Wellnow.wtf is a digital exhibition curated by Faith Holland, Lorna Mills, and Wade Wallerstein that opened on 4 April 2020, and featured a large international group of eighty net artists with moving-image related practises. The web address of the installation is the installation site of the show, run in turn by the same three curators doubling as “Silicon Valet”, a pun on both the sound of the phrase “Silicon Valley” and on the kind of Valley tech-optimism that haunted the first wave of net art in the early 2000’s-2010, against which this exhibition is constructed. As Wallerstein writes in his curatorial essay:
But this all felt like the same art world nonsense: the same institutional pandering to younger audiences and hipper collectors with new money to spend on shiny gadgets and club kid personalities. It was all a dick measuring competition for the crispiest renders, the most bells & whistles on a web page, and the most famous names in the art game without critical experimentation.
Silicon Valet, and the Wellnow.wtf show thus attempt to show curated art, and therefore by definition become an institution, without at the same time acquiring the baggage of previous institutional installations of internet-native or digital-native pieces in the past. This was the first or second week of quarantine for many countries around the world, heady days, by contrast, even now. Everything felt both possible and ominous, a sensibility to which the second accompanying exhibition essay by media theorist Seth Barry Water, invoking at turns the Thucydidean plague in fifth century Athens and Canetti, gestures toward elegantly.
The curators inclusion of pieces by both Molly Soda and Petra Cortright, established net artists who both exploit and comment on the aesthetics of social media, was a smart move to link the exhibition to the relatively recent past of New Media work. Cortright’s piece is shown in ‘Pants Optional’ one of nine cheekily named fictive “rooms” on the exhibition website that gesture towards institutional physical space even as they send it up by title (The Clean Room, Bed of Nails, Stay Home And Masturbate, Clusterfuck Closet, So Sad Because All The Art Fairs Were Cancelled, Wash Your Fucking Hands, In These Indoor Time, and lastly the Deep Dark Germ Corner—all video pieces). Cortright has openly used the structures of digital late capitalism in her previously colour-saturated, eminently Instagrammable works, so it’s notable here that she uses a white screen with ASCII characters to construct a blinking GIF loop of a cross. It’s practically Flavin-esque minimalism by contrast with her photography for Adidas and other corporations, as well as her music videos for the likes of Carly Rae Jepson.
Wellnow.wtf looks at the ruins of Late Capitalism and Valley Culture online, and happily squats on them, with works by Molly McCarthy and SHAWNÉ MICHAELAIN HOLLOWAY looking towards Vapourwave pink/blue aesthetics of feeling, while d0n.xyz’s ‘Frequency Piece’ and others use retrofuturistic VHS glitch effects and synths to situate themselves within an already burgeoning New Media archaeology. If there was/is a New Media before the lockdowns, this, it seems, is the New New Media—self-reflexively and often ironically aware of its own status as digital art. The frequent use of the .gif format amongst contributing artists is itself a kind of digital nostalgia, although as always, the lines between nostalgia and bleeding-edge blur here, since the .gif is now de rigeur on the mainstream internet again.
As with any large group show, some pieces seem like pastiche or fall flat without a broader conceptual narrative provided by an immediate curatorial blurb, but the newness of Wellnow.wtf really shines in the video art posted on a YouTube playlist in the Deep Dark Germ Corner ‘room’. “untitled movementsystem 032020” by A. Bill Miller is a radiantly inventive form of something akin to an inverse Nick Cave sound suit meeting an archival film of Isadora Duncan in glitter. That the soundtrack to the video is white noise is perversely pleasing—something many other artists in the Deep Dark Germ Corner gesture to with ASMR references. Will Pappenheimer’s “Certain Things Might Happen” plays with the artificiality of the VR camera and planar space, even as it evokes the aesthetics of the quasi-pornographic form. He gives us a Barberini Faun for the pink, oversaturated gaze of the fans of Cam Boys and Girls. In a piece that is without embodiment in the physical world at all, this is a clever gesture toward bringing the body into the digital space without the apparatus of VR goggles.
The opening for this show was greatly illuminated by the livestream opening with artists drifting in and out of a Twitch.tv channel. In a space typically used for gamers, and in a post-Gamergate world, the sheer diversity of bodies—non-and-many gendered, queer, female, differently abled—was itself a notable presence. If the result of lockdown is a safer net art world in gaming and other related spaces for the internet’s both most frequent and esoteric users, and often the victims of its nastier sub-cultures, this is in and of itself a victory.
Silicon Valet’s success as a collective with this show might, paradoxically, render Wallerstein’s own stated goal of extra-institutional avant garde status moot. The show received mentions in The Art Newspaper and Dazed as one of the early adopters of digital gallery space for the long term. Still, the sense of newfound community and revival that Wellnow.wtf brings to net art can only be a good thing, given that all the major galleries are jumping on the digital bandwagon. If this is the start of the New New Media in the viral now, one cannot indeed, be quite ‘So Sad Because All The Art Fairs Are Cancelled’. If net art was dead, Wellnow.wtf reminds us that, like a videogame NPC, net art always respawns.