There’s a scene in the pilot of Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls in which the 24-year-old Hannah (played by Dunham) tries to persuade her parents not to end her allowance, which she needs in order to finish writing her book. “I think that I may be the voice of my generation,” she reasons. “Or at least a voice . . . of a generation.”
The idea that one voice might define a generation is plainly ridiculous. Yet the desire for such a voice, from both the marketers and consumers of popular culture, is undeniable. Indeed Hannah’s plea is often used to describe Dunham’s own achievement, with her hit show about twentysomethings in an era of interns and Instagram.
So who is Dunham’s equivalent in the slippery world of contemporary art? Gallery types talk excitedly of “post-internet art”, a term that refers broadly to art made by those who have grown up with the internet and which reflects the cultural changes it has wrought. The curators Hans Ulrich Obrist and Simon Castets are even putting together a database of such artists as part of the 89plus.com project (the artists were all born in or after 1989, the year the world wide web was launched). Three solo shows by artists too old for Obrist but otherwise firmly labelled “post-net” are currently on in London, and together they paint a troubling picture of the ways technology is changing life today.
Video artist Ryan Trecartin, born in Texas in 1981, has enjoyed critical attention since graduating from art school. Indeed, sometimes the attention has bordered on adoration: The New Yorker has hailed him as “the most consequential artist to have emerged since the 1980s”. His film series Priority Innfield was a hit at the Venice Biennale last year and is now at London’s Zabludowicz Collection – its production having been part funded by collector Anita Zabludowicz, who effectively pre-purchased it.
The main gallery is boxed in to create a dark, disorientating space with two “sculptural theatres” designed by Trecartin and his longtime collaborator Lizzie Fitch. The first film, “Item Falls”, introduces the young hopefuls auditioning for a “gaming system that is also a university” with the aim of becoming boy band members or animated girls called “Jennys”. The second film, “Center Jenny”, sees the girls, now a kind of sorority, progress through the levels of the game spouting bitchy insults as they go.
But to describe the plot of a Trecartin film is to miss the point. Fragmented and frenzied, they are more like character studies than stories: Priority Innfield explores how identity is shaped by the internet and modern celebrity. “I deserve a solo,” screams one character. “I have 4,000 friends,” another says. “One of the most elegant things about facts is that I believe in them,” announces a third. These are people who look at the camera more than each other and talk in rehearsed soundbites. Like the YouTube hopefuls singing into webcams in bedrooms across the world, Trecartin’s characters are obsessed with the idea of auditioning, of being chosen.
The films mix handheld camerawork with CGI to suggest a hyperreality. The editing is fast, the light saturated and the actors’ voices high-pitched. Everything is carefully choreographed to create an orgiastic chaos. Characters change gender and skin colour: identity is fluid, constructed. “I fucking make up shit, OK? And that’s my gimmick,” one Jenny snaps at another. In this competitive, computer-game reality, everyone must have a gimmick, a USP.
Trecartin’s vision may sound exaggerated; certainly, a world populated by his shrieking narcissists would be unbearable. But the next film, “Junior War”, which he shot at high school in the late 1990s, shows how much our relationship to the camera has changed. “Don’t film me!” one girl recoils. “He’s videotaping us,” another warns her friend. Priority Innfield is Trecartin’s warning: this is what the internet has done to us. Beneath the lurid unreality of his films is a truth that’s hard to dismiss.
Ed Fornieles’ one-room installation at the Chisenhale gallery, Modern Family, could pass for an abandoned set in a messy Trecartin movie. Here are the trappings of family life – garden furniture, picnic food, toys – but without the family. Like the deck chair encrusted with breakfast cereal, everything is strange, overloaded, sickly sweet.
The accompanying notes describe the scene as a “Pinterest reality” – hundreds of objects and references ripped from their origins and artfully arranged to express something of the character of their arranger. The soundtrack is a similar mash-up – Swan Lake, funk, Disney. We are all curators now, Fornieles seems to say. But there is a clichéd quality to it all, and the words “Be Yourself” cut out of a bland two-tone painting suggest a cookie-cutter conformity to the way we attempt uniqueness through social media. That is true enough, but there is nothing here as genuinely disturbing as Trecartin’s films.
At the Institute of Contemporary Arts, 29-year-old French artist Neïl Beloufa also brings together diverse imagery, but his work has less of the one-liner about it than Fornieles’. His assemblage sculptures owe much to cubist collage and the likes of Robert Rauschenberg, but their trashiness – flimsy plastic, cheap electronics – feels contemporary. Beloufa draws attention to the making, and faking, of art: you can see how some sculptures have been tacked together; others incorporate the cigarettes he smoked in the studio while producing them. Art’s pretensions to be more than it is – to comprise objects so immaculate that the messy processes of manufacture are concealed – are the kind of lie Beloufa sees everywhere in contemporary life: from reality TV, where ordinary people are blown up into “personalities”, to the sleek design of corporate modernism (he has installed his own scrappy, colourful CCTV cameras next to each of the ICA’s real ones, rendering them strangely po-faced).
Beloufa made his name with documentary-style films that muddy fact with fiction. For a new video “Data for Desire” he asked a group of elite teenage mathematicians from France to analyse a film he’d shot of Americans the same age at a party, tasking the French teens with creating an algorithm to predict who would couple up at the party. The absorbing result cuts between the two groups, teasing out cultural preconceptions and pointing to the absurd faith our society puts in technology and data.
Questions of authority and authenticity run through Beloufa’s work. For another film, “World Domination”, he asked non-actors to play world leaders at a summit, asking each to declare war on another country, without giving them a script. “People act so well naturally,” Beloufa explains, when we meet in the gallery. “If you base your culture on selling, you have people that know how to do it: actors are sellers.” Like Trecartin and Fornieles, he is interested in the elision of real and virtual life. The idea of the “selfie”, so central to their art, encapsulates both the technology and “me culture” of the post-internet age.
‘Lizzie Fitch/Ryan Trecartin’, Zabludowicz Collection, London, to December 21, zabludowiczcollection.com
‘Ed Fornieles: Modern Family’, Chisenhale, London, to November 9, chisenhale.org.uk
‘Neïl Beloufa: Counting on People’, ICA, London, to November 16, ica.org.uk
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