Taking place at Public Works Administration in New York, the exhibition features works by core members of the internet collective Do Not Research
From the 2011 Occupy Wall Street protests to the meme magick in the run up to the 2016 Trump election and the emergence of the Dirtbag Left during the Bernie Sanders campaign, there’s a new breed of American citizen emerging. Their political impulses can no longer be neatly mapped onto the X-Y axis of the political compass, nor can you tell their political allegiances by how they dress and the places they hang out. The Overton window has cracked open and given way to an increasingly niche-ified political landscape, which can be observed in equal parts online – through memes – and IRL via the production of idiosyncratic flags, t-shirts, bumper stickers. Enter: The Manic American Humanist Show.
Taking place in New York’s Public Works Administration, the exhibition picks up during a time when there’s no clear avenues for political potential on the horizon, and no big world event to reignite the progressive agenda. “Our research came right after the Dirtbag Left movement of the Bernie Sanders campaigns. It was an attempt to pivot people politically who are impressionable, maybe falling down right wing conspiracy rabbit holes, and then trying to – both in humour and education – walk that back a little bit,” explains curator Abbey Pusz. Building on the culture-jamming roots of post-internet art, the works aim to shine a light on contemporary alienation as seen in the fringe political corners of the internet, from video games to 7chan and the memescape.
The show features works by four artists – Emma Murray, Filip Kostic, Holly Oliver and Tomi Faison – who are core members of the internet collective Do Not Research (Pusz herself is the group’s co-director). “These artists break ways with the nihilism underpinning millennial politics, which shares an impact on the art-pessimistic attitude of the contemporary fine art world,” she explains. “Do Not Research has always taken an ‘art first’ approach, and acts as an institutional critique by identifying the trends in which art and curation seems to have been sold out from under itself in favour of a display of its own self-suspicion.”
Among the works exhibited is Serbian-American artist Filip Kostic’s “Fortnite: 007 Merciful Angel”, a remake of Fortnite set in a 1999 faulty reconstruction from memory of Belgrade, Serbia during the NATO bombing. The playable work is both a retelling of events from the time period surrounding the war and an exploration of the game space of Fortnite. “The work focuses on the infrastructural basis of Fortnite in which all of context can collapse within the game, using it as a springboard to bring in its own contexts into the fold of the game's logic, further complicating the collapsing as a sort of mirror of the collapsed nature of a recalling of a traumatic event,” says Kostic.
In “Lack Loop”, Tomi Faison positions notes app reflections on gender and identity against clips of 7chan anime girlies and a video of the artist inside a Microsoft XP background drenched in blood. “It displays specific micro-unconscious psychoanalytic observations of desire and drive. The work takes on broad political ideas and trends and traces this connection,” she reveals. Elsewhere, Emma Murray creates a physical obelisk etched with bumper stickers such as Calvin Peeing and ‘Don’t Blame Me, I Didn’t Vote’ (“bumper stickers are so great as both early advertisements and early memes – that seems so American”), while Holly Oliver’s “Field Notes” is an archival collection of years of phone and laptop notes, as well as other online ephemera. Created entirely on Google Docs, the piece resembles a digital scrapbook, with personal reflections juxtaposed with free association writings and brainstorms rendered in a digital sprawl of Unicode characters. “The work attempts to capture the experiential ‘materiality’ that forms the substrate for these extended-mind processes,” she explains.
Although told through a deeply personal lens, The Manic American Humanist Show uses the language of internet culture – signifiers that we’re all familiar with to some degree as digital natives – to explore the political fringes as a space for experimentation and play. “Where I am most inspired by these artists, as my peers, is the depth of their sympathy and emphasis on human agency,” Pudz concludes. “The potential to mystify and spectacularise the postmodern moment is hemmed and reigned in by a simple truth: that the internet is all the same to where I grew up.”
The Manic American Humanist Show is on show at Public Works Administration in New York between March 10-26