Petra Cortright

Cortright’s Vicky Deep in Spring Valley, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Foxy Production, New York.

Here’s a file, likely corrupted, recovered by the human error–prone app known as memory recall: The year is 2003, maybe 2004—before Instagram, Tinder, and Uber. In this distant past, the artist Petra Cortright is just another high school student sitting in the glow of her computer screen, uploading animated GIFs she created to her blog. She receives a note—via AOL Instant Messenger, she reckons, considering the era—from Guthrie Lonergan, who is an early pioneer of what has been called Net Art and occasionally is mocked as Post-Internet Art. “Omg,” he writes. “Lauren Cornell just del.icio.us’d your livejournal!” (A quick review of popular mid-aughts Web platforms: Del.icio.us, now known as Delicious, was a link-sharing precursor to Pinterest; LiveJournal is a diaristic social media site that is somehow still relevant in Russia.) “At the time,” Cortright, 28, tells me over coffee, “I didn’t even know who Lauren Cornell was.”

This admission is as good a time stamp as any of Net Art’s incubation period, especially since Cornell—the onetime director of Rhizome, the digitally inclined arts organization, and presently a curator at the New Museum, in New York—has organized (with the artist Ryan Trecartin) the museum’s current triennial, “Surround Audience.” As this massive survey makes emphatically clear, the art world is moving—albeit fitfully and awkwardly, like an aging parent or a print-media company—into the wired age. It was only four years ago that Cornell wrote in Frieze magazine that she “spent a considerable amount of time thinking about why ‘Internet’ is such a gauche word in contemporary art.” But in the catalog for “Surround Audience,” she declares, “While this field hasn’t lost its specificity, the questions raised by digital media about identity, power, and possibilities for artistic agency have migrated beyond format and become integral to life. Now, these questions belong to every artist.”

Today, it seems as if the possibilities for digital art’s second wave are as boundless as the Internet itself, as artists from the broadband generation create work containing some of the DNA of traditional mediums like painting, photography, and performance—entirely on their computers. But less than a decade ago, digital art was still in desperate need of what Silicon Valley would refer to as “angels”: patrons with influence, access, and resources to lend it an air of legitimacy. Its start-up practitioners huddled on the fringes of the art world in Web “surf clubs” like Nasty Nets (alumni: Kari Altmann, Jordan Wolfson, Cortright), talking avidly to one another but not so much to the art world at large. This year, Cortright was one of the guests of honor at Rhizome’s annual benefit, held on the top floor of the New Museum, overlooking lower Manhattan, which is where I met her in February. She made a memorable first impression in a sleek black suit fromthe designer Stella McCartney, who’s taken the artist as a sort of muse. (They’ve collaborated on several videos.) Cortright and I reconvened for coffee the next morning in Chelsea, near her gallery, Foxy Production, where she was installing a show of digitally rendered works she calls paintings. A gala, a gallery show, an alliance with a celebrity fashion designer—these are perks of the Establishment, which is a level that some early Net artists, like Cortright’s hugely influential Nasty Nets cohort Lonergan, still haven’t reached. (Never mind that Cory Arcangel, who is probably the greatest Net Art success story, called Lonergan “our Bruce Nauman.”) When Artforum put one of Lonergan’s works on its cover in November, the artist lamented, “I tried for years to figure out how to ‘print it out,’ to make something super-salable, but I could never quite figure it out, and I don’t think I ever will.”

While digital artists have brought their work into galleries, making the transition from the virtual world to the physical is more than a matter of simply updating an operating system. Karen Archey, a co-curator of last year’s group survey “Art Post-Internet” at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, in Beijing, says, “You can really see that some of these artists don’t know how to make objects or have studio practices.” Among the exceptions is the English artist Ed Fornieles, 32, who stages frenetic large-scale social media performances starring Twitter bots and Facebook avatars. Last year, he installed a three-dimensional vision of domestic bliss at London’s Chisenhale Gallery, which, as his work tends to do, spilled over onto his website and Instagram, where he posted a “painting” of himself, his ex-girlfriend (the actress Felicity Jones), and their imaginary nuclear family. “I came from sculpture and then began -using the Internet,” Fornieles says. “Unlike the artists who started as geeks and realized, ‘Oh, yeah, objects exist.’”

Even as the geek artists become more successful, their work remains largely flat. But this may just be a tempered-glass reflection of the times, as we hurtle toward a world where all manner of things that don’t have screens—a slow cooker, prescription medication—can be regulated by those that do. “Flat glass panes are increasingly prevalent as sculptural objects, suggesting that the various screen-based media have themselves become the content of cultural analysis,” Archey and her co-curator, Robin Peckham, write in the catalog for “Art Post-Internet.”

When I visit the artist Siebren Versteeg’s studio in Brooklyn, he shows me a piece from 2014 that involves an LCD screen with an unusual square shape. Versteeg, 43, who has a coding background and uses terms like “scraping” in civilian conversation (more or less, it means to skim data from one program and use it in another), has broadcast Richard Prince’s Instagram feed on the monitor. It updates whenever the notorious appropriator of other people’s work posts something new. “I knew I had to do this when I found a square LCD,” Versteeg says, laughing.

Artists who grew up working online have come to expect a sense of immediacy. “I’ve become used to that dopamine release from likes and comments,” Cortright admits.And even if Prince’s social media feed feels like an endless stream of schadenfreude—when the artist, who is in his 60s, printed his Instagram images onto canvas and presented his “New Portraits” at Gagosian Gallery in uptown Manhattan last year, a younger artist tweeted, “Watching Richard Prince do Instagram is like watching your dad try to rap”—it’s notable that even he has embraced the idea that much of what is worth viewing in the art world is available online. Artists like Katja Novitskova, who prints pictures of photogenic animals (giraffes, penguins) onto aluminum panels and stands them up in galleries, said in a talk last year that, these days, “there is no flatness. Flatness is psychological.” And the Berlin-based duo Daniel Keller and Nik Kosmas, who go by AIDS-3D, are playing with today’s scroll-and-swipe audience in ways that comment on the viewer’s fixed perspective. Their contribution to the New Museum’s 2009 Triennial was an obelisk on which stacked text read omg that was sent as JPEG files with instructions and built by the museum staff from cheap fiberboard and glue—the thinking being that, on the Internet, no one would be the wiser. (I was fooled: Viewed on a phone, the piece looked monumental.)

Then there is a specific camp of artists reared on video games who are making work that feels three-dimensional but isn’t. Jon Rafman, 33, recently went to Los Angeles to meet with developers about the new virtual reality headset Oculus Rift. (He showed his first Oculus environment, a simulation of a hotel room, during the New Art Dealers Alliance Miami Beach fair in December.) “I’m going to invest in a camera that shoots 360 degrees,” says Rafman with boyish excitement. The artist, who came up through the DIY online collective Paint FX (alumni: Tabor Robak, Parker Ito), which advanced a digital aesthetic by using tools like Photoshop and ArtRage, will have a solo show this summer at the Musée d’Art Contemporain, in his native Montreal, and unveil a commission at the Zabludowicz Collection in London in the fall. He really made an impression, however, with his project The Nine Eyes of Google Street View.Powered by a coder-worthy diet of energy drinks, Rafman spent entire days exploring Google Street View in order to screen-grab images of strange, incidental, pixelated beauty, such as a skinny-dipper in Italy, a prostitute in Spain, or a man lying in the bed of a pickup truck in Canada, that Google might have overlooked. Big Data–induced fears of surveillance aside—the politics of which are being tackled by artists like Josh Kline in the New Museum Triennial—Rafman, from a purely aesthetic view, is working in the same mode as early-20th-century street -photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, only his shutter- button iscommand+shift+4. “You can’t repeat the tropes of 20th-century photography,” Rafman says. “But you can refresh it with a robot’s gaze.”

More than a few Net artists frame their practice as updates on traditional forms. Fornieles sees his work as descending from performance art (some of his social media performances happen offline). Cortright, best known for her brief selfie videos altered by weird animated effects, has taken screensaver images from PC desktops and Frankensteined them into morbid moving dioramas. And yet, “if you break it all down,” she says, “it’s just still lifes, landscapes, and -portraits.” (Cortright’s mother, who was a painter in the old-fashioned sense, predicted that her daughter would never have the attention span to wait for paint to dry.)

The artist Ian Cheng worked at George Lucas’s visual effects firm Industrial Light & Magic before he started making unsettling simulations using motion-capture technology. When I log in to Google Chat to talk to him, I mention that what he was doing—creating worlds in which he can turn loose his digital “players,” or characters, to interact with infinite possible outcomes—sounds a lot like a virtual reality version of relational aesthetics. Cheng, 31, writes back that he was a student of Rirkrit Tiravanija and Liam Gillick and worked for Pierre Huyghe, all artists who create environments for unscripted social interaction. “To me, they really saw everything as a game—as a virtual reality,” Cheng says.

Another artist building digital worlds is Tabor Robak, who four or five years ago discovered Unity 3D, a video game software with which he builds slick virtual cityscapes with unusual depth. “When I started using Unity, the possibilities exploded,” Robak, 28, says. “The first piece I made was a riff on land art. I could create something that you can understand the same way that you understand physical terrain.”

As realistic as some digital constructs might seem, these artists are most comfortable working in a realm made up of zeroes and ones. When Versteeg writes code to create abstract paintings that appear to have been made by a decisive human hand, he is more interested in the random nature of the process than he is in the final product—something that is underscored by the fact that the work comes with a USB stick. (Cortright recalls a heated argument that broke out during a university presentation she gave in Mexico City, when a woman in the audience insisted that the USB was the art, not merely the vessel for it.) And then there’s the catalog for the “Art Post-Internet” show. The Ullens may be a traditional contemporary art institution (behind China’s Great Firewall, no less), but this particular catalog exists only as a PDF; it is downloadable for free. “Honestly, a printed version?” asks Cortright, whose work was included in the show. “Who is that even reaching? Anything that’s a hard copy—a catalog, a magazine—I save that for my mom.”