Opinion: When the internet becomes a contemporary art exhibit

"Modern art has a fundamentally democratic quality," writes Katherine Cross. "In an age of reckless profit seeking in the gaming industry...more reverence for that democratic lineage would be nice."

The digital world came of age long ago; we’re merely suffering through its extended adolescence.

Yet brightly glowing filaments of the internet’s earliest days endure. A charming date to the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston yielded more than a few reminders of that fact, courtesy of a daring and expansive exhibit: Art in the Age of the Internet.

Sadly it only ran until the 20th, but it was worth sneaking in a last minute visit to see this kaleidoscopic perspective on how we’ve made meaning of the internet--and ourselves as digital beings.

Art has always, on some level, been interactive. But the story of modern art is how it has made that ever more central to the experience, to the point of constituting the work as a whole--which this exhibition makes clear. It’s in works like Olia Lialina’s My Boyfriend Came Back From the War (1996) where we can trace a link between the art of yesteryear and the games of today, in a way that troubles the distinction between each.

It’s easy to feel old when a lumpy, beige Gateway computer feels like a nostalgic period piece--in a museum, no less. But Boyfriend’s twin PC hulks, set on a plain white dais, were part of an exhibition of urgency. Nothing in this exhibit was made before 1989; very few of the artists were born before 1970. Though some pieces feel dated, all are wired into our moment in a way that’s much harder to perceive with even early modern art.

Lialina’s Boyfriend, an early browser game which, in her words, “was inspired by HTML frames,” prefigures Twine and its legions of games in both form and content. This hypertext game tells a nonlinear story about a couple--a man and a woman--struggling with their relationship after the man returns from an unnamed war. The lightly illustrated story, whose pictures are piped through in authentically agonizing 56K, unfolds through clicking on text and JPGs, subdividing the HTML frames in a kind of cellular reproduction. Eventually, only empty black boxes remain.

This all plays out in a Netscape Navigator window, so it’ll have nostalgic appeal for those who seek that sort of thing. But to merely indulge that would be to miss the point. Many games are like this today. Even if most text games have airbrushed the Geocities aesthetic away, so very much remains. It’s, by now, a cliche to observe that nothing is as it was in the 1990s, that technology’s takeover of our lives was both so rapid and so complete as to render even the recent past an impossibly foreign country. But it’s not so. Lialina’s work, part of a the early wave, is strikingly contemporary. If it wasn’t for the forced throttling of the internet speed, even the CRT monitor wouldn’t have clued me in to the 20-year pedigree of this work.

As I said, the theme of this work feels new too. It’s searching and personal--though almost certainly not autobiographical. Lialina was trying to tell an old story in a new way, the obscured personalities of the principals ensures the technological framing of their plight is always front and center. But that, in itself, gave us ways of storytelling that were unavailable in previous media.

For instance, deep in the throes of the lovers’ argument, the words DO YOU LIKE MY NEW DRESS appear confined in their own cells. Each links to something more; some buried feeling or painful truth underlying each syllable. To click through and reveal it, however banal or treacly it may appear, is to undertake an exploration that is impossible for viewers of a film or readers of a book or poem. In the matter of emotions, games enlist their players as archaeologists.

That collection of subjects--emotions, subtext, character, the utterly irrational--are well suited to gameplay. The more recent wave of text games were distinguished first and foremost by their audacity: the fact that they called themselves games at all. But their emotional subjects recall these earlier works. Lialina’s anonymous lovers are painfully ordinary and dislocated, out of time and place. Race and gender are suggested by the pixelated images but little else is established. Even their feelings lack referents; it’s not always clear who’s speaking. What’s left is the thing that’s been the subject of all modern art, from 19th century opera to abstract expressionism to Boyfriend: our feelings about the world within us.

Lialina intuited, fairly early on, that this new medium was ripe for really capturing emotion as a subject. She succeeded, as have the many who came after her.


There was another interesting lesson that was drawn into sharp relief by the ICA’s exhibition. It cut to the core of modern art while tying it to the world of video gaming: reproducibility.

As I walked into the first gallery I was struck by a perfectly piled stack of printer paper, watercolored in beautiful patterns. Aleksandra Domanović’s Untitled (mash-up) (2012) is both unassuming and bewitching, seeming ordinary at first glance and enchanting on the second. The nine thousand sheets form a kind of Information Age obelisk, a memorial to the discontinued .yu domain, which was abandoned in 2010 after Serbia and Montenegro--which inherited Yugoslavia’s domain--split into their own countries with new domains, .rs and .me respectively. For Domanović, she wanted to both highlight the impermanence of the web and how new technologies could archive themselves.

“The stacks exist in two manifestations,” Domanović said of her piece, “as a PDF document and a physical structure--the stack of paper with images on the sides. I wanted to have something that I could email to a gallery and they would then print out, or anyone could create from the internet.”

The Mona Lisa is infinitely reproducable, to the point of being memetic. It’s on t-shirts, posters, jewlery, and countless mutant permutations online. But the actual work is the thing behind a ridiculous amount of glass at the Louvre, and there is no mistaking it for its firmament of imitators. What is increasingly different about modern art is that that line is no longer clear. The work is contained in Domanović’s PDF, able to be recreated ad infinitum, with as much implied fidelity as her original work.

So too with video games. The actual artwork is in game files that can be downloaded on millions of computers or consoles, but also in the discrete experience that occurs between the controller and the screen, or in the player’s mind. It’s easy enough, in the case of a Renaissance master’s work, to decide what is framed in the museum and what is sold in the gift shop. Far harder to do so with art like Lialina’s (as evidenced by the fact that it’s linked in this article), Domanović’s, or, indeed, any video game.

Art can no longer be defined by its rarity or inaccessibility; hallelujah.

Despite all its associations with academic pretentiousness--some of which is surely deserved--modern art has a fundamentally democratic quality to it. The works on display at the ICA’s exhibit make that clear through the diversity of art on display. Juliana Huxtable, an artist whose body and life as a trans woman of color has infused her digital art, luxuriates quite literally in her pride of place here. More young people, more women, more artists with non-Western roots, more Black artists, had raised voices in this exhibit.

The staid, blank walls of the modern art gallery still, for all the pretensions of rebellion and deconstruction, exhibit the old elite hierarchies. But that wasn’t true here at the ICA. And I see its reflection in the world of gaming, where Lialina’s work has its correspondences with the likes of Georgina Bensley, Soha Kareem, Zoё Quinn, Robert Yang, or Christine Love.

Their work is certainly fresh and interesting, but there is a history to it as well, which ties it to the broader lineage of all art. It’s a tradition gaming as a whole also stands in--when it wants to acknowledge it. All history comes with responsibility, after all; not least of which is to remember it. That recollection might help us see the value in games that appear obtuse, hard to understand, or light on mechanics. Tradition is revered in the breach as much as the observance, and if nothing else, video games embody that. But in an age of reckless profit seeking in the gaming industry, a little more reverence for that democratic lineage would be nice.

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