Commissioning Tumblr Artists: How Rhizome Is Expanding Their Net Art Legacy
I was in first grade when Rhizome circulated its first email message to an intimate group of some of the first artists beginning to bring the internet into their practice. Seventeen years later, Rhizome has grown into a thriving non-profit, affiliated with New York’s New Museum. And what started out as a fringe art scene has matured into a thriving art practice along with digital culture at large, which has reached a point of saturation—so much so that the prefix has become unnecessary. In its production, distribution, and valuation contemporary art operates in a moment that is distinctly post-internet.
This week, Rhizome announced a new grant in collaboration with microblogging platform Tumblr, which is playing an increasingly important role as an arbiter of arts and culture in the cyber landscape. The fund, titled The Rhizome | Tumblr Internet Art Grant, will add an additional three projects to Rhizome’s existing commission program, which awards up to six projects every two year cycle (all currently open for submissions). The new collaborative fund will specifically target Tumblr's vast artistic community, with a particular emphasis on projects from artists engaged with the platform.
The partnership is an organic step for the two organizations. In 2010, three years after launching Tumblr, founder David Karp joined forces with video artist Ryan Trecartin in Rhizome’s inaugural Seven on Seven conference (video of their conversation here). The event, which is coming up soon, pairs seven technologists with seven artists to work in tandem for 24 hours, then present the results of their collaboration at the conference. Karp and Trecartin's mind melding resulted in the Tumblr-like video streaming project, River of the Net.
Installation shot of physical incarnation of Jon Rafman's 9eyes
Participating artists will be judged by a panel that includes New Museum’s associate director Massimiliano Gioni, artist and musician Laurie Anderson, Rhizome's program director Zoë Salditch, Tumblr’s Topherchris, and artist Jon Rafman. As the artist-judge of the lot, Rafman may be the ideal participant—his practice not only digs through the digital as source material, but uses Tumblr itself as both means and media. Rafman’s 9eyes is a Tumblr-based archive of Google Street View images collected by the artist since 2008. Along with his collaborator, writer and artist Rosa Aiello, Rafman recently premiered Remember Carthage (2013), a new video work made up of PS3 video game and Second Life footage, with the New Museum’s digital exhibition program First Look, curated by former Rhizome executive director, Lauren Cornell.
This grant comes at a time when much of the arts community is thinking deeply about how we fund and value art. In fluctuating economic times, the institutional and governmental support of culture feels inaccessible to artists, especially those creating on the edges of what we understand as new media, digital, or internet art. "Making art on the internet doesn't always pay," says Heather Corcoran, executive director of Rhizome. "It's great to be giving artists who make the web a more interesting and critical place a bit of financial support.'
Painting by Parker Ito, from the The Most Infamous Girl in the History of the Internet / Attractive Student / Parked Domain Girl series
Work that is "interesting and critical," often reaches outside of pre-existing classification systems. "Internet art" is a perfectly ambiguous phrase and the grant guidelines specify proposing projects can be “web-based art, works that employ mobile platforms, performance, video, installation or sound art.” In this effort, Tumblr and Rhizome reaffirm a reality that all working artists know to be true—whether or not one makes so-called "internet art", as creators engaged with our cultural context, everything we make is influenced by the digital sphere. The internet, and Tumblr in particular, have altered the way we look and expanded access to the process of creating and consuming artistic images.
“I think it's interesting that the internet is built up of these pre-existing codes and networks and that the art is built on top of that,” says Tumblr’s art evangelist Annie Werner, “the canvas could be java or a performative internet persona or a Tumblr theme.” Looking through the archive of past Rhizome commissions and projects, it becomes clear the artists and work that receive support quickly become the most relevant players in this realm of contemporary art. The true effects of Tumblr on an artist’s practice and the image in culture are unfolding questions, ones that this grant provides support for exploring. As Werner says, “I couldn't be more excited to see what comes out of it.”