On Kawara’s “I Am Still Alive” Twitter Presence: An Anomaly in Post-Internet Art

Pall Thayer's On Kawara Twitter account.

The most grievous problem with post-internet art has been its nebulousness. If, as Saelan Twerdy recently claimed in Momus, post-internet art may have reached its apogee of innovation, it has done so without a clear explication of what its subject actually is. Certainly, as Brian Droitcour noted in his 2014 Art in America article “The Perils of Post-internet Art,” how we define this movement or genre vary depending on the critic. Interpretations range from that of Marisa Olson, the neologism’s originator, who loosely views the movement as art made after the emergence of the internet, to that of Gene McHugh, who sees it as a byproduct of the internet becoming a part of daily life. Still, these definitions fail to discern art that is “post-internet” from that of any other movement. The reason for this shortcoming is that the term has been deliberately set to be general, particularly by Artie Vierkant, in his pioneering 2010 essay on the movement’s culture, “The Image Object Post-Internet,” in which he refers to the post-internet as “a sincere exploration of cultural shifts in which that technology only plays a small role.” Grouping artists together into a cohesive post-internet movement in a climate of sundry cultural changes without granting the impact of the internet’s central significance becomes complicated if not impossible. That said, Vierkant makes a striking point in the same essay when he observes that one of the central post-internet conditions is the internet encouraging “a ubiquitous authorship which challenges the conditions of the ‘definitive history’ or the ‘original copy’.” This notwithstanding, few artists have been able to take the risky jump of ego abandonment to relinquish their authorship, or their claim to the original. An exception is an ongoing piece by Pall Thayer, an Icelandic digital-media artist, who in 2009 programmed a Twitterbot to issue a seminal On Kawara phrase, “I am still alive,” every day at 10 AM. Importantly, Thayer used the Twitter handle “On Kawara” without the permission of the artist. Thayer’s Twitter posting adopts intrinsic features of the internet (code, bots, and social networking) to extrapolate the twentieth-century ideal of the death of the author into the everlasting now.

Thayer never publicly announced the On Kawara project when he initiated it, and the Twitter account didn’t “follow” anyone in its initial publication. Yet it began to pick them up. When it reached 100 followers, Thayer confessed on Rhizome that it was his, not Kawara’s, Tweets. Nevertheless, Thayer continued posting, and at no point did Kawara request that he desist.

One reason Kawara may have tacitly accepted Thayer’s unsolicited postings is that the original work on which this repeated Tweet riffs – Kawara’s eponymous I Am Still Alive series (1970-2000) – translates to Twitter quite effortlessly. Kawara’s original piece is comprised of a series of telegrams sent to friends and colleagues bearing its titular message. Like a number of Conceptual artists in the early 1970s, including Robert Barry, Hans Haacke, and N.E. Thing Co., Kawara experimented with incorporating into his art now-obsolete technology. Through sending messages by telegram, Kawara positioned his work as information flowing through communications technology, a posture that naturally, though unintentionally, expedited I Am Still Alive’s transition to the internet.

Equally contributing to a smooth conversion from original to appropriated is Thayer’s sensitivity to retaining the humor and repeated ritual that characterized Kawara’s series. That series bears a nihilistic legerdemain: instead of sending someone a significant or urgent message as a telegram would, Kawara conveyed an obvious, banal truth as if everything else was secondary. Simultaneously, I Am Still Alive shares the zen-like reiteration of everyday consciousness. The series is noteworthy as a touchstone artwork from the Conceptual era that combines communications technology with Eastern spiritualism.

The implicit wink in Thayer’s update “blatantly negates the whole idea behind On Kawara’s I Am Still Alive messages,” he says. “Whereas those did indeed confirm that he was still alive, this doesn’t.” Sending these missives via a bot that, unlike their original messenger, in no way confirms an existence, the project bears a similar quality of nihilism to its original source.

Thayer doesn’t just reconstitute the piece, however, he evolves it, completing Kawara’s goal of keeping the creator in absentia. Where Kawara established a conceptualist ideal by spotlighting our quotidian experience through a voided self-expression, Thayer, as he terms it, “maintains” Kawara’s work via programmed code, essentializing a voided authorship.

Thayer stated early on in the project, in 2009, that if Kawara died, he would continue to announce “I am still alive” on a daily basis. He kept his word: after Kawara’s death in 2014, Thayer continued Tweeting his message to a growing audience of over 5,000 followers. The work then became further detached from its original creator. The code script was a remote, authorless “maintainer.”

That Thayer causally links internet technology to the ethos of Conceptual Art discourse and develops on its main tenets makes this work an anomaly of post-internet art. It’s set well apart from the abject camp of Ryan Trecartin, for instance, or Lorna Mills’s The Ways of Something (2014-2015), a mega-scale compilation of Net Art which various critics, for instance Ben Davis, have had difficulty distinguishing as a harbinger of a general cultural change.

Davis notes an unknown impending tendency in post-internet art when discussing Mills’s video compilation, a digital reenactment of the entire four-episode John Berger television series, The Ways of Seeing (1972). He tells artnet News readers that “Something is happening to culture; we really have to name that thing. Ways of Something, in its way, contributes to that collective project, as a remake that points to a sequel that still needs to be made.” Cultural shifts that can only be qualified by an indefinite pronoun testify to the stasis in which too much Net Art (a subcategory of a wider post-internet art, referring to digitally-rendered works solely designed for online distribution) remains.

Successfully capturing the zeitgeist means reiterating Net Art’s central problem, that the seduction of technology has obscured a weakness underlying it: “something” is missing conceptually. For instance, The Ways of Something does not provide a rethinking of Berger; it focuses instead on its digital illustration. Instead of skepticism, the art of Ways of Something bespeaks reiteration, if not homage. In so doing, it illustrates how the post-internet age is analogous to high Maniera (the second period of Mannerism), an art imitating preceding art, particularly Michelangelo, with self-consciousness and exaggeration. Too often, Net Art stands as affected re-workings of twentieth-century art that replaces the Maniera’s bravado displays of painterly virtuosity with the “magic” of technological spectacle, a tendency paralleled in the analogue artworld, or to use the cyberpunk term “meatspace,” by the ubiquitous, coolly self-conscious revisited Modernism of “zombie formalism.”

In this neo-Maniera period of imitational art we need to grant increased attention to discrete advancements such as Paul Thayer’s Twitterbot. His demonstration of how the internet may finally end the outdated notion of individual authorship stands in contrast to post-internet-art blogger, writer, and prosumer Brad Troemel’s troubling proclamation that the internet will be the death of art: “If Anton Vidokle suggested we are entering a period of ‘Art Without Artists’, we are instead suggesting we are present in a moment of Artists Without Art. We live in a time when young artists look at each other’s Facebook pages more than each other’s art.” Art disappears from its receding position, what Vierkant terms “the aesthetic middle man.” The missing object or image simply becomes the subject of social-network threads, while the artist remains a virtual discussion leader.

What a grim scenario this posits. As General Idea warned and demonstrated four long decades ago, entirely emptying the art object risks it being filled with the artist’s persona and their celebrity. To demonstrate this, the trio satirically remade themselves as “famous, glamorous” artists simply by a performative declaration that they were, in fact, that.

The relinquishment of authorship is a hopeful panacea for fighting this conservative cult of the superstar. Accordingly, Thayer’s perpetuating Twitterbot posting stands as one small sign that post-internet art has poised itself – finally – to overleap the celebrity fetishization of today’s neo-Maniera. Bringing art closer to completing Barthes’s 1968 call for the “death of the author,” Thayer’s Kawara project could mark the beginning of this most welcome change to contemporary art. His humble, comical Twitterbot is exemplary for demonstrating that the relationship between “post” and “internet” doesn’t always have to be a non sequitur; it can be one of cause and effect. In other words, Pall Thayer demonstrates with much more specificity than just a “something” that the internet can indeed be crucial to the contemporary art that brings up the rear.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *