For more than 100 years, art has been defined by rebellion. From the surrealists’ rejection of the rational to the political paintings of Picasso, from the rage of the punks to the sly irony of the YBAs, the work that adorns the walls of our art institutions is overwhelmingly countercultural.
So what happened with millennials? Where is their rebellious spirit? Why, as Gregor Muir of the Institute of Contemporary Art asked recently, have they yet to produce an avant garde movement? Where are the revolutionary artists rattling the bars?
The answer is far from straightforward. In the age of “hypercapitalism”, the tentacles of the corporate world extend further into our lives than ever before. Even the words that were once used to signify creative rebellion – DIY, pop-up, grassroots, punk – have been co-opted, fetishised, used to sell coffee, flog old furniture and entice property buyers to up-and-coming areas.
Spaces that once spawned and nurtured a countercultural spirit are also disappearing. Since 2005, the number of nightclubs in the UK has fallen from 3,144 to 1,733 and there are now only 88 live music venues left in London. Studio spaces for artists in the city are being shut down and redeveloped into flats at a breakneck pace, while rents on those that remain are often unaffordable. Even the squats and council housing once occupied by many an artist are no more.
But look beyond the traditional spaces and what emerges are a group of Generation Y artists who are arguably more avant garde than ever. There is now The art world might be international, but it's also closed-minded. And making work only for art fairs isn’t very risky a growing movement working fluidly with both physical objects and digital platforms such as social media websites, and creating work that reappropriates and even hijacks the corporate, tech and art worlds from the inside out. “Using art to find some agency in all the bullshit,” as one artist bluntly phrased it.
Simon Denny, 33, typifies this approach. Denny, who’s had shows at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, the Venice Biennale and recently the Serpentine in London, takes management jargon and advertising slogans (“Failure is just one step to success”) and recontextualises them. The results, which often look a bit like a strange trade fair, aim to expose the foundations of the companies that shape our world.
“This generation of artists are much more interested in investigating the textures and fabrics of the system we are actually under,” says Denny, “rather than presenting nostalgic alternatives that are outdated or unrealistic. It is about occupying the worlds of technology and the corporate world, getting close to them and their people.”
The internet hasn’t only changed our lives and jobs, says Denny, it has also changed the very definition of an artist. “A few years ago,” he says, “if you were a creatively minded person, you might have become a sculptor or a painter. Now you are equally likely to become the founder of a tech startup, channelling your creative ideas and risk into what is, ultimately, a business.”
Does that undermine an artist’s credibility? Denny believes not. “A lot of young startup people are viewing their companies as an artwork,” he says. “I think the creativity involved in painting, say, and that of tech are getting This idea of an artist sitting alone in the studio all day is a myth now – it's unaffordable closer. The incredible risk - with vision and values - that artists once represented is now embodied in these tech companies. That has a real resonance for me. People can make a beautiful business or a beautiful venture.”
As Yuri Pattison, an emerging 29-year-old artist, points out, Generation Y have not grown up in the age of the faceless corporation. Figures such as Steve Jobs are portrayed as wild artistic geniuses, not CEOs of multibillion-dollar businesses. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Assemble, the collective who won last year’s Turner prize, are also a registered corporation. For a recent installation, Pattison, who started out as part of the London art collective Lucky PDF, collaborated virtually with a man in Kangding, China, working for a Bitcoin mine (where online currency is generated). Like much of Pattison’s work, the piece had an online counterpart: a website that displayed live data from the international Bitcoin network.
By creating work that is freely accessible online, Pattison is part of this current generation who are unpicking the golden seams of the art market, where value lies in rarity and the need for an “authentic original object”. While these artists do exhibit in galleries, their work often continues to evolve and be shared beyond those white boxes.
“The art world might be big and international, but it is also very flat and closed-minded. And making work only for art fairs isn’t very risky. So allowing your work to circulate in areas without such strictly defined and elite audiences is really interesting, because then you are hopefully participating in a bigger conversation.”
It also makes economic sense. In the UK, many emerging artists cannot afford studios, so they turn to the infinite space and creative resources online.This has given rise to “post-studio practice”, where Generation Y artists work mainly from their laptops and outsource major practical aspects of their work.
But if the cost of studio space – and art school – is not making art an entirely elitist enterprise in Britain, money of course, continues to drive artists towards tech, if only as a sideline to support their own work. Even for major biennale commissions such as Venice, artists will often only earn around £500 for a show that might takes months to prepare.
In response to the harsh economic climate facing Generation Y artists, and the resistance of established institutions to much of their work, collaborative organisations such as Auto Italia South East in London and Eastside Projects in Birmingham have sprung up. Kate Cooper, who co-founded Auto Italia in 2007, says that while the trend of this generation to create work from their laptops was partly creatively driven, it is “dangerous to romanticise this way of working” because it was often born out of necessity.
“This idea of an artist as a single person, sitting in the studio all day, is a myth now,” says Cooper. “It’s unaffordable and unrealistic. Every artist is in this precarious world. Everyone does five different jobs to support themselves. Some might be coders, others working on feature films or building apps. But what’s interesting is that people will bring the tools from their day jobs into their art. And that’s how new practices have emerged.”
Recent Auto Italia projects include Golden Age Problems, in which a dozen artists examined their own seduction by mass media through everything from images to performances and a website. “For the older generation, this can all seem quite alienating,” says Cooper. “These works are still perceived as less accessible, so they are less likely to be brought into the big institutions. I think that’s a cultural misunderstanding that needs to be overcome.”
Artists are also using online platforms to explore something much more personal: questions of who we are online. Ed Fornieles, 32, is one of many artists examining the murky waters of digital identity. For his most recent project, he took on the persona of a virtual cartoon fox to explore how people create new identities. “Facebook has become this space where the most meaningful moments of one’s life are mixed with ‘corporate narrative’ adverts,” he says. “Personally, I don’t see the difference between them any more. They are all part of the same mush. I think it all has value. Today, with art and commerce constantly feeding off each other, it is a super exciting place to look for ideas.”
For Fornieles, the key role his work – and that of his contemporaries – can play is to force a disruption from the mindless clicking that defines most people’s digital experience: only then can we step back, re-evaluate, and regain control of our identities online. Fornieles – who once used Facebook to invite 120 people to a fake frat party for his Animal House project – also responded to Gregor Muir.
“If you look at the YBAs, you have a bunch of people who, on the whole, just created a strand of work and then just repeated it again and again, so it became very easily categoriseable. And there’s nothing more conservative than that.”
Yet the use of social media by Generation Y artists is more complicated than simple critique or celebration, just as these spaces themselves occupy muddy moral waters. Instagram is both an aspirational platform and the place where inequalities become glaringly apparent.
This was thrown into stark relief by the artist Amalia Ulman. As part of her piece Excellences and Perfections, she created a persona on Instagram over a year, sharing everything from pole-dancing classes to breast enhancement and a nervous breakdown. She gained thousands of followers for her carefully documented life, but recently revealed it was entirely false. Her dedicated fanbase cried betrayal, while some art critics decried it as genius.
Staging the work on instagram, says Ulman, confronted her audiences with their own fabrications and personas, the ones they had adopted on social media, often unconsciously. “The work made people into internet trolls without them even realising. People hated the character but would still follow, make comments and share with their friends. It then forced them to think about why they were enjoying the suffering of this girl they didn’t even know, using her as entertainment.”
Another group exploring how technology and the internet have colonised our personal lives are the art collective Åyr, who will participate in Home Economics, the British pavilion at the 2016 Venice Architecture Biennale. They began life as the Airbnb collective, named after the website at the forefront of the “sharing economy”, which encourages us to put our homes online. There are now even websites for people to rent out their homes during the day for others to use as work spaces.
“The domestic space was once the last bastion of untouched individual identity” says Åyr member Alessandro Bava. “But right now it is being challenged in a very direct way.” To demonstrate the point, their Airbnb “pavilion” at the 2014 biennale was staged across three apartments they rented via the website.
“Global corporations have changed our relationship with our own our homes. Technology means most of us can work from home, and websites are encouraging us to profit from them, make every moment that you spend at home productive. So the home is now becoming the ultimate place of labour. And we are the first generation to really experience that.”
For the Frieze art fair in London last year, the group created six interlocking bedrooms, where people could sit on the beds and charge their phones – showing the lack of distinction people now make between intimate private spaces and public ones.
The intangible nature of this art still dogs Generation Y. Unlike the YBAs, it does not have a snappy name that makes it easy to talk about, and its highly conceptual nature lends itself to cries of the emperor’s new clothes. Fornieles recalls his encounters with Hans-Ulrich Obrist, the co-director of exhibitions at the Serpentine: “He always asks me if we have a name yet. In some ways we do need one, I guess.”
Whatever their troubles, it feels like a pivotal moment for this new generation. Electronic Superhighway, which recently opened at the Whitechapel Gallery, is the most thorough survey of digital art to date, Ulman features in a new photography show at the Tate Modern, and this year’s Berlin Biennale is being curated by the DIS collective, a pioneering group who blend art and fashion with mass media and commerce.
“It is weird and hard and I think it’s taken a long time to filter into the mainstream,” says Åyr’s Bava. “But slowly it is being acknowledged as something that is not just kids over-identifying with their oppressor. This work is now being understood as something powerful – and even quite punk.”
Hannah Ellis-Petersen The Guardian 16 March 2016