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.

Some websites that I like

Cool 3D World

I’ve written about Cool 3D World before, but never specifically about their website. This site has to be one of the most annoying user experiences of all time, and honestly I applaud it for that. Every link that might be useful is constantly hurtling across the page, while a grotesque figure peers out at you from behind a moues responsive layer of viscous liquid.

The complete disdain this group has for people who enjoy what they make is a constant source of inspiration for me.

Wolfman Museum

Similarly I’ve talked about The Wolfman Museum before, and in that case specifically about their website. While for my project The Halls of Galleria the interest was in the the gallery’s structure, my interest in regards to www.lifeshell.online I’m more interested in the convoluted, secretive layout. I love that the site has hidden locations that are hard to reach unless you’re intimately familiar with the site.

Again in the modern world this rejection of usability might seem hostile, but in the early days of the internet were challenges that produced a sense of being in the know.

Xanthe Dobbie

Xanthe Dobbie is a Melbourne based artist whose GIF and video work revolves around the expression of queer culture. The site has a similar structure to mine, but functions more as a portfolio. Each link is accompanied by a GIF, some whose origin dates back to very early internet culture, such as the dancing baby. This method of using older files from the internet serves as both a form of archiving, but also a reclaiming of the materials as aesthetically and culturally important.

Texture Generator

A GitHub texture generation tool, this site uses #math to generate some pretty absurd looking textures. Through the combining of several preset equations and a tweaking of values, you can often direct the site to make some really beautiful tiling images.

GitHub has been my favorite source of strange tools to help build my websites because it’s full of nerds (compliment) just giving away gems for free!

DALL·E mini

Obviously AI has it’s limits, and this prompt was just too far beyond what is imaginable by AI at this point in time. Funnily enough, this project worked relatively well up until google released news of it’s own proprietary AI that generates images. Upon people realizing they weren’t on the list to try Imagen, they must have stumbled across the best free alternative which is the DALL-E mini, hammering it with requests for least favorite political candidates smooching each other.

Essay: Modern Tech, Fine Art and an Online Practice

Post pandemic the idea of maintaining an online feels like a third limb of my art practice, but one i’m becoming quite fond of!

This essay addresses how my practice has come to revolve around digital worlds and social media, both in aesthetic and methodology. Claiming Instagram posts and reddit threads as critical components of a practice seems mad, but as the lines between digital and real blur, determining the value in digital space is important.


How have modern technologies changed the way we create and experience art?

When I began studying fine art at RMIT 5 years ago, one of the rules that almost every teacher repeated when it came to referencing artists, is that it couldn’t be through Instagram. An artist needed to be talked about by a journal or a gallery, or at the very least have their own website, with several teachers saying “anyone can be an artist on Instagram”. This struck me as a strange contrast to the line of thought taught at art schools, that we are all artists by virtue of our practice, that somehow now that we had applied, paid and been approved by an institution, we are granted credibility. Since starting I have seen a softening of this opinion, with the pandemic pushing many to re-evaluate their stance on online forums, and newer artists ascend through art institutions into positions of power, bringing with them more modern ideas of what constitutes an artist and art practice. My goal with this essay isn’t praise instagram as an app or meta as a company, instead I want to look at the way that art’s value is transmuted through its transition into digital online space, how art displayed online interacts with the environment it is displayed in, and how digital work finds its value. Throughout this essay I will be talking about my physical artwork and my online presence as equal facets of my practice.

Where you encounter art has always had an impact on its value, monetarily, conceptually, and socially. Prior to the inception of the internet and social media, anyone interested in art would need to be informed about the art world. Knowing where the galleries are, who runs them, and being involved in networks and groups that discuss art. This dynamic meant the balance of power was in the hands of people who curated art spaces. With the introduction of social media sites like instagram, audiences began to gain more power, as they became the lens through which outside parties would experience these spaces (MacDowall et al. 2021). I felt my practice needed to reflect this shift in power, growing my own audience online as a form of presenting my work, and subverting the traditional gallery structure.

In 2021 I began using holographic paper, this paper refracts light and creates a rainbow effect across the surface. For my series Reflektor I would collect collage elements and scan them at high quality, then screen print them onto the holographic paper. Thematically the work referred to the processes of looking and being looked at, enforced through materiality, imagery, and through the process of documenting and sharing the process of creation online. Each image featured figures looking at each other, away from each other, and inwards through introspection. The reflective material surface acts as a distorted mirror, the viewer’s gaze is pulled past the figures at their own refracted reflection. The act of sharing and documenting work gives the viewer, If they choose to follow along, a chance to engage in an empathetic experience of creation, as they watch and interact with me while I bring the piece to fruition. Images that elicit empathy have been shown to draw the highest rates of engagement, a study of the most successful artwork posts on instagram confirmed ‘the audience feels that they are the artist’s friends and participate in the artist’s life and creation’ (Kang, Chen & Kang 2019). This empathy driven interaction creates a dynamic where artworks success is driven by an empathetic relationship to the audience. This becomes the central source of value in the work, instead of its conceptual grounding.

To frame the online interaction between creator and audience as a purely constructive display of empathy would neglect the potential complexities of such a one directional, or parasocial relationship. Parasocial relationships are not something that is unique to the internet, and in fact have been a part of the conversation surrounding media personalities since the 1950s. Horton and Wohl (1956) examined the phenomenon of actors addressing an audience via TV or radio, outlining how this interaction creates an illusion of familiarity for the viewer, through emotive language and framing devices, coining it a parasotional interaction. This was later expanded into the concept of a parasocial relationship, which is a more adequate description of the lengths and depths of these relationships, and has only become more relevant with the introduction of social media’s ability to let the viewers reach out to the persona en masse (Riles & Adams 2021). While building a following on various media platforms and experimenting with how I would present myself online, there are techniques and tactics that have been more successful and fulfilling to my practice. Framing devices in TV and radio would be factors such as, is the persona facing the audience and addressing them directly, is emotive language being used to connect with the audience, or is rhetoric employed to garner empathy (Horton & Wohl 1956). These framing devices still exist in an online environment, but in my personal practice I hope to centre the artwork as the central figure with which the audience relates, this means how I frame my work online Is different and garners different responses. Commonly the most useful tool is presenting artwork in a physical context, this could be showing the artwork in the studio, helping to convey the artist experience. Presenting the work in a gallery space conveys a more commercial or professional element to the interaction. This framing is useful as it connects the artwork with a physical space in the real world, helping to maintain the artworks aura through a connection to materiality. The artist’s presence in the presentation of the work is still also important, this can be through an image showing the artist with the artwork, or the voice of the artist accompanying a video. In my own practice these two facets are realised through constant video documentation of the creation process, compiling these slices into videos paired with personal voice over in an aim to connect the artwork with myself as the artist. Kaźmierczak (2021) contends that while documentation of performance is innately facile and fictitious, embracing this as an inevitability lets us realise an effective archiving of artworks. While Kaźmierczak was referring to performance art, In the age of social media artists can now choose to perform their practice online, with the documentation being synonymous with a performance.

Walter Benjamin (1936) coined the term “aura” in relation to artworks, he thought the reproduction of art through mechanical processes destroyed an essentialness, and its links to tradition and materiality. His definition also refers to a sense of distance, an ability to connect with the object, likening it to our ability to connect with elements of the natural world. The contemporary conversation surrounding an artworks aura is still in some instances to mechanical reproduction, though this is dampened by the legitimisation of printmaking and photography as viable and valuable art practices. Instead it is the digital realm that suffers the brunt of this conversation. With the benefit of hindsight these distinctions between what does and does not have an aura seems to be a difference between the known and the unknown, a warmth and respect for what is known, and a feeling of distance from that which seems alien to us. As someone who grew up with access to all types of technology at my fingertips, I can attest to the feelings of familiarity and warmth for digital spaces. Specifically the web 1.0 websites of the late 90s and early 2000s, the specific design sensibilities or lack thereof, and the boutique nature of hundreds of handmade sites. These facets came together in a feeling of community, with each page governing itself, and creating a unique experience. I could attempt an argument that through the transition into web 2.0 and the centralisation of the internet by several tech companies, a sense of aura was lost, but it would be a discredit to future generations who will undoubtedly find their own sense of aura among the world left to them. Amorim & Teixeira (2020) argue that instead of losing an aura through transition into the online world, a new aura is created, but is separate from the aura of the material artwork. This seems a fairer assessment of the functions of these transitions, that any medium given time to be understood and embraced can form an auratic connection with an audience. Neither of these readings give credit to work made within the purposed auraless new medium, Benjamin refers to print and photographic mediums almost exclusively as reproductive tools and not generative. Amorim & Teixeria consider the digitals role only to represent physical artworks when they otherwise cannot be reached. Artists such as Molly Soda centre their practice around the experience of the digital world, simultaneously critiquing and embracing the ways in which an individual is compelled to be a representative for their own image or brand. Soda’s work is born and exists online, and is generally exhibited thusly, though it has been exhibited through printed screenshots and video installations, I would argue this creates a loss of the digital works aura. Proulx (2016) details how youth who have grown up with social media show heightened drive to perform, seemingly from an intense awareness of how they are perceived, which has led to prolific use of the self image as a tool of empowerment. The portrayal of the artwork is most in touch with its aura in the context of the social media site, this context of space means the viewer connects and associates the messages with their own personal experience.

My work Halls of Galaria (2021) is an online interactive experience using the blogging platform WordPress. The work consisted of several pages of images, text, and navigation options the viewer can use to move through several branching paths. This project was live the entire time it was being worked on, so as people returned, new wings of the fictional Galleria would open. I wanted the creation and installation of the work to at all times be moving, this project was aesthetically and functionally inspired by web 1.0 design, text based adventures, and the online art gallery wolfman museum. However a particular incident with an album release by Kanye West is what inspired the fluidity, after releasing his album Pablo, Kanye kept changing tracks while the album was still hosted online. I felt this act of modifying an already released work was a perfect reflection on how new technologies had changed the traditionally immutable relationship between artist and artwork. Halls of Galleria exists on, and could only be properly experienced through the medium of the internet. I believe the aura of the work is created through a friction of web 1.0 and 2.0 technologies, as well as the novelty of discovering a unique space on the internet that serves no explicit commercial or social purpose beyond entertainment.

Polaine (2005, p. 1) talks about the established conservitive art galleries’ lack of interest in interactive media, stating that it is diametrically opposed to the interests of the fine art institutions desire to be a grounds for the display of divine art objects. Interactive media can be seen as lowbrow and populist due to its accessibility, and ease of digital replication, this view disregards the unique individual experiences that can be had in an interactive space. This denial of an emerging practice feels in line with the eb and flow of the art world, as we see conceptual art is now ubiquitous, where a century ago it wasn’t. I believe we are coming to a nexus soon with interactive art, Polaine’s paper was written in 2005, in the 15 years since interactive art installations have become more embraced. Often seen in the form of pop up experiences backed by the conceptual work of an artist such as RANDOM INTERNATIONAL’s Rain Room or Nick Ennis’s Imaginaria. Though these adult playroom style interactive works have found commercial and critical success, there is still a lag for work in the digital realm finding its place in the greater fine art world. Video games would be the obvious champion of this interactive art space, though are also shunned by the fine art world due to a perceived tackiness, and commercial focus. Smuts (2005) positions video games as a sister medium to the moving image, but with an element of performance with the player participating in the creation of an experience. While Halls of Galleria is not a video game, it aesthetically and functionally borrows tools from the medium. The focus of the work is the user experience, to create a playground online that pushes back to the largely homogenised experience of the online environment we find today. There is no reason that the work could not be documented or otherwise captured and placed in a gallery setting. I believe this would destroy the work’s aura, in cutting it off from the internet and the viewer’s ability to share and explore in their own time, an organic functionality is lost.

The internet, modern computing power and new social forums have all fundamentally changed the way we view and create art, the real discussion is to what degree. Some will vehemently reject the internet’s influence at all levels of involvement, while some embrace it to the exclusion of all other mediums. Digital work, often maligned for a lack of aura, I contend is too new for anyone to assert that as an absolute fact, as how we connect with art is a reflection of the time we live in. Interactivity is slowly being embraced throughout the fine art world, but might be too ephemeral for it to become the speculative asset big fine art demands. My practice lives in these worlds, using the internet and the digital as a medium to foster community, conversation, and creativity.

References

Kang, X, Chen, W & Kang, J 2019, ‘Art in the Age of Social Media: Interaction Behaviour Analysis of Instagram Art Accounts’, Informatics, vol. 6, no. 4, pp. 52.

MacDowall, L, & Budge, K 2021, ‘Art after Instagram : Art Spaces, Audiences, Aesthetics’, Taylor & Francis Group.

Polaine, A 2005, ‘Lowbrow, High Art: Why Big Fine Art doesn’t understand interactivity’, In The First International Conference on the Histories of Media Art, Science and Technology.

Smuts, A 2005, ‘Are video games art?’, Contemporary Aesthetics, vol. 3, no. 6.

Riles, J.M, and Adams, K 2021, ‘Me, myself, and my mediated ties: Parasocial experiences as an ego-driven process’ Media Psychology, vol. 24, pp. 792-813.

Brown, N 2019, ‘Autonomy : The Social Ontology of Art under Capitalism’, Duke University Press, Durham.

Proulx, M 2016, ‘Protocol and Performativity: Queer selfies and the coding of online identity’, Performance Research, vol. 21, pp.114-118.

Amorim, J.P, and Teixeira, L.M.L 2021, ‘Art in the Digital during and after Covid: Aura and Apparatus of Online Exhibitions’, Rupkatha Journal on Interdisciplinary Studies in Humanities, vol. 12, pp.1-8.

Benjamin, W 1935, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.

Kaźmierczak, M 2021, ‘The Contingency and Fiction of Performance Art Documentation: Theory and Practice’, Art Documentation: Journal of the Art Libraries Society of North America, vol. 40, pp.188-197.