Brad Troemel Essay Contest

Eddo Stern, Installation view, 2007, Postmasters

Artist Brad Troemel would be better served if he simply wrote the manifesto he’s got in him, rather than trying to defend a bunch of radical ideas by fabricating net history. It’s an irresponsible practice and likely to mislead readers unfamiliar with the topic.

So just what is the artist going on about? It’s rather long winded, but after 4,000 words tracking the progression of decentralization on the web (which as Michael Manning points out on his own blog never began that way in the first place), he finally gets to his belief: a super-sized art community full of anonymous self-reflective art makers will move the medium forward. This is a little wide-eyed Utopic for my taste but that’s fine. I don’t believe Ad Reinhardt’s claims for the superiority of black painting either, but I recognize that he made a lot of good art as a result.  But Reinhardt never produced a text producing false histories nor did he refuse to discuss his work. To date, 491, the host site of Troemel’s essay has accepted no comments or trackbacks to comments challenging the history he’s presented UPDATE: A link to Manning’s post is on 491 now. My bad.

I’m not going to bother trying to discuss the essay there, but I did go to the trouble of annotating the historical timeline adeptly identified by Manning as a “90's utopia disrupted by a web 2.0 capitalist regime, which paved the way for a group of elitist artists seeking institutional recognition via surf clubs, and which was finally brought down by the populist Tumblr using Internet artist”. My notes and corrections below.


-Artists became distrustful of technology due to the use of cybernetics in Vietnam. Thankfully in 1994 Netscape ushered in a new age of love for tech, as well as the wide use of anonymous handles (yay!).These claims all seem exaggerated but for the creation of avatars. Certainly, the idea that Vietnam cast a negative light on the desire of American artists to use technology is suspect –Andrea Rosen has hosted multiple exhibitions showcasing kinetic abstraction from 20’s through the 70’s and I’ve not once read about a shift in attitude during the 50’s. Martha Schwendener, a noted historian and critic suggests the field was seen as the “wave of the future”. It’s unclear why this “history” is included, since it’s a debatable point never defended. It also does not support Troemel’s description of 90’s anonymous exchange as “the joyous impossibility of determining who were the digitized voices communicating with each other.” Please. That joy was called fear. At that time everyone I knew was worried that giving up your identity on the net would land you on a serial killer list.

– Avatar use in the 90’s correlates to an interest in truer selves. As Manning indicates Troemel does a reasonable job citing artists who fit under this hood, but for @RTMark, an activist group specializing in corporate espionage not deeper self knowledge.

– After 9/11 the web shifts to from anonymous handles to full names.This is because the profit model of the web works best when people’s income class can be identified and their buying habits tracked. Troemel’s chronology is off here. As noted by Tom Moody previously, warblogging era blogs and art blogs tended to have names such Newsgrist, Media Whores Online, Iconodual. Notably, Art Fag City was founded in 2005, initially under the pseudonym fagette. This name is still in use on delicious (for however long that network lasts).  Manning observes a number of unmentioned methods of distribution, including Nettime and The THING going on to remark that these too suffered from the exclusivity issues Troemel later describes as plaguing surf clubs. (Moody also fingers the exclusivity of 90’s websites like Mouchette). Also from Manning: “The 90's artists which are referenced have specific reasons for creating virtual identities, aside from simply being provided the opportunity (not to mention the multitudes of artists making work under their 'inherited identities' (Bunting, Shulgin,Cosic etc).”


-The 21st Century ushers in Internet art as a valid artistic form and social media platforms gain new importance (Friendster, Myspace, Facebook). Rhizome joins the New Museum in 2003 and “cannonizes and ongoing institution position for internet-related art” If not overstating the importance of Rhizome’s affiliation with the museum, Troemel certainly draws an inaccurate picture of the organization’s new found influence. Rhizome was a much smaller non-profit at the time, arguably working in the shadows of Eyebeam, (then under the guidance of Research and Development director Jonah Peretti Buzzfeed founder, and Huffington Post co-founder).  Certainly the organization deserves more than a nod in this chronology, particularly given that Eyebeam’s technologist Michael Frumin developed the reblogging technology  now used by tumblr. Also it merits mentioning that a mere reblog from Rhizome does not institutional creditation make.

Troemel on surf clubs: A litany of errors

  • -Surf clubs take cues from major social networking sites at the time. Troemel describes surf clubs as if they were all the same. Nasty Nets was a response by artists frustrated with the pictureless limitations of the social networking site Delicious, but Double Happiness specifically took its cues from the outside world. Spirit Surfers boon and wake draws its language from the fine art world proper. (Surf clubs for beginners here)
  • -In-house surf club trends were “highly influential” to other artists, as seen here on an emerging internet artist website [link via Troemel].This is a debatable point. They influenced a small number of net artists, but save for the DVD produced for The New Museum — a show organized by an employee of the institution who was also a club member — surf clubs had no exhibitions at major New York museums or galleries. The Venice Biennale is later erroneously identified by Troemel as a venue for the clubs, likely because he makes little distinction between the work of surf club members and their posts.
  • -Communicating publicly is a distinction between surfclubs and their “forerunners”, who used email and personal websites. This is wrong. Plenty of public conversation was going on prior to surf clubs, it just wasn’t as image heavy. Rhizome’s discussion threads, Tom Moody’s comment section on his blog, and use of Delicious all hosted robust public conversations.
  • -Surf clubs were art specific (ish) and excluded the riff-raff for the sake of efficiency. Again, not true. Although there was internal debate at the time, as Tom Moody points out there was some ambigiousness over whether Nasty Nets was posting art (the end conclusion: mostly it isn’t). The club was exclusive, but this wasn’t the rule. By contrast, Double Happiness, seemed more like an art school band than an elite club, since all of them went to school together. In yet another permuation of clubs, Spirit Surfers founder Kevin Bewersdorf told me in response to a show I’ve been organizing, “It is not an ambition of mine to bring SS to a gallery space, so I don’t have any input on how these posts could be displayed.  Neither is it an ambition of mine to keep SS out of gallery spaces, so do whatever!” Note: It is well documented by both Manning and Moody that Troemel’s emphasis on “qualified [surf club] members” as described by Nasty Nets founder Guthrie Lonergan distorts its original meaning. The term was used in jest.

-Habermas’ ideas of a public sphere “turn” on a continual expansion of people participating in a dialogue. The same expanding numbers can be seen within a community of net artists (yay!). I think this interpretation of Habermas’ ideas is challenged (everyone talking at once can make agency impossible), but as Manning points out, so is Troemel’s belief that net art was ever centralized to begin with. “Throughout the 90's distribution and production was clearly fragmented as represented by the global network of artists, e-mail lists and famous traveling conferences which many artists flocked to like a pilgrimage to finally get f2f meetings with their peers.

-Enter Web 2.0/Social Networks!!! Young artists can’t get into surf clubs (or more likely don’t know about them and never tried). They use a variety of tools now at their disposal while surf clubs have become relics of yesteryear (yay!). Troemel never explicitly says surf clubs are dead, though that seems to be the implication — “emerging artists leave behind centralized structure of the surf club and its barriers to membership”. He then cites a number of tools, blogger, tumblr, and RSS feeds amongst them as though they are new. Only tumblr was founded (semi) recently.

-To link a work on delicious is “to like this” to link on Tumblr is “to be that”.This sounds smart but grossly overstates the use of most tumblrs. Sure they are a means of constructing identity, but not even tumblr removes the need to click through images to see them properly. Probably a better argument could be made of tagging on facebook (tag your work with your name as opposed to your face) but even there, users not only have to deal with how they chose to label themselves, but how others tag them. I don’t see why identity should be so closely tied to how much a viewer can see without having to click through for a more complete picture.

-Anonymized art is the highest honor bestowed on an artist (yay!) because it means it’s been highly circulated. This is only a half truth, since as Tomorrow Museum’s Joanne McNeil notes, crediting is something many of us do out of habit, but don’t bother as much now because there are so many different places to come by the same sources. Anonymity is a result of ubiquity of images as much as it is traffic on any individual reproduction. Troemel will afford any accolade he can to un-authored work though if it means furthering his manifesto.


-Decentralization in web 2.0 (yay!)! As mentioned earlier, this isn’t exactly a change.

-Tumblr artists: Quit letting surf clubs influence you! Seeing as how many young net artists I meet don’t know anything about these clubs the need for this call to arms seems a bit of stretch.

-Requisite quote from Alex Galloway’s Protocol. Not really sure what the relevance of Galloway’s thoughts on Protocol is here. It has the appearance of quote used only to lend authority to the author.

-Let’s strive forgiant sized anonymous, self reflective art making community/giant, anonymous surf club in the form of tumblr. In other words, Troemel champions his former blog The Jogging and its community. AsI mentioned at the beginning of this post, this would be a fine sentiment were it not presented as though there was a pre-existing historical lineage building towards the creation of his UNNAMED blog. I think it’s dishonest and unbecoming of the artist.

Brad Troemel: On View: Selections from the Troemel Collection at Zach Feuer

February 21 to March 28, 2015
548 West 22nd St. (between 10th and 11th avenues)
New York, 212 989 7700

Brad Troemel; 3MB (Macaulay Culkin, Adam Green, Toby Goodshank) ‘Korn Concert’ (Acrylic, Mixed Media on Canvas 5′ 8 1/2″ x 4′ 6″) + COMPLETE Chuck E. Cheese token set 1978 – 2014; 2015. Vacuum seal on reinforced panel with aluminum frame, 66 1/2 x 48 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Zach Feuer Gallery, New York.

Chelsea galleries show a range of innovative contemporary artists, but I question whether their motivations are quantitative or qualitative. Do they showcase work based on the art’s provocation, ideas, and craft or simply on hype? My curiosity brought me to see the work of the viral Internet artist Brad Troemel, at Zach Feuer Gallery. Troemel’s online popularity and the attention garnered by his collaborative Tumblr blog, Jogging, led me to expect new forms of digital media in discourse with web culture. However, his cultural references and use of materials produced only ambivalence. In his show, “On View: Selections from the Troemel Collection,” he explores ideas of ownership, appropriation, and inherent value through the eyes of his persona, “the collector.” It is through the curation and consolidation of commonplace objects that Troemel exposes the insipid nature of the creation and trade of contemporary art.

Brad Troemel; Gloria Vanderbilt ‘Tiger Lilies’, 2013 (29″ x 36″) Lithograph + 1946 – 2014 COMPLETE ROOSEVELT DIME SET ALL BU, Clad and Silver Proof; 2015. Vacuum seal on reinforced panel with aluminum frame, 66 1/2 x 48 inches. Image courtesy of the artist and Zach Feuer Gallery, New York.

In one series here, Troemel presents appropriated paintings by celebrities, each adorned with a set of collectible coins and vacuum-sealed onto a brightly colored panel. Tiger Lilies, a 1946 lithograph by Gloria Vanderbilt, is re-purposed due to her status as an artist, socialite, and blue jeans designer. In taking ownership of the celebrity-turned-artists’ paintings, he describes a complex relationship between fame, authenticity and value. Additionally, he questions the integrity of these famous artists and points a finger at the art market‘s infatuated intercourse with fame, as recently demonstrated by Jeff Koons’s collaboration with Lady Gaga, James Franco and Jay-Z at Pace, and Björk’s current exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art.

I find, though, that Troemel’s series of paintings don’t expand upon one another, instead they re-emphasize a singular, over-determined concept. Rather than existing as stand-alone artworks, the entire series becomes a redundancy. They all follow the same visual formula, without any complication. The celebrity-turned-artists’ images could readily be substituted while still maintaining an analogous reading. The images he has selected seem to be arbitrary, and instead of addressing the specific inclusions, Troemel broadly digs at the psychology of capitalism, fame and appropriation.

Brad Troemel; COMPLETE McDonalds Furby Collection 1998 (All 98 Furbies released); 2015. Acrylic handholds and furbies, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist and Zach Feuer Gallery, New York.

What I find more productive than Troemel’s exploration of ownership and the gaze of the collector is the work’s pressing social undertones. Although these ideas are nothing new, I find his materialization of them to be effective. The show reexamines early 21st century memorabilia — such as the furry robotic dolls called Furbies and Chuck-E-Cheez tokens — presenting us with a dark reality cloaked in a friendly, nostalgic façade. Through his collection of cultural objects he negotiates the murky waters of surveillance, privacy, and ownership. For example, Troemel’s minimal, lucid, yet demanding wall installation features a myriad of neon-colored rock-climbing mounts and vintage Furbies, covering the gallery wall from floor to ceiling. The space’s periphery becomes animated through the Furbies’ watchful gaze. Interestingly, the installation takes on a pessimistic tone despite its vivid brightness. This piece instantly attracts, due to its color and scale, while simultaneously repelling all sense of audience collaboration. Troemel subverts the nature of this inherently conquerable rock-climbing obstacle by occupying all the holds with Furbies, thus eliminating the prospect of surmounting his metaphorical installation. The wall becomes an oppressive monument, a Big Brother presence that speaks to the unease induced by surveillance. The Furbies’ observant gaze, juxtaposed with the gallery’s own surveillance camera, help focus these themes of supervision, security, and privacy. The two create an engaging visual and conceptual power dynamic that speaks to many of the immediate realities faced by contemporary Internet culture.

Brad Troemel, COMPLETE McDonalds Furby Collection 1998 (All 98 Furbies released), detail, 2015. Acrylic handholds and furbies, dimensions variable. Image courtesy of the artist and Zach Feuer Gallery, New York.

Within the entire show, this piece, visually and phenomenologically, was the most articulate. Its focus and repetition of few elements within one piece was far more engaging than the repeated motif found in the painting-and-coin assemblages. In contrast to his other works, where readings became opaque, there wasn’t a disparity between elements that competed for my attention.

Regardless, the exhibition wavered in terms of coherence. Troemel’s investment in his role as collector conveyed some truths about art being a marketable commodity. However, he did not sufficiently reveal the qualities that his press release claims make are into a “highly potent bundle of commodities.” The collectibles held the potential to be read as “diversified portfolios” (also from the press release), but never expands on the metaphor beyond a rhetorical device. As a viewer, I felt my attention being unreciprocated by the inconsistency between the artworks. A substantial edit and centralization of materials would be conducive to conveying Troemel’s ideas.

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