A discussion on internet-inspired art in the Gulf at A4 Space

The event, featuring a conversation between Omar Kholeif and Sheikh Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, kicks of a series of talks leading up to Art Dubai and its Global Art Forum in March.
Omar Kholeif will discuss digital art in the region at A4 Space. Courtesy Omar Kholeif
Omar Kholeif will discuss digital art in the region at A4 Space. Courtesy Omar Kholeif

Unlike the music, film and television industries, the art world hasn’t yet had its big moment of digital disruption.

It’s still paintings and sculptures that fill the blockbuster shows and break auction-house records, and curators and dealers still play their role as gatekeepers and arbiters of taste.

But a new generation of artists who grew up alongside computers in the 80s and 90s is starting to create work that is influenced by the time they spend online, from the subjects they address and the methods of production to the way the finished pieces are shown.

Everyone agrees that everything is changing – but no consensus has yet been reached on where we’re headed next.

Global change

“Post-internet art” is the term that crops up most often as a description of work that couldn’t have existed before the digital age – although, like “hipster”, it is a label that people rarely use to describe their work.

Its stars include Ryan Trecartin, who makes bewildering videos full of babbling, face-painted quasi-humans and posts them online. Then there’s Cory Arcangel, who has exhibited hacked video games at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and sells clothes printed with early-90s web iconography through his website and at DIY art shows promoted on Twitter.

These artists seem to be circumventing traditional art-world institutions, and yet both have sold limited-edition and one-off work through the mainstream market for substantial sums.

Both artists are American, but the change that is happening is global.

This year alone, an exhibition called Art Post-Internet took place at Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art gallery; an anthology of essays called Uncommon Grounds was published, looking at the effect of new media and activism on art in the Middle East and North Africa; and Omar Kholeif, a curator at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, published another collection titled You Are Here: Art After the Internet. Artists who contributed include the Palestinian duo Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, and the Qatari-American artist Sophia Al Maria.

Expect a lot of chatter about post-internet art at Art Dubai in March. Global Art Forum, the debate series that runs alongside the fair, is titled Download Update? and is dedicated to the interplay between art and technology.

The programme is being put together by the Emirati curator, collector and writer Sheikh Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi, with the help of the technology entrepreneur Turi Munthe.

A series of talks leading up to the event kicks off on Monday, December 15, at A4 Space on Alserkal Avenue, where Sheikh Sultan will be in conversation with Kholeif about the digitally saturated future of art in the region.

The discussion in Dubai

Kholeif is more interested in sparking debate than he is in coming up with conclusions about what’s happening at art’s frontiers. When selecting pieces for the book You Are Here, he deliberately chose contradictory arguments and thinkers who took wildly different approaches to the subject matter.

Rather than making sweeping predictions about the future, Kholeif is expecting to discuss specific, pragmatic topics at A4 such as: will collectors in the Gulf start to collect online and media-based works? How are attitudes to internet-aware art changing here?

When talking about this new type of artistic practice, Kholeif avoids the “post-internet” buzz­word, instead talking about art that’s “internet aware”.

“I tend to seek work,” he says, “that is aware of the complex social and political hierarchies that influence a world where the internet has become second nature.”

When asked how artists respond to technology, he says that they don’t. “I think artists shift extant technology beyond its limits. They use it counter-intuitively against its purpose, opening up possibilities that otherwise may not have seemed obvious at first.” He adds that artists spark “a critical discussion about our reliance on technology”.

A rising star

Lawrence Abu Hamdan, who splits his time between London and Beirut, is an artist whom Kholeif cites as important to this discussion. Abu Hamdan’s recent work has involved building audio archives made up of clips that have a legal or political dimension: tapes of interviews with asylum-seekers have been forensically examined to assess the speaker’s place of origin, for example, and recordings of Druze family members shouting to each other over the Israel-Syria border.

Abu Hamdan’s work isn’t explicitly about technology but it is internet-aware, in Kholeif’s opinion, because it helps us assess the way technology is being used and it’s part of an internet-enabled culture of archiving, remixing and interpreting.

Kholeif has been chosen as the curator of next year’s Armory Show, New York’s biggest art fair, which is held in early March, and he picked Abu Hamdan as the show’s official commissioned artist and “Menam” (Middle East, North Africa and the Mediterranean) as the thematic focus.

Abu Hamdan will help set the tone for the event, and the theme is intended to encourage the re-examination of traditional geographical dividing lines between artistic communities. Sheikh Sultan says that he plans to invite more thinkers to Dubai to discuss the field in the months leading up to the Global Art Forum in March.

With the future of the art-tech crossover wide open, it’s an exciting time to be discussing where things might go from here.

• Omar Kholeif in conversation with Sheikh Sultan Sooud Al Qassemi on Monday, December 15, 7.30pm, at A4 Space, Alserkal Avenue, free entry

artslife@thenational.ae

Published: December 14, 2014 04:00 AM

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