We rarely get to read anything of actual substance within critical writing these days. So much so that we naively celebrate pieces written by ‘star’ critics writing for mainstream publications, who throw in a few punches on occasion, at the elite of the art world. The very same group, that they were busy celebrating most of their career. Some vicariously derive temporary gratification but it is just the same old, same old.
And then there are books like Peer Pressure, a collection of 16 essays published between 2010 and 2011 by artist and writer Brad Troemel. It is an essential read for those of us tired of the art world being so full of itself. And I would go as far as saying, it is one of the most relevant dialogs being generated today for negotiating the current state of contemporary art. Troemel argues, quiet effectively, that the space for such negotiation, is the Internet.
The overall drift of Peer Pressure is quite succinctly put in a quote you come across at the beginning, by artist and blogger Eryk Salvaggio who says, “the net can’t handle the pretense of art, or anything that seems manufactured, because it has a keen bullshit mechanism.”
Within the same essay, “What Relational Aesthetics Can Learn From 4Chan”, Troemel argues for the need for art to move beyond “intent and context”, especially that which is generated within the constructs of both, the institution and institutional critique. Peer Pressure maneuvers through the many layers of this idea by presenting well-articulated frameworks, with clarity and intelligence that is typical of Troemel’s writing. He is always brief and precise. His deep knowledge of art, social and cultural history and contemporary cultural production is evident and his writings reference various connecting nodes of thought generated by art historians (Claire Bishop, Nicolas Bourriaud), cultural thinkers and philosophers (Malcolm Gladwell , Andrew Ross, Boris Groys, Jurgen Habermas) to neo-Marxist interdisciplinary social theory like The Frankfurt School and of course to the community of close knit artists interpreting and occupying the digital space in various forms. But Troemel is not just showing off; he is effectively turning the conversation to a much needed new level of analysis and making a lot of sense in the process. It also means that most times, additional reading is required for the not so obvious references, particularly when he mentions his contemporaries working in this rather small community of artists and writers and are engaged in this conversation like in his piece, ‘In Response to Dispersion’ by Seth Price.
While the discussion and debate between those in the small community of artists Troemel often writes about and quotes might be intimidating for the uninitiated, or for those of us who have only touched the surface of a constantly evolving arc, the language of the essays is less so. Unlike other art writers like Boris Groys whose writing sometimes shoots off into directions unexpected and whose style is often characterized as somewhat ‘eccentric’, or Joseph Nechvatal in his book ‘Towards An Immersive Intelligence’, which like Peer Pressure is a collection of thoughts on similar ideas, but in a language that is intense and difficult, Troemel’s writings are accessible and very straightforward. It portrays a lucid certainty that offers a counter-balance to the constant flux that the digital space and art within that realm functions in. While it is not a step-by-step guide to all things ‘Digital/Internet art’, it is a great read for anyone who might be interested in the discourse of contemporary art in digital space and did not know where to start.
Troemel’s essays in this collection address certain core ideas from different angles. Some of the broad ideas include new critical frameworks, which are discussed in ‘New Productive Systems’. The creation of new models of alternate’ institutional’ space through the Internet, is discussed in essays like The Emergence of Dual Sites and the analysis of the Internet as a medium is discussed in the “traditional” sense of the word in “Screens on Screens (Ben Schumacher)” and “In Response to ‘Dispersion’ by Seth Price”. Some of the essays are structurally more academic than others that seem to be more of a flow of thought.
In many ways, the essay ‘What Relational Aesthetics Can Learn From 4Chan’, structurally sets the premise for what follows through the rest of the book. Like many of the other essays, it takes what are seen as turning points in art historical theory, and brings to light the limiting, and often times weak interventions that are contextualized around the practice of art because they are done within the boundary of the art world; a space which values the individual creator and dichotomy of viewer-creator. In this particular essay, Troemel argues that the ideological framework of Relational Aesthetics (RA) would succeed when it takes place within digital space and explains the constructs of 4Chan – the anonymity of users and group interventions like MARBLECAKEALSOTHEGAME raid for instance, as persuasive expansions on this idea.
‘Provocative Materiality in the Valley of Death’ goes where art criticism rarely goes. As Troemel writes about the art world, “it’s enough to pretend you’re angry with yourself in front of others but never enough to actually die.” This is to say in the world of ‘material’ art production – be it painting, sculpture or even ‘pad Thai’, material producers have to “remain true to the colossal weight of their mediums storied histories or to invariably remix different sections of those histories together in a way that appears to be sacrilege but upon closer inspection is in fact an exercise in devoted fandom.” Troemel argues that it’s not as if material production is irrelevant but for anything truly “new” to occur, art needs to “expand”. And that it can and should do so in the digital space, beyond the push and pull of traditional linear forces like institution-curator-collector.
While these essays establish the general sense of where the art world stands, essays like “From Clubs to Affinity: The Decentralization of Art on the Internet”, and “New Productive Systems” traces Internet Art’s history, from which Troemel goes on to then explore new theoretical frameworks to contextualize contemporary art production in digital space. The former traces “a structural lineage between early examples of canonized internet art, the mid-2000’s surf clubs and today’s Web 2.0-hosted art communities”. “New Productive Systems”, presents a way of critically analyzing work done by Internet artists, which is based on the notion of participatory production (sharing). “The Emergence of Dual Sites” goes further and brings to light the materialization of some of these frameworks in the form of new institutional modes in which these works are contextualized. He elaborates on how Dual Sites – which are essentially online galleries – function unlike traditional spaces, by valuing the “labor” of not just creating, but sustaining a virtual space that produces ‘social capital’. Spaces where we finally counter the problematic concept of dominant market based buying-selling, the physical attendance of a show, and the ensuing dichotomy of viewer-creator that Troemel brings up in an earlier essay on RA and 4Chan. The success comes in “recognize(ing) the existence of an event – to believe it took place, and in doing so, value the exemplified support for the artists shown.” What a successfully radical thought.
Of how various tools and platforms within the digital space is used specifically is elaborated in essays like ‘The GIF’s Obsession with Compression’, ‘The Many Faces of Tumblr’ and ‘Screens on Screens (Ben Schumacher)’. In ‘The Many Faces of Tumblr’, Troemel talks of image aggregators (IAs) “ whose creators rapidly compile image after image of cultural artifacts surrounding them, stripping their visuals of any contextual backing.” He goes on to describe how IAs and Tumblr is the most effective Internet tool in breaking down the boundaries of art and everyday life by making connections between IA’s and hipster culture. A brand-making tool unlike any other (“the advertising world’s wet dream”.)
Troemel also dwells on the social implications of media and social networks in how we perceive, build, produce and participate in the idea of a reality, and our identities within those realities. A lot of it thinks through the anxieties of what all that means. In ‘Why You Should Make Yourself Someone Else Online’, while discussing Josh Harris (the man behind Quiet: We Live In Public, weliveinpublic.com), Troemel expands on what in many ways sums up our own individual presence and its myriad relationships that have been created online. He writes, “Harris so firmly believed in abolishing the lines between media distribution and media consumption that he predicted (either through an invention of his own or someone else’s) we would each become the sites of production for others’ media experience, consensually opening our lives to surveillance in exchange for the warmth of attention and communal validation.” In this piece and in ‘Friend Request From My Mom’, he makes interesting connections between the idea of surveillance, the suspension of disbelief, the idea of disembodiment, and the anonymity of the online self and at different points expands on how that works in the context of material and institutional driven art making.
What do we make of Tsimfuckis’ videos in his essay ‘Tsimilacrum’? What makes a 2 minute 25 seconds YouTube video ‘Fight with a Pillow’ showing a teenager with Progeria fight WWE-style with his pillow, garnering +350,000 views and counting, a masterpiece of our times? What do we see in the comments – the audience so to speak – and their own dilemmas in this arena? “trolls trolling trolls” is how Troemel puts it and what do we make of this when we think of participatory viewership?
One of Troemel’s strengths lies in how he is able to connect what we know of the material and immaterial worlds of cultural production so that the latter is quite indisputably an organic and persuasive trajectory of where we are heading and what we should move towards, in light of the problematic rhetoric of the former.