How to put internet art in a book

Image: Jennifer Mehigan / Rachel Hodgson

Shared, a new anthology curated by digital artist Molly Soda and poet Sara Sutterlin, is an ambitious project — an attempt to record internet art in a tangible, permanent, holdable format.

Soda and Sutterlin aren’t the first to do something like this. Previous anthologies such as Boosthouse’s The Yolo Pages or Tao Lin’s 40 Likely to Die Before 40 pulled together dozens of disparate writers from the alt-lit genre, and Omar Kholeif’s You Are Here and the New Museum’s Mass Effect series attempted to document memes, word art, digital design, and referential collage. But Shared merges those worlds, counting writing that was written for a Tumblr audience as a distinctly “internet” art form, equally as strange to encounter in print as a meme would be.

For Shared, Soda and Sutterlin sorted 22 internet creatives — including visual artists and writers — into pairs and challenged them to immerse themselves in each other’s work, then make something in tribute to it. In the introduction, photographer Rebecca Stormcalls Shared a eulogy for “work we’ve taken for granted in the endless scrolls of our feeds.”

The book is meant to preserve a small sliver of the creative effort that gets published online every day and present it in a format that might not necessarily suit it as well, but will appeal to the impulse to have something physical to hold onto. “It’s really a frustrating age to be in,” Soda says. “There’s a heightened amount of visibility, but at the same time things are really overlooked. When we see an image on our feed we don’t really think about how meaningful that might have been to the person who created it, or we might not really engage with it in the way that maybe we’d like for people to engage with our work.”

To read the book in full, you have to download the free augmented reality app Aurasma. Several of the artists used it to create moving overlays or short videos to supplement their printed artwork. Montreal-based textile artist Mercedes Morin used the app to show a video of her weaving the piece she submitted for the book, which looks and functions like a QR code. If you scan it with your phone, you can “discover your new bf,” which in more literal terms means that you’ll be directed to a hyperlink that opens a full-screen photo of Drake.

Soda says these AR supplements were easy to make, and “all books should have that feature.”

Image: Aurasma AR

The work ranges from memes to MacBook self-portraits to animation to die-cut collage. One of its most fascinating pieces is an excerpt from Minneapolis-based artist May Waver’s digital diary. From 2012 to 2015, she took videos of herself with a webcam. For the book, she fed stills of “some moments that felt particularly meaningful” through Microsoft’s Emotion Recognition API, a task that converts three years of confession and emotion and hours of context into 12 portraits defined only by an algorithm’s idea of how some muscles and bones are playing off of each other.

The algorithm reads facial expressions and gives them scores for Anger, Contempt, Disgust, Fear, Happiness, Neutrality, Sadness, and Surprise. In one of the portraits, Waver is covering her mouth and wincing so severely that the API doesn’t recognize her face at all.

Another standout is a short poem by Maya Martinez, who describes herself in her bio only as “5 ft tall bleaches her hair loves relatable content.” The anthology’s opener, “The gURL in the Garden,” plays off of Paula Nacif’s flower-based meme imagery. (In a Paper profile, Nacif identified herself as a “#gURL, #artist, #organizer, and #researcher.”)

“I wanted to be the uploaded gURL,” Martinez writes, and later:

“in the garden lost

seeing juicy fruits

and white lights warming me

she loves it and she finds it

endearing

coding a simulation of

the seething hearts”

Stacked next to and on top of a garden cut and remixed into a series of desktop background-inspired images, the poem reads like an urgent mantra. The ideal of the “uploaded gURL,” could be read as a modern type of transcendence, and though it’s unnerving, there’s something seductive about imagining what it would be like to have no physical form and exist solely in cyberspace.

Sutterlin says pairing artists like these was a way to compel two people who might be total strangers to get to know each other and experience a new perspective. The goal was artwork “that would show effort, understanding, and connecting.” Shared is sort of a patchwork quilt, stitching together disparate people and ideas that feel like a part of one broader conversation about loneliness and expression and self-presentation online.

Image: Maya Martinez / Paula Pinho Martins Nacif

“For me,” Sutterlin says, “all these artists are connected in my mind via the internet and this was perhaps an effort to bridge it all together and make sense of what was going on.” Almost all of the artists in the collection are women or non-binary, and though Sutterlin says she doesn’t know if that’s representative of the digital art community as a whole, “it is representative of what interests me and what we wanted to showcase.”

Much of the work is about how to present a sadness or a confusion that has become almost trite online at this point, now that the “sad girl” aesthetic is familiar enough to be tried on for size by anyone and everyone, and regularly lampooned. Crystal Zapata, a Chicago-based artist and designer, submitted work that plays off of the cyber-feminist movement that bloomed on Tumblr and other internet spaces at the beginning of this decade and was slowly appropriated into the hyper-aestheticized, commercialized, slogan-based iteration of feminism so common on the internet today.

Her self-portraits bounce off of mirrors covered with text: “a dissemination of me, my body. they call it 3rd wave feminism. i call it voyeurism; watch me. do you think i’m a narcissist?”

Image: Crystal Zapata

In a 2014 interview with Vice, artist Audrey Wollen was asked about the aesthetic of the internet’s sad girls and explained her then-nascent Sad Girl Theory, saying that the externalization of a woman’s pain — even when it is heavily aestheticized — is an act of protest with the power to disrupt the status quo, subvert systems of power, “[make] the implicit violence visceral and visible, [and implicate] us all in her devastation.”

If you’re looking to familiarize yourself with internet art as a broader genre, Shared is a pretty good introduction. And as a sample that might compel you to work backwards and find the origin of its worldview, it’s a valuable little volume. The sad girls have so much history, and they’ve already had a powerful impact on a pop culture, from fashion to TV to Lana Del Rey’s exquisite corpse public persona to the dreamy, desolate worlds built for modern horror movies about women.

In a later interview, Wollen told Vice’s Alice Hines “There was no time before girlness, and there certainly was no time before sadness.” Shared presents some powerful evidence that there’s no time after them either. And, appropriately, it’s pretty enough to put on your coffee table.

Shared is out now through Fireythings.

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