I had not been aware before now of the concept of the micro-trend. Natasha Stagg explains it as something that “doesn’t last the time it generally takes to be recognized as a proper trend.” Stagg is the author of a novel about Internet celebrity and a contributor to the catalog for the Ninth Berlin Biennale for Contemporary Art, “The Present in Drag,” installed in various venues across the German capital through September 18. The term could have described the phenomenon of post-Internet art when I first heard that phrase a few years back. At the time, it was hard to grasp what “post-Internet art” was supposed to mean, other than art made by people who have long been familiar with the Internet and have come to accept it, however ruefully, as part of their environment—or even as their entire environment, since for many of us today, the Internet is no longer something we encounter on-screen, but instead is somehow embedded in our houses and clothes, our desires and dreams.
That the Internet is by now second nature makes it all the more urgent—and difficult—to understand it better. But for many artists, it is also simply a bottomless source of images and techniques that are theirs to use for their own ends, rather than something of inherent fascination. A good comparison would probably be to photography in the mid-19th century: It was seen by some as a threat to the art of painting, but painters almost immediately began using it as part of their working process. Painting changed as a result, but not necessarily in obvious ways. There are works by Edgar Degas that clearly look like post-photographic painting, but photography was also employed by plenty of artists whose works look far more painterly. And besides, the snapshot aesthetic of a Degas horse race or ballet class was not yet part of photography as he knew it; Degas was really in advance of, rather than in tandem with, the then-new technology. Similarly, when the work of a 21st-century artist reminds us of experiences familiar from the digital realm or of its effects IRL, as one used to say, it might not be ahead of the trend.
I had hoped that the whole “post-Internet art” micro-trend might fizzle with the New Museum’s 2015 Triennial, whose subtitle—“Surround Audience”—seemed to signal an aspiration to mimic the Net’s all- encompassing nature. The show was mostly cheered by critics, though the artist Sam Pulitzer, writing in Artforum, called it—critically, I think, yet also somehow in awe—“a veritable circus of globally operative contemporary art, which falls into roughly two categories: on the one hand, those works that seem to amplify the notion of the ‘surround’ put forward by the show, mimicking the supposed omnipotence and immersiveness of digital technologies; and on the other, works that evade or undermine this surround.”
A year and a half later—an eternity in the realm of the micro-trend—post-Internet art is still with us. The connection between “The Present in Drag” and “Surround Audience” is patent. The Berlin Biennale has been curated by Lauren Boyle, Solomon Chase, Marco Roso, and David Toro of the New York–based fashion/art/design group DIS; they participated as artists in the New Museum Triennial, while Ryan Trecartin, cocurator of the latter, is (in his ongoing collaboration with Lizzie Fitch) among the artists most prominently featured in Berlin. (Also in both shows are a couple of other artists, Guan Xiao and Josh Kline.) The déjà vu might suggest that the “post-Internet” vibe may have too much staying power to count as a micro-trend, but it’s notable that what was greeted with something like relief the first time around—“a break in the clouds,” as Holland Cotter sighed in The New York Times—is now being received with almost hysterical indignation, most notably in The Guardian, where Jason Farago coined one of the best bits of invective I’ve read lately: “I have seen spambots with greater sensitivity.”