The “dark web,” the “deep web,” the “invisible web,” the “darknet” — these are all terms for the real-life data gulch that holds 400 to 550 times more information than the comparatively pantywaist world wide web. The obscure province of technophiles, freeware utopians, libertarians, jihadists, pedophiles, Russian gangsters, and other anonymous users, this opaque space is the virtual Amazon basin for the cryptic images featured in Eva and Franco Mattes’s Emily’s Video. The piece presents a hair-raising portrait of everyday alienation in cyberspace. It’s also one of the most disturbingly affecting artworks you’ll see anywhere.
If the dark web represents the underside of today’s information gold rush, then the Matteses are its artistic forty-niners. Known for creating work so troubling it borders on cruel, they routinely blow past the naïve ideals of interactivity and connectivity most Internet artists propound. In No Fun (2011), Franco pretended to hang himself on chatroulette.com while a camera recorded the reactions of hundreds of strangers (most spectators gawked, one masturbated, one called the police). In The Others, another work from the same year, the Italian–born, Brooklyn–based duo used a faulty file-sharing program to access random users’ hard drives. They stole 10,000 photos and two hours’ worth of cover tunes from complete strangers — an astoundingly uniform multilingual cache of purportedly personal data that makes for fascinatingly generic voyeurism.
The twin peaks of “By Everyone, For No One, Everyday,” on view at Postmasters gallery in Tribeca, The Others and Emily’s Video (2012) provide striking examples of what the pair calls our era’s dominant “many-to-none medium.” A corrective twist on the starry-eyed ideal of the Internet as a many-to-many technology — the term riffs on corporate advertising’s once-commanding view of TV as the one-to-many medium — the Matteses’ redefinition of pie-in-the-sky digitalism dovetails ominously with the invasive reality of today’s Big Data. You don’t have to be Edward Snowden to succumb to industrial-era technological suspicion these days. These artists plainly propose that a new age of techno-dystopia is upon us.
The Matteses flourish in the uncharted terrain of unregulated cyberspace by turning over society’s newly accepted ideas and exposing their seamy B-sides. One such idea is the truism that innovation flourishes in the digital age, which the artists dissect by purchasing the concepts behind pieces they wish they had made and producing contractually non-exclusive versions. This explains the various objects they display inside the gallery, together with their contracts. Mundane images — a pink plastic bag, an exhausted gym rat, a casually dressed man in an operating theater — printed on a dog leash, flip-flops, bent styrene sheets, or a book, these customized visuals provide illustrations of the Internet’s evolving copycat nature. The Matteses further suggest that an important antecedent predates this cascade of cut-and-paste plagiarism: namely, art history. After all, didn’t Michelangelo rip off David‘s washboard abs from Polykleitos’s Doryphoros, the buff spear bearer, made 2,000 years earlier?
Experiential plagiarism, or at least the crushing sameness of our increasingly digital visual landscape, is clearly the subject of The Others, which the artists project here inside an unpainted black box. A parade of derivative images scored to lousy karaoke renditions of songs like Radiohead’s “Creep,” the work presents a communal portrait of the hundreds of millions who increasingly experience life through the prophylaxis of mediating screens. The results are as original as tattoo parlor flash designs. The people in The Others, despite their surface ethnic and geographic differences, endlessly repeat vacation, party, wedding, graduation, and coming-of-age pics. Walt Disney was right: It’s a small world after all.
Emily’s Video exposes the dark side of such relatively clean and unimaginative fun. A 16-minute compilation of reactions from people who replied to the artists’ online call to watch “the worst video ever” (which a girl named Emily delivers like a pizza), the work simply records respondents’ reactions via webcam. Some blanch, others laugh nervously, look away, or involuntarily gag or scream. Near the end, a curly haired, American Apparel model type pulls a blanket around herself and sobs. The Matteses don’t show us the source video’s content — they went so far as to secure each participant’s confidentiality and subsequently destroyed the seemingly appalling footage. But it’s probably sufficient to know what one “volunteer” blogged post-viewing: “We make we sick.”