Are Digital Artists Really the 21st Century’s New Romantics?

Eyebeam tracks the 19th-century themes in new media art.

Jeremiah Johnson, Watching the Heavens (2013). Courtesy the artist.

“This is a great show for Eyebeam,” I was told repeatedly last Thursday night at the opening for “The New Romantics,” the Eyebeam Art+Technology Center’s new exhibition and its last in Chelsea. (The new media art space is relocating from West 21st Street to Brooklyn.) I shared that sentiment myself, as it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the Center launch such an ambitious program. It took three curators—Nicholas O’Brien, Katie Torn, and Claudia Hart—to put together this mammoth show, which features 23 artists including Sara Ludy, Alexandra Gorczynski, Sophie Kahn, Jon Rafman, and Jeremiah Johnson.

The exhibition explores 19th century Romanticism—a movement defined by a heightened sense of individuality and a revolt against the scientific rationalization of nature—and its connection to contemporary artists working with technology. I was skeptical about the feasibility of curating a cohesive exhibition under that theme, particularly since artists often don’t like to be defined in terms of larger movements, so I reached out to O’Brien, one of the co-curators and a friend, to talk about the show. We discussed “The New Romantics,” the apathy of a younger generation of artists, and the glimmers of hope for a better future that are discernible within the exhibition.

People kept remarking at the opening that this was a good show for Eyebeam. Sometimes that was just as much a slight to the organization—which often mounts awkward shows—as it was an accolade for the exhibition.
The main issue Eyebeam has with their space is that the floor is massive. It’s not split up so there isn’t a lot of wall space. And the brick is not really suitable for hanging on. So, as a result, even though it’s a massive cube, there are only two walls that you can hang flat work on. That impedes a lot of creative use of the space. For us, being able to have projections but not being able to project on the bricks presented a real problem.

“The New Romantics” boasts 23 artists; do all the artists in the show think their work relates to Romanticism?
Well, contemporary artists are very resistant to being grouped into a school or way of thinking, so presenting artists with “we think there is a thing happening and we associate you with it” was contentious. But we think there’s a cultural shift happening that shares similarities with Romanticism.

Certainly there’s a shared cultural movement as it pertains to political instability and new modes of mass media becoming popularized. So you can point to a lot of similarities between then and now. We’re thinking about ways of responding to this… and the cautiousness that artists approached Romanticism with then is similar to now. So, to answer your question, even if the artists are not identifying with the theme, I think the sentiments and motivations are coming from a very similar space to the Romantic trajectory.


Mark Beasley, Peer to Peer Sunset (2013).
Courtesy the artist.

Are you happy with the way the show turned out?
I’m pleased. I’m particularly pleased considering that we only started the show install on Monday! Pre-planning was our saving grace. We went through maybe six different iterations with a 3D model and installed the entire show in the 3 days—that was a little bit of a miracle.

Is there work that’s more subtle and might therefore be overlooked in this show?
I think there’s work in the show that’s unsung in some ways. Marc Beasley’s piece uses technology to have a one-on-one experience. His website asks you to invite someone to share a sunset with you. It turns the Internet into a personal experience as opposed to a mass experience. And I think that’s an incredibly beautiful gesture.

Jeremiah Johnson’s piece inspired by Kevin Bewersdorf’s “Spirit Surfing” essay may also fit that category. That text-based work—a choose-your-own-adventure through computer command prompts—was really inspirational to me for a long time. It’s very intimate.

And Sophie Kahn. She made a small body of works for the show based on 19th-century studies of hysterical fits. Her 3D models come from early drawings of hysterical fits. She works with performers who hold certain positions, and the imperfect scans of the body show these physical poses. Obviously these documents are incredibly flawed and show the 19th century’s deep misunderstanding of the body.

Do you like all the work in the show?
Yes, I do. I’ve come to appreciate all the work I didn’t know before. I think for being a somewhat research-based curator and academic it took me a while to think about the ways the works are speaking together. Some work I’ve gained more appreciation for as I’ve spent more time with it. Some of the works teeter on the edge of tech fetishism, but the expressiveness that comes out of those technologies made me appreciate the work.

Do you think there’s hope in this show? Hope for a better future?
I think there’s a celebration; a certain joy; criticality. The hope is more nuanced. It’s not “things are getting better” or “it will get better.” Some of the works have a sense of discovery; they seem to say “yes, we can still make beautiful things. We can still make the sublime,” through these means of mass communication and technology.

I think that happens for an artist like Jon Rafman; everyone in his film has been killed, but he’s able to inflect a romantic voice within an otherwise bleak vignette. [The piece by Rafman, who is best known for his 9 Eyes of Google Street View work, is a video in which a virtual flaneur walks through video game massacres, while reflecting on “the real.”]


Sophie Kahn, Période de clownisme, F (2014).
Courtesy the artist.

Does technology makes us lose our sense of awe?
When you reach a certain level of information things stop making sense or they become homogenized. To still be surprised or still be in awe in tech environments is something that previous romantics were struggling with. I think that’s frequently compounded by the high frequency of apathy that happens in technological environments.

I often think about my [digital art] students, though not all of them are apathetic. They not only feel overwhelmed by access to our history, but I think they are overwhelmed by the amount of things that need to be considered and the amount of things that should be considered when being a responsible artist in the 21st century. It’s hard to parse out all the things you have to care about. As a result I think they reach a saturation point and a common response to that saturation is to think, “well, there’s nothing I can do.”

On the Internet there’s a tendency to really value the individual voice and expression. But what happens when that’s multiplied by millions of people is that it’s hard to find individuality. That’s the origin of apathy. It comes from a culture that values individuality and young people not being able to find outlets to express that individuality outside Tumblr and Facebook.

And that individuality isn’t just “I’m a special snowflake.” It’s more about being able to contribute meaningful thoughts and feelings about the context from which you’re coming. When you’re trying to represent your context among millions it gets lost in this stream. Over time, that leads to an apathetic tone.

Is there anything that you, as a curator have done to try to respond to this?
Well, this show is not just a bunch of born digitals. About one third of the artists are over 32 [8 of the 23]. The show isn’t a singular, generational voice, and that helps.

The New Romantics” continues at Eyebeam Art+Technology Center through May 10.  A night of performances will take place Friday April 25 at 6 p.m.

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