Internet_Art: From the Birth of the Web to the Rise of NFTs

Image of Internet_Art: From the Birth of the Web to the Rise of NFTs
Release Date: 
April 19, 2023
Phaidon Press
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What exactly is internet art? Is it art made online? Art intended to be experienced on a browser? Without a set definition agreed upon by most historians, Omar Kholeif (who goes by they/them pronouns) chooses to set the scope of Internet_Art: From the Birth of the Web to the Rise of NFTs as covering “art that is produced with a knowing awareness of the networked nature of our collective culture.” While this is a fabulous sentence to include in a dissertation, it also essentially describes everything produced in the last 30 years—quite an ambitious thrust to cover in just 296 pages.

The history of internet art, according to Kholeif, is everything from early forms of new media that deal with the concept of connectivity through digital communication to the rise of social media influencers and NFTs—so, truly, everything, everywhere, all at once. And that is more than an overly ambitious subject to tackle because, like the universe, this definition of internet art is constantly in flux and constantly growing.

Without an unlimited page count, any attempt to cover such a topic would require firm parameters. Kholeif’s scaffolding, therefore, is the rather clever conceit of couching this history in the form of a memoir. Rather than arrange information by taxonomy or time, place or provenance, they present the narrative as a memory. As many people buy biographies of significant figures to better understand equally significant, epoch changing events, this is more intelligent than many may give it credit for—how do you deal with all the issues, the impacts, the controversies, the challenges of the internet with regard to art and cultures without personalizing it? The harder part is that the subject is still in its relative infancy—and it’s tough to write a biography of a teenager.

Starting in 1989, Kholeif “felt [it] imperative to grapple with this freewheeling subject through lived experience.” This, of course, means there are natural gaps in the narrative, be it through the human error of forgetfulness or the equally human bias toward what they liked. As such, it is “the story of how a contemporary culture was formed through the lens of the author” rather than a generalized history on the topic—it is Kholeif’s autobiography through the lens of their experience with and through the internet. One can imagine the sound of a dial-up modem almost acting as their Proustian madeleine.

For those who dare to judge a book by its title, this is mapped out expressly in the foreword—so consider yourself forewarned should there be a preference for a more traditional art historical approach. Instead of a survey of a global history of art made within a rather amorphous genre, Kholeif “weaves social history, memoir, and art criticism” into a single volume, attempting to show the impact of the internet on the world through how it impacted their own. 

While potentially jarring for some readers, this art-history-cum-biography format embraces the fact that the internet, especially now, is about individual expression. For such an ego-driven and me-focused medium, is it not, therefore, appropriate to have that story told from the perspective of someone who also entered into adulthood alongside its birth and growth?

Perhaps this is why Kholeif’s is the best approach to the topic, as the limitations, while still wildly broad, are the self. And what is this book but an extended blog post, the ur-form of internet communication?

While these reasons alone would be enough, Kholeif’s choice is doubly impactful, emphasizing that by writing in the first person, they are challenging the dominant voice in art history that traditionally eliminated the writer in favor of being objective, impartial, and certainly impersonal. As a queer, disabled, person of color, they want to make sure that those frequently marginalized identities are given space and deliberate presence in the narrative—a choice that is also reflective of the subject matter given that the internet was a place where similar voices, through the act of anonymity, were given equal weight before they became fashionable for publishers to seek out.

As the internet is a place where one can create identity/identities, which the author even alludes to through the advent of MySpace, grounding this book in their identity doubles down on how the book itself is an extension of the early internet, a story told from its origins.

This is also not a traditional coffee table book. It has the heft; it has the beguiling cover; it has the catchy title—but it is no picture book. It is not something one can casually flip through on a friend’s couch nor something that should be placed on a decorative stack to create a chic tablescape (although, as it is gilded, it certainly could). It is dense with text—perhaps more so than any contemporary treatise discussing an art movement or genre—and requires close reading to properly appreciate.

Having formed relationships with many of the artists they discuss in the book, the author posits the text is as much a glimpse into the intimacies of their own artistic practices as it is an analysis or study of the work. In many cases, it reads like an interview more than a work of art history, a chat between likeminded and curious friends more than an exegesis of the formal qualities of a piece. This is delved into early in the book via Kholeif’s relationship with Hershman Leeson but appears again and again, indicating a desire for that sense of community that hallmarks a lot of the internet itself as a vehicle for exploration. There is no sense of the removed curator, the armchair art historian—these are glimpses into the cozy whispers of people nerding out on ideas.

So is it any good? That will depend entirely on the reader. For some, this will be an enlightening, intellectual ride through how the most important technological development of our time fueled and finessed art around the world. For others, it will be a David Foster Wallace doom scroll, naval-gazing at its own anxiety spiral. And as it is about the whys, wheres, and hows of internet art, it should certainly be a bit of both.