In her bi-weekly column, Social Anxiety, Emilie Friedlander peeks underneath the artifacts of contemporary culture to question what it all really means.
This past January, I went to Postmasters Gallery to catch the opening of Ho, an exhibition of paintings by Ryder Ripps, the New York-based conceptual artist perhaps best known as the founder of the creative design agency OKFocus and image-sharing website dump.fm. I was on the hunt for new story ideas, and while I was curious as to why he'd chosen such a traditional medium for his first solo show, I wasn't just there to see the work. A few days before the show, Ripps hads received an anonymous email that sounded like a terrorist threat. "Ryder—we know you know, consciously or unconsciously, that you've been acting foolishly lately… misogynistic, flippant, insensitive, not thoughtful," the message explained. "You need to be taught a lesson, and several people are orchestrating it. It's going to happen outside your opening at some point in the evening next week. It won't involve physical violence, but it will be highly embarrassing."
The letter was signed by "Ryder's Regret Committee," and was presumably a response to Art Whore, the 28-year-old artist's very polarizing Ace Hotel residency a few months prior. For the project, Ripps recruited two sensual masseuses on Craigslist to draw pictures on the hotel franchise's dime, ostensibly as a metaphor for the "prostitution-like" quality of branded art patronage. The project earned Ripps an Art Fag City nomination for "Most Offensive Art Project of 2014," as well as a public condemnation from Rhizome on Twitter (a surprising occurrence, given the art organization's history of supporting his work). An online shitstorm followed, with allegations that Ripps, while exposing the Ace Hotel's exploitative practice of enlisting artists to make work on a bare-bones budget, was in turn exploiting his own performers, whom he repeatedly and reductively referred to as "sex workers."
En route to the gallery, though, a thought occurred to me: maybe the event threatened to take place outside of the opening was little more than a competing performance piece—a person or group looking to highjack the negative attention surrounding Ripps to gain traction for their own project or cause. (According to Artnet, this already happened in the form of Leah Shraeger and Jennifer Chan's online exhibition Body Anxiety.) Whatever the intentions behind it, Art Whore had plainly demonstrated the millennial artist and coder's knack for leveraging shock value into publicity, a skill that was presumably now about to be used against him by his faceless provocateurs.
Though it was ostensibly an unveiling of the artist's new foray into painting, Ho had become a show about the politics of attention. Fittingly, even the works themselves—renderings of Instagram photos of model and Sweat the Style founder Adrienne Ho, the images warped by way of a series of touch-screen manipulations—seemed to be rooted in the attention economy. As he explained in an online slideshow accompanying the exhibition, Ripps was harking back to the macho archetype of the abstract expressionist painter to perform an act of representational violence upon the image of a female celebrity who'd stirred within him a mix of desire and anxiety, partly due to her feed's seamless blend of self-representation and viral product marketing: "While the work is aggressive it's also emasculating, as adrienne ho is the real winner with more instagram followers than me."
As far as I know, the ominous email Ripps received didn't amount to much. Still, if Art Whore and Ho had made people a lot of people angry, it was because they seemed to be reducing their human subjects to content, illuminating the process by which internet-era capitalism prompts us to treat other people like objects while at the same time perpetuating that dynamic themselves. In the essay "Bodies On The Line," Rhizome Artistic Director Michael Connor critiqued Art Whore for its failure to acknowledge the artist's position of privilege relative to masseuses he recruited for the project, as well as for speaking on behalf of his project's subjects. "By choosing to narrate the experiences, define the identities, and depict the bodies of those in a less powerful subject position than him, Ripps acted in a way that was ethically unsound," Connor wrote, referring to a livejournal entry the artist published around the show. "It reinforced and did not interrogate inequitable power relationships."
Artist Anne Hirsh noted a similar dynamic at play in Ho, responding to Ripps' usurping of Adrienne Ho's Instragram feed with a plea on Twitter: "male artists need to stop appropriating women's net presences. we have so little power, please dont take away our self representation." Ripps' responses to the critical fallout, in both cases, seemed even more tone-deaf than the offending works themselves. In an interview with ArtInfo, he likened the online reactions to Art Whore to "Mccarthy-era shit" and a "lynch mob." To Hirsh's twitter response, he offered the sort of hyper-inflammatory come-back that functions to shut down conversation, rather than encourage it: "LETS KILL ALL MEN OR SUBJUGATE THEM TO ONLY MAKE ABSTRACT GIFS!!"
For all the controversies surrounding him, it can be tempting to think that Ripps just doesn't "get" the internet as much he would like us to think he does. What is the world wide web if not a multitude of voices, a place where everybody is allowed to speak? That said, it's hard to see the incorrigible troll that he appears as on social media—the troll who once compared his own persecution to the Charlie Hebdo massacre—in his latest solo show, on view now through April 12th at Red Bull Studios New York. For the show, he takes over the branded space's two floors with a hybrid sculpture and performance he calls Alone Together. The promotional literature refers to the exhibit as a "microcosm of the internet," and in its own way, it is. Entering the installation on the ground floor, visitors peer inside a steel shipping crate to discover an aleatoric feed of images on a screen: Magritte's The Son of Man, the cover of Nirvana's Nevermind, an Instagram food pic, an advertisement for Playboy.com, and so on.
Following an umbilical-like tube extending from the crate down to the lower level of the space, visitors hear the amplified sounds of fingers typing on a keyboard; the source of those images is a group of six people sitting around and surfing the internet, separated from one another by a series of cubicle-like partitions, and from us by a fishbowl-like glass encasement. They've been hired to sit around and work on their own personal projects, and images from the web pages they pull up are broadcast by way of the shipping crate viewfinder above them. Admittedly, there's something touching about seeing the net-surfers going about their business in a blur of Chrome windows and open word documents, personalizing their individual work spaces in the way that people are wont to do (a bottle of nail polish, a yellowed photo of a little girl). To someone who spends most of his or day in front of a computer, it's just a little quotidian snapshot of humans being humans.
Ripps gave me a guided walk-through of Alone Together last week, and I was struck by how squarely his professed intentions lined up with my own gut response to the exhibit's "grand reveal." "The idea is there's this eureka moment where you're like, 'Holy shit!' That content that I was just looking at, those sounds, are coming from people,'" he told me. "I think there's a lot of disconnect between people and content right now. People are like, 'I'm not gonna like that photo.' If I actually had the photo, and I was holding it, and someone was forced to see my face and me with the photo, they would respond differently. People are just treated like content now.'"
There's another surprise in Alone Together: walk past the glass case, and you'll find a wall of screens playing roughly 35 minutes of interview footage with each of the featured performers sitting at the other side of the room. In addition to reminding us of the flesh-and-blood human beings behind the internet's endless churn, Ripps puts the power of narration in the performers' own hands, prompting them to tell us about about childhoods, their thoughts about the internet, and their reasons for participating in the piece. They may be still providing the "content" of the show, but at least Alone Together suggests that Ripps' is willing to listen to them.
If we take the time to listen to them ourselves, Alone Together can actually put us in touch with some of the internet-era paradoxes that we are too busy living to actually notice. We may sit together in the office all day, but we're also very much alone, off on our own screen-based tangents, building and inhabiting our own worlds. We spend an awful lot of time projecting very specific images of ourselves online, but we also feel strangely hesitant when we're asked to stand in front of a camera and just be ourselves. It's possible to critique Alone Together for perhaps offering too literal an illustration of the contradictions of the plugged-in life, but it definitely made me think about things that I hadn't thought about before—like that split-second flicker of anxiety I'd see flash across a given performer's face every time they were forced to ask a question in the video, as though they were trying to decide what "self" to put on next.
Maybe the internet makes us all too likely to treat each other like content, but Alone Together calls attention to something even more disturbing: the internet makes us treat ourselves like content, too, devoting the greater bulk of our days to compulsively baiting each others' attention online, parceling ourselves out in photos and 140-character replies. It's exhausting, and as Ripps discussed with me the personal experiences that had informed the show, I couldn't help wondering if he—one of the millennial art scene's smartest provocateurs—was maybe starting to feel a little tired of winning the Internet:
"I've been using the internet since I was 10, and it's been a giant part of my life, and it's part of my work. Just in the past couple years, I've been feeling more fatigued," he said. "It's almost become an addiction, where every time I refresh my likes on Instagram, I don't really give a shit. It's like, you know you shouldn't drink when you're an alcoholic, but you do it, and you need to do it, and it becomes this dependency. In many ways—financially, socially—maintaining my own image and presence and feeling like I'm still relevant—it's become a dependency, and one that I am sort of uncomfortable with. And any time you feel like you're forced to do something, it's not a good feeling, it's the opposite of freedom."
I should say that I'm pretty sure that the performers in Alone Together are feeling a little cooped up, too. They've been given a platform to voice their experiences this time around, but that doesn't make them the masters of their own destiny. Every Thursday through Sunday, they're being paid to sit and be watched, trapped within the observation tank-like confines of the sculpture, even as that scenario recalls the even more insidious one whereby we routinely put ourselves out there for observation everyday.
To that end, I should say that the most powerful moment of Alone Together for me happened when I went back there second time a couple of days ago. There were only about 15 minutes left before closing, and as I walked around the industrial scaffolding surrounding the glass tank, snapping reference photos of the different performers in their cubicles, I heard a knock on the glass. It was one of the young women inside the display room, peering up at me from her computer station: "I can see you," she said, flashing me a tired smile. "Wanna come in here? We're all going crazy inside this box."
All photos courtesy of Greg Mionske / Red Bull Content Pool.