This Place Must be the Place: On Living in the Internet

* Images are student works from Akiyama's course, VIS303 - Time-based Installation class. Image text by Mitchell Akiyama.

It’s 2 p.m. EST, almost a full year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and I’m admitting a trickle of students to our Zoom session. No cameras go on today; I’m attempting to make opening small talk with a mosaic of black squares with names displayed in a white, sans serif font. More than a few of the students are joining from China, where it’s now the middle of the night. The class is synchronous, but that doesn’t mean that time isn’t out of joint.

The course is called “Time-Based Installation.” This is the fourth time I’ve taught it, and under “normal” circumstances, students create site-specific installations using video, sound, and interactive electronics. The equipment depot in the Visual Studies Department at the University of Toronto, where I work, is full of projectors, monitors, cameras, and sound equipment, but none of the gear will see any use this year. Like everyone, we’ve had to pivot because of social distancing restrictions, and this year most students will only have access to a smartphone and a laptop. I’ve had to redesign the entire course around these limitations, around having to consider scenarios such as a student using her smartphone as a display for a video installation, but with her only camera tied up, not having a means of documenting her work. But the thing I’m struggling with most is how to think about and how to deal with notions of site, of location, of place in teaching a course that is fundamentally about site-specificity. “Normally,” students would install their projects in our classrooms and studios, and in our critiques, we would consider how their works respond to the history, the architecture, the suchness of our 100-year-old building, a former dairy processing plant in downtown Toronto. But now, students have no choice but to make work in their apartments or their family homes, responding to domestic, private sites that the rest of us will never visit. This is certainly a concession, one that I haven’t wanted to make, because it seems to me that the very notions of site or place or space have irrevocably changed under lockdown. A Zoom call links people in specific chairs in specific homes in specific cities or towns, but I have to keep reminding myself that a video conference is a space in itself. All through the pandemic, I’ve been trying to imagine ways of engaging with online-only social experience as its own thing, its own site, its own space, rather than as a temporary substitute for everything that we’re missing. As I plan courses, make my own artwork, and organize online events, I keep trying (and mostly failing) to envision and create experiences that are site-specific to the Internet.

In 2002, less than a decade into the age of the Internet, Miwon Kwon posited that the notion of site-specificity took hold in the 1960s.1Miwon Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 17.​Modernism held the art object as sacrosanct and transcendental. Whether a Picasso canvas hung on the walls of the Louvre or sat on the floor of his studio wasn’t particularly important; it was what was inside the frame that counted. For modernist artists, the site was trivial. Hung on a wall or mounted on a plinth, an artwork was meant to stand on its own, autonomous and detached from any location in particular.2Ibid., 11. See also Rosalind Krauss, "Sculpture in the Expanded Field," October 8, no. Spring (1979).​ And while some had designed immersive experiences in which the entire space of exhibition was the art—El Lissitzky’s Proun Room or Peggy Guggenheim’s Surrealist Art of This Century exhibition, for example—it wasn’t particularly significant that these spaces were located in Berlin or New York. But by 1969, Richard Serra was insisting that his work couldn’t exist anywhere other than where it had been installed:

Site-specific works deal with the environmental components of given places…The works become part of the site and restructure both conceptually and perceptually the organization of the site.3Quoted in Kwon, One Place after Another: Site-Specific Art and Locational Identity, 12.

Serra’s monumental, torqued steel forms claim the space around them, but I can still imagine each sculpture elsewhere. Even many of the canonical Land Art works—Nancy Holt’s Sun Tunnels or Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, for example—could have conceivably existed in other places. Why that lake? Why that desert? A site is more than a set of physical or geographic attributes. A site is also defined by its cultural history, by the people who have settled and claimed it, and by those who have been displaced. Every site has its own political economy, its own lineage of power, ownership, and entitlement; site-specificity operates in another register when a work directly engages these features. Take, for example, Hans Haacke’s 1970 work, MoMA Poll, which asked visitors to weigh in on museum board member Nelson Rockefeller’s tacit support of the war in Vietnam. Visitors voted on the proposition, “Would the fact that Governor Rockefeller has not denounced President Nixon’s Indochina Policy be a reason for your not voting for him in November?” The work implicated the public and called attention to complex entanglements between institutions and political power. MoMA Poll could only exist there, at that moment; it would be an entirely different work if installed in 2020 at the Guggenheim, Abu Dhabi. Haacke’s piece responded so specifically to its site and its historical moment that extricating it from that place and moment would nullify its critique.

I’m not interested in establishing a hierarchy or system for rating whether one work is more specific to its site than another. But, when considering what site means in 2021, it is important to account for how cultural objects and events derive meaning from manifesting in particular places and at specific times. Twenty years ago, Doreen Massey argued that the distinction between space and place was politically fraught and problematic. Drawing on and complicating the ideas of earlier thinkers of space, such as Henri Lefebvre and Michel de Certeau, Massey affirmed that space is a composite, socially constructed, protean. Space is an abstract sphere of social practices; it is the physical and imagined realm in which we live. A queer bar in Toronto is a space, a kindergarten in Berlin is a space, but so is Twitter. But she asserted that place, too, is a construct. Intuitively, the idea of place is relatively simple and stable. The place is there or here; it is a local, circumscribed patch of land that couldn’t be anywhere else. But, Massey argued, there is a pernicious conservatism to this in that a place only becomes a place when one feels entitled to claim it.4Doreen Massey, For Space (London: Sage Publications, 2005), 5-6.Place is a placeholder for the social and political struggle that allows some to entrench themselves in the local, defending their interests against those who supposedly don’t belong. Space and place and the relations between them have always been in flux, and they have always been defined and refined by power and entitlement. The various waves of globalization (from the silk trade to early imperialism to global, networked finance) have troubled and complicated this relation, but now it feels like something has shifted. A decade ago it wouldn’t have been controversial to suggest that the Internet was a space. But now, in 2021, it seems to me that the Internet is also a place.

I’m going to pause to make a confession. When I began writing this in mid-February 2021, I didn’t have a clear sense—call it an argument or a thesis—as to what this mass migration into online life meant for our conception of space or place or site. I was trusting that I’d figure it out as I researched, wrote, and rewrote. And then, a few weeks ago, non-fungible tokens (NFTs) broke the Internet. If you, reader, who I presume is interested and invested in art and digital culture, haven’t heard of NFTs, I’ll offer a very brief summary. NFTs are tokens that authenticate “ownership” of a limited number of digital objects that are generated and accounted for by a blockchain. Purchasing an NFT enshrines the buyer’s name in the blockchain ledger, making it public knowledge that this individual or consortium indeed owns this digital image by Grimes or that video clip of a Lebron James dunk or limited access to limited recordings and merchandise from the band Kings of Leon. As I write this, NFT fever doesn’t seem close to breaking; the digital artist, Beeple, recently sold a collection of 5,000 images at a Christie’s auction for $69.3 million—the third highest sale ever for work by a living artist. But even Beeple, aka Mike Winkelmann, suspects that cryptoart is a bubble distended to the point of bursting.

If there’s a common denominator in the media coverage of this phenomenon, it’s money—try to find an article that doesn’t mention the obscene sums that NFTs are fetching. Value is virtually the only thing that non-specialist publications seem interested in discussing, usually in breathless disbelief. And then there are those who are calling out the phenomenon for its wasteful consumption of energy. The artist and technologist, Memo Akten, recently calculated that the energy required to power a single-edition NFT is equivalent to “an EU resident’s electricity consumption for 1 month; Flying for 2 hours; Driving 1 thousand Km…” etc. NFTs incur massive electricity costs in minting the token, but they are also generally bought and sold using cryptocurrencies such as Ethereum and Bitcoin, which themselves require huge amounts of power to produce. And this is for an edition of one. A single work leaves a carbon footprint; an edition of 100 leaves an even longer, sooty trail up to the cloud.

There are also those who see NFTs as affording artists a measure of autonomy. When an artist sells a (“real”?) painting through a gallery, she typically cedes 50% of the sale to the dealer. If that painting is then auctioned by the buyer for a healthy sum, she might get a bump in future sales, but she won’t touch any of the profits. An NFT, on the other hand, allows the artist to, at least partially, define the terms of sale. This generally includes the artist maintaining equity in her work—if an NFT sells at a future auction, she gets a cut of the sale.

But what isn’t currently being discussed, as far as I can gather, is why NFTs have exploded at this particular moment. Blockchain technology has existed since the mid-2010s, and in 2017, the CryptoKitties phenomenon had CNBC gawking at “the $100,000 digital beanie babies epitomizing the cryptocurrency mania.” Cute. So again, why now? If NFTs are a symptom of this always-online, pandemic moment, what is the etiology? It’s possible that it has something to do with the recent rise in digital speculation and investing. With nothing to do and limited opportunities to spend, online trading has spiked. But I think that people are suddenly in a frenzy to drop millions of dollars for the idea of owning a singular, digital object is that many of us—the privileged millions who have access to electronic devices and reliable Internet access—now live in digital technology, in the place we call the Internet. The COVID-19 pandemic has forced us to find digital substitutes for just about everything we once did in person. For years, art galleries have made digital reproductions of their works available online, but no one ever took sifting through MoMA’s collection on Firefox to be a substitute for a trip to New York. And now? Now, one could spend weeks touring the world’s great institutions on one’s screen. I recently “went” on a “proxy visit” to the Transmediale festival in Berlin, where my surrogate body cheerily told me that they would be my eyes, hands, and feet for an hour. We’ve begrudgingly substituted Zoom meetings for classes, conferences, and family celebrations. We meet in “rooms” and raise emoji hands to signal the intention to speak. So, at this moment, with so many of us living in the Internet, of course it makes some sort of sense to create and covet arbitrarily scarce digital objects.

When this first occurred to me a few weeks ago, I thought it might be a stretch. I found myself pitching this idea to others, arguing that it was somehow understandable to want a “unique” digital painting when one’s screen had become a living room, that there was a logic, however bizarre, to wanting something nice to hang over a digital sofa. And then, last week, the first digital house sold as an NFT fetched $500,000. This couldn’t have come too soon considering that a couple of weeks earlier, a collection of digital furniture sold for $70,000. I like to imagine that the buyer was the same early adopter of digital real estate and was anxious to find somewhere to house their biomorphic, pixel-chairs. He’s probably already moved in.

I started writing this in the middle of the winter semester, and now the term is almost over. The prompt for the class’s final assignment was to produce documentation of installations that they won’t have actually installed. One student presented a work that imagines the entire sky as a projection screen—a video depicting an upside-down city engulfed in blue flames. Another, who has diligently joined in from Shanghai every week, presented an imaginary dome in which the light and climatic conditions of Toronto would be replicated so that he could be in sync with the place where he spends most of his time. The spaces in which these installations were created are virtual and speculative, but this doesn’t mean that they aren’t real.

In her recent book, Lurking: How a Person Became a User, Joanne McNeil writes, “People used to talk about the internet as a place…something to get on.”5Joanne McNeil, Lurking - How a Person Became a User (New York: MCD Books, 2020). Thanks to Maria Yablonina for the recommendation.​ What’s changed, she suggests, is that the Internet has become personified; we now describe it as something that we talk to. Being online is far more interactive than it used to be, but I don’t think we’ve shaken the sense that the Internet is a place. We’ve understood the Internet through spatial metaphors since its early days—information superhighway, chatrooms, message boards, etc. But the getting on used to imply a getting off, so to speak. The Internet used to be an expressway that we’d merge onto for a time before exiting and returning to the asphalt avenues of “real” life. But I don’t travel to the Internet anymore; I live there now. And when this is all over, after enough of us are vaccinated to begin meeting in the same physical spaces again, I wonder if any “real” spaces will feel like substitutes for the virtual environments I’ll leave behind. Who knows where I will be?

Mitchell Akiyama is a Toronto-based scholar, composer, and artist. His eclectic body of work includes writings about sound, metaphors, animals, and media technologies; scores for film and dance; and objects and installations that trouble received ideas about history, perception, and sensory experience. He holds a PhD in communications from McGill University and an MFA from Concordia University and is Assistant Professor of Visual Studies in the Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design at the University of Toronto.

Richard Schutte, Art Gallery (2021). Schutte trained an AI algorithm with images of art galleries pulled from Google Images in order to create a synthetic, virtual museum

Richard Schutte, Art Gallery (2021). Schutte trained an AI algorithm with images of art galleries pulled from Google Images in order to create a synthetic, virtual museum

Zhengxi Piao, Digital Karma (2021). Piao’s imagined installation features a chair that, when activated, begins to mine cryptocurrency, but gets hotter the longer one sits - a comment on the environmental consequences of greed and digital currency

Yuhan Zhang, Resonance (2021). Zhang’s work proposes a space that captures its audience’s heart rhythms and renders them as image and sound

Qiongsen Jin, Online x Offline (2021). Jin, who lives in China, presented an imaginary dome that simulates the lighting and climatic conditions of Toronto, allowing him to synchronize his circadian rhythms with his peers

Fiyin Coker, Living in Disaster (2021). Coker’s speculative installation imagines the sky as a vast screen onto which she projects inverted images of cities engulfed in blue flames

Published: 2021.04.22