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Apr 07, 2009

New media ingenuity is the highlight of a unique biennial exhibition for an emerging generation of artists.

By David A. Ross

Biennial exhibitions—once singular, now being turned out as if by some globetrotting curatorial OctoMom—have become increasingly easy to ignore. 
Defying that trend, New York’s feisty and fearless New Museum just opened a brand-new biennial that redefines the form as “generational.”  Launched during Easter week with the irreverent, even confrontational title Younger than Jesus, it proposes to introduce the artists of the Millennial Generation. And so it does: 50 artists, all under the age of 33 from 25 countries, selected from a field of more than 500 finalists.
Happily, the curators—Massimiliano Gioni, Laura Hoptman and Lauren Cornell—made no attempt to proclaim a new style or devise a simplified aesthetic label for this generation: pluralism rules!
The exhibition includes a dizzying range of works, from small-scale paintings by the Iranian Tala Madani, to the ecstatic video installation of emerging American superstar Ryan Trecartin. What commonalities do emerge are actually points of departure: how little sympathy these global artists seem to have for globalization, for example, and how irrelevant their generational link is to what they make of the world they see. 
Cornell calls the show a “pluralistic, complex, contradictory picture of art that’s happening around the world”—a rejection, in fact, of the very notion of any global aesthetic vision. “A lot of what comes out in the show,” she says, “is a real criticism of globalization and the Bush era…a rejection of globalization in terms of culture—that it doesn’t work.”
What is most widely shared among these artists is the toolbox of a new world of media. This is the first generation who grew up immersed in video, online gaming and the intersecting communities of Web culture. Being able to move seamlessly from the splendid isolation of the studio to the cacophony of social networks and massively interactive games seems to unite this generation of artists far more than any shared experience of unfolding world events. 
The two artists featured on the pages that follow both started out as inveterate hackers. Now, they are the master and rising star of this new artistic universe. Cory Arcangel, 31, and Mark Essen, 22, describe the generation chronologically and graphically. Arcangel appropriates the visual language of the video game world, while Essen, who readily acknowledges Arcangel as an important influence, actually builds video games as works of art rather than as simple (or even complex) playthings.
The landscape these artists explore is the pixelated world of the video game, and their exploration of color is liberated by the computer monitor’s ability to display millions of them. Their notion of community is just as dramatically redefined, away from geography and demography toward the virtual populations of Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter, global communities based on elective affinities.  
If the artists of the late 19th century had to wonder what had become of their jobs after the invention of photography, artists of the early 21st century face a far more complex reality.
In a world of YouTube music and video mashups—a world in which the roles of user and creator are radically fudged—what’s the role of the artist? What is art? Who is the “viewer,” and who decides what is “good?” 
The curators themselves engaged the question of authority by including all 500 finalists in their catalogue, in effect inviting the exhibit’s audience to second guess their choices.
The art world, which has always loomed large in the minds of young artists awaiting their turn, seems in many ways irrelevant to artists like Essen, Arcangel and their peers. And both the politics of national identity and the anguished explorations of personal identity so present in late
20th-century art are virtually absent.
Instead, today’s young artists seem to be turning outward, painting their 21st-century world with the brushes of the virtual one. Born too late to be confused by the speculative politics that attended the birth of video and Internet art, they have more than fulfilled the prophecy that California conceptual artist John Baldessari made for them in 1974: that they would learn to wield the tools of “new media” as previous generations had understood the pencil.

The Generational: Younger Than Jesus will be on view through July 5. The New Museum—located at 235 Bowery, in lower Manhattan (212-219-1222)—is open from 12 to 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, from 12 to 9 p.m. on Thursday and Friday and is closed on Monday and Tuesday.

Featured Artists

Cory Arcangel

One  of the “older” artists in this exhibition is New Yorker Cory Arcangel, 31, considered a pioneer of Internet-era art. A second-generation conceptual artist, he began his artistic career as a hacker. In well-known works based on Super Mario Bros., he hacked into the program itself, honoring the innate beauty of the game’s simplified graphical world, even as he challenged the authority of ownership. 
Likewise, the title of his large minimal work consists of the complete instructions for making it: Photoshop CS 72 by 110 inches, 300 DPI, RGB, square pixels, default gradient “Spectrum,” mousedown y=1416 x=1000, mouse up y=208, x=42. Arcangel thus invites anyone with access to a computer and the Photoshop program to create an identical image. Like a Sol Le Witt instructional wall drawing or a Yoko Ono instruction piece, Photoshop CS… announces itself as something unique, with specific properties, while undercutting the value of its uniqueness—a work of art for sale, even as Arcangel conspires to give it away.  
In Panasonic TH-42PWD8UK Plasma Screen Burn, Arcangel also conflates the object and its name by burning the title of the piece into a plasma screen, simultaneously ruining the screen and exposing a fatal flaw in this state-of-the-art high-end video technology.

Mark Essen

At the other end of the age bracket from Cory Arcangel is the 22-year-old California-based artist Mark Essen.
Essen works completely within the realm of the video game, but unlike Arcangel (whom he acknowledges as an influence), Essen insists on the viewer’s complete immersion into his world. He begins with the crude graphics of early video game software code, but the results are anything but simple. With sly references to the visual vocabulary of minimalism, Essen makes work that is generally explored and understood more by his gaming cohorts than the institutional art world. Still, it seems relatively comfortable within the white walls of the New Museum, which serves an art world that in the past decade has opened itself up to the interests of a new audience.
Essen’s Flywrench, a complete single-player video game, is not about winning, even though it is based on strict rules. Rather, it is a journey—he compares it to a skateboard course—in which the player moves through screen space, engaging with a series of geometric forms reminiscent of early computer graphics but far more sophisticated in terms of animation and intensity. Essen is sharing his world with the viewer, and inviting them not only to participate but also to take the controls and assume the position of authority.

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