been looking for? Regardless, it had the ability to place images, text and video, and with built in responsive design, I was all set.

I decided the layout would be a central hub with images that could be clicked on, bringing the user to a new page which held a discrete artwork.

To meme is human

Memes and meme culture are a huge part of the internet, and so a big part of this project. But saying you’re talking about memes is like saying you’re talking about sport, almost too vague and large a subject for anything you say to have substance.

This project isn’t ‘about’ memes, but they’re part of the DNA of internet culture, so inevitably the work will be compared to them. The memes above are some examples of the specific style of meme I’m interested in right now, a combination of the absurd, cursed, vintage look popularized by gen z, and a joy of words more common on millennial twitter. These memes remix digital imagery, creating a sense of internet lineage which dates back to pre internet objects and characters that translated well into online culture. (I made one of the memes above, can you tell which one?)

While I wanted to use this meme aesthetic, I wanted the words to take center stage, with the imagery playing a supporting role. Originally I was building all the assets for the site myself, only deviating when using stock images, or iconic images in digital history, such as the windows rolling hills desktop background.

A meme refers to an image that is spread culturally and grows along the way, while a shitpost is a low effort but unique post designed to upset or enrage. By these definitions my images are not memes, they are definitely more akin to shitposts, but with the level of effort put in you can’t really even call them that. They’re also not really meant to enrage in a deliberate sense, I think it’s just that if I’m emulating the internet, there is an inherent sarcasm and annoyance.

This is not my beautiful wifi?

So this was the first iteration of the website, the one that I showed at my first peer review. The work was accessed through QR codes on stickers placed around a gallery space. Behind the QR image on these are faces generated from the site www.thispersondoesnotexist.com which generates human faces using AI. None of these people exist, they are all an AIs understanding on what a human looks like, sometimes they get it wrong, but most f the time the image are hauntingly real.

I used as many free online resources as I could to create this website, I saw it as an extension of a collage practice. Below I have a list of some of the resources used, though not all the assets used from these sites made it through to the final work. They are:

Reactions to the work ranged from interest to feeling attacked. People took issue with the use of clickbait titles and felt personally like i was making fun of them. I was very confused in the moment, a jarring collision of my terminally online life, and real world peoples opinions. Eventually realizing the obvious fact that people actually do click on these clickbait headings, something I had become immune to long ago. After talking to the offended people I explained my intent wasn’t to insult the people who click on them, but rather to critique manipulative language on the internet. At least I hope that’s what I said, it was all a bit of a blur.

Another critique was that people were unfamiliar with the language, especially when it came to cringe. While most are familiar with The Office and cringe humor, I think the word has taken on new life in recent years online. Cringe is for some a status to avoid like the plague, and for others a badge of honor marking them as someone who refuses to bend to the status quo. The statement I make that it is revolutionary is a nod to the later, though upon further thinking I do have some caveats, but I’m worried letting nuance into the work might undermine it?

I also found that the younger students (and a few clued in ones) could figure out very quickly what I was doing. Obviously there is a generational gap that I’m straddling here, between the terminally online youth of today, and people who had dial up internet.

After all this feedback I decided a few things, mainly that I was right and everything I was doing was perfect. Honestly though I’ve never had a work be this divisive, and so I really feel that I should just see it through, trying to make it more of what it already is. Aesthetically I did make a change toward a more gif based layout, taking old archived gifs from gifcities.org and layering them in the page. This came from a thought I had about this piece being made from the internet, not just in terms of unique language and discourse, but it’s visual legacy too.

Finished work *SPOILERS*

Below are some images from the finished website, though I would highly recommend you visit the site as there are several animated components. The four images here are fairly self explanatory, and speak to the idea of deluxe tweets, in taking an idea and expanding it out into an aesthetic display.

The pages below are a little more involved. Some speak to AI on the internet, and how It will potentially impact our lives. While another talks about online surveillance, and the panopticon, one of the last links to my initial proposal.

This was an expansion of the previous project, taking what I had wrote and translating it into a video. I took the words and passed them through Anchor.FM giving me a spoken version, I added this with a filter and some stock footage to try and create an ominous feeling for the story. Looking back on this, It feels almost like I was the AI, taking a source concept and cobbling together imagery freely available online.

Using the Inferkit Demo and Emojify.net I was able to create this monstrosity of a page. I began by feeding the AI a few lines about how I felt AI driven articles would affect the online landscape, eventually letting the AI take over. I removed a lot of what I wrote, leaving mostly words from the AI themself, I then ran this through Emojify.net to create a contrast of dire messaging and comical overuse of emojis.

The latest piece added to the site and maybe my favorite, I again used Inferkit, giving it the first two lines. The AI then went on to write about it’s reality, this is not me pointing to AI becoming sentient, I think this is not really a problem. The real problem, is in its open use and distribution, the mass amplification of hateful speech, unchecked and indistinguishable from real humans. This drains most hope out of me for a future where the internet is anything but a desolate wasteland of AI generated content.

I also updated the stickers, while I did really think the aesthetic of the QR code covering the whole face looked very nice and was interesting visually. It did not do a great job of pulling the viewer through into the digital world, that is it wasn’t enticing enough. So with my final stickers, I placed the QR code over the mouth, and placed auto generated clickbait headlines suing the keyword “internet” above the eyes. This was an attempt to draw a viewer in and entice them to view the website (shameless).

Installation (funny must watch lol lmao final part 1)

The work is done and set up for assessment!

I really feel like I’m toeing a line with this one. I think it’s so funny to install a tiny sticker, on a dirty wall, crammed behind a door. Obviously I want my work to shine, but the work is meant to be humorous, so having a humorous installation makes sense? Though I worry that my classmates will think I’m taking the piss, or not being respectful to the year. But I’m always worrying, and no one has said anything to me yet, so I’m just gonna let that one simmer for a bit.

I’m really happy with how this project turned out. What has really stood out to me is the ease with which I can create and set something permanent up online. I feel like the next step for me is to create a collaborative online journal for artists who consider themselves online artists, and those who operate in the digital space.

Beyond

The day before the installation was due, a video was released call Bored Ape Nazi Club. This video isn’t super accessible to none online people, and even then has a lot of super specific references in it. But the gist of it is that the Bored Ape Yacht Club is run by a group of crypto-fascist who use nazi dog whistles to troll people on a global scale. You can find a more digestible version of this information on this site www.gordongoner.com.

I bring this up because it introduced me to an artist Ryder Ripps, he is the one who compiled most of this information. He is probably the most terminally online artist I have ever seen, and while I’m still looking into him, the way he operates as an artist is insane. His work spans several sites and platforms, styles and formats, everything mixing and merging into a chaotic online presence. His ability to identify hateful content, dissect it, and leverage his popularity into coverage is arguably the prototype for the modern internet activist artist.

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