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The New "New Topography" — Joel Holmberg Surveys Network Landscapes [Interview]

The conceptual artist explores absurdity and sincerity on the internet.
November 17, 2010, 9:15pm

Like most of us, Joel Holmberg spends a lot of time online, it’s what he does with that time that sets him apart from the rest of us. Holmberg approaches the internet with an artist’s sensitivity and hyper-awareness of the ironies, absurdities, and paradoxes it often fosters. Though his tongue-in-cheek works often have an air of merry prankster-ism about them, they also seem to stem from an underlying sincerity, a quest to capture and highlight the human aspects of this, as he terms it, “corporatized” digital medium.

His work is currently featured in the exhibition “Free,” on view through January 21st at the New Museum in NYC. The exhibition features works from twenty three different artists working in a variety of mediums whose work considers how the internet has affected our landscape of information and notion of public space. We sat down with the artist to find out more about his art practice and inspirations.

The Creators Project: You work on such a diversity of projects—from sculpture to net art—how would you describe your artistic practice?
Joel Holmberg: Definitely there's an aspect of humor in it and also the goal of adding to art history—the history of sculpture, conceptual art, and photography. But also pinpointing people's place within technology. There's a kind of play on ways of interacting with technology that are sincere and embracing the promises of technology, but on a deeper level, also questioning it and exposing things about it that are taken for granted and in turn getting back to what we would be without the technology. Kind of showing where it's brought us but also how things are really not that different. And I think that's why I'm really comfortable going back and forth in different mediums because there's always a consciousness of "Well, what would I do if computers didn't exist?" And I feel like I'm prepared.

Getty Images Hollywood, Joel Holmberg.

Unlike the rest of us…
A lot of times I wonder if technology almost wants us to be lost, like it's in their best interest to have the user not really know what's going on. It's sort of mystifying the experience in a way. I feel a moral obligation as an artist to strip that away and show some of the absurdity of it.

So would you say that your work is subversive in the way it treats technology?
Yeah, there is an element of protest in it. I can't get online and not try to find some way to undermine what corporations have put out, the structures they have put out, because I think that it's important to expose that.

What is the art historical dialogue you see your work as contributing to?
I often describe it as network topography. There was a movement in photography starting in the '70s that was often called the "New Topographic" and artists like Ed Ruscha did some conceptual books of pictures of gas stations or swimming pools or every building on Sunset Strip which, when the first Street View pictures came out, of course everyone was like "Oh my good, that's like Ed Ruscha!" They were showing the changes in the American landscape and I feel like, in some ways, I'm doing a similar thing, which is showing the changes in the internet.

I think in terms of contemporary art history that is kind of my lineage, as far as capturing not only a landscape of somewhere, but also the people who inhabit it, which is the definition of topography—landscape, its inhabitants, and now they have established their presence in this landscape.

Swimming Pools, Edward Ruscha.

Your work is in the New Museum's current exhibition "Free" – how do you feel you fit into that exhibition?
I always thought that I was working in a new facet of public space. That public space has dispersed and been redefined, so [my work] is like public art.

What was the inspiration for the piece that is included in "Free"?
The piece is called Legendary Account, which is a play on words, obviously. My first experience with Yahoo! Answers is one of my favorite internet memes which is this Yahoo! Answers question "I accidentally 98 MB RAW file. What should I do? Is it dangerous?" For a while, it even became a meme to not use verbs. The answers that question got were so amazing because everyone was responding to this moment of crisis and you got the impression that the person asking the question was having such a crisis they omitted the verb. So people jumped in and that made it more critical or urgent. People were like "What? What did you accidentally do? I want to help you." All these people wanted to help and they are just kind of left to fill in the blank and it became open ended and they were left to interpret what this person accidentally did to a RAW file.

That was inspiring for me because that's kind of the voice I'm asking the questions in. Kind of crisis mode, urgent, someone who is calling out and really wants the help. And it's open ended, so the experts that are answering it are interpreting it. Also, the wording of the questions is circumstantial to the service. It's fitting in with the service. There's a way that before you post the question [on Yahoo! Answers] you have to pick a category because there are all these supposed experts in that category answering your question for you. So the Yahoo! algorithm looks at the words and suggests a category for you. So that's also another aspect of the art work—figuring out way of wording things so the algorithm gives me a wide range of possible categories. I'm often surprised by how people interpret the questions.

Legendary Account, Joel Holmberg.

What is the goal of these kind of "public art" interactions?
I think that people appreciate the opportunity to answer these questions, even really silly ones. They say there should be more questions like this. That's gratifying in a way. Even if they may not get real deep with it, just the fact that it is an opportunity for a unique experience on the web. That's one of the goals, to make unique experiences within this business environment.