Juliana Huxtable, 30, a queer artist of color, figured out who she was by playing with an image file of her body.
“My adulthood was liberated by social media,” she says. “. . . I feel like I am always living as a hybrid of my online presence and my IRL [in real life] presence.”
She’s quoted in wall text beside her self-portrait in “Art in the Age of the Internet, 1989 to Today.” The exhibition’s at the Institute of Contemporary Art through May 20. Like its subject, it’s a clamorous, rapid-fire smorgasbord.
For many, the Web has been a place to shape shift, preen, and play. Huxtable ups the ante; who she is online has the same gravity as who she is when she shakes your hand. And who is that? The gleaming green goddess in her photo “Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysm).”
It’s freeing to have a self as malleable as a jpg. To those of us still clinging to the tangible world, where transmogrifying takes time, it’s also unnerving.
Using art as a lens, “Art in the Age of the Internet,” organized by chief curator Eva Respini and assistant curator Jeffrey De Blois, attempts to get its arms around how the Web infiltrates and alters our lives. We are so unconsciously submerged in Internet culture, so drunk on it, that we must wake up and examine it. This show, which anchors “Art + Tech: A Citywide Collaboration,” featuring programming on similar topics at 14 institutions, is a good way in.
The exhibition features more than 70 works by 60 artists and artist teams, which the curators parcel into themes: the body, (including cyborgs and avatars); surveillance and resistance; virtual worlds; the proliferation of images; and online identity.
These raise countless questions and opportunities for artists. They geek out over the technology, then critique its social implications. Image-sharing democratizes art, but widespread availability challenges Western art’s fixation on the lone genius in a studio, and its conception of authorship. And if you’re still worrying about the male gaze, well, our devices watch, listen, and make us all into objects — and not because we’re pretty.
The show starts with a brilliant installation of Nam June Paik’s 1994 piece “Internet Dream,” and “thewayblackmachine,” an ongoing project started in 2014 by the collective HOWDOYOUSAYYAMINAFRICAN? Each is a wall full of monitors blinking with visual chatter.
Paik, the granddaddy of electronic artists, who coined the term “information superhighway” back in 1974, offers his buzzing imagery as an ideal, just as the World Wide Web was a hyperlinked utopian dream when Tim Berners-Lee invented it, in 1989.
But like any such dream, it’s not what we bargained for. Social media bubbles have contributed to disinformation, polarization, and probably violence. “thewayblackmachine” uses the Internet’s strengths to expose what it promulgates, algorithmically displaying images and information from social media about the darkest side of America’s essential conflict, white supremacist violence against blacks.
The Internet is no paradise, although it is a mighty tool to make things more visible. It reflects our messy, heroic, and avaricious humanity. Or has it grown so insidiously big that now humanity is becoming a reflection of the Internet?
Judith Barry’s video installation “Imagination, dead imagine” dominates the sobering gallery devoted to the body. The 10-foot cube seems to contain an enormous head, over which gunk pours. Barry made the piece in 1991, in response to the AIDS crisis, but today the viscous muck might represent the swiftly creeping spread of viral tropes such as bot-generated tweets. Even scarier, the work portrays an Internet native, defined — or confined — by screens.
That definition is not always as liberating as Juliana Huxtable suggests. You have to wiggle your way into Sondra Perry’s cunning, unflinching video installation, “Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Workstation,” a stationary bike outfitted with a tripartite video screen inches from your face. Perry’s avatar, a bald black woman, appears on the screen to solicitously ask if you’re enjoying the music.
“We were made with Sondra’s image,” she says, “but she could not render her fatness.” There was no template in the software for that body type; life online is not as democratic as we’d hoped. The avatar then clinically breaks down ways in which racism works, and she occasionally gets ticked off — all in sweat-inducing proximity to the viewer, trapped on the bike.
So we’re trapped, and we’re being watched. Eyes follow visitors in the surveillance gallery — a big, bloodshot, single eye in Rafael Lozano Hemmer’s video, “Surface Tension,” or cameras set inside dolls, heaven help us, in works by Lynn Hershman Leeson, all prophetic pieces from the 1990s.
While true — we are being watched — many works in this gallery stick to that one note, until you get to Rabih Mroué’s heart-catching series, “The Fall of a Hair: Blow-Ups,” seven blurry cellphone images shot by protesters in the early days of the Syrian civil war. Each shows someone pointing a gun at the photographer (who may have been killed). Mroué puts us in the crosshairs and reminds us, as “thewayblackmachine” does, what a formidable tool a camera phone can be.
This is dark stuff, but there’s fun to be had in “Art in the Age of the Internet,” too. Jon Rafman’s spine-chilling virtual reality simulation, “View of Harbor,” envisions climate change’s rising tides outside the ICA’s plate-glass windows, blending gothic overtones with sci-fi twists (OK — it’s dark, too). It starts with a tsunami, and gets worse. Outfitted with the VR headset, I stood at the window hooting and checking my inclination to duck or run.
It’s not real, right? It sure feels real. That’s a question at the core of this show, and it brings us back to Huxtable. Frank Benson used 3-D printing technology to make “Juliana,” an old-style bronze sculpture of the artist finished with metallic green paint. Benson sees the print as equal to its computer model — or perhaps, as Huxtable sees herself, as a single hybrid.
When “Juliana” appeared in a show at the New Museum, in New York, it acquired another life on social media as a trans icon, and exemplified the way art propagates online.
The potency of the virtual and the energy of shared experience are indeed real; a time traveler from just 20 years ago would be gobsmacked.
If I could experience “Juliana” one way only, it would be IRL. Objects have weight and authority; digital files are sly, evasive dreams. But I’ve got Wi-Fi. I don’t have to make that choice.
ART IN THE AGE OF THE INTERNET, 1989 TO TODAY
At Institute of Contemporary Art, 25 Harbor Shore Drive, through May 20. 617-478-3100, www.icaboston.orgCate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @cmcq.