Although operating entirely online has been novel for some during the COVID-19 pandemic, for others it has long been the preferred way of being. This is the case for Silicon Valet, a virtual gallery that has fostered a space for digital art and expanded practices since 2018. The gallery’s latest online exhibition, Well Now WTF? (WNWTF) opened in April to an art world keen to experience the possibilities of online platforms. Curated by Faith Holland (New York), Lorna Mills (Toronto), and Wade Wallerstein (San Francisco), the exhibition features GIFs and video art by over a hundred contributors—an eclectic roster composed of established and emerging artists including net art pioneers and students. Loosely organized into twelve “rooms” with juvenile but timely names such as “Stay Home and Masturbate,” “Wash Your Fucking Hands,” and “Zoom Link Plz,” the project is a response to the circumstances imposed by the pandemic. Wallerstein makes explicit in his exhibition essay, however, that neither the show nor the majority of the work on display offers solutions to what is happening outside of the screen. Rather than jump on the “net art revival bandwagon,” he proposes that the show is a “net art reclamation.” He sees WNWTF as an online gathering space to reconnect “the communities that got separated by time, distance, and filter bubbles.”
WNWTF celebrates net art by showcasing one of its earliest forms, the looping GIF. A return to Internet basics, GIFs were the first colour images to be put online.2 What made the format revolutionary was an algorithm that identified and simplified repeating patterns, allowing for file compression without any data loss. This was seminal for the web because it allowed webmasters to host images on their own servers, avoiding slow-loading browsers. Much like the infrastructure of the Internet, the GIF lends itself to sharing and contributes to a larger cultural conversation. In “A Brief History of the GIF (so far)” (2014), digital media curator Jason Eppink explains “even though individuals process the pixels, communities make the GIFs.”3 Characterized by its accessibility and visual communication power, the GIF is a means of online community-building.
Although GIFs have been ubiquitous in Internet conversations and media, the way we consume them has changed significantly since the Internet’s inception thirty years ago. They are floating signifiers that absorb purpose. Like most Internet content, they are now subjected to information gatekeeping algorithms developed by dominant tech companies. These algorithms have cultivated what Internet activist Eli Pariser calls “the filter bubble,” a condition in which people encounter only information that conforms to their search history, reinforcing their own beliefs and opinions. As a result, people become effectively isolated in their own cultural and ideological bubbles.
In the WNWTF room “Deep Dark Germ Corner,” New York artist Ziyang Wu’s excerpt of A Woman with the Technology Part 4 (2019) offers a glimpse into the inner workings of the filter bubble. The video work is a two-minute animated montage that depicts a future dystopia. It opens to a scene with chrome android-like figures wearing virtual reality headsets branded with “Huawi” logos, swiping through news content on hovering screens. Another scene depicts a room occupied by a corridor, edged by shiny red transport trucks, that leads to a picture of Vladimir Putin donning Kim Jong-un’s hair. The imagery is accompanied by incoherent English and Chinese subtitles that read, for instance, “Huawei saw truck drivers create a humorous image as a communist prince here.” Wu explains in his description of the video that the work was developed based on an artificial intelligence–generated script produced by an AI chatbot trained on an archive of keywords drawn from his daily social media activity. Wu’s work reveals how distorted reality can become when it’s being regulated by algorithms.