ARE WE LIVING IN AN AFTERMATH? The unspoken consensus seems to be that, in relation to the art of the previous decade, the early 2010s are a caesura—a waiting period at best, analogous to the early 1970s in relation to the ’60s, or the early ’90s in relation to the ’80s. Those older historical moments were not just lulls, however, but scenes of profound discursive and technological mutation. And likewise, over the past few years, a set of technical innovations have arisen that have reconfigured conditions for the production and distribution of art. Although this phenomenon was barely noticed as it began unfolding, the start of this decade marked a point at which hardware and software came together to produce a qualitatively different kind of image.
Such changes in technology and art are often only belatedly sensed, and they cut both ways. Today, for example, modernist forms and styles are everywhere recognizable in the minimal Zen of iPhone design. But in turn, certain technologies that first appeared on the market around 2007 only had visible effects on contemporary art a couple of years later. And these effects are not isolated but systemic. Indeed, when the first person uses a technology matters less than when the number of users crosses a certain threshold. 2011 was the year in which the iPhone dramatically expanded in reach and market, including within the art world, and the proliferation of the smartphone—and then the tablet—for the first time provided consumers with the ability to view high-resolution images online nearly anytime and anywhere.
What distinguishes this particular historical moment, then, is not the emergence of the Internet (despite much recent talk about artists responding to this broad condition), but the confluence of two more specific developments: the radically increasing accessibility of the network and the permeation of portable devices on which dramatically higher levels of visual information are at hand. And although critics are entirely right to invoke contemporary art’s “super-velocity,” in the terminology of David Joselit, we must also pinpoint the specificity of these technical innovations in order to distinguish our present condition from other historical moments, when new infrastructures were also deeply imbricated in both the tempo and the content of art.
THE PRE-IPHONE and pre-aggregator rhythm of the art world was largely seasonal, determined by the nested cycles of the monthly exhibition, the yearly fair, and the biennial. And this cycle was interwoven with the production cycles of print media, from the daily paper to the monthly art magazine, and their extended lead time. Within this rhythm, a critic visits an exhibition to write a review, which is then printed in a newspaper or magazine along with an image and, with luck, noticed by a dealer or curator who offers the artist another exhibition—a positive feedback loop familiar from sociological studies of the art system going back to the ’60s. With the iPhone and the Web aggregator, the situation is, of course, quite different. An image of an exhibition can be posted the moment it opens, or even before. An artist, curator, or dealer receives an update containing images of the show on her phone, which she then forwards to colleagues, in a chain of events perhaps leading to another exhibition.
It may seem that one obvious consequence of this process is that consensus can now be built much faster, in a matter of hours rather than months or years. Yet this increased speed also disables the judgmental element of consensus in favor of collective attention. What had been a process oflegitimation, attributable to particular institutions or critical bodies, now becomes a process of simplevisibility, attributable to the media apparatus itself, largely outside the channels of print media and cumbersome zeitgeist-encapsulating exhibitions. How these media phenomena might relate to mutations in more traditional distribution structures, such as the emergence of an almost continuous succession of art fairs and the subdivision of monthly exhibitions into microdurations through performance and events programming, remains unclear. But as the 2012 Whitney Biennial demonstrated, the function of the biennial format has clearly become more mnemonic than predictive, more a retrospective than a preview. Art is no longer discovered in biennials and fairs and magazines, but on the phone.
The effects of this acceleration are spatial as well as temporal. Although it was founded in 2008, the aggregator website Contemporary Art Daily, for example, became a primary storage site for images of contemporary art around 2011. On the one hand, Contemporary Art Daily replaces the discrete pages of the print journal and the gallery website with a running scroll, optimized for the interfaces of smartphones and tablets. On the other, the design of the site itself clearly imitates the gallery space, with its clean white layout and minimum of textual interference. But Contemporary Art Daily has also, in tandem, generated physical gallery spaces. A number of galleries sprang up around the turn of the decade, especially in Italy and Germany, that present shows more or less explicitly for distribution on Contemporary Art Daily and sites like it. These galleries all employ a large number of high-wattage fluorescent-light fixtures, as opposed to more traditional spot lighting, making their walls pulsate like a white IPS screen (the now-ubiquitous LCD technology introduced by Apple in 2010).
At once feeding back into the white walls of the gallery and rendering them more easily photographable for instantaneous distribution onto a scrolling surface, the screen brackets the gallery space from both sides. And it already has for some years now. Such fluorescent-lighting systems became ubiquitous in galleries in the mid- to late 2000s, at the same time that galleries began systematically posting images of their exhibitions on their websites. The iPhone, and the smartphones and website designs that have proliferated in its image, has also created the conditions of possibility for another spatial transformation: the dispersal of galleries away from specific neighborhoods, away even from temporary ones such as the fair, so that a geographic sprawl that began in the ’70s culminates in a truly decentralized network, the spaces getting brighter the farther they are from the exploded center.
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